It’s no surprise that The Night Cage calls to me. The stark and merciless presentation, the equally bleak odds of success, and the promise for chaos and horror. I’m fond of Cave Evil, Ferox, and Escape the Dark Castle. This is my jam, tuned down a half step and anchored by blasting double-bass.
The Night Cage is a bit of a new one. There’s a heavy metal aesthetic but it’s not a conflict heavy game. In fact, you don’t even fight back – instead you run.
You do this by laying down tiles. You’re carrying this candle, delicate and fragile as your own bones, and it illuminates all adjacent spaces. So you move into a passageway with two corridors jutting off like a wishbone waiting to be cracked, then you draw a tile from the large stack and decide at which exit to place it. Finally you draw another and fill the remaining opening.
And we do this, up to five us working in terrified unison, for roughly an hour.
This is The Night Cage.
But none of it makes sense. There’s a feeling of malevolence, as if the winding earth itself is playing with you furtively like a child rolling a pea across a dinner plate.
This manifests through the darkness. As you move away from tiles and they’re no longer adjacent, they disappear. They run away to the discard pile and they’re never seen again. Spooky.
You don’t really beat The Night Cage, but you will try. To do so each player will need to find a special key tile and move upon it. You take an actual metal little key although it’s just for smirks as there’s no actual little door to unlock. Instead there’s a tile, called a gate, and everyone needs to move on it together once you each have one of those keys. This won’t happen because The Night Cage is smiling and you’re a pea.
I adore the challenge this game presents. I’ve gotten close to victory, a tile away even, and that sense of dread is absolute and enveloping. It’s not forgiving but the biggest mistake would be to defang this warped cage. It deserves to be its own kind of hell.
However, my adoration for this design begins to decay beyond that central conceit.
For all its promise, The Night Cage feels limited. There is strategy, but it’s quite shallow and centralized on whether you plan to cluster into groups or not. This is primarily a consideration due to the monster tiles – the perfectly named Wax Eaters – which pop out and attack all players down straight paths of open sight. Grouping together results in more efficient exploration, but it also risks inflicting damage on multiple players when stumbling into a trap.
You don’t die if harmed. Instead you discard tiles from the stack effectively burning time. This is a powerful and lovely physical manifestation of the game’s central theme. That visual of the tile column diminishing is one of the strongest artistic expressions in this box.
Another effective thematic element is the fallout of extinguishing a character’s candle when they’re attacked. This means no illuminating adjacent tiles. That’s problematic for your interest of survival.
But the strategic engagement is quite low. The board features strong turnover and the results of exploration are mostly outside your control. There can be no real game plan besides player orientation to one another.
The tactical facet of play is more burly but still marred. The best decisions come late in the arc of play as you must coordinate with the group and decide whether it’s worth moving into certain spaces. There are some solid decision points that must be addressed, particularly in sticky situations where a player discovers a key space when they already possess a key. If they move away from the tile it will disappear, meaning the other prisoner a few spaces away will never find it. If enough keys are discarded in this manner then the game will close in defeat, light fading into pain and suffering.
Similarly if you burn too many tiles by exploring poorly or getting eaten by those waxers, then you may discard all of the gates. If that happens then: you’re dead/you’re dead/you’re dead/you’re dead and outta this world.
But those excellent discussion points are entirely absent in the first 30 minutes or so. Early exploration is warm-up, moving and placing new tiles as a matter of exercise. A fiend or two may shake things up, but with enough time and space you maintain free will and shed consequence. Simply move away and it’s gone. No worries. It almost feels like you, and everyone else, are not really doing much of anything.
The scaling at work is also a little odd. There is a requirement for four characters, so it functions best at exactly that amount of participants. With less you have people controlling multiple characters – all four when playing solo – and with a fifth player the board feels a bit too large lacking the claustrophobia and exploration causation of the more confined space. I understand why all of this occurs in order to facilitate a wider opportunity for play, but as you lose protagonists the experience feels more procedural and flat. This loss is almost linear with the solo mode coming across as the weakest mode of play.
Another area where the game is interesting but doesn’t quite push through is with the various monstrous entities. The basic game includes only a single enemy type, which is fine in theory. It allows you to learn the quirks of the design without much overhead or complexity. But the experience is also somewhat mundane. For all its trappings of unsettling terror, it’s a little safe and repetitive.
So then you toss all the monsters in and it is a little better, a little more interesting. There are a pair of tiles that put this big enormous pit across a huge chunk of the map. It’s awesome. There are also dangerous foes that target all tiles extending out diagonally, flipping them over into pits. Then there’s these bastards that attack over those pits, typically a buttress against Wax Eaters.
But now you have a bit of confusion as there’s not a player aid for the various monster abilities and it’s easy to forget what they do. If I play with someone new I want to toss everything in to elevate the experience, but that’s going to beat the FNGs down even more.
The overhead is indeed solved after a few plays, but unfortunately there’s this metaphorical donut hole where the game is most interesting when everything is still novel. It quickly fades and becomes more expected and routine. The treacherous escape begins feeling safe again, not in difficulty but in that tension of the unknown.
There’s this delicate balance between simplicity and streamlined play with interesting drama, and it never quite pushes far enough into the realm of the latter.
With experience it becomes apparent that the heart of the experience lies in those last 20 minutes of play, where you begin to realize that the shuffle of the tiles is a large factor on your ability to succeed. The reality is laid bare and I find myself engaging on a cognitive level with the puzzle while nearly ignoring the setting. As a game, it’s very abstract and detached. There’s no mystical allusion or sustained immersion, the themes of isolation are forgotten and it’s very mechanical. This isn’t by choice, but by what the systems demand.
I’m disappointed, not because The Night Cage is a poor experience, but because it struggles to break the plane of middling and it struggles to be remembered. It has some novel concepts such as an ever-changing maze and a strong vision of a dwindling candle represented by that exploration stack. But the inventiveness is short-lived and what remains feels very ordinary. That left me more broken than its hellish crawlspace.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.