When it comes to reviewing a game, there are a lot of factors to consider. If you’ve been reading my work for a while, you probably know what it is I generally look for. How does it look? How hard is it to teach? Are the mechanics interesting? And I always try to put games on a spectrum, so anybody looking for games can find the right one for them. But, realistically, there’s one big question that a game has to answer if it’s good: do I want to play it again? More specifically (and probably more importantly) do the people I play games with want to play that game again? The answer sometimes surprises me. Take, for instance, The Night Cage, a creepy atmospheric puzzler published by Smirk & Dagger (The Deadlies) under their “Smirk & Laughter” imprint. It was designed by the team of Christopher Ryan Chan, Chris McMahon, and Rosswell Saunders, with Chan also handling art duties.
I was sent a copy of The Night Cage by Smirk & Dagger ahead of the full release of the game, and I was fully ready to enjoy it. Great look and unique theme is a fantastic hook, but I’ve been tricked before. Was this just a gimmick that looked good, or was there something special lurking in the darkness?
What’s In The Box?
(1) 20 x 20” Game Board
(1) dimensional Tile Holder
(5) Player Status cards
(100) Labyrinth Tiles
(5) Key Tokens
(5) Prisoner Tokens
(10) Nerve Tokens
The thing that’s going to draw you into The Night Cage, because it’s what drew me in, is the look. There really isn’t much like it on the market right now. It’s bleak, It’s claustrophobic. It’s downright creepy. The only splashes of color are in your player tokens and on the light from your “candle.” Which is a little cardboard tower you store all your tiles in. When you run out of tiles, your candle has melted and you’re out of light. That candle is kind of the showpiece here and I absolutely loved it. The board is great too, since it’s surrounded by creepy little pictures of prisoners struggling through the darkness just like the players.
How’s It Play?
The basic premise of The Night Cage is this: You are trapped in a dark pit. You don’t know why you’re there, you don’t know how you got there. All you have is a candle. There are monsters coming. Find the gate.
The Night Cage successfully translated the blind terror of wandering a dark maze onto the tabletop, and it’s astounding how scary it can be for such a minimalist game. All you’re doing is moving around, revealing adjacent new tiles with your candle, and hoping to find the key to get out. Tiles are pulled from the candle and reveal different routes as well as the gates and keys you need to get out. The trippy nature of The Pit means that the board wraps around itself and if you fall through an unsafe floor, you fall through darkness before reappearing on the side of the board. The game requires a lot of spatial awareness while also doing its best to utterly ruin it at the same time.
As you travel around, you might run into monsters. These Wax Eaters hate the light your candles give out, and if they’re revealed when you place a tile they attack you. Now you might be able to run, but you probably won’t. They’ll snuff your candle out and make you a panicked mess running from one tile to the next to find someone else to re-light your candle. You do have access to nerve (only two per prisoner) that might get you more movement or a way to protect your candle, but you’ve got to be smart about it.
The game ends once all four prisoners find a key and all meet at the same gate. Problem here is, there’s a limited number of both. If you happen to lose too many thanks to monsters, bad luck, or poor planning…welp. You also might lose if all the wax gets used in the candle and you can’t get to the end in time during “Final Flickers.” It’s a tight spot, but that final countdown is where the game really shines. The team has also included several ways to increase difficulty, like new monsters (the Pit Fiends in particular really messed our games up) and even bosses that require lots of strategy to get around.
If you’re looking for something a little different for game night, or just something spooky that doesn’t require a crazy amount of story or mechanics to raise the tension, you need to get a copy of The Night Cage. Chris Chan’s art is phenomenal at capturing the despair and fear the game is trying to present, and it’s paired with tile placement that’ll really stretch you and your friends’ ability to strategize. You’ll even start to question your own memories as time goes on.
The real beauty here is that it accomplishes so much with so little. There’s not much of a narrative, not many moving parts. You just reveal a token and arrange it as you need. Much of the movement is driven by RNG, but the game doesn’t make it too hard on you (there’s trackers for each kind of tile). There are also plenty of little choices built in that seem bad but end up being helpful, like falling through a broken floor to avoid a monster or reposition faster. In many ways, it feels like solving a logic puzzle with your friends, but it never tries too hard to trick you. It’s just a lot of creepy, dark fun. Oh, and be sure to use the Official Score while you navigate the pit…if you dare.
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You can pick up a copy on the Smirk & Dagger shop or order it through your FLGS, where it’ll run you about $44.99.
Images via Smirk & Dagger
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