What We Play in the Shadows
It isn’t often that the story behind a game is more interesting than the game itself. If you don’t believe me, try watching that documentary about Twilight Imperium.
Nyctophobia, though, is one of the few games that comes close. Created by Catherine Stippell as a way to include her blind uncle in the hobby — and possibly even grant him an advantage over those with functioning vision — Nyctophobia casts its players as teenagers fumbling through a darkened wood on a moonless night, navigating purely by touch as they scramble to rescue a friend who’s been bound as a vampire’s familiar.
As far as gimmicks go, donning blackout glasses is dang sexy. As a game? Well, let’s talk.
Normally when I want you to sense how a game feels, I open with “Picture this…” But in Nyctophobia there isn’t anything to picture. So: picture blackness. Maybe not total blackness. One of the flaws of blackout glasses is the way they leak light around the edges, their shiny surface reflecting your eyes back at you, as though your nose has been pressed against a mirror. The effect is disorienting enough that it’s often easier to close your eyes. Doubly blind.
Again, picture blackness. Then imagine somebody taking your hand, violating your personal space. Have they washed recently? you may wonder. Are they picking their nose right now? Scratching their buttocks? Getting Cheetos fluff on my games? For all you know, they could be. There’s no getting around it. Nyctophobia can’t have you pawing all over the table just to find your pawn. That’s part of being blind — the uncertainty, the way your center seems to drift away from your body at the same time that it’s hemming close. Coiled into a protective shell and sprawling outward to sense your surroundings at the same time. Like a nautilus: armored, reaching. The game hasn’t even begun yet.
So the vampire player takes your hand and directs your finger to your pawn. Now you begin to sense your surroundings. Not all of them; orthogonally only, one space only, never reaching past the little fence-rows of trees to dip a finger into the adjacent space. This is exactly as awkward as it sounds. “Is that a tree?” you ask, unsure whether it’s a tree or maybe one of your fellow searchers, the one whose head is shaped like a gear and therefore spiky like a tree. A friend and a tree, indistinguishable.
And then you move. More feeling, more probing, this time with a curdling dread that your fingertip will graze the vampire. If that happens… well, don’t let that happen. But how do you prevent something when you can’t sense more than an arm’s reach in front of you? So you move and probe, move and probe. A dead end. A line of trees. The edge of the board. There are ways around, but now you aren’t even sure how to go back. Hopefully your internal ticker tape, the north-north-east-north-east-north-west that’s been tracking your moves, is close to accurate. If you could see, you’d just glance at the bird’s eye view of the forest and rediscover your way back to the car. Blind, your only hope is to memorize everything.
Or worse, your only hope is to memorize multiple everythings. After all, your buddies are out there, too. Best to split up, call out your moves, and hope that somebody knows what’s going on.
There’s more to it than just shuffling around the forest, though only barely. As a searcher, being strung up as a blood bag for a Transylvanian nightmare probably ranks low on your to-do list, but the slightest touch of the vampire’s pawn will drain you of half your life. In that regard, even your final remaining sense has been weaponized against you — at least unless you’re somehow able to smell the layout of the maze. Be careful what you touch. It might bite.
So you step carefully, using your knowledge of where the vampire was last seen to move with some sliver of confidence. And when you suspect the vampire is closing in, you can either cower in a corner and hope the vampire doesn’t linger nearby, or chuck a rock and hopefully chip the bloodsucker’s teeth, sending him fluttering into the darkness to recuperate. Or hurl rocks in random directions to make a clatter, which will draw the vampire’s attention for a little while. For a supernatural predator, that guy sure is dumb.
Playing as the vampire doesn’t dispel the dorkiness of the role. Other than holding hands and toying with your food, your job is mostly about resolving the occasional card from your deck. Sometimes you’ll move, defaulting toward either the loudest noise or the closest source of food if the forest has gone silent, while other times you’ll mess with people’s positions or move around your familiar. These latter options are more interesting, effectively dragging the goalposts and even the players to new locations. Rude? Sure. Absolutely hilarious? That too. It’s no mistake that the rulebook insists that the vampire is there to make the experience memorable rather than to focus on winning. If you’re the sort of person who just wants to chew everyone to pieces, the entire meal will be digested within ten minutes.
Which is why the real meat of the game is about filling the boots of the hunted. Their search swerves between hilarious and terrifying, especially when the vampire player hams it up by moving around the table, hissing in your ear, and announcing that they’re standing next to… somebody. In a game about touch, you know you’ve succeeded when nobody wants to touch anything.
It’s hard not to respect what Stippell has accomplished with Nyctophobia. Its central gimmick is brilliant, and it succeeds at wrenching its hunted players out of their comfort zones. Even the awkward nature of its tactility, which often leaves you groping around your pawn and accidentally touching the wrong spaces, could be generously considered an advantage, a complement to the game’s theme of blindness. And fortunately, it’s wise enough to keep the additional actions to a minimum, leaving the focus on the sensation of blindness itself — and the tingling sensation that comes when you’re about to touch something that you shouldn’t.
That said, it’s awkward enough that it’s difficult to recommend. The vampire’s role is almost rote, often resembling a game master more than a player. And that sense of artificiality seeps into the design, every growl, ambush, and challenge growing more distant as the game is played multiple times. Our first attempt was chilling. By the second, we’d already seen enough of the light to know when to throw rocks, when to hide, and when to run as fast as our pudgy pawn legs could go. There’s more to knowledge than sight alone, and Nyctophobia’s aura of fear begins to evaporate as soon as the vampire’s range of abilities has been internalized. There are other hunters, an axe murderer and a mage, both of whom would be delighted to pursue our unfortunate teenagers screaming across the forest. Unfortunately, the cost of entry is an entirely separate set rather than another deck of cards. That’s a steep price to pay for some variety.
Still, Nyctophobia is an experience bordering on performance art, and the sort of thing I’d encourage everyone to try, especially with an enthusiastic vampire on your heels. As imperfect as it may be, it’s still worthy of a demonstration or two. Beyond that, not so much.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. I don’t bite. Except when I’m playing as a vampire.)