March 2017’s RPG Carnival is “Things in the Dark”, and for many people that’s about things that go bump in the night. For me, it’s about playing games in the dark … when there’s nothing to hold back the night save candles, lanterns, and camp fires.
Each summer my family goes to Lake Champlain to spend a week or two with our friends. It’s a rustic cabin experience — no indoor plumbing, no electric lights, and when the sun goes down, we play board and card games by kerosine lanterns and candle light. The last two summers we’ve added Dungeons & Dragons to the mix as the kids learned how to play the game and we started racing against the setting sun to get our last round of combat in.
We’re not unique in this. Many of my friends learned to play D&D while on camping trips with Boy Scouts, and since my own son is crossing over from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts this spring, it’s entirely possible he’ll be rolling dice in the wilderness as well.
The biggest challenges you face when gaming in low-light are the loss of definition and color contrast.
The lost of definition is a problem for any game that has fine symbols or small print on its components. If the pieces are smaller than a marble, if the font size is smaller than 12 point (and even that’s pushing it) it can be difficult to make out what’s what. Detailed backgrounds on the board or cards can also make components difficult to read;
This is why, no matter how thematically appropriate, we’re never taking Arkham Horror camping. We’ve been experimenting with different games over the years, but I can’t say we’ve come up with a definitive list of low-light games, though we have found a few that we don’t have to squint too badly to play.
The best games to play are those with large icons, large text on white or light backgrounds, and a limited number of components. Unsurprisingly, this makes most card games ideal for camping and low-light games, assuming you have the right deck.
Large print decks should work great, as should most decks you can buy at your local grocery store. What doesn’t work well are overly-wrought, decorative decks suck as the myriad of Star Wars themed playing cards. I brought my deck to the cabin with me last year, and found they were exceptionally hard to make out in candlelight (and impossible to see if they were on the other side of the table from me).
In terms of games, we typically look for games that the kids can play. Two popular games were Scat and Golf. The kids get into epic games of Spit. All three games use a standard deck of playing cards.
The commercial card games Phase 10 (Amazon) and Uno (Amazon) are also good, but the colors can be hard to differentiate in low-light.
Ticket to Ride (Amazon) is a board game in which players collect and spend tickets to reach destinations throughout the United States. (Watch it played on Tabletop) Ticket to Ride is a staple of our summer camp gaming, but when the board is lit by a kerosine lantern the reds and oranges tend to blur together. Fortunately that game embraced universal design and provides icons — on the tickets and the routes — that indicate what’s what (e.g. “red” cards and “red” routes use a plus (+) sign). The original version of the game came with very small “ticket” cards that were even more difficult to make out, but the 1910 expansion introduced full-size cards that are much easier to hold and understand.
Games to Try
Carcassonne: Carcassonne (Amazon) is a tile-based game in which players score points by matching up resources on the various tiles. (Watch it played on Tabletop)
I’m eager to find other games that work well in low-light environments. If you have suggestions, email them to me at email@example.com or leave a comment on this post.