Noctiluca is the latest title from designer Shem Phillips, who’s had a couple of hits already with the Spiel-nominated Raiders of the North Sea (coming soon to digital) and this winter’s Architects of the West Kingdom, which was just given the 2019 MENSA Select tag in April. This new game is a complete departure from those mid-weight worker placement games—Noctiluca is a light, fast-playing game of dice-drafting and pattern matching, one that incorporates a lot of planning around what your opponents might do to try to ensure you complete as many of your goals as you can.
There are a lot of dice involved here, but you only roll them twice, one time in each of the game’s two rounds, and their values are set on the board once they’re rolled. They come in four colors, and you will place four or five dice on each hexagonal space on the board at the start of each round. Each player begins the game with two cards that show specific combinations of dice colors—the number values don’t matter for this part—and you must acquire those dice to complete the card and score some points. You get dice by placing one of your pawns in one of the 12 spaces around the outside of the board, and then choosing one of the two rows of hexes, one of which will have four spaces and one of which will have three, and stating a number from one to six. You get to take all dice in your chosen row that show your chosen value, regardless of color. So, again, you will pick dice by number, but match then on your cards by color. Getting those two things to line up is one of the little challenges within Noctiluca. You aren’t penalized if you get dice you can’t use, but you must pass them to your opponents, who can each take one if they have a space for it on their own cards.
At some point, you’ll finish a pattern, and then you score something. Cards themselves can have values of 0, 1, or 2 points, depending on how many dice the card required. The cards come in three flavors, and there’s a stack of bonus tokens ranging from 2 to 8 for each of those flavors. You take the topmost remaining token in that card’s flavor. They’re piled in ascending order, so as the game progresses, filling out cards becomes more valuable, and it’s possible that one of the three types will become more valuable than the others. You keep the card for one more game-end scoring, but discard the dice, and then choose from one of the four face-up cards in the supply.
There are 12 spaces around the board, so you divide the pawns evenly among the two to four players and play until they’re all filled. After the first round, you remove all dice and pawns from the board, and then refill the board with dice as if you’re starting over. You play the second round the same way you played the first, and once you’ve completed two rounds, the game ends.
You add up the points on your completed cards and bonus tokens to start your final score. Whoever has the most bonus tokens in each flavor gets the remaining tokens in that flavor, flipped over to show one point per token. At the start of the game, each player receives a card showing one of the four dice colors, and keeps that hidden throughout the game. At game-end, you score one point for each die space in that color on all of your completed cards—more than 20% of our final scores in most games, although there’s an upper bound on how many you can get because there are only so many dice of each color. And you score one point per two dice on your uncompleted cards. Add up those five things and you get your final score.
Noctiluca is a very easy game to learn, but there’s more than enough below the surface—oh, so the dice are supposed to be Noctiluca scintillans, bioluminescent eukaryotes found in the ocean, so, hey, pun intended—to make this more than a filler title. For one thing, the dice-drafting decisions early in each round are not easy, because you have to consider what the optimal move is (we’ve hit as many as seven dice in one grab, which could let you finish two cards in one go) by examining all of the dice. But choosing your cards is also a strategic choice: you need to consider what colors other players might be after, what dice remain on the board, and what selection spaces around the outer edge are still available, because late in each round some rows of hexes will be inaccessible. You can’t store dice you can’t use, so you may choose a row that’s less than perfect to avoid handing opponents dice they need, and we’ve found across many players that you should even select cards to get diverse dice needs so you don’t end up regularly giving dice to your opponents.
There’s a solo mode in Noctiluca as well, where you take six turns in each round but leave your pawns after round one, so your choices in round two are constrained. The automa gets a bonus token in each round, chosen by random card draw, and then you remove all dice from one hex on the board by rolling a black die that indicates which space you’ll clear. Any dice you take but can’t use go to the automa as well. At game end, you distribute the remaining bonus tokens as you do in regular games. You score your points normally too, while the automa gets points for bonus tokens (it will have 12, plus some extras, so it should have 50+ points) and any dice you gave it. It’s surprisingly well-calibrated so that the automa scores make it a reasonable challenge.
My daughter and I have played Noctiluca games regularly in under a half an hour; three-player games have taken us closer to 40-45 minutes. It’s also very quick to set up—all you really have to do is shuffle some cards and roll and place the dice, the latter of which is oddly satisfying. The game’s suggested age range is eight and up and I see no reason you couldn’t shade below that with any child who can recognize dice values and the colors. It’s a fun, clever, and visually appealing gateway game.
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.