I first played Nyctophobia in a crowded convention hall almost two years ago. Hundreds of people filed in and out of this huge space, walking and talking in dense groups, shouting frustration or excitement at other games they were playing. It’s the kind of environment which overloads your senses; there’s so much to take in, that your ears become numb and your eyes begin to dart around the room, searching for your friends or your next gaming session. And yet here sat a game which threatened to take that most valuable sense of mine away from me. It asked me to stop looking at anything, and to observe my surroundings in a completely different way. It’s not something I’m accustomed to in the world of tabletop games, and the fact that it was able to completely grab my attention in such a chaotic space was proof enough to me that it merited a closer look.
In Nyctophobia, up to four players take on the role of a group of friends being chased through the woods by a maniacal killer. One other player will take on the role of this crazed hunter, attempting to snuff out any chance of escape. Our victims must find their way through the trees, searching for their car where they can radio for help, but they must do so while completely in the dark. These players will physically wear blackout glasses over their eyes, obstructing any view of the game board and their surroundings. They must move their hands across the board in small increments, touching objects and trying to remember what’s around them as they move. The killer, however, retains full view of the table and can make decisions with complete certainty.
Any fans of old slasher flicks will feel right at home with the mood that’s being set by these stipulations. The core mechanical hook of player blindness is truly inspired and deliberate, but it’s been married to its setting with an equal amount of care. “I work from theme to mechanics,” says Catherine Stippell, designer of Nyctophobia. “I had recently seen Alien for the first time so my mind went to that final act where the main character is alone running through the ship being chased and hunted.” This power imbalance of predator and prey is core to the thrill of horror movies, and must be considered carefully for a tabletop environment. How can the killer seem to know more than the rest of us? How can they move in ways that we don’t understand, or perform actions that seem impossible? Catherine’s solution with the glasses is an example of a clever, subtractive design. Instead of endlessly adding things to the hunter, she removes something simple from the hunted. It’s not important that the predator feels powerful – it’s important that the prey feels powerless.
This isn’t to say that our protagonists have no options available to them. Players will quickly find themselves using special abilities to deter their pursuer and communicating with each other to establish a game plan. Rocks found on the ground can be tossed as a defensive tool, a distraction, or even brute-forced echolocation. And if all else fails, they can simply hide, protecting themselves from danger at the cost of being forced to remain silent. I often feel that there are just enough options for me to be picking between two on my turn, while holding a backup in case things go wrong. For some, this small number of choices might be too simple, but for others (especially more casual players) it will come as a moment of relief to other tensions throughout the game.
Despite their simplicity, each of these player actions does well to elevate the theme of the game. In reference to their place in the design, Catherine tells us “I tried hard to pull from theme… I had asked non-gamer friends what they would do in this horror movie setting. Someone said ‘climb up a tree and hide’, so I tried to figure out a mechanical representation of that.” But it’s not only from the setting itself; she also knows when it’s valuable to borrow mechanics from games that she enjoys. “In one of my first notes about the game, I had written ‘blind/reverse Spector Ops’…The idea of noise attracting the Hunter around the board I had based loosely on Zombicide.” Despite its flair, Nyctophobia is still very much a game – a challenge – and these mechanical tools will be your key to success. As Catherine puts it “People see the blackout glasses and immediately think ‘light fun party game’. But Nyctophobia is not that. There is a good amount of thinking and memory you have to do.”
These challenges that she refers to are also adjustable according to player desire. The game’s scenarios and rules tend to put the level of difficulty at the full discretion of the hunter player. This player takes on the role of “game guide” for the session, placing their opponents’ hands on the game board when necessary and keeping the sequence of play moving. This player is also required to give a helpful hint about the car’s location when the game starts, establishing the odd relationship of “murderer/helper” right from the beginning.
It’s a strange dichotomy at first, but fans of Dungeons & Dragons will immediately recognize it as similar to the role of “Dungeon Master”. This person controls the entire game, but their goal isn’t necessarily to win – it’s to provide the most fun experience possible. When playing this role, you might notice an easy way to end the game if you choose a particular action, but you’ll have to ask yourself whether it’s more exciting to let the game continue. The rulebook even encourages you to consider playing sub-optimally if it would make for a more interesting game. Conversely, you could choose to punish the others for unsporting behavior; if a player is hiding but still chooses to talk, you’re allowed to unhide them and place a noise token on their space, attracting the hunter to their location. It’s a bold choice for a designer to engage their audience this way. I can imagine instances where a cruel hunter could create an unfun experience, but I’ve yet to run into problems with it. I’ve found that many people appreciate the power they hold in this position, and they’ll be voted out quickly if they abuse it.
The best part of Nyctophobia is that experience being built by the people playing it. You might view it as a puzzle to be solved and optimized, or you might consider it an opportunity to roleplay. It is mechanically sound, but Catherine also explains how it can be “one of the only games where you are literally scared while playing.” The way she sees it, horror fans can really go all-out when they want to. “If you get some spooky music in the background or ambient forest noises, and have a Hunter player who is really role playing, it can be a frightening and super tense game.” The hunter cards even supply optional ways for a player to taunt others and get into character. The inclusion of these suggestions as options, but not requirements, is key to Nyctophobia’s broad appeal.
The inclusiveness of this title is apparent on many deeper levels too. Catherine has talked numerous times about the origins of its design: “Nyctophobia from the very beginning was going to be played blind, as it was a game for my blind uncle.” Right from the start, this game was built around a condition that would render many other tabletop games completely unplayable. Many people struggle with board games as a result of color-blindness or even full-blindness, and they’re often not considered by publishers to be a priority. As Catherine says, “Nyctophobia came about because of accessibility… I think that with its release, people look at issues like accessibility and diversity in a different light… I hope it gets other designers and publishers thinking about those issues.”
While playing my own copy of Nyctophobia, far removed from the noisy conference hall where I first discovered it, the game continued to surprise me. A friend of mine was suffering from a condition that created numbness in her limbs; she had difficulty walking around, or even gripping and lifting small objects. Board games in general are obviously a challenge with this, but we try to make it work if we can. Nyctophobia typically requires a player to touch pieces on the board and tell others what they are feeling, but here we had a player who actually lacked most of the sense in her fingers. So without skipping a beat, our hunter player began describing the scene around her out loud. “There’s trees to your North and East, but the South and West are empty. Which way would you like to go?” And without damaging the experience in any way, our friend was able to participate completely, even without the sense of touch that the game seemed to center itself on. I was moved to see that such a thing could be built around a specific disability, and unknowingly welcome others who struggled in a completely different way.
Nyctophobia transports us somewhere that feels familiar and still entirely new. The mechanics may be simple, but they serve the theme well, and are a platform for what makes this game truly special. It gives us the tools to quickly create fun and intense stories between friends in a format that we never expected, and it asks us to consider accessibility in a way that many never have. Who are we leaving behind when we build games that lean too heavily on one concept, like colors, or dexterity, or sight itself? What experiences are we missing out on when we don’t find ways to include everyone in the fun? It is often very easy to design something for ourselves, but Nyctophobia reminds us that building for others can be so much more powerful.
Images provided by Play Satellite