ZMAN GAMES are quite often associated with larger or more complicated games and so finding this clever abstract game under their banner was somewhat, but pleasantly, surprising.
This Shem Phillips 1-4 player game can be located online for around £25.00-£30.00 but once you have read this review and decided if it's for you, there are Local Game Stores ready and waiting to help you.
1 Black die. 12 Pawns, 4 sets of coloured dice, 26 dice in each set, a double-sided board, 3 sets of coloured plastic point tokens, a first player token, 4 favourite colour cards and 30 cards 10 of each in the three colours of the points tokens.
All 104 dice are mixed on the table and then randomly placed on the non-numbered side of the board in the lightly marked sections, ensuring that four dice are placed in each of the inner sections and five dice in each of the outer sections. Once this is done - there will be some dice left over, just put these aside - and give each player an equal number of Pawns - the rules for solo play take up the majority of the back page of the 4-page rules booklet; the components list is on the front cover page and the game rules take over the two central pages; rules, illustrations and descriptive examples. Deal one random Favourite colour card face down to each player, the Jar cards are shuffled and each player is dealt three face up, the remainder are made into four stacks as equal as possible, their top card flipped over to be face up. Stack the point tokens from the highest value at the bottom of the stack upwards. Now the game is ready.
The board represents an amazingly special pool where Noctiluca seeds can be found in all their glorious colours. In the centre of the pool is an island which sadly does nothing other than to block the sight-line of small beaches (aka 'shores') directly opposite each other. There are as many shores as there are Pawns. The players each place a Pawn on a shore of their choice and act on it each turn. As only one Pawn can be on each shore it means that the last player has no option as to the shore they select, only to which direct path they choose - each shore has two possible pathways.
The game mechanic is so simple I wonder no one has thought of it before. As a game designer myself I am always trying to think of new ideas and to this aim a year or so ago I bought 4 sets of coloured dice, this is true not a madey-up tale, honest! I have regularly been pondering over these dice, setting them into groups, rolling them as 'armies', thinking of ways in which they could be used by turning them side over side, balancing them on top of each other, and so on. I have many, many notes made about these dice and my thoughts but never once did I come close to Shem Phillips' brilliantly clever but oh so simple game mechanic. I love it!
The Jar cards show flowers as corks, the colours of these match the Gold, Red and Brown of the score tokens; they also have small square shapes on them in the colours of the dice. If you think of the Jars as 'missions' then the coloured squares are the different resources required to complete them. The Favourite cards each have one of the four colours of the dice, collecting dice in your colour gives you additional Victory Points at the game end (this occurs when the second Round ends - a round being when all players have used all of their Pawns).
The mechanic I was raving about like a loony is ingenius. On their turn the players in clockwise order and one at a time take one of their Pawns and place it on one of the shores. They then decide on one of the two possible paths, either the one with three spaces or the one with four. Having chosen a path they call out, clearly so all can hear but no need to shout, a number between 1 and 6 (as equates to the numbers or spots on a die). They then collect all the dice in their chosen path, no matter what colour, that has the number they called out; the numbers on the dice are otherwise irrelevant. Take the dice collected and place as many of them as you can on your Jar cards, the idea being to complete them by placing one die of the same colour on each of the squares. When completed, the dice are put aside and the cards are kept by the player. New cards are drawn from the top of the decks to equal the number of cards completed. Any dice remaining from those you collected are passed round the table and one only can be taken by each player in turn, the others do not return to you but are instead removed from this Round.
The game play continues thus until all players have played out all their pawns. If this is the first Round keep the dice on the cards in front of you, those on incompleted Jars, and reset the game then play it through once more only. After two Rounds add up the VPs to find the winner. VP chips are collected from the top down according to the Jar cards colours. They start being worth 2 VPs and then end up at 8VP value. The flip side of each VP token is valued at one point. When the scores a totalled on the front side count the number, not value of each players VP tokens by colour. The players who have the most in each colour receive any remaining VP tokens in that colour but flip them over to be worth one point each; this is another neat rule that makes this abstract game fun and challenging.
The solo player game rules take up just a little space on the back page of the booklet. It is played on the flip side of the game board. This side brings the Black die into play and utilises the numbers on the board spaces for what the designer calls 'the Tempest' to descend, the Tempest being the games Artificial Intelligence - it's you against game. This is a fair bit more random than the main game and thus loses some of the fun aspect. NOCTILUCA is a good 2-player game, but personally I am not so keen on it as a one player game; thinking more on it, this is probably more about myself than the game itself. As a 2, 3 or 4 player game it changes as each new player is added. For two players it's a real head to head challenge. With three players, possibly the optimum number, it throws a spanner in the works as you now have an additional player to think about when you are choosing the dice. With four players the thinking gets longer each turn and so does the game.
Is there a down side to NOCTILUCA ? only in as much as going last if the other players have been erudite in their selections, then you get to play your last Pawn with little hope of getting any dice of use to you, so you have to hope you can pick one number that isn't too helpful to the others, remembering that dice you do not use get passed round.
Would I recommend it? Most certainly. If you can pick it up for about £25.00 you have got yourself a gem and a bargain. Playable by family, friends and gamers it falls into the gather and placement genre but isn't far off being a new genre on its own.