Fear is a natural thing. Primal and instinctive, it's kept man alive and out of danger for as long as we've existed. So fears good, right? Depends on the circumstance… Fear is meant to keep you out of trouble and safe, but being constantly exposed to it and trapped in its grasp will undoubtedly break even the strongest mind. Being afraid is okay, being unable to escape it is deadly. The Night Cage by Smirk and Dagger is a game centred on the most basic fear of all: a fear of the dark and the unknown. Escape a dark and dangerous labyrinth before your light goes out! It's a cooperative tile placement, grid movement game for one to five players!
The Night Cage's premise is simple: have everyone gather a key and meet at an exit before time runs out. The crux here is how you manage that "time", as it isn't measured by a clock, but by how long your candle lasts. Only if all players inhabit the same exit and all hold a key before their candles go out do they win.
All games of The Night Cage are played with at least four prisoners in play. In games where there are more prisoners than players, control of extras are either shared equally or passed around the table. A solo game of this has one player controlling all four prisoners. Players also start with one Nerve token. They can only hold two of these maximum and they are used to mitigate damage or make extra moves.
To set up, players separate the different tile types into their respective stacks, merging junctions, crossroads and straights together. Players should set aside two crossroads and straights and four junctions. They then add in 12 Wax Eaters, six Keys, four Exits and any other extras to increase the difficulty and shuffle them together to form a stack. They then add on the separated tiles to the top. A five player game requires some adjustments to tile numbers to account for the extra player.
Taking A Turn
To start, players place a starting tile onto the board and place their prisoners token there. They then "light up" visible tiles at each visible exit, demonstrating the reach of their candle. Their light can only ever reach the tiles adjacent to their own available paths. On a turn, a player can choose to stay or move. Staying earns them a Nerve token up to the maximum of two, however players must remove a tile from the stack and place it into the discard pile.
When moving in The Night Cage, players remove tiles that are no longer visibly adjacent to them from the board. Light only extends to the tiles adjacent through visible paths, though a path cut off with another tile would remain if adjacent. This constant movement means the labyrinth is always changing. Also, the board here loops, meaning tiles at edges are adjacent to opposite edges.
Risks and Dangers
The labyrinth is not so simple as to find an exit and escape. Some tiles crumble once left and become pits that players can fall into. Those who do so are removed from the board and return onto a new tile in the same row or column on their next. Also, there are dangers hidden in the dark.
Wax Eaters are the standard dangers in the labyrinth and these attack in orthogonal lines whenever a player moves within them. Their line of sight is obscured by walls, bends and pits, but being hit is dangerous. First, a hit player discards three tiles from the stack and then their candle goes out. This flips their player card and reduces the actions they can take. It also results in them only being able to see the tile they reside on and so they cannot stay, making every move a risk. What's worse is that drawing another Wax Eater causes another attack and forces the player to draw another tile to get to safety. They can relight their candle if they enter another player's light, but at the risk of losing more tiles it can be too dangerous to deviate from huntin for keys.
If all tiles in the stack are expired, players enter the final flickers. No new tiles are added and, each turn, players remove one unoccupied tile from the board. The game can be won if all players get to the exit with keys, though at this point it becomes unlikely!
How It Handles
The Night Cage nails atmosphere. Hands down, this game is undoubtedly the most hair raisingly atmospheric game I've played in a long, long time. The production quality, artwork, theme and mechanics all work hand in hand to produce an experience that's truly chilling. Turn off those light, spark those candles up and slap the soundtrack on to feel truly lost and helpless as you creep in an endless abyss of tunnels.
Are You Afraid Of The Dark?
A mechanic I rarely see used well is visual distance. It's often ruined by the meta "I can see it, so my character should be able to, too!". It detaches you from the experience and forces you to realise you're a group sat around a table. And detachment is terrible. The Night Cage does not suffer from detachment, as you cannot see beyond any players' vision. You're as lost as the prisoners you embody. And that's both terrifying and outstanding.
Player decisions get dictated by the options available and risk present. A straight tunnel is the scariest thing in this game, as whatever lies ahead is ultimately what you'll encounter. Choosing to stay will only delay the inevitable, but asking another player to reveal the tunnel may waste their turn or put them at risk. However, a crossroads can just as easily cause more issues. Revealing multiple tiles of value means players must choose one to take and the rest to lose. Nothing stays in place long and, again, waiting for others to get there both takes time and causes risk. Mitigating these risks requires a bit of luck and a lot of tactical prowess. It results in an outcome, win or lose, that you can trace back to key moments and learn from.
We loved how the game threw us into tricky situations without us making the decisions first. Light is power in The Night Cage, and players don't get a lot of it. And this lack of control in knowing what's coming next and how it'll impact you is both terrifying and excellent. It works to support both the theme and atmosphere, and to give superb challenge to players.
Cooperation is key. Nonnegotiable. You can only win as a team, and all consequence and loss is to the detriment of the team. Having keys and gates appear can be both a massive benefit and a huge issue, particularly if you don't need them at the time. And limited numbers of each makes for an even tenser game. You can't avoid losing them all, but you can mitigate them through clever placements and player positioning.
Tiles only vanish when a player loses sight of it. Whether you want them gone or not will determine how you manage them. Wax Eaters and other nasties need placing tactically too avoid line of sight with other players - not always easy if they're the last tile drawn to an awkward spot! However, staying in place doesn't trigger an attack and so is a viable option… though time is never on your side, and sometimes rushing taking a hit can speed things along.
Keys and gates are a different matter. You don't want them gone and so positioning is important. Should some unforeseen circumstance have you surrounded by more than one of these, you'll definitely need your fellow detainee's help. A single move could have them plunged into the abyss and could even mean a guaranteed game over! The Night Cage forces players to look at the bigger picture of the game and its barriers to success. It outright states how many tiles you have left and whether you can win at all times. Player choice influences this and can often be the deciding factor for a loss, not running out of time.
I find it impossible to deny this game has a certain theme, one perfect for its aesthetics and mechanics. The dark imagery and feel of being trapped with little hope for an exit. Being stuck in an endless abyss with no idea what lies ahead of or behind you. The theme of helplessness and hopelessness. Of being lost and trapped. It's incredibly dark when written like that, I know, but it's the best way to explain how the game manages to make you feel. Those little victories are few and far between, making them important to cling to because one wrong move can cause a whole host of new problems.
Light, and the lack of it, is the biggest element in this game. It's what you're hunting for and dependent on to survive. It guides you through the labyrinth and, having it taken away, is actually quite a panicking moment. Sure, you can see everyone else's tiles on the board and know where to go to remedy your issue… but they've got their own issues to deal with, and you can't stay and wait. Moving blindly through the darkness is a choice no one takes willingly and it creates a superb level of tensions across the gameplay. The whole theme is executed on that fear of what's lurking in the dark and how little time you have. And it's executed amazingly.
The Night Cage is an excellently thematic tile-laying, cooperative game with heavy emphasis on time and vision limitations. It executes a feel of candlelight being your only support to see superbly and requires you to look avoid damage to keep it alight, unless you want to be plunged into darkness. The game is heavy on its need for players to communicate throughout and forces them to look after one another, making for lots of great discussion and teamwork. Couple that in with optional advanced additions and you've got a game you'll throw yourself into time and time again! If you're one for games with a strong theme and unique feels, this is definitely one for you.