I was vaguely aware of tiny organisms who live in the sea that have the ability to glow, but until the release of the game, Noctiluca, I didn’t have a clue what they were called.
Wikipedia describes Noctiluca as: “Noctiluca scintillans, commonly known as the Milky seas effect sea sparkle, and also published as Noctiluca miliaris, is a free-living, marine-dwelling species of dinoflagellate that exhibits bioluminescence when disturbed (popularly known as mareel). Its bioluminescence is produced throughout the cytoplasm of this single-celled protist, by a luciferin-luciferase reaction in thousands of spherically shaped organelles, called scintillons.”
Okaaaaay… Thankfully you don’t have to be a marine biologist to play the game named after these glowing critters! Anyway, the board game Noctiluca is a game where one to four players will be placing their diver pawns on the bank of a tropical pool, who will then swim through the pool to collect Noctiluca and bottle them up for the mysterious “great healers”. Each filled jar awards points, and after two rounds, the player with the most points wins.
Taking the plunge
I actually bought this game on the day of its release for three reasons: Firstly, the designer is Shem Phillips, of Raiders of the North Sea and Architects of the West Kingdom fame – Noctiluca is a very different game to these two but the designer’s name carries weight with me. Secondly, I was mesmerised by the box artwork and beautiful components. Finally, dice drafting and allocation is a gaming mechanism that really catches my interest and Noctiluca promised that as one of its main gameplay features.
To begin the game you will roll and place groups of dice at random on the spaces on the board, placing four dice on each of the inner spaces and five dice on each of the outer spaces. Players then distribute the 12 diver pawns equally between themselves.
During a player’s turn, they will place one of their pawns on any unoccupied shore on the edge of the pool and choose one of the two straight paths adjacent to that shore. They then announce a number between one and six and must collect all dice showing the announced number in the spaces along the chosen path, regardless of colour. They place any noctiluca on the matching empty spaces in their jars and will “cash-in” any completed jars for the topmost point token from the stack matching the colour of the jar – there are three different types of point token and they ascend in value through the game as more are taken.
After all pawns have been placed, the round ends and the pool is refilled before one more round is played. At the game end, players will tally-up the points on their face-up and face-down point tokens, any bonus points on their jar cards, they reveal their favorite noctiluca (a secret objective) to score one point for each matching noctiluca on their delivered jar cards, and lastly they get one point for every two noctiluca dice on jars they were unable to deliver.
Firstly, let’s just say that this game is very, very pretty and unlike anything else I own. The muted, almost murky colour scheme of the board works to highlight and emphasise the resplendent translucence of the dice as they sit upon it. The almost Gothic cartoon-style illustration is utterly beautiful but for me it highlights a dearth of soul in this game. I feel the game would have benefited from an injection of character, literally in the form of a few illustrations of the divers or the healers themselves to put some humanity into the game.
The components are of top quality but there is a big omission – for a game that requires you to seed the pool with randomly drawn dice you would have thought a dice bag would be a must, but is absent here – I ended up finding a bag somewhere and slipping it into the box as I think it’s fairly essential.
The mixture of worker placement, dice drafting and set collection combine logically to form a pleasant experience. I also really like the numerous ways to score, although you will crash and burn if you neglect any of them.
The game’s solo variant asks you to flip the board and pits you against the “Tempest”, which slowly rotates and removes noctiluca from the board, playing as an opponent who scores similar to a real-life opponent. It’s tough, but beatable, and a nice challenge if you have the urge to dip into the pool but can’t muster a human opponent.
Final Thoughts on Noctiluca
Noctiluca gets a regular number of plays in my household, which proves it has a fair amount of replay-ability and I find myself intrigued by possible strategies and have never refused a game so far.
The game can take a while to setup and some players may take a while pondering the many options on their turn, but overall I love the challenge this game brings and the feeling I get when I complete two jars from a single dive! Maybe you should take the plunge too?...