The Night Cage, an intriguing new horror-themed cooperative game published by Smirk & Dagger Games is just now hitting retail shelves with fans eagerly awaiting its arrival. The game draws you into a world of darkness and dread, with only a candle to light your way. The unique candlelight mechanic, which lights only a portion of the board at a time and forever removes tiles behind you, gives players the very palpable sense of being hopelessly lost in a maze, with unspeakable horrors awaiting just beyond your candle’s light.
Like most good ideas, The Night Cage was conceived over a long lunch. The three of us, Chris Chan, Chris McMahon, and Rosswell Saunders, worked in the same ad agency in Manhattan.
That day we discussed the possibility of making a solipsistic game, meaning only yourself and what you see exists. It was intriguing because it would give you phenomenal control over your environment while simultaneously limiting the reach of that control. We tossed concepts back and forth. Maybe it’s a maze. Maybe you need keys to escape. Maybe there’s a monster chasing you.
As you might expect, some of it straight up didn’t work. An early idea for teleporters was impossible to use. Monsters made no sense when you could just walk away and let the maze swallow them up. An attempt to play without a board (like Bananagrams) fell apart the instant two players walked away from one another, so we used a chess board as a stand in.
But - the core of the game, the solipsistic inspiration that hooked us all, worked. Even with the most basic art imaginable, the intrinsic terror of constantly giving up what you know - in exchange for searching for what you needed - was enthralling. We all knew from our first test that this was “Something”.
One thing we agreed on right away was that the game should be cooperative. The maze was challenge enough and ruled out competitive play. It was clear too that this would be a horror game. Before the name, before the artwork, even before the candle as the metaphor for the game’s ticking clock, the unknowable labyrinth being made and unmade by your presence evoked dread. It didn’t need explicit danger or violence; the players’ minds would do the work for us if we just got out of the way.
Minimalism became a core tenet of the game’s design. You can see it in every piece of Chris Chan’s sparse artwork. We decided very early that the game needed a restrained visual style, something that invited players to fill in the darkness themselves. Conveying that on a small canvas takes a huge amount of discipline and work. Chris’ process led to more than 100 illustrations for monsters alone.
Minimalism extends to gameplay as well. Player turns offer a simple, understandable array of choices. “Do I move this turn? Which way do I go?” We wanted players focused on just a handful of systems with substantial impact: candlelight, board position, tile counts, Nerve.
We held ourselves to an economy of components. Chris McMahon established “no dice” as a mantra. If a concept required more pieces, we asked ourselves if it was really worth putting extra stuff in the box. Play testers said they wanted to discover tools or find some way to fight the monsters, but it became clear that items and powers aren’t that interesting in a game where opportunities to use them vanish as quickly as they appear. Besides, the object wasn’t to conquer fear and become powerful; it was to scrape out a victory in spite of one’s fear and powerlessness – a far more visceral and compelling experience.
Ross found a number of design contests for our nascent game. Winning the contest wasn’t the point; we would gain valuable insight just by entering. More important, it gave us real deadlines. “The next round of this is in two weeks, we need to have a rulebook by then.” Chaining together competitions kept our momentum high as months stretched into years.
As we kept pushing the game through these deadlines, it got tighter and sleeker. The initial teleporters became Pits, heightening the risk of movement and eliminating the problem of dead ends. We went from no board to a cloth board to eventually a traditional board. And most dramatically, we took our tiles from a random draw bag to a vertical shoe that stacks all the tiles in a way that evokes a continually burning candle. The candle not only creates a nice table presence, it also focuses the players’ attention on their dwindling tiles and makes the stakes of running out more tactile.
One of our biggest evolutions was player death and elimination; to make the stakes feel high, monsters originally removed prisoners from the game - but sitting out isn’t much fun - so we created “Lights Out” where being hit by a monster the first time would trap you in the dark on your own. If you were hit again, then you would be eliminated, so other players would work to save you before that happened. A great incentive for teamplay, but still too capricious. Finally, we traded killing off players into a loss of the tiles that everyone shares, transforming an individual penalty into a team penalty. It was a solution that made the game simultaneously more cooperative and more dangerous - perfect for The Night Cage.
Of course, no game is honed within a vacuum. A player at NYU’s Game Center helped us find a balanced way for players to remain in place on their turn. An Unpub play tester challenged an early decision that led to our wrap around board. Gil Hova identified a need for a more distinct end game that became Final Flickers. The friendly Canadians at Roxley pushed for more complex challenges and helped develop the Advanced Rules.
When we decided to look for a publisher to help us unleash The Night Cage on the world, Curt Covert at Smirk & Dagger Games immediately got what we were doing. He understood the impact of the unique mechanics and aesthetics of Chris’ art, of course. He also grasped the themes of the game in a literary sense, which is to say that he understood the game in the way the three of us did and wanted to see our vision of the game through.
After three years of design and development, we ended up with exactly the game we wanted. It’s cooperative, allowing team discussion but still offers plenty of player autonomy. It’s accessible, easily learned by all gaming audiences, yet delivers strategic challenges that can be scaled up from play to play. It’s horror in the very best sense, driven by a quiet, on-going dread. It’s immersive and deeply thematic, where the simple progression of your turn feels like you are lost in the dark in an ever-shifting maze.
We never lost sight of the flicker we saw in our first test, a light in the dark we’ve been crawling towards for years. But game ideas are like tiles in the Night Cage; they only exist if they are seen. We’re thrilled to finally push this one into the light.
Chris Chan, Chris McMahon, and Rosswell Saunders are the creators of The Night Cage, professional ad men, and all-around swell dudes despite being professional ad men. Chris Chan takes too many photos, Chris McMahon thinks too hard about cartoons, and Ross once ate a stick of butter like a candy bar to prove a point. Collectively, they can grow 2 beards.