TTRPG Review: The Night Cage
By: Chad Christian (TapRackBang)
You awaken in the dark, your skin cold, your mind blank. You have nothing but your fear, a flickering candle, and a question: How long will your light last?
It’s the most wonderful time of the year - Halloween season! In that spirit, let’s discuss a game built around your worst nightmare! The Night Cage is a cooperative, horror-themed tile placer designed by Chris Chan, Chris McMahon, and Rosswell Saunders, published this year by Smirk & Laughter Games. Without any prior knowledge, I first laid eyes on this fantastically bleak setup at Gen Con and was drawn in by its desaturated, minimalistic nature. The premise of the game, as quoted above, is derived directly from a very real nightmare - one that may represent almost too accurately a dream shared by many of us. The fear of darkness and isolation is something to which most of us can relate. As they walked me through the game at the Smirk & Laughter booth, I was immediately taken back to the first recurring nightmare I remember as a child: waking up alone in the dark, hiding and running from I never really knew what. It’s relatable on this side of life as well; Someone told me once that those of us who battle PTSD, depression, and anxiety actually tend to enjoy the horror genre more than others as it displaces our emotional disturbance onto the movie's characters or game at hand. I’m not sure if that is a valid fact of psychology, but I feel it. Either way, if a game can take you to a dark place while physically in a bright convention hall, then it must be doing something right.
The tone is distinctively set by a simple grid, loosely resembling a series of interlocked bones suspended over an inky-black void. The game plays for one to five players, but don’t go thinking that offers any comfort of companionship in its cold, labyrinthian corridors. You can also further the immersion with a lengthy, ambient soundtrack for the game itself, provided on Soundcloud by MassiveMusic. The game's length is determined mainly by a set of tiles stacked in a little cutout tower stylized as a burning, dripping candle. The goal seems fairly simple: all players must place tiles, opening the paths around them so each may find their own key and meet together on the same gate tile to simultaneously unlock it and exit the nightmare. The mechanic unique to this game, however, is that you can only ever see the tile where you stand and those adjacent to you. As you move through the tunnels, tiles you leave behind disappear out of sight and are removed from the game, meaning the next time you head back in that direction, the path changes. This not only ups the difficulty and can scramble your strategies but also serves to further that panicked, fever-dream atmosphere.
As you may have guessed, you and your “alone-together” companions aren’t actually alone in these tunnels. Horrible entities called Wax-eaters (and other optional, advanced creatures) are lurking in the shifting shadows, waiting to spot your movement and attack, diminishing your stack of available tiles and extinguishing the one lonely, flickering light you carry. If you’re caught by one of these nightmarish creatures, you are forced into “lights out” mode, where instead of having the already limited sight of adjacent tiles, your vision is now constrained to the sole tile on which you crawl. Only by catching a glimpse of a fellow feeble survivor with a lit candle are you able to relight your own. However, even in a seemingly hopeless situation, a spark of resolve may appear in the form of “nerve,” which you may spend on small yet invaluable aids in your journey. Once you run out of tiles in your candle’s stack, you enter what’s called Final Flickers, where instead of adding tiles as you move, you remove one from the board each turn, and your only option is for everyone to scramble together to the nearest possible gate or be stuck forever in the unending nightmare.
Not unlike our experiences in games past, we began The Night Cage thinking it may end up being too easy, yet for all our assured strategies, we ran out of tiles in Final Flickers, just one turn from success. As for my own impressions of the game, I quite obviously enjoy the setting and aesthetic of the physical components as well as the all-too-familiar visceral atmosphere it invokes. Setup aside, the gameplay is mostly straightforward, though we had to stop a few times to check the manual for a ruling. The only real downside to the game is how much you have to pick up, place, and flip tiles. It’s necessary for the game’s major function of limited visibility, but expect to be almost constantly handling tiles as you must place and remove them as you navigate through the game. Since you may normally only move one space at a time, though, it’s not overly intrusive, just a bit tough to keep track of at times. The storage design, or lack thereof, also isn’t all that innovative; there aren’t too many things to corral in the box, though, mainly just the numerous tiles and nerve tokens. Tossing those in the bags provided was sufficient enough for me. One option they offered at the convention, which I’m glad I dropped the extra cash for, was the premium metal miniatures. These craven little figures match the pewter keys that come with the game and perfectly fit the aesthetic, whereas the brightly colored wooden figures that are provided seem to detract from the bleak, desaturated nature of the game. Not sure if those will be available for purchase later or were simply a convention special, but if they pop up in their store, they’re worth the buy.
The game can be deceivingly simple in its base form (no bosses or advanced enemies), yet we found that it still can end up being a brutal endeavor and give your brain quite a workout. The game does come complete with a roster of advanced enemies and bosses as well if you’d like to up the difficulty. They took an easy yet effective approach to solo mode - you simply play all four prisoners and take their turns the same way you would with four people. Whether crawling around solo or with a full group, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the ominous, light-starved prison of The Night Cage. At the risk of sounding a bit pretentious, the art direction of the game is on point - for all the reasons I described above and more. I love all aspects of the horror genre, yet this game is one of the closest to a real nightmare that I’ve personally played - and I mean that in the best way possible.
The Night Cage is not yet widely available, but Smirk & Laughter claims it’s coming in May - I can only assume they mean May of 2022. Their website, smirkandlaughter.com, is a little inconsistent, though, saying on one page the game is for 1-4 players and retails for $44.99, while on another, it states it’s for 1-5 players with MSRP at $39.99. It also claims the game is out of stock with restock coming soon, which implies it may be available for purchase already whenever they restock. Regardless, in my experience, the game board is two-sided; one side is sized for a 1-4 player game, and the other intended for 5 players. The game will probably take you around an hour or so for your first few attempts, which will certainly smooth out once you get the hang of it. Adding tougher enemies, though, may increase the playtime. Even with the currently ambiguous purchasing options, I definitely recommend the game, especially for you die-hard horror fans. I give The Night Cage 7.5/10.