Full disclosure: A review copy of Noctiluca was provided by Z-Man Games.
Really excited to get this one to the table, actually; I haven’t gotten to try that many Z-Man titles in the last few years, and I’ve always been interested in seeing what’s happening on that side of the industry. This one caught my eye due to the art, and that’s generally not led me too far astray, so let’s see how the rest of the game shapes up!
In Noctiluca, you play as divers looking to gather the eponymous creatures for their healing properties. You just kinda jar them up, take them home, and then the local healers make a … I actually have no idea what they do with them. But they want them, they asked you to get them, and you don’t ask enough follow-up questions before you agree to do things. So your goal on your turn is always to try and fill up jars. The jars have color requirements, and the dice on the board match those colors. Each turn, you place your token on one spot, indicate a direction, and you can take dice matching one criterion. Simple, right? Well, here’s the twist: you can only take dice matching one number of your choice. The color doesn’t matter until you try and jar them. Challenging! You’ll have to manage, because players aren’t just fighting to complete jars; each completed jar gets you a token of one of three colors, and having the most tokens will give you a majority bonus for that color at the game’s end! Will you be able to spend a lucrative day under the sea and end up making your healers happy? Or will you just find yourself all washed up?
Player Count Differences
The major player count difference is going to be that you just get fewer turns as the player count increases. On the whole, there are 24 turns between the game’s start and its end. At two players, each player gets 6 turns per round for a total of 12. At three, it’s four turns each for 8 total. And 3 turns each for 6 turns total at four players. You should expect scores to scale similarly, since you just won’t be able to complete as many jars with fewer turns. Interestingly, this bodes ill for majorities at four players, since players are much more likely to split them (or, worse, get completely shut out) than they might be at two or three. Personally, I think the AP for this game is only going to increase with player count (and I like having additional turns), so I’d recommend sticking at the lower end of the player count spectrum for Noctiluca. I haven’t tried the solo mode, but I am glad that it exists. While I do think that this is the best way (in my opinion) to scale games like this, it may leave a bit more to getting one good turn, since you will have fewer chances to change the tide as the player count increases. That said, I mostly just worry about how much I personally get to play during a game, so I tend to prefer smaller player counts.
- Try to maximize your dice gains, when you can. I mean, you generally want to get as many dice as you can, within reason. I should clarify: you want as many dice as you can use. Too many dice, and you just end up passing the many happy returns on to your opponents. Don’t help them. Try to scan the board passively for each number when it’s not your turn so you’ve got a good sense of what might be good moves for you to take on your next turn.
- It doesn’t usually pay to try and explicitly block another player unless you need the same dice. If you’re not helping yourself, that usually doesn’t make sense, because you’ll just end up giving the dice to another player. You might even give dice to the opponent you wanted to keep the dice from, which is even worse! Then they get the dice and they didn’t even have to take their turn. Focus on just taking dice you need, instead.
- That said, you can often occupy a spot that they would have wanted or needed to force them to take a worse set of dice for them. If you cannot abide by not trying to dunk on your opponent, you can always try to junk up the board for them by placing on a spot that they would have been able to use. Again, this is really only beneficial if it helps you out, as well.
- As player counts increase, it may not be the worst idea to prioritize getting low-cost jars so you can try and stake your claim in the completion / majority bonuses. You’re not going to have many opportunities to get additional dice at higher player counts, so it may be worth investing in jars that can be quickly completed so that you can try and get those majority bonuses. Since players are by and large not going to be completing as many jars, you may be able to swing a lot of points if you can lock down a majority.
- You can look to see which players are doing well on majority bonuses and try to fight for them, if you want; you can also just try and undermine them by delivering jars of that color so you can get the higher-value completion bonuses. I wouldn’t say that’s the best course of action, but it still gets you points, so maybe it’s worth doing? Your mileage may vary. The one bonus to doing this is that the completion bonuses increase in value as you go farther down in the stack, so you can attempt to leverage them going for a certain majority to get you higher-value tokens of that color.
- That said, look at the board before you take a card; are there enough dice that you can easily complete it? If not, maybe shoot for something else. Especially towards the end of the game, you may be grabbing a card that you may not be able to get the dice to complete; if there’s something there that you think you can get on your next turn, take that, instead.
- Either way, on your last turn try to take as many dice as possible so you can get the extra point per pair of undelivered dice. There is a small bonus for undelivered dice (one point per two undelivered dice), so if you can’t complete the card, at least try to fill it as much as you possibly can.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- It’s a very pretty game. Beautiful, even. It does a great job conveying the kind of calm, subtle moodiness that you would expect from bioluminescence. It would have been amazing if the dice glowed in the dark; maybe I should look into that as a possible upgrade for the game, at some point. It’s a huge waste, but it would look great. Even beyond that, though, the cards are great, the box looks great; the whole thing was designed with a very pleasant and low-energy aesthetic, and I think it really works for this title.
- I really like the dice values vs. dice color tension in the game; it’s sharp. It’s a smart little hook, yeah? You take dice based on their value but you assign dice based on their color. It’s dead simple to get when you’re playing but leads to a lot of interesting choices, especially around when you want to get more dice for yourself but risk giving your opponent helpful dice, as well. It’s not always easy!
- It can play pretty well remotely, which is always helpful, these days. The top-down camera helps a lot, here, but we definitely had to come up with a language around placement (BOTTOM, LEFT vs. BOTTOM LEFT UPPER took us a while to work out). The secret information isn’t so much that you can’t just show people what they have at the start and expect them to remember it.
- I sort of wonder how many games feature the number 12 prominently just because it’s the smallest number divisible by both 3 and 4? It’s kind of amusing, and I like that games plan for that because it makes it easier to scale to 3 and 4. It’s a very low-key pro, but it’s something that I find amusing in games.
- I appreciate that the player interaction isn’t terribly negative beyond someone taking things that you want. In fact, it’s more often you being forced to give another player a bonus that you’d rather they not get. I like games like that; I was just playing Creature Comforts recently and it had a similar vibe. You really can only take something someone else wants or give them things that you don’t want to give them, and that’s a very pleasant tension around player interaction, rather than tearing down or destroying things that they’ve already built (which I like a lot less).
- Plays decently quickly, usually. I think this really comes down to the players, generally; there’s a real threat of analysis paralysis (that I’ll get into later), sure, but if players are using other players’ turns to plan out their moves and are trying to be respectful of other players’ time as best as they can, I think you can get the game done in about 30 minutes or so, probably?
- Also not terribly rules-complex, aside from some quirks around setup. The only real thing about setup that’s complicated is just getting all the dice everywhere. Once you’ve got that, everything else generally flows.
- The initial setup is a fairly inexact science. You do need players to try and avoid thinking about the dice as they’re allocating them. Worst-case, get an opaque bag and have them draw 5 or 4 (depending on the space) and roll them on the space if you think they’re going to cheat. Or, if you’re worried they’re going to cheat, get more scrupulous players, I suppose. One of those.
- Bad luck drawing can cost you a few points if the jars with your bonus color don’t come up as often, which can be frustrating. It’s not that common, but you could potentially pick a bad stack and basically be out of luck for a few turns if the color you want for bonus points isn’t really coming up (or if another player gets it as a starting card / takes the card you want).
- The rules aren’t super clear about what happens with the extra dice. After checking the forums and etc., it seems like the extra dice you have at the start are set aside and then mixed in with the removed dice to reseed the board, so really the only dice that don’t get mixed back in are the dice currently in jars, but it sure would be nice for the game to be a bit more explicit about it.
- This can lead to a fair bit of analysis paralysis for certain player types. I think it’s the deadly combo for a lot of folks: planning ahead, a lot of options, and a spatial element. That, for some reason, can just really fry people. The one silver lining for this one is that the options decrease pretty drastically every round, so by the end of it things are moving pretty quickly. You’ll likely just have a few players who are getting a bit anxious about the possibilities. Be kind to them; it can be stressful.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I think Noctiluca is pretty great! I was more than pleasantly surprised by the game’s aesthetic; it’s almost calming to play, as you’re sort of just grabbing dice along lines and the art direction of the game does a really good job of allowing me, the player, to imagine a dark tide pool or something. Very pleasant. Beyond that, I also appreciate the strategic components of the game; I like the tension between dice value and dice color a lot, and I think it’s a quick and simple mechanic with a lot of potential mileage for players looking to try something that’s simple enough to learn but challenging to play well. It works very well in the same category of those “Gateway+” titles that are great to teach newer players in the hobby to see if they’re interested in those mechanics. I think it flew a bit under the radar last year (or at least I briefly heard of it but didn’t get a chance to play it), so I’m very glad that it ended back up in my scope so I could give it a whirl. I’m very much looking forward to playing it again; my main co-player at the moment doesn’t have too much analysis paralysis, so it’s a cinch to get games like this to the table with her (even if it has to be done remotely). If you’re into dice drafting and you want a neat little spin on it, or you, like me, are a sucker for games with pleasant art, I’d definitely recommend taking a look at Noctiluca! I’ve really enjoyed getting to play this one.