Teaching Time: 15 mins
Playing Time: 30-45 mins
Setup Time: 10 mins
Value For Money: Mid
I honestly don’t know how I feel about Nyctophobia, its got me split on many issues, I hope this will be an interesting review but don’t bet on it being a useful one.
First off the easy bit, the gameplay description. Players divide out into a hunter and everyone else, the hunted. The idea being that the game represents a horror movie situation where a group of teens are being chased through a wood at night by a killer, in this set either an axe murderer or a witch. The hunted players then put on a pair of blindfolding dark glasses as the hunter sets up the board, a series of trees, player’s pawns and a car model. Hunted then take turns moving their pawns two spaces at a time around the board, checking their environment by touch alone while trying to inform their fellow players what they’re doing. The Hunter can see and must guide players to their playing pieces since they are only allowed to feel their pawn's immediate environment, the hunter then moves by playing one of a set of cards. If Hunter and Hunted end up next to each other the Hunted loses one of their two wounds. If one of the hunted makes it to the car before one of them dies they win, if not the hunter wins.
The high concept behind the game is that it can be played not only by the visually impaired but by people who are totally blind, so long as the group has at least one seeing member to play the hunted. This is an amazing act of inclusion and has to be acknowledged, sight is so basic to board games that the very concept of designing around it will have most games designers or developers running for the hills. Many games, particularly card games, have braille versions but they are often at a very increased cost and don’t totally level the field or allow for inclusion. Those of us able to see simply forget how easy it is to check a detail from one end of the table to the other with a quick glance. I can’t accurately judge how successful the game is in this respect, having only played it with fully sighted players, but as far as I can tell it effectively removes sight from the equation and so should fulfill its brief.
The first thing in the game that are good in parts and poor in others are the components. The board and playing pieces are fantastic, chunky and easily defined by touch in a very intelligent way as well as easy to set up, which is important since set-up is done by the hunter while the hunted sit around essentially blindfolded making it hard to maintain any atmosphere. The blindfolds themselves are a little weird, instead of something like cloth face masks the game uses sunglasses with solid plastic in them to block vision, this has a level of convenience in that players can use peripheral vision to check things like their player’s special abilities. However the sunglasses cause issues in that it becomes difficult not to accidentally cheat, particularly problematic if the car is set up next to the board edge, weirdest though is that the plastic in the glasses is reflective meaning that if played in a decently lit room hunted will play the game staring at their own eyes and in some cases going uncomfortably cross eyed in the process. Worse though are the card and paper components, the player quick reference cards make reference to a rule not present in the game, either belonging to the alternative vampire version of the game or a previous prototype iteration. The rulebook has a range of typos and errors, none make understanding impossible but it gives a slightly sloppy feel, culminating in an entire paragraph of accidentally repeated background text.
Atmosphere should be a big thing in this game, but it is another very mixed bag. In theory the game should be very tense as unarmed teens are hunted through the woods by an indestructible killer while blind and the game attempts to encourage this by requiring the hunter to speak when using their cards with taunts (the cards say things like ‘taunt the player furthest from the car’). However, the game requires the hunted to describe their actions and what they find to each other in order to be effective. These descriptions tend to consist of two sentence parts, part one being something along the lines of ‘I’m feeling/poking/fingering/touching/stroking’ and part two being something like ‘wood/a hole/you’. It might be that there are groups capable of keeping up an atmosphere of high anxiety while one of their number asks if their finger can be ‘guided into the hole’ or when they observe that they can’t tell if they’re ‘feeling you or some wood’ but my group is not one of them, and I’ve not yet met one of those groups. Its not helped by the fact that the hunted look like rejects from a blues brothers convention, the uncomfortably weird set-up (the hunter has to set up everything alone while the hunted sit and wait, possibly chatting but often just listening to the hunter’s muttered complaints that they missed a tree or didn’t orient the board properly) and the hunter cards that ask them to ‘taunt’ the hunted. Now it might be a matter of age but I can confidently state that there is a significant group of players who when asked to viciously taunt their opponents will have to struggle mightily not to put on a terrible French accent and refer to the scent of elderberry, in fact unless you’re in character enough to attempt an actual insane cackle or two the taunts can have a tendency to devolve into ‘John, you are furthest from the car, and I taunt you cruelly for that fact,’ partly because its hard to tell if taunting someone who is furthest from the car is meant to carry gameplay levelling location information relating to car distance or just take the form of cackling about their impending doom. In short the atmosphere of the game can easily become one of nervous giggling and silly innuendo rather than mounting tension. That’s not a problem as such, fun is fun after all, and arguably some slight sexual innuendo is very much in keeping with the sort of teensploitation grindhouse film this is re-creating. It just might not be what players are expecting when they sit down to play.
A lot of the atmosphere and a lot of the problems with the game revolve around the hunter, how they act and how they read the room, and its this that leads to my mixed feelings for the game. Firstly, the tension in a game like this is dependent on having a decent read on how far you are from success or close to failure, but these are difficult or impossible to know for the hunted. Its certainly extremely tough to know how close you are to success until you’re a turn or two from victory, actually plotting out a realistic search grid for the car takes memory and mental mapping to insane heights, meaning that play is a general attempt to search different parts of the board without ever knowing how far from success you are. Equally, without keeping close track on your fellow hunted’s health situation (the game is co-op, one hunted loses they all lose) its hard to know how close you are to failure. Personally, I would think that the game would probably work better with player elimination rather than one loses all lose, watching blindfolded players stumble around the board is plenty entertaining and eliminated players watching that painful pantomime would not have been an unreasonable ask. As it is the tension of the game for the hunted relies to some degree on the hunter keeping them appraised of the situation in an interestingly pitched manner and a hunter that’s unwilling or unable to empathise with its victims sufficiently to know what information they need to visualize their situation enough without ruining the game can make the game simply a whirl of confusion ending in a sudden anti-climax for the players. Added to that, if the hunter wants to win there is very little the hunted can do to stop them, picking off two life from one player is ridiculously easy. The game only works if the hunter plays cat and mouse with the hunted, knocking off a little life from each of them, waiting until they’re sure of the car’s location and then allowing them to walk into danger rather than actively running them down. The hunter becomes much more like a games master from a role-playing game rather than an active competing player and the whole game is much closer to shared experience than a competitive game. Its possible that a very well-coordinated group against a hunter with horrible card draws could play slightly competitively, but its not in the feel or the intention of the game.
Which boils down to my problem. Played well with the right group Nyctophobia is an enjoyable and unique experience, and one that furthermore achieves a level of inclusiveness that makes it one of the most admirable games I’ve ever played. But it asks a huge amount of its players, it requires you to make your own fun. In the end a game that makes fun engaged people who want everyone to have a good time fun to be around is sort of pointless, because in my experience those people are fun to be around anyway. The essence of a game is to define a goal and a method of reaching it that is fun and interesting. A game that defines a goal and a method of reaching it then tells players to do it in a way that’s fun has fundamentally failed in its project. Are the successes of Nyctophobia sufficient for me to forgive that fundamental failing, personally yes, but with the wrong group or in the wrong situation those failings could easily become unacceptable.