Cast spells to collect enchanted ingredients for mysterious concoctions!
What Is Nocturne?
Nocturne is a bidding and set collection game for 1 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, and takes about minutes to play. It’s currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, with a pledge level of $29 for a copy of the game; you can pledge for just the print-and-play version for $5, or the Founder’s Edition at $249 that adds a signed prototype and other goodies. The theme is family-friendly, but I will note that the bidding strategy can be a little tricky, so it may be more difficult for younger or less experienced players to play the full game without some assistance, but there is a “family mode” in development that was not yet available at the time of this writing.
Nocturne was designed by David Iezzi and published by Flatout Games, with illustrations by Beth Sobel.
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Note: My review is based on a prototype copy, so it is subject to change and may not reflect final component quality.
Here’s what comes in the game:
- Forest Sprite board
- 80 Item tiles:
- 12 Skull tiles
- 12 Firebird Feather tiles
- 12 Mushroom tiles
- 12 Herb tiles
- 12 Mysterious Egg tiles
- 5 Cursed Treasure Chest tiles
- 10 Runestone tiles
- 5 Mirror Stone tiles
- 6 Shadow Spell tokens
- 4 Character cards
- 44 Player Spell tokens (11 per player)
- 4 Pass tokens
- 10 Starter Concoction cards
- 25 Concoction cards
- 10 Twilight Goal cards
- 10 Moonlight Goal cards
The item tiles all have a scoring ribbon that indicates how the item will be scored at the end of the game, along with up to 2 icons that can be used as ingredients for concoctions. Each item type has its own scoring conditions, and a few of the items also give you a bonus action (such as drawing more concoction cards or item tiles). The illustrations are by Beth Sobel, a nice balance between realistic and fantastical.
The character cards are tarot-sized cards, showing off more of Beth Sobel’s artwork of fox mystics. Each one has a name and a brief bio on one side, with a character ability on the other side. Each of the mystics has a snowflake-like symbol on its portrait, which also appears on all of that player’s spell tokens.
The spell tokens are wooden disks, with values ranging from 1 to 7 for the player spells and 5 to 10 for the shadow spells. They come in three different sizes, so you can tell at a glance roughly what values other players have without having to look as closely at the numbers. Each player also has one token with a star, which always counts as the most powerful spell.
The rest of the cards—the goals and concoctions—are all half-sized cards. Goal cards have specific conditions to be met to score points. Concoctions usually show two options, one that uses fewer ingredients for a lower score, or more ingredients for a higher score. These aren’t immediately intuitive—the higher score is for using all the ingredients, but when you’ve only seen one card you might at first think that the higher score is for using just the ingredients listed below the line.
How to Play Nocturne
The goal of the game is to score the most points by collecting items and completing goals and concoctions over two rounds of play.
Mix up the item tiles to make a supply, and set out a grid of tiles face up; place the forest sprite board nearby, with additional face-up tiles placed on it. (The size of the grid and the number of tiles on the board are determined by the player count.)
Shuffle the three card decks separately—twilight goals, moonlight goals, and concoctions—and place them nearby. Flip three twilight goal cards face up.
Give each player a character card and spell tokens of their color; depending on player count, some of the spell tokens are removed from the game. For advanced play, turn the character cards with the ability side face up. Give each player a starting concoction card (concoctions are kept hidden from other players) and put the rest back in the box.
Choose a starting player at random.
The game will have two rounds—twilight and moonlight—with each round lasting until all of the item tiles have been claimed from the grid. In each round, you will first do the spell casting phase to claim items, and then there are some clean-up tasks to set up for the next round or wrap up the game.
For spell casting, players will take turns placing spells onto tiles in a sort of auction. The very first spell of the round, placed on any tile in the grid, must be the starting player’s lowest-value spell, but subsequent turns don’t have this restriction.
On your turn, you either cast a spell or pass (placing your “pass” token in front of you so everyone knows you are done for this bid). When you cast a spell, it must be adjacent (not diagonal) to and a higher value than the last spell played; each tile may only have one spell on it. If you cannot or don’t want to play a higher value, or if there are no available adjacent spaces, then you must pass.
When everyone has passed, the player who played the highest value spell claims the item under that spell, and flips their spell token face down, and takes back any other spell tokens they’ve played. Everyone else has the option to offer one of their played spells to the forest sprites, placing it on the track at the top of the board. The spells are always arranged from highest to lowest, and if your spell gets bumped off the end of the track then it goes back into your supply. (If you play a spell of the same value as one that’s already on the track, it goes after the matching spells.)
There are two types of tiles that give you immediate effects: ancient runestones let you draw 3 concoction cards, choose 1 to keep, and return the other 2 to the bottom of the deck. Cursed treasure chests let you draw 3 tiles from the supply, choose 1 to keep, and discard the other 2.
During the twilight round, check after each item to see if anyone has completed one of the twilight goals. Some of the goals involve “control areas,” which are areas of the grid that have your face-down spells in them. If anyone has completed a goal, they take the card, which will be worth 3 points at the end of the game. (Note that you do not refill goals when they are claimed.) Some goals are only gained at the end of the round.
The player who won the item is now the starting player for the next bid, which must be placed adjacent to the tile they just won. Continue the spell casting phase until all of the items have been claimed. If the starting player does not want to cast a spell, they may pass and the next player casts a starting spell, which may be placed anywhere. If you ever cast a spell that cannot be followed because there are no adjacent tiles to it, you win automatically but the next player will be the starting player for the next bid.
When there are no more items remaining, the round ends. At the end of the round, you resolve the forest sprite board. Starting with the highest spell token on the track, players flip their spell token face down and claim one of the items from the board.
Then, you award the shadow spell tokens: every player checks their remaining unused spells; award one shadow spell for each unused spell, with the highest value shadow spell going to the highest value player spell. Ties are broken by position on the forest sprite board. Then, everyone retrieves all of their spell tokens (from the forest sprite board and from the grid). If you have any shadow spell tokens, you discard that number of regular spell tokens, starting with your lowest value. Shadow spell tokens can be spent just like your regular tokens, but they cannot be offered to the forest sprites, and they don’t count as your tokens for moonlight goals.
For the moonlight round, set up the grid and forest sprite board again, and then place 3 moonlight goal cards face up.
The game ends after the moonlight round. The items on the forest sprite board are claimed as before, but leave all the spell tokens where they are. Everyone who has mirror stones now decides what each stone is copying. Note that the stones copy another tile for scoring purposes, but do not provide ingredient symbols for concoctions.
Here’s how all of the different items are scored:
- Skulls: Score the printed value, 2 to 4 points per skull.
- Firebird Feathers: The total set is worth a certain number of points; if you have more than 7, start an additional set.
- Mushrooms: Score points based on how many you have in a set. (Duode Dex are worth 9 points for a pair but 0 for one; Triptum Fungilus are worth 3 points for 1 and 13 points for a set of 3, but no points for a pair—you must complete a set before starting a new set.)
- Herbs: Score points based on the printed value (1 to 3 points), and also a set bonus if you have 3, 4, or 5 unique types.
- Eggs: You score points per egg based on your ranking of who has the most eggs: the player with the most eggs gets 4 points pper egg, the second-most gets 3 points per egg, and so on. Ties are broken by position on the forest sprite board.
- Cursed Treasure Chests: -1 point each. Hope that treasure was worth it!
- Concoctions: Score points for your completed concoctions. Each ingredient symbol may only be used for one concoction. Note that your character card has one ingredient symbol on it.
- Twilight Goals: Score 3 points for each of your claimed cards.
- Moonlight Goals: Everyone scores points based on the moonlight goals they achieved.
- Leftover Spells: Score 2 points for each leftover spell token from the moonlight round.
- Unused Character Ability: In the advanced mode, if you didn’t use your player ability, you score 2 points.
The player with the highest score wins! Ties are broken by position on the forest sprite board.
The game will come with a solo mode and a family mode, though these were not available in the prototype version.
The advanced mode incorporates the character abilities printed on the backs of the character cards. Each character has a special ability that may be used once during the game, at which point you flip the card over. If you do not use the ability, you will score 2 points at the end of the game.
Why You Should Play Nocturne
There are parts of Nocturne that feel familiar: the set collection, where different types of items have different scoring conditions, and auctions, with the associated decisions about how much you’re willing to pay for a particular item. But what’s unexpected is the way bidding happens in Nocturne, the way that bids not only increase in value but move around from item to item, and that bidding is at the heart of the game. Let’s dig into that a little.
In most auction games, there’s one thing that everyone is currently bidding on, and you make calculations based on things like how much that item is worth to you, how much you need to save for other items you might want, and how much you think other players might be willing to pay. If you know an item is particularly valuable for somebody else, you might try to raise the price so they can’t afford it, or at the very least so they don’t get away with it at a cheap price. There are also some considerations about what to put up for auction in some games—maybe you start with something you don’t want, hoping that other players will spend some of their money on it, and thus have less in reserve when the item you want comes up for sale.
Nocturne takes a lot of these tactics and knocks them sideways—now, if you don’t want the current winning bid to go through, not only do you need to raise the bid but you also have to pick a different item to bid on. For instance, in the photo below, green is currently winning with a bid of 5 on a rune. If you don’t want them to get that rune, you’ll need to pay at least 6—but do you really want a skull, a feather, or risk the cursed treasure chest for that price? The worst feeling is when you absolutely cannot let another player take the item they’re bidding on, but the only way to prevent it is to overspend on something next to it that you don’t really want. Another consideration is what you’ll open up for the next player if you continue the bid—bidding on the skull leaves only one choice: the Duode Dex mushroom in the bottom row. If the next player already has one, then that second mushroom is worth 9 points—are you willing to let that happen?
The spatial bidding also means that even choosing your starting bid is important. Typically, especially near the beginning of the round when there are still a lot of options on the grid, you probably don’t want to start your bid on the thing you actually want, because as soon as the bid increases, you can’t return to that item anymore. So then you find the item you really want, think about what you might bid for it, and then you can draw a path backward to where you might start, hoping that the other players cooperate and bid just the right amounts and follow your invisible lead toward that item. (Spoiler alert: other players can be remarkably uncooperative!)
Then you mix in the goals: not only do you care about what items you collect for the sake of their own scoring values and for your concoctions, you may also care about winning items in particular locations. Many of the goals score points based on the arrangement of your winning tokens in the grid—you might want three in a row, or control areas of exactly two spells, and so on. Depending on the goals, players will have additional motivation to secure (or avoid) specific spaces in the grid, and that’s something else you can take into account while bidding.
Now, I’m generally not great at auction games. It’s something I’ve mentioned in other reviews, too. I overbid when I’m trying to raise the price for somebody else and wind up spending too much on something that has little value for me. I hoard money and pass, allowing people to snatch up things on the cheap. I’m just pretty bad at appraising things, so I don’t know what they’re worth. So Nocturne feels especially tricky to me, because it adds this extra dimension to the bids—but it also mixes things up for other players, so even those who are good at auctions may find that some of their usual tactics no longer work in this setting.
The size of the grid is based on the number of players, from 16 in a 2-player game to 25 in a 4-player game. Since you don’t remove any tiles from the game, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get an even mix of tiles, or that you’ll even see some of the tile types. In one game I played, one of the mushroom types never appeared, and there were only 3 herb types that ever showed up. If you’re counting on getting a set of 5 different herbs, it might not even be possible. The only way to get additional concoction cards is from runes, but if those tiles don’t appear, then that opportunity is lost. I played a game where the runes mostly showed up in the second round, which meant that we didn’t have as much time to collect the right ingredients by the time we picked up the new recipes. It’s what makes those cursed chests worth the risk (if they show up!), because you just might need one to get the tiles you need to complete a set. You have to take some gambles during the twilight round, hoping that the grid for the moonlight round will be favorable.
There are some things that help make up for losing bids, though. The forest sprite board is for players who lost a bid, and not only do your offerings help you claim more items, the board is also important for breaking ties (particularly in the second round). Losing bids also gives you a shot at getting the higher-valued shadow spell tokens for the second round, which is basically a bigger wallet. And while it’s not much, you do get 2 points for each unused bid at the end of the game. I don’t know that losing all your bids is a good winning strategy overall, but it does mean passing at the right moments does have some extra value.
Nocturne takes a unique angle that turns the auction game into a curious spatial puzzle, which opens up some really fascinating possibilities and requires new tactics for the players. If you like bidding games and are looking for something different, it’s worth checking out!
For more information or to make a pledge, visit the Nocturne Kickstarter page!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.