You awaken in the dark on a cold, stone floor. You feel around and your hands grasp the smooth wax of a candle. Lighting it, the grim reality of your situation hits home. You are trapped in a pitch-black labyrinth with only the light of your flickering candle to guide you. On hands and knees, you crawl, desperately trying to find the exit, and with it, your freedom.
Intrigued? That’s the theme of today’s review of The Night Cage, a new cooperative, tile-laying game published by Smirk & Laughter Games. 1-5 players must explore their prison and work together if they hope to find a way out.
The Night Cage is a prison without bars. The layout changes every time the light goes out, so a path you tread earlier might be something completely different if you come back to that space later. When playing the game, you must always use at least 4 prisoners, so if you have fewer players someone will need to double up. However there are no unique characters in the game, so playing two-handed is fairly easy.
On a player’s turn, they must either MOVE or STAY. Most of the time you will be moving. To do so, move your meeple one space orthogonally, and then place new tiles for each space adjacent to you with an open path. Finally, you remove any tiles no longer illuminated by a character.
Most of the tiles are simple paths. However, there are a few special tiles in the game: Keys, Gates, and monsters appropriately called Wax Eaters. If you find a key tile, one player can move onto it to claim the key. If you find a monster, It attacks all prisoners it can see (orthogonally). When hit by a monster, not only does your candle go out, putting you in darkness, but you also lose 3 tiles off the stack as a penalty. When you are in darkness, you no longer illuminate any tiles adjacent to you and have to run blind.
If you decide not to move, you can stay (only if your candle is lit). In that case, you gain a nerve token and simply discard one tile from the stack. Nerve tokens can be used to move again, stay when your candle is out, or block one tile discard from a monster attack.
The game ends with a win if all players make it to the same gate, each in possession of a key. Players lose if the tile stack runs out or too many gates/key tiles have been discarded to make a win impossible.
I remember seeing the Kickstarter campaign for The Night Cage and immediately being intrigued by the theme and art. This is a game that leans heavily onto its theme to sell the experience. From the stark, black and white line art to the tile holder illustrated as a candle, The Night Cage is doing all that it can to bring home that feeling of being trapped in a pitch-black prison. I could almost see playing this game in the dark by candlelight for those looking to bring the theme home.
So, yes, the theme and art for The Night Cage are definitely on point. But what is the gameplay like? Well for one, this is not an easy game to win. Our success rate on The Night Cage probably clocks in under 20%. The good news is that the game is quick to set up and give it another go should you have a colossal failure. And this win rate doesn’t even take into account the advanced game variants that add in more unique monsters.
What I like best about The Night Cage, other than the theme, is probably the tension that it drives. When the candle starts to burn low, and your group has only found 3 out of 4 keys, every draw will have you on the edge of your seat. Is this going to be the Wax Eater that ruins us all or the last key we’ve been searching for? The game definitely does a good job at keeping you glued to the board.
Yet that all goes hand in hand with the biggest drawback of The Night Cages. The randomness and lack of player agency. One could argue that your chances at victory are decided before you even start playing based on the shuffle of the tile stack. If most of the keys somehow end up on the bottom of the pile, your chances of winning are going to be very low compared to if they were on top. There is the biggest decision you need to make in the game is how to explore. Do you group up to help expedite searching at the risk of one monster wreaking havoc, or do you spread out to keep things safe, but lose the ability to support each other.
It’s your tolerance for this randomness that will ultimately determine if The Night Cage is for you. Sure you will decide where to move and where each tile will go. But you will never know if the next 3 tiles are safe or not. Its draw, place, and deal with the luck the game feeds you.
Finally, I did like that the game included variants to change things up a bit. Not only is there an eerie silence variant where you can’t speak unless your meeple is next to another player, but there are also a host of new monsters to use. The Dirge is one of the coolest that puts a giant pit in the middle of the board that can swallow multiple players or tiles at once. If, by some miracle, you think The Night Cage is too easy for you. They’ve got you covered.
With Halloween just past us, I could easily see The Night Cage being pulled off the shelf every fall while you light some candles and embrace the spooky nature of the game. It’s easy to learn rules and accessible cooperative gameplay makes it one of those titles that you might not play all the time, but when you want to, it’s quick to get to the table. My only caution is that you will have to deal with the inherent randomness of the game. You are more reacting to what the game throws at you rather than having much in the way of strategic planning. If you are cool with that, The Night Cage can fill your gaming table with a half-hour of tense gameplay sure you keep you and your fellow prisoners fully engaged.
Final Score: 3.5 Stars – A thematic and tense game that will beat you down and not apologize for it.
• Not much in the way of player agency
• A loss could be predetermined before you start