Ten Candles is a game I have been vaguely aware of for some time. I knew that it was vaguely horror-based and that it was played with, yes, ten candles. Beyond that, the first thing that kept popping into my head was actually the John Hughes movie, Sixteen Candles, starring Molly Ringwald. It’s a pretty good movie, to be fair…
This game ain’t like that movie, or at least not by default. You could probably make a pretty decent module based on John Hughes movies gone wrong. This Ten Candles is a rules-light, zero-prep roleplaying game. I played it for the first time this Halloween and had an absolute blast. Since then, I’ve read through the book and other material with the intention of running it myself at some point.
Released in 2015 and written by Stephen Dewey, Ten Candles was published by Cavalry Games. Cavalry Games is a small company, with only Ten Candles and one other game, Mantlewarden, to their name. As such, it’s not a company I knew anything about, but with how much I enjoyed this game, and with how interesting Mantlewarden seems, I’d be keen to take a look at any of their future releases.
Mechanically, Ten Candles is very light. The setup for the game is sublimely simple. A bowl is placed in the centre of the table with ten candles placed around it. These are the titular candles that act as both a key structural element of the game and the only light by which you are supposed to play. Thematically, the conceit of the game is that the lights have gone out. The book describes the scenario thusly:
The standard setting for Ten Candles is in the middle of a sunless apocalypse. The sky has darkened and turned against you. Satellites have gone quiet, leaving you without solar power, cell phones, internet, GPS, and many other luxuries that the world has grown accustomed to. Power grids have failed on a global scale against the demand and the world has been left in darkness. And now, They have come. It is uncertain what They are, but They’re out there in the dark, and They’re coming for you.
In addition to this default setting, the book has a number of other modules that can be used as a starting point for your stories. These are quite minimal resources. The story is built collectively and has almost no prep for the GM to carry out, so a lengthy and detailed module would be counter-productive to this goal.
Each player also takes a handful of index cards to record some key elements (virtue, vice, source of hope and a horrible act that another player saw you commit) of their character, redistributing some of these among other players. We’ll come back to these cards later.
In addition to the index cards, candles, and a bowl, we also need some six-sided dice. 10 for the general pool and 1 extra per player, preferably of a different colour to set them apart from the pool. The dice are used for conflict rolls, during which a player will roll the available pool of dice and look for successes. These are rolls of 6. You need one to ensure a successful roll. Rolls of 1 will remove dice from the communal pool for the remainder of this game round and giving them to the GM to roll against the players. This happens even if the overall result of the check is a success. If you are not successful, you have the option to burn one of your index cards to reroll. I’m sure you can deduce that burning every aspect of your character is probably less than ideal in the long run…
Failing a conflict roll ends the current game round and extinguishes a candle. When a candle is extinguished, a dice is permanently removed from the pool and given to the GM. Of course, this can also happen arbitrarily as the candles just burn themselves out naturally. It also triggers my favourite part of the game.
After a candle goes out, the GM begins a ritual that will be carried out again and again over the course of the game. The GM intones to the group, “These things are true. The world is dark.” The players then take turns sharing truths with one another. Each truth establishes a fact about the game. This can reinforce prior narrative, introduce useful or interesting facts or advance the story slightly. There will be a fact for every but one. Once the group gets to the final candle, they will all state “And we are alive” as the final fact.
And that is pretty much the game, up until the final candle goes out. At his point, everyone dies. Yeah. It’s bleak. I suppose this is why the game is described as one of tragic horror. You’re not going to survive the game, but you can tell a damn good story before you and your companions kick the bucket.
I loved the game when we played it on Halloween. We went with the standard scenario and put together some characters who mostly worked well together. I’m not sure I was entirely trusted, given that one team member knew that I’d been stockpiling food, but things generally went well for us. Here are a few pictures from our game:
I’ve spoken of the game itself and how it works, but the strongest aspect of the game is that of atmosphere. A game of tragic horror, Ten Candles is enhanced by the fact that it is played by candlelight. Sitting in darkness with an array of small, open flames lighting the room gives a ready-made tension that the GM can then stoke with his or her own story and descriptions, and which the players can also enhance with their own actions and the truths they choose to establish each turn. As each candle goes out, it really feels like something has happened, that you’re getting closer and closer to a conclusion. The whole thing feel like such an event, and one that I am very keen to experience again.
I intend to get Ten Candles to the table again, whether as a player or GM. If you’re interested in checking it out as well, you can click here to visit Cavalry Games’ website where you can buy it – and I do suggest that you buy this game.