The Night Cage Review, a creepy, horror themed, cooperative board game

The Night Cage is a creepy cooperative board game where the players are stuck in an ever changing maze and have to work together to escape.

This horror themed game manages to do what very few horror board games can pull off and that’s to actually have an emotional impact.

Read on to find out why we think The Night Cage is one of the best horror themed board games.

Disclosure: Thanks to Smirk & Dagger for hooking us up with a review copy of this cooperative board game. Links below may be affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

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What’s the deal with The Night Cage?

The box for The Night Cage

The Night Cage comes from the minds of Chris McMahon, Rosswell Saunders, and Christopher Ryan Chan, who is also the artist responsible for creeping us all out. The game was published back in 2021 from Smirk & Dagger Games and should be available anywhere you can find hobby board games. 

This is a cooperative game for one to five players which features a variety of gameplay modes and scalable difficulty. Games usually take about an hour and the weight increases the more optional ways to play you include. Once you toss in boss monsters it also gets really damn hard.

The Night Cage is an oubliette that you and your fellow players find yourself stuck in. Its low ceilings force you to crawl and all you have with you is a single candle which only illuminates your immediate area. Your collective goal is to each find a key and gather at a gate in order to exist the maze. This won’t be easy because your path will be blocked by pits, crumbling paths, and monsters like, the horrific Wax Eaters who can snuff out your candle. Can you all escape before you run out of light?

Even the art in the bottom of the box for The Night Cage is Creepy.

Check out the creepy cool artwork and component quality in this horror themed board game through our Night Cage Unboxing Video on YouTube

While the dark artwork is the real stand-out here I found the rest of the components to be equally well done, with player markers in different candle shapes as well as colours, clear iconography, and a great flowchart on the back of the rulebook for keeping track of everything you need to watch for on a turn. 

There’s some cool component surprises like actual metal skeleton keys and the candle shaped tile holder. The rulebook is concise and easy to learn from though some of the timing can be a bit fiddly and that’s where that flowchart can really help.

How to play The Night Cage

Just starting a game of The Night Cage from Smirk & Dagger

Players win The Night Cage by all existing from a single gate tile together. To open the gate each of the players must have collected their own key. Players lose if all four gate tiles are lost, if they cannot each collect a key, or they run out of light (the pile of tiles is exhausted and every tile on the board is removed).

Start a game of The Night Cage by putting out the board with the side for the appropriate player count face up. Next up you will assemble and fill the candle tile holder. What goes in it is based on the player count and what optional rules you are using. There are always a set of standard corridor tiles placed on top so that you won’t encounter anything too nasty when just starting.

Each player takes a playing piece and player board in their chosen colour, plus one nerve marker and a starting tile. Players will place the starting tile anywhere on the board, in any orientation they chose, and then will draw two tiles from the tile holder and place these going off of the starting tile.

Each turn, players only have two options: move or stay. If they stay they get to collect a nerve token. This still takes time and burns some wax. You do this by discarding one tile from the tile holder. If someone chooses to stay on a crumbling tile, it crumbles and they fall. They will return to the board next turn in a row or column of their choosing.

The rules for spending Nerve in The Night Cage are right on the player cards.

Nerve tokens can be spent to move a second time, stay if your candle is out, block damage from monsters, charge a monster or sustain existing light in the Final Flickers part of endgame.

Movement is simple. Move your pawn from one tile to a connected adjacent tile. After moving you update the board. If you moved off a crumbling tile, it flips over and becomes a pit. If you moved into a pit you fall and are removed from the board. You then trigger any monsters if you moved into their line of site.

Next you remove any tiles that are no longer illuminated. Each player’s candle only illuminates the tile they are on and ones orthogonally adjacent. If a player’s candle is out they only get to see the tile they are on.

Finally you illuminate new tiles. For each exit on the tile you moved to you draw one tile from the tile holder and place it oriented however you want. These new tiles can include more corridors (some of which are crumbling), pits, key tiles, gates, and horrific monsters.

The base game of The Night Cage includes one type of monster, the Wax Eater, who will snuff out the candle of anyone who moves into their line of sight. If hit by one of these creatures you discard three tiles from the tile stack (only 2 if you spend a nerve token).

A Wax Eater from the horror board game The Night Cage

You also flip your player card over to the “Light’s Out” side. When your candle is extinguished you must move every turn, you cannot stay still (unless you spend a nerve) and, as noted earlier, you only illuminate the tile you are on. If you end up adjacent to any player with a lit candle yours is automatically re-lit.

If you run out of tiles in the tile stack you enter what is called the Final Flickers. At this point no new tiles can be added to the board. Each turn after a player has completed their action they must remove an existing tile off the board. Nerve can be spent to avoid this penalty.

That covers the standard game. The Night Cage also includes an advanced game, which adds two more monsters. The first are Keepers, these replace the key tiles in the base game. Now instead of just finding and picking up your keys, you need to steal them from these new monsters. They act like Wax Eaters but are blind from the back. You either need to approach from that side or use Nerve to charge a Keeper in order to get a key.

The other advanced game monster type is the Pit Fiend. There are two of these that get added into the tile stack. When they are revealed they turn every tile diagonally away from them into pits.

WTF is that!?!
A boss monster from The Night Cage, The Dirge!

For an even greater challenge, The Night Cage also includes rules for Boss Monsters. The core game box includes two of these, the Pathless and the Dirge. The Pathless are a nastier version of the Wax Eaters that ignore walls and pits and the Dirge is, well, huge and scary, and I will leave that one for you to discover on your own. 

There is one more optional rule that you can use in any version of the game, and that’s limited communication where only players who are in connecting corridors can talk to each other. This one makes the game more difficult but does help with quarterbacking. 

If this isn’t enough for you there’s also The Night Cage: Shrieking Hollow, the first expansion for The Night Cage which is due out later this year.

Horror board game fans are going to want to pick up The Night Cage

Three generations of gamer girls playing The Night Cage.

Reception to The Night Cage has been mixed as far as the people I game with go, so I think I’ll start with the biggest potential problem in this cooperative horror game and that’s quarterbacking. I don’t know what it is about this game that makes quarterbacking so prevalent and easy to do, but it’s more common than I’ve seen in any other cooperative game.

This may be because of the feeling of desperation that this game inspires. It could also be the puzzle nature of the game. Either way, I’ve found it gets more common once monsters start showing up on the board.

While some coaching is expected when you have players first learning the game, as some of the monster interaction rules are a bit fiddly, even with experienced players I find there is a lot of people suggesting moves to the other players.

If you or your group doesn’t like it when people are telling others players what to do, be sure to put the limited communication rule in place sooner rather than later. This does help with the quarterbacking issue significantly. It also makes the game more enjoyable to me as it’s more immersive. The feeling of isolation is even stronger when you can’t talk to each other.

The first player token from The Night Cage

The other potential issue some groups may have with The Night Cage is its theme. This game is creepy and downright twisted and the games artwork just reinforces that. Now it ends up my family is all over it, even my kids love the look of it, but I totally understand that it’s not going to be right for everyone.

This isn’t just limited to art and theme, the actual tone the game creates at the table can also be a problem. The desperation and feelings of isolation can be oppressive and can lead to a level of anxiety in some people. Bleed isn’t something you usually have to worry about in board games, but it is something to be aware of here. Keep an eye out for it in younger players particularly. 

Another thing to be aware of is that The Night Cage can get a bit fiddly. There’s a reason there’s a flowchart on the back of the rulebook, so make sure you use it. It can be very easy to forget one or more of the steps you need to take during each move action.

The flowchart on the back of the rulebook for The Night Cage is very useful.

It’s very easy to forget to discard a tile now in darkness, or to reveal a tile now lit on the other side of the board. This gets worse once the monsters are out and you are now checking things like line of sight, and you need to watch for the way some monsters can set each other off through a chain reaction. Even after multiple plays we often notice something amiss part way through the game. A tile that’s on the board that shouldn’t be or the fact that someone forgot the board wraps around and didn’t place a now illuminated tile.

I realize that seems like a lot of potential negatives, but I think they are the biggest indicators for whether The Night Cage is going to be right for you and your group. If those things aren’t a problem, you are in for a treat as this is one of the best horror themed games we’ve ever experienced.

Many games have horror themes but very few manage to actually create the emotions needed to actually invoke feelings of horror. The Night Cage manages to do this and it does it well. While playing this game you will get feelings of isolation, of disorientation, of hopelessness. You may feel overwhelmed and actual panic can set in near the end of the game. Even if you may not get these strong emotions, feeling anxious the entire game is to be expected.

When playing The Night Cage with two or three players you still use four characters.

Mechanically the only thing we didn’t like are the special rules for playing with three players. When you play with three there’s a fourth dummy character that is controlled by all of the players. Players rotate who controls the dummy each round. We found this really took us out of the game and ruined that feeling of immersion which is so necessary for getting those horror feelings across.

The two player rules also do this to some extent as you are controlling two characters instead of one. The game just feels less personal and due to that, I recommend sticking with four or five players when you can.

If you are looking for a horror themed game to add to your collection, something to play on a themed game night, for playing during halloween or because you just like to feel spooked from time to time, The Night Cage is worth picking up. Due to the built-in scalability it can be a good choice for a wide range of groups of different ages and play experience. 

One of the awesome metal skeleton key pieces from Smirk & Dagger's The Night Cage

If you think board games can’t make you anxious or impose a feeling similar to watching a good horror movie, then I definitely encourage you to give this one a try.

I also found The Night Cage to be great for public play game nights. The striking art style and high level of tension during play really sticks out to people not currently playing the game. Every time I’ve gotten one group playing this, other people come over to see what’s going on, and then often ask to play themselves. 

If you are not a fan of cooperative games, stay far away from this one, especially if one of the things you don’t like about cooperative games is quarterbacking. Even with the limited communication rules, this is a game about working together that has a strong puzzle element and players trying to help each other is just part of the game. 

Now that I’ve shed some light on The Night Cage and no one is left in the dark, let me ask you this: What’s a horror game that you’ve played that creates thematically appropriate feelings? Is there a game you’ve played that’s actually scared you or made you feel isolated or lost?

I would love to hear about it in the comment below, or reach out to us on The Tabletop Bellhop Discord Server.

The Night Cage
  • Deeply thematic, co-op horror game that stays tense until the final flickers of your candlelight.
  • 40-50 minute game, with intuitive rules that can be taught in minutes, making for great demos.
  • An in-box Advanced Game features new monsters and challenges to ramp up difficulty and replay.
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