Dale Yu: Review of Noctiluca


  • Designer: Shem Phillips
  • Publisher: Z-Man
  • Ages: 8+
  • Players: 1-4
  • Ages: 30 min
  • Times played: 5, with review copy provided by Z-Man/Asmodee NA

Noctiluca is the another game from Shem Phillips – a designer who has become more prolific in the past few years with Raiders of the North Sea and Architects of the West Kingdom being well received here recently.  In Noctiluca, players are divers trying to collect noctiluca – which can be combined in jars in certain combinations to form healing potions (which will obviously give the player victory points).

The Noctiluca are found in the Cerulean Pool – a hex-shaped ring of water which starts with four randomly placed dice on each inner space and five random dice on each outer space.  The dice come in equal quantities of four colors (orange, green, purple and blue). Both the color and face of the die should be random. Each player then gets an equal number of the twelve neutral colored pawns.  There are three colors of victory point chits, they are separated by color and then arranged in numerical order so that the smallest value is on the top of each of the stacks.

Each player is dealt a favorite Noctiluca card – this card shows one color of Noctiluca which will reward that player with bonus points at the end of the game.  Players should keep the identity of their Favorite color a secret! Each player also gets three jar cards, two of which will be kept in front of the player. Once those are kept, the remaining cards are again shuffled and placed into four face up piles.  A start player is somehow chosen and takes the start player token with the “1” side face up, showing a clockwise arrow around the center.

The game is played in two rounds, with a number of turns in each round (with each player placing a pawn on each turn).  On a turn, the active player takes one of his pawns and places it on an unoccupied external edge of the Cerulean Pool, and then nominates one of the two straight lined paths which start from this shore area.  The player announces any number from 1 to 6, and then takes all dice which have that number showing along the designated path.

These collected dice are then immediately placed on jar cards onto spaces of matching colors – only the color of the die matters, the number is not important!  Once a die is placed, it can no longer be moved. If you do not have a valid space for a collected die, you pass it to the next player it turn order who then places it legally (if possible).  If he cannot place it, he also passes it on. If no one at the table can place the die, it is simply discarded out of the game.

Once the player has stored or passed all of the dice collected this turn, look to see if any jars are complete.  If so, discard all the dice on that card and flip the card over. Take the topmost VP chit from the stack whose color matches that of the jar.  Then take the top most jar card from any of the four stacks. Now, go around the table to see if anyone else had filled a jar due to a passed die – jars are completed and VP chits are collected in turn order.

The next player clockwise now takes a turn, placing a pawn, choosing a path and then collecting and passing dice.  The game continues until all players have played all their pawns – at this point, all 12 of the edge spaces will have been filled.  Any uncollected dice are removed from the board, and the board is again seeded with 4 random dice in the inner ring and 5 random dice in the outer ring.  All pawns are removed from the board, and the player who took the final turn in the first round takes the start player marker and flips it over to the “2” side.  Play will now go counterclockwise in the second round (as shown the arrows in the center of the tile). The second round plays exactly the same as the first except for the direction of player order.

At the completion of the second round, the game moves into the scoring phase.  The scoring rules are helpfully summarized on the back of the Favorite card – so that all players will have been able to see this for the entire game.

First, you score majorities for each of the three colors of VP chits.  For each color, count the number of tokens collected. The player who has captured the most number of tokens (value not important) flips over all of the uncollected tokens of that color – to show 1VP – and takes those chits.  If there is a tie, split the remaining chits as evenly as possible, flip them over, and discard any remainders. Each player now totals up the value of all of their collected chits.

Then, score 1 point for every 2 noctiluna dice on incomplete cards. You can now discard those dice and cards.

Next, add on any completed jar card bonuses –look at your completed jar cards and score 1 or 2 points for each one that displays a bonus value in the upper right corner.

Finally, reveal your Favorite noctiluna color and score 1 point for each matching space on your delivered cards.

The player with the most points wins.  If there is a tie, the player with the most completed jar cards wins.

The rules also include rules for solo play.   To play this version of the game, you use the opposite side of the board which has numbers in the spaces.   The goal in the solo game is simply to have more points than The Tempest – an imaginary bot who plays against you.  Most of the rules are the same as the regular game – though there are a few important differences.

the solo board

The start player marker is placed in the center of the board.  There is a small colored triangle that points out of the center of this tile.  It starts pointing towards the purple section of the board. The dice are setup in the usual fashion, but the cards are placed in a single FACEDOWN stack (not four face up stacks).  You take 6 pawns for the first round, leaving the other 6 at the side of the board. The larger black die (the Tempest, who is your “opponent”) is also placed near the side of the board.

A player’s turn is mostly the same – place a pawn, choose a direction and then collect dice, placing them on your jar cards.  If you cannot place a collected die, you pass it to the Tempest. Put the unplaceable die next to the Tempest die – each die here is -1VP at the end of the game.  If you complete a jar, flip it over as usual and collect the topmost VP tile from the matching stack. You now draw two cards from the deck and choose one to keep.  The other card is placed on the bottom of the deck.

Now, it is the Tempest’s turn… First, reveal and discard the top card of the jar draw pile, and the Tempest collects the topmost scoring tile from the matching stack.  Now, look at which portion of the board is being pointed at by the start player marker, roll the black Tempest die, and remove ALL the noctiluca dice from the numbered space which matches the roll.  The start player tile is then rotated in the direction indicated on the start player marker.

The first round ends after six turns (when you have no more pawns).  You set up the dice as usual for the second round and you flip over the start player marker.  Make sure to leave the pawns in place from the first round. You will get the other six pawns to use in the second round, but they can only be placed in the spaces not used in the first round!  The second round otherwise plays the same except for the direction that the start player marker rotates.

At the end of the game, scoring is a bit simpler.  You resolve majorities in each of the three colors with the Tempest.  Whoever has more of a VP chit color will get the remainder of the tokens – flipped over of course.  Calculate your score as usual. The Tempest scores points for each of its collected VP chits and gets 1VP per die passed to it.  You win if your score is higher than that of the Tempest!

My thoughts on the game

Noctiluca is a challenging game, one that surprised me with its depth as I continued to play it.  When I first read the rules, I thought that it would be a simple matter of picking the obvious best choice given my two cards and plunking the dice down.   However, there is more to the decision than that… There are usually multiple options which give you the dice that you might need. However, you should take into account whether you want to take extra dice or not – because you’ll be passing those dice down the line to one of your opponents.

After a few plays, you also start looking at the board and considering which landing spots your opponents might want to use.  It is certainly possible to block off a row which would be very beneficial for an opponent that still gives you the dice that you want/need.  There are times in the game when it makes sense to choose a line or number which possibly gives you fewer dice than other choices.

The decision of card choice can also be important.  Sometimes it makes sense to choose the most popular color as it could lead to a high scoring token from the bottom of that stack.  Sometimes it makes sense to concentrate on a particular color so that you can try to earn the bonus at the end of the game for the most completed cards of a color.  You’re limited to the face up cards that you can see on the tops of the stacks, so you just have to make the best of it when you finish a card.

One thing that you have to remember while playing is that you really don’t have a lot of turns.  Heck, in a 4 player game, you only get 6 turns total, three in each round. Knowing that, you really do need to try to make the most of each turn as you’ll get the majority of your dice when you’re the one choosing what to take from the board.  Heck, I’ve gone entire games where I never was able to accept a die from my opponents!

This can possibly cause a little bit of analysis paralysis – but I’ve played Noctiluca with people that are prone to that sort of behavior, and it hasn’t been too bad.  The game still generally plays quickly, and our games generally end within 30 minutes. It has helped us to group dice by number in each sector so that it’s easier for your eye to pick out which numbers are in a row with each other.  We had initially tried to organize by color, but none of us could process the information as quickly that way.

In general, I like games that limit the number of opportunities to make moves as this intensifies the importance of every decision that you do get to make, though at times, six seems like an exceedingly low number for an entire game…  You do get 8 moves in a 3 player game, and that feels just right. In the solo game, you are in charge of all 24 pawns, and I have really enjoyed this aspect of the game – perhaps even moreso than the regular multiplayer version. In the solo game, you race against the AI trying to keep up with its incessant collection of tokens (one per turn) and trying to figure out what sectors might be wiped out by the die roll each turn.

The components are nice, though I wish the color of the scoring cards were a little more prominent (i.e. more than just the little tag hanging off the vase).  At first I was miffed that the game didn’t come with a bag for the dice, but then once I realized that you only drew dice at the start of each round for setup, using the box lid is just fine for that.   The dice are definitely eye-catching, and they do seem to attract attention from passers-by when the game is in play.

Noctiluca is a short but strategic game, and one that will fit in the super filler slot this spring for our game group.   It has made an appearance at my casual gaming group, and Noctiluca definitely also works well as a gateway/introductory game.  I have also very much enjoyed the solo version of the game, and because of this versatility, Noctiluca will likely end up in the permanent collection in the Gaming Basement.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Dale Y (solo)
  • I like it. Dale Y (multiplayer)
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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