Interview with designer, Shem Phillips (Architects of the West Kingdom and Raiders of the North Sea) on his upcoming Z-Man game, Noctiluca. A set collection game, players are divers trying to collect different creatures call noctiluca, the game is for 1-4 players and ages 8+.

Shem, first, thank you for joining us today to talk about your new Z-Man game Noctiluca. Could you tell us a little bit about the gameplay?

Shem: Noctiluca is a dice-drafting, set collection game with a simple, but a unique mechanism for collecting dice. In the game, dice represent noctiluca. Players are trying to catch them and store them in jars to sell (for points). There are also some interesting scoring mechanisms, as the majority of jars don’t have printing point values on them – their values are more relative to each player’s favourite type of noctiluca and the current demand of certain types.

The game is played over 2 rounds, each consisting of only 12 turns (so 24 turns total). On your turn, you must place a pawn on an outside edge of the game board and pick up all the dice of a chosen number, in a straight line leading away from the edge (each edge offers two options). However, any dice you collect and cannot store in jars may be passed to other players. So this creates an interesting tension of wanting to collect a lot, but not too much.

Every story has a game behind its design, what is Noctiluca’s? And did you come up with the unique theme or was that Z-Man?

Shem: The game concept came about when I was actually trying to design a different game. In that game, I was trying to work on a mechanism for hunting in the forest. After a while, I thought, “this feels more like diving into water.” And so I started working on a theme based around players diving into the water to collect something and store them in jars. It made sense that the dice pips could represent the water’s depth. So if a player calls out that they will collect all the “ones”, they are just swimming along the surface. Whereas, if they call “sixes”, they are diving quite deep.

I did some research and starting reading about these things called “noctiluca”, also known as “sea sparkle”, due to the way they light up the sea at night. In nature, they are very small, but we took some liberties on the theme to give it a little more of a fantasy feel. In the game, they are sort of like fireflies of the sea.

Z-Man liked the original theme and title, so we’re happy to run with it. The artwork that Bree Lindsoe created looks beautiful and really helps to bring the theme to life. I just can’t wait to get by own copy with all the final art and translucent dice now!

The game comes with over 100 dice, did you worry at all when designing the game that would be too many dice for a publisher to find interest in it?

Shem: Having so many dice in the game was definitely a hurdle to overcome. I remember when first talking to Z-Man, their main concern was if they could produce the game at a reasonable price. My original prototype had around 120 dice. After a lot of testing and tweaking, I managed to get the minimum dice required down to just 84. However, this would require players to swap out dice on their jars with punch tokens between rounds. This was functional, but not ideal. I am so glad that Z-Man decided to add an extra 16 dice to avoid needing the punch tokens.

Speaking of publishing, you usually publish your own games through your company Garphill Games (and then usually picked up by Renegade Games), why did you decide to pitch this to other publishers, over publishing it yourself?

Shem: Over the past few years I’ve been developing who Garphill Games is as a publisher. It’s becoming clear that we are focused on publishing medium weight Euro-style games. While Noctiluca definitely has my designer fingerprint on it, the game itself is not really a good fit for the Garphill Games brand. I also don’t want to publish everything I design. So if any games I design feel like a better fit for other publishers out there, I’ll be likely to approach them with the game.

Various early prototypes of Noctiluca

For many, how the game plays 2-player is important (in our house that would be the most important of player count). Is anything done specially for Noctiluca‘s 2-player? 

Shem: Noctiluca plays well at all player counts. As I mentioned earlier, each round consists of 12 turns. These turns are divided among players. So with 2 players, you each get 6 turns per round. This means that lower player counts will score higher than higher player counts since the points available are divided among more players. But the gameplay experience remains largely the same, regardless of the player count. We also added a solo mode for Noctiluca. At first, I thought this might be hard to design since human players have a big decision to make each turn. Also, some of the scoring mechanisms require players to compete for the most of certain elements in the game. But despite those challenges, I managed to work with Z-Man to produce what I think is a really solid solo mode. As a publisher, it was very important for them to include a solo mode since a lot of other abstract games on the market currently do not offer this.

What would say was the best lesson you learned through designing Noctiluca?

Shem: The best lesson would probably be to be creative, even within tight restrictions. Noctiluca is a very tight, interwoven game. What I mean is, there’s not much room to add or remove additional mechanisms. However, I had to be quite creative with the scoring mechanisms in the game. I could have easily just made each jar worth a certain amount of points. But that felt unoriginal and boring. So I ended up spending a lot of time trying out different ideas for scoring. A lot of testing and balancing, but I’m really happy with the result.

What three adjectives describe Noctiluca‘s gameplay?

Shem: Three adjectives to describe Noctiluca? I would have to say pretty, thinky, and elegant.

As we wrap this up, what other Shem Phillps games are coming in 2019 that we should be aware of?

Shem: Other games that I have coming this year are: Circadians: First Light – the first game in a series of sci-fi games I’m working on; Paladins of the West Kingdom – part two of the trilogy, following on from Architects of the West Kingdom; Maybe some expansions for previous games and potentially another new game, but nothing more to share on those ones yet.

Thanks again, Shem, for taking time out to do this interview. 


Readers can find Shem on Twitter @garphillgames. Noctiluca is coming from Z-Man Games later in 2019.