Nyctophobia, a new one-versus-many game from Pandasaurus, might have the most unusual back story of any board game I’ve ever seen. Designer Catherine Stippell created the game while still a teenager after playing games with her family and modifying the rules of those games so her blind uncle could play along, which drove her to design a game where being unable to see the board was part of the rules and even integrated into the game’s theme. Her background alone makes her unusual in board gaming—nearly all new board games are designed by men, and if you see a woman’s name in the credits, it’s far more likely to be as the artist rather than the designer, and most designers are older than Stippell was when she first conceived Nyctophobia. And this game manages something I also rarely see in board games: A novel mechanic, something that stands out when every other game out there starts out with players collecting wood.
Nyctophobia’s one-versus-many format includes multiple themes, but the core concept is simple: One player plays the bad guy, a killer or a mage or a vampire, while the others are all trying to escape the forest where they’ve become lost … but those players wear blackout glasses provided with the game so that they can’t see the board at all, playing by touch and by talking to the other players. The board’s modular components are intentionally crude so that their shapes are easy to distinguish by feel; the trees, which give the board a maze-like aspect, are sharp on top, while each player token has a different shape on top to make it easy to know whose token is whose. The villain is the only player who can see what’s going on; that player sets up the board and essentially plays the Game Master, while also playing his/her character, chasing the other players and attacking them when they end up in adjacent spaces.
Game play is straightforward once you get adjusted to the idea that you can’t see the board. Each of the players on the team side gets to take two actions, usually moving two spaces on the board, for which the villain takes the player’s hand and places one finger on that player’s piece. That player can then feel around his/her piece one space in any direction to determine what moves are legal and to help build a mental picture of the board, announcing it so the rest of the team can also try to get a sense of what the board looks like. (There are multiple board setups given in the rule book and more on Pandasaurus’s website.) Each player gets a specific role card that gives him/her a unique power, and each player also has a rock to throw to try to create a distraction for the villain or, if the player is attacked, to push the villain back and give the player a little extra time to escape.
Depending on the number of players involved, the villain may get a turn after all players have gone, or may get an additional turn to break up the team’s turns. The villain also gets two hand cards that define special actions for his/her turn, and which add twists to the game like directing the villain to tell all players one true statement about the board and one false one (with some limitations). For your first few games, however, it’s probably easier to skip these cards to allow players to get used to the format of working with a board they can’t see, and then later add the complication that the villain is a unreliable narrator.
The team’s goal is to find their car, which occupies two spaces somewhere on the board, and then survive for a full round after that so help can arrive. The villain’s goal, of course, is to kill off at least one team member, which requires two hits to any individual opponent—a hit merely requiring that the villain be adjacent to that player’s token. The killer character is the most straightforward opponent for the team, while the mage introduces additional tweaks including the rather evil ability to rotate the game board without telling the good guys. The Vampire Encounter addition is exclusive to Target stores and requires the team members to rescue their friend, the vampire’s “familiar,” before escaping the forest, while the vampire can control that familiar and divert the player trying to rescue it.
While the game’s core mechanic is novel, and the story behind it is great, I didn’t find huge replay value in Nyctophobia because it’s hard to get too much better at it even if you play the game repeatedly. You might improve your ability to remember the board’s layout as you move around, but developing that kind of visual memory will take more than just playing this game a few times. The value in playing this again would come from doing so with the same people and devising a plan or at least a rhythm to how you navigate the board and exchange information—although your opponent will also learn your rhythm and likely come up with ways to counteract it, the way pitchers and batters make adjustments to each other in baseball the more they face off in games. How much you enjoy that cat-and-mouse aspect will likely determine how much you want to pull Nyctophobia back off the shelf for further plays.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.