21 June 2022
Not one to keep you up at night
In The Night Cage, you and a handful of fellow unlucky victims wake up in labyrinth of narrow, crumbling tunnels. The darkness is held back only by the faltering glow of your candle, and, as you advance, you get the eerie sense that the walls are shifting as they fade from view. Worse, you hear noises that suggest you and your companions may not be alone…
The Night Cage is a co-op survival horror game with a refreshingly simple design – each turn you move through a maze generated by taking tiles from a stack and laying them on a grid. As you move, tiles not immediately adjacent to you get removed from the board, and, if you double back, you’ll find the layout has changed. If the stack of tiles runs out, your candle has burnt out and you perish in the gloom. As a group, your task is to each find a key then take them to one of the mysterious doorways that periodically emerges.
The production on this game is really nice, and enhances the atmosphere so important to survival horror titles. The artwork is stark black-and-white with spidery, scratchy lines, the player pieces are wooden candles, each sculpted differently. Not only is this helpful for colourblind players, it’s also just a nice touch – a sign of that extra bit of love that has gone into the game’s look and feel. The keys – oh, the keys – are macabre and baroque and jangle if you pile them up. Finally, the tiles sit in a cardboard stand shaped like a candle, so as the stack goes down it’s like the candle is melting.
It’s all produced with care and verve, from the board where you put discarded tiles (which helps you see how many you’ve used up and whether the game is still winnable) down to the massive monster tile that features in the advanced version of the game, where multiple sections of floor drop away to reveal a vast abomination.
It’s a shame, then, that when you sit down to play, the actual game is a little… lacking. Simple is good. Clean, accessible design can be brilliant. The problem with The Night Cage is that you never really have any interesting decisions to make. Or really any meaningful decisions at all.
Each turn, you move, then take some tiles from the stack to see what your candlelight reveals. If it’s one or more monsters, you may need to take evasive action, or, if that’s not possible, spend a ‘Nerve’ token to cushion the impact of the attack or even push straight past the monster. But the answer is typically obvious – there are only four directions you can move in, only a few types of tunnel tile, and you don’t have enough information to make an informed decision. After all, if you don’t move, the tile stack keeps burning down anyway.
Also, if one player finds their key and reaches the exit, there’s nothing more for them to contribute. They just have to sit there till the game ends. Unlike most survival horror games, there’s no flavour text, no event cards to spice things up, no variable items, no push your luck pressure of rolling dice – just the endless wraparound maze, where a T-junction is neither better nor worse than a left turn or a straight passage, and in any case the moment you turn away the consequences of your choices disappear.
There’s surely a gap in the market for a simple, quick survival horror title – one that doesn’t expect new players to manage health and sanity wheels, a hand of item cards, variable objectives and interpreting results from handfuls of bespoke dice. Sadly, The Night Cage isn’t light and minimalist so much as underdeveloped. Survival horror requires tricky choices and risk, but here the choice is almost always: move, reveal some tiles, pass the turn. The result is less a heart-pumping nightmare, more falling asleep while doing your tax returns.
PLAY IT? NO
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED Sub Terra
A wealth of better options exist if you fun, accessible co-op survival. Escape The Curse of the Temple is a high-energy Indiana Jones style dice-roller which lasts a frenetic 15 minutes. For something more spooky, Betrayal at the House on the Hill is still the OG classic, fun despite its flaws, and Sub Terra offers exploration, monsters, and horrible, horrible claustrophobia.
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This review came from Tabletop Gaming Magazine, which is home to all of the latest and greatest tabletop goodness. Whether you're a board gamer, card gamer, wargamer, RPG player or all of the above, find your copy here.Get your magazine here
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