Review: ‘Ten Candles’

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Definitely not a Molly Ringwald film – instead, an innovative horror game that was nominated for several categories at the ENnies (though sadly did not win).

Ten Candles is a game I supported on Kickstarter a couple of years ago and mostly forgot about. I mainly went in on it because of its core mechanic: games take place by the light of ten candles (with optional extra lighting, obviously), each of which darkens as the game goes on. When all the candles are out, the game ends. It certainly caught my attention, plus the tagline was ‘A storytelling game of tragic horror’. So, y’know, my kind of thing. I’m actually really pleased I backed it on a whim, because it’s brought up some great concepts.

Ten Candles is set in a world where the natural lights (sun, moon, stars) have gone out and humanity tries to survive in the face of living shadows that want to eat them. Each of the titular ten candles represents a scene of the game, but if they go out by accident, you have to weave that into the narrative too. Whenever a candle goes out, the scene ends, and they can never be relit. The eventual outcome of the game is that all the characters are doomed and the room (/world) is plunged into darkness. No negotiation. They will die or go mad or become part of the great shadow god or whatever horrible fate the narrative has in store for them. If that’s not a game you want to play, that’s reasonable, but I am all over this.

Ten Candles follows a lot of story game concepts but puts a different spin on them. Characters are defined by virtues and vices, only the virtues and vices that are developed in character creation are handed to the people to the right and left of you respectively, so you end up with a random combination to try and describe a character around. There is a communal dice pool that reduces throughout each scene as people fail rolls, meaning that things get tenser as the game wears on, but you can potentially gain a permanent extra dice for yourself through your Moment, or alter the outcomes of dice using Brinks.

Moments are glimmers of hope in the darkness, a defined event, action or other element of the story that your character will encounter and that will buoy them in their struggles or bring them closer to despair. These aren’t given out to anyone else: you get to decide what emotional climax you want for your character in that game, and there are mechanical incentives (as well as dangers) to encountering it. This is such a beautifully simple concept, a kind of distillation of the Aspirations idea in Chronicles of Darkness, that I really want to examine it further elsewhere, and it pretty much sold the game for me. It’s already a setting and genre I like, it has some unique core mechanics, and I could see Moments providing an incredibly satisfying game experience.

Brinks, in contrast, are what your character can be driven to at their extremes. They are written in the format “I saw you…” and handed to the person to your left. So, the person on your right knows your darkest secret and what you can do if put under pressure. Like Moments, these give you a mechanical edge when they come up, but at what cost?

The twist is that these aren’t all available to you throughout the game – instead, they are in a pile and you have to ‘burn’ (like…literally burn) the index cards they are written on, revealing the next thing down in the pile. This means that Moments and Brinks will naturally start to enter play near the end of the game, when those turning points of hope and desperation can be really powerful. The physical aspect of burning the cards is great too – you have a fireproof bowl in the middle of the play area for this very reason!

Ten Candles is designed to be a low-prep game, with a series of scenarios in the back that can be run right out of the book, but also with guidance on how much preparation you actually need to do as the GM – the idea is to have a pitch and a few ideas you can throw in, but let the game largely run itself. The GM mainly exists as the embodiment of the terrifying ‘them’ and adverse circumstances, though they are also responsible for making sure that the opportunities for Moments and Brinks come up if the other players don’t.

I’m not sure how I feel about the forced momentum of the candles burning out and the hard and fast rule that you can’t relight them. I see why it’s there, but I imagine that in exceptional circumstances (e.g. someone opens a door and every candle around the table goes out) you could relight. It reminds me of the enforced season ends in Monsterhearts, where your characters trigger the end of the season by earning enough xp, with all the frustrations and missing potential that brings, but with the added complication that environmental factors in the game room can change it. However, I think there is value in that kind of experiment, because you know you have limited time and try to make the most of it rather than letting things ramble on. It also means that you don’t get hung up on the things you don’t get to do and concentrate on the things that you did do. It is rather reminiscent of Dread‘s Jenga tower, but without the player’s level of skill changing the outcome. And my tendency to sigh heavily becoming a massive danger.

This weird little game is a really good example of how Kickstarter and other crowd-funding platforms, as well as the Internet in general, are transforming the industry: it would have been unlikely to find a mainstream publisher, but now it’s part of a Bundle of Holding and being talked about enough for award nominations. Take a look if you want a day or evening of intense tragic horror by the light of ten flickering candles.

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2 thoughts on “Review: ‘Ten Candles’

  1. Thanks so much for the review.

    I officially grant my permission to re-light candles if they all go out at once. Boom, it’s canon now. 😉

    The introduction of the no-relighting-candles rule is admittedly tough, but absolutely intentional. It is 100% there as one of the several compounding anxiety-producing mechanics of the game. The fact that tea-light candles are so fragile, and that the lives of the characters are hanging from ten very small very unreliable wicks. Now, in my copious playthroughs of the game, the worst I see typically are a candle, maaaybe two, burning out at the end. The only time I’ve seen candles go out pre-maturely have been three occasions:

    1. A dog tail which doused three.
    2. A sneeze which doused, I think, five.
    3. An overzealous candle extinguishing blow which took out two.

    In all situations it only got SO much more intense and awesome. People were legitimately terrified, and the tragedy of missing out on those scenes fit so perfectly with the tragedy the game is meant to embody. (In the five-candle-loss game, I think the players had only one truth left immediately after it, which was something like “We had so much less time than we thought.”) Just like with Dread, introducing fragile unreliable mechanics as the one connection the characters have to life is one of the best ways to get horror around the table. But, as a given, the potential frustration around the mechanic is totally understandable, and I always always ALWAYS encourage players to play any game in whatever way that will make them happy. If you lose six candles due do something completely outlandish and unfair and the whole group wants to relight, I fully condone that.

    But in the meantime, I hope your sighs aren’t TOO heavy. 😀

    • Oh wow, thanks for adding your thoughts! It’s really interesting to hear the logic behind that as a design decision – it makes a lot of sense. I very much enjoy the idea that the physical environment itself can ramp tension like that and emphasise the themes of the game.

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