01st Jul2019

‘Noctiluca’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

noctiluca-box

Designing a light, compact game that is filled with decisions and can be completed within about thirty to forty five minutes is no mean feat, but games like Azul, Century: Spice Road and Majesty are becoming more and more popular with gamers of all experience levels. Whilst there’s still room in my life for war games and heavy euros when I’m in the mood, I have to say that I really do appreciate being able to teach a game in five minutes or less and then relax with my friends for a few hours. Without jumping to conclusions too early, Noctiluca might just fulfil this brief better than any other game I’ve played.

From the moment you open the box, the simplicity of Noctiluca leaps out at you. There is a huge bag of over one hundred coloured dice, a punchboard with three kinds of token and a modest deck of cards. The instructions are printed on just four sides of A4 paper, whilst the board folds out across four square leaves. If anything, my only complaint is that Noctiluca comes in a normal sized (albeit slim) box, when it could likely have fitted into a smaller shelf space (if not perhaps for the board).

Everything you see here is well made and exactly fit for purpose, giving Noctiluca a pleasant, cohesive presence that is mostly eyecatching because of the contrast between the brightly coloured dice and the rather sombre board. The scene for Noctiluca is the bottom of the ocean at night, so it’s no surprise that dark blues and other dark tones are used, meanwhile the bright dice represent the bio-luminescent Noctiluca, which are essentially underwater fireflies or similar creatures. The players, of course, must catch these entities and put them in jars, with various combinations shown on the cards dealt out throughout.

During setup, the players will position the Noctiluca dice on the various sandy clearings on the board. Edge spaces get five dice at random, whilst central spaces receive only four. A set of twelve pawns are dealt out evenly between the players (six, four or three each depending on player count) and then three of the jar cards are also handed to each player. One of the four Noctiluca cards is then secretly passed to each player. With this final bit of information in hand, the players will choose to discard one of their three jar cards (placing the other two face up in front of them) and then a general market of four jar cards is drawn and placed face up on the table.

The objective in Noctiluca is to score the most points, which is achieved through completing jars, collecting bonus tokens and then by matching symbols on completed jar cards to the single coloured Noctiluca on your own secret card. During the game, the players can see how many jars their opponents have completed and what bonus tokens they have, but they won’t know which specific Noctiluca their opponents are after, unless they make it obvious through play. Most points come from the bonus tokens that are handed out each time a jar is completed – with the symbol shown on the completed jar matching one of the three stacks of tokens.

There is an interesting dynamic here in that each token has a face up value which can be as high as eight points, whilst on the rear side of each token, a value of one is shown. At the end of the game, each of the three stacks will be evaluated and the player who has the most tokens from any stack will be able to take the remaining tokens and score them for their rear side value. This is a small bonus of perhaps two to four points on most occasions, but it can swing the balance in a close game. Every pair of Noctiluca on incomplete jars is also worth one point at the end of the game, but this is a much smaller margin to consider.

When the game begins, players simply take one action – to place one of their pawns on any of the designated spaces around the edge of the board. With this done, they will choose a number from one to six and then one of the straight lines leading outwards from their pawn. They will then take all the dice (of every colour) that show their chosen number. With this done, they will then place all of the coloured dice onto spaces on their two jars, if possible. Any dice that are taken and can’t be placed are passed around the table, with each other player taking one (if they can) until none are left. When no dice can be placed, the remainder are set aside in a discard.

Play continues around the table this way with each player placing their pawn and calling a number (which has no relevance except as the method of being chosen) until the last pawn is placed. Whenever a jar is filled with Noctiluca dice, it will be emptied (the dice discarded) and the player will add it to their completed pile. As mentioned before, they will also take the lowest value (topmost) token from the matching pile, then they will draw another jar card from the shared market. When the last pawn is placed, the board is reset (and all pawns returned) and the order in which dice are passed is reversed for a second round.

After the second round, the game ends and final scoring occurs. The bonus cards on each jar (which is always zero, one or two) are added together to the value of all of the faceup tokens claimed. The majority rule that I mentioned earlier then comes into play, with the rearside value of any remaining tokens going to the player who holds the most tokens of a given kind. Finally, all of the spaces on completed jars that match the players secret Noctiluca card are scored, and one point is given for each pair of dice on incomplete jars. This, totalled up, will determine the winner, who will have the highest combined total.

There are several things that I love about Noctiluca, not least the fact that you can set up and begin a game in about five minutes but also because it offers such a level playing field for players of all ages and skill levels. There’s something very intuitive about the way moves play out and how each action links to the endgame scoring. What’s even more brilliant is that even though what you need to do is obvious, every single turn is agonising. At the beginning of a game, there are lots of options about pawn placement, but the puzzle is about pure efficiency – for your own gain and to minimise the dice you’ll pass to others. Later on, choices are fewer, but even more crucial.

Whilst the placement of the pawn is your only action, it is by no means your only decision. Will you focus on one particular kind of jar (in order to gain the majority bonus) or will you go after card bonuses, or simply your own secret Noctiluca colour? Chances are, you’ll combine at least two of these ideas, but which ones to choose from game to game can be agonising. Also, when you hand in a completed jar midway through a round (or towards the end of round one when you know the board will soon be restocked) do you choose a jar that can be completed quickly but which isn’t in line with your wider plan, or do you stick to your plan and hope that the reset will take care of you?

To summarise, Noctiluca is one of the cleanest, simplest and easiest to teach games that I’ve played in a very long time. It looks unique and very cool on the table and it plays fast, with no real advantages being gained by experienced players over new ones. I’ve found that children of around eight years and up grasp the concept quickly, whilst older players who enjoy puzzles can really engage their brains with it. Noctiluca is a superb abstract strategy game that I think offers everything I want in a board game of this weight and length. It’s an awesome design and definitely one that I think everyone should check out!

****½  4.5/5

Noctiluca is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator

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