Halloween is such a weird holiday as an young adult. Unable to trick or treat yourself, but also not having kids old enough to trick or treat, puts you in a situation where it’s difficult to legitimately celebrate. You could go to a costume party at a club or something but let’s face it, nobody wants to spend their Tuesday evening gyrating next to some dude in a Pennywise costume to overplayed music from your local mix station. For a few years now, my friends have solved this dilemma by having our own little Halloween parties – come in costume if that’s your thing, no lousy music, and you know you’re in good company. The main event at these get-togethers is typically a tabletop game, and this year we tried out one we’d never played before: Ten Candles.
Could Ten Candles be the solution to YOUR Halloween dilemma? That’s the answer we’ll seek to find in today’s review!
If this is your first Adventure Rules review, here’s how it works. I score games based on five different categories using the following scale:
0 – Awful – An aspect of the game with few or no redeeming qualities
.5 – Poor – Felt negative but did have a positive worth mentioning
1 – Average – Performed as expected, a balance of good and bad
1.5 – Good – Mainly positive, but with a significant downside or many flaws
2 – Great – Excellent, no significant negatives and limited flaws
At the end of the review, the score of each category is added together to give the Raw Score of the game. You can think of this, if you like, as the more “objective” score, the best summary of how the typical person might rank the game. After that, I may adjust the score by anywhere from -1 to +1 to reflect my personal experience with the game. This could represent the fact that a specific category feels like it should be weighted more, or reflect a feature of the game that isn’t necessarily captured in a category. This creates the Final Score, my ultimate rating for the game based on my total experience.
With that out of the way, let’s jump into the review!
Ten Candles is a game of tragic horror, a distinct entity from survival horror in that you know you’re going to die. As players, anyway. The characters in the game must hold on to hope and strive to succeed at their goal. The game has simple conflict resolution mechanics that steadily push the players to a grisly end by taking their control as the game goes on. Ten candles create a timer for the game that established length of play – when those candles go out, the game is over and the characters are dead. The goal here is to tell a meaningful story about the last moments of these characters, to make them burn brilliantly before darkness snuffs them out like the flame of a candle.
Your first impression of an RPG (particularly as the GM) is the rulebook which conveys to you what the game is about and how to play it. For the purposes of this review, I’ll be discussing the PDF version of the rules, which is what I purchased and played. Ten Candles has a 97 page rules PDF which is a pretty quick read. The text is dripping with the atmosphere of this game – heavy, full of a sort of vagueness that gives it significance and meaning. Even just reading through the in-character introduction at the beginning really helps you to get a sense of what Ten Candles will feel like when you play it.
The book is organized in sections by stuff that the players should know and stuff the GM should know, but beyond that the rules follow the order of the game. This means that you’ll read first about character creation, then starting the session, then conflict rolls, then what happens when a candle goes out, etc. This is a great layout because you can just read the rules straight through in one sitting, learning them in the order they become relevant. The text includes actual play examples that help to cement the ideas in your mind and clarify some points that might otherwise be a little too vague.
I honestly cannot fault the text of the book – I found it engaging to read, easy to learn from, and evocative of the game’s overall tone. The main flaw I’ll cite here is that the art in the book is very sparse. You’re gonna be reading walls of text with only the occasional hyper-realistic sketch of a survivor to break up the boxes. As an avid reader, this wasn’t really an issue for me, but some folks rely heavily on the art of an RPG book for inspiration or just as something cool to look at to give them a few seconds of break from black text on a white background. If you are a fan of art in RPG books, Ten Candles isn’t going to scratch that itch for you. But if you are a reader for whom descriptive text can create pictures in your mind, Ten Candles gives you plenty to work with.
Score: 1.5 – Good: Evocative and engaging text, but few visuals to catch the eye
Every game of Ten Candles is built on the same basic premise: ten days ago, all the lights in the sky went out. The sun and the stars have blinked out, and satellite signals are inexplicably blocked. Society undergoes a sort of quiet apocalypse with mild rioting, but it seems that life could go on as usual. Five days ago, They came. No one knows what They are, only that They are bringers of death. Against a backdrop of screams the world governments urge their citizens to use light to keep Them away. “Stay in the light. They fear the light.” So naturally, humanity overloads all of the power grids in the world, and the planet is veiled in darkness. With only shoddy generators and flickering flashlights to protect them, humanity struggles to survive the onslaught of Them.
Those are the basics of any given session of Ten Candles. From there, you can go anywhere. They can be any entity you and your players could imagine – zombies, aliens, demons, government operatives, whatever. The game features a selection of modules, introductory scenarios to draw a basic connection between the players and to give them a goal to pursue. Some modules were created by the creator of the game while others were suggested by Kickstarter backers. These scenarios are interesting because they don’t define the nature of Them or anything about Their plans, so the scene basically just gives you a where and a why as a starting point. This worked really well for my group because we started with a scenario about a paramilitary group trying to rescue survivors and ended up exploring the concepts of distrust and the cruelty of humanity.
Ten Candles does what, in my mind, a truly great TRPG setting should do: it gives you a detailed, inspirational base which you can build upon to create your own unique interpretation of the world. There are so many cool things that They could be, so many reasons why They could have darkened the sky, and so many characters who could fall anywhere on the spectrum of morality. Each time you play, your players create a new set of possibilities to explore. After our first time playing, the whole group was talking about the next time we could play and how different it could be. And that’s the sort of inspiration that a truly great setting can create.
Score: 2 – Great: The setting is strongly evocative and gives plenty of creative freedom
A key part of any RPG is the character creation process, and for Ten Candles that process is incorporated into play. Rather than a more “traditional” character sheet, the players write details about their characters onto index cards. Mechanically speaking, a character is made up of four things: a Virtue, a Vice, a Moment, and a Brink. Virtue and Vice are character traits which make up the defining features of the character’s personality – playing them up in a scene allows you to reroll 1’s on your dice. Your character’s moment is a situation that, if lived out properly, will give the character hope. This “hope” manifests as hope dice, special dice that succeed more often and don’t disappear when rolling a 1. Finally, the character’s Brink is the darkest place they have ever been, the horrible, despicable thing they do when pushed beyond their limits. This allows endless rerolls as long as you continue succeeding – failing a Brink reroll causes the character to lose all hope dice and prevents them from benefiting from the Brink again.
Working the fictional aspects of the character into the mechanics of the game is a great way to help players roleplay. The process of character creation gives players just enough information about their character for this one-off scenario. It’s open-ended enough for players to fill in details about who their characters are in play without forcing them to create an elaborate backstory that may never come to light. It’s pretty simple, too, just asking for some simple descriptive words. Building an entire character concept out of a few vague phrases gives a lot of creative freedom.
The only thing I can potentially envision being a problem with the character creation process in this game is that players only really choose one of their character’s mechanical benefits. Other players define their Virtue, Vice, and Brink, meaning that any given player only has control over what their Moment looks like. For players who are very attached to the notion of creating their own character concept, having so many aspects defined by somebody else can be frustrating. Additionally, if a player writes a Trait or Brink that is poorly constructed, a different player is the one who might have trouble implementing that mechanic in play. Players will need to be comfortable giving up their own agency a bit, but if they can embrace that spirit they’ll have the opportunity to create very compelling characters.
Score: 1.5 – Good: Simple with lots of freedom, players will have to release agency a bit
So how do you actually play Ten Candles? Well, you set up ten candles and light them during the process of character creation. After that, players begin narrating their actions in the fiction. When the player’s action would lead to an unknown outcome, they make a conflict roll. Players roll as many dice as there are lit candles, and the GM rolls as many dice as there are unlit candles. If the player rolls at least one 6, then the conflict is successful. If the player rolls more 6’s than the GM, the player also maintains control of the narrative. Any dice showing a 1 are pulled from the dice pool until the next scene. If the player doesn’t roll a single 6 on the dice, they fail their action, the GM states what happens next, and a candle is darkened. When only one candle remains, failed conflicts result in character death until the last character dies and the final candle goes dark.
The intent of these mechanics is to create a slow, inevitable march towards the death of the characters. Losing dice makes failure more likely and takes away player agency over the narrative. The candles serve as a timer for the game, a constant reminder that death is coming. The players at my table were so uneasy about the possibility of accidentally putting out candles that my wife kept trying to grab my hands to stop me from gesturing while I talked. Another player stood up and left the table to sneeze so she didn’t blow any out on accident. It was fun to see how the candles and the dice legitimately created tension at the table. and the dim lighting established an atmosphere where everyone was just the right amount of uncomfortable for a horror game.
The main game mechanic that we encountered some problems with was the “establishing truths” ritual. When a conflict is failed and a candle is darkened, the GM says the phrase “These things are true: the world is dark” which is then followed by a series of true statements established by the players. This allows the players to get free resources, make forward progress, defeat enemies, or just add new elements to the scenario without having to roll for it. And honestly, it felt jarring to me. It breaks the tension that you work so hard to create and instead of dividing the game into distinct and interesting scenes, it felt like it often stopped us from exploring a scene that could have been really cool. Only towards the end when the players couldn’t establish many truths did things continue to run somewhat smoothly.
I think part of this issue can be handled a little bit with experience – by the time we got deeper into the game, we all understood the scene framing a little better and knew how to work with establishing truths in a way that kept the action moving forward. Additionally, the dice at our table did not favor the players as they failed their first conflict for some of the earlier rounds of the game. This caused the early section of the game, which would normally be controlled primarily by the players and give the characters many opportunities to set up their moments and gain hope, to fall a bit flat. Bad rolls early game combined with the way establishing truths works made it difficult for things to spin out of control in a way that was narratively engaging.
Overall, though, the mechanics of Ten Candles are a fantastic ruleset for creating tension at the table. As the game reaches its twilight, the mechanics really begin to shine and you really feel the narrative hurtling towards its inevitable conclusion. As far as the ending itself – I honestly don’t want to spoil how Ten Candles puts a bow on each session, but the expressions on my player’s faces were absolutely golden. The goal is to make the deaths of these characters significant, and we felt we accomplished that by the time the game was over.
Score: 1.5 – Good: Most of the mechanics are perfect for creating tension and horror
Games are an investment and you don’t want to spend your money on one that isn’t going to be worth it. Ten Candles cost me around $10 for the rulebook in exchange for roughly 5 hours of play (minus some time being distracted, as my players have a bit of trouble focusing). And of course, it isn’t as if the rulebook is a one-time thing. You can play as many games of Ten Candles as you want on that $10 investment. So that’s pretty awesome for value, right?
Well remember that there are some peripheral things you’ll need to make this game work as well. Ten tealight candles, a fireproof bowl of some kind, a lighter, five index cards per player, roughly 15 6-sided dice, enough pens or markers for all the players; it’s a lot to juggle. If you happen to not already own ANY of that stuff, the price can really add up after awhile. In our case, the main things we actually needed to purchase were the candles and some more dice. Luckily, those things are pretty cheap – a pack of 50 tealight candles only ran me about $3, and that’s good for five games of Ten Candles. Meanwhile, the dice were about $2-3 for a pack of five, and of course you can use dice over and over again as well as using them for other games. The whole supply list for one session put me out $20, but that investment is enough to cover us for five games of Ten Candles. Assuming you run out of index cards and candles around the same time, another $10 will get you another five sessions. As much fun as we had, Ten Candles is definitely worth the price tag – the only mild disadvantage is that you will have to buy supplies periodically, something you may not have to engage in with other tabletop games.
Score: 1.5 – Good: Rulebook is worth the price, be ready to buy supplies
The Book: 1.5
The Setting: 2
Game Mechanics: 1.5
RAW SCORE: 8 – GOOD: Ten Candles is a fun game well worth the price that excels where it excels. It creates great tension at the table and has lots of freedom for setting and character design. Some mechanics don’t work as anticipated but with experience the group can adapt their style of play to make it work.
I originally anticipated that I would be giving this game a score adjustment – there were features of the game that led me to rank it down that honestly did not impact me or my group at all. The lack of art in the book didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of it in any way, and while my players initially seemed frustrated by the fact that they didn’t design their character’s traits, they adapted quickly and a couple made comments after the game that this aspect of character creation was actually really enjoyable.
However, while my initial instinct was to rank up the game based on the fact that these “negatives” didn’t feel like negatives in my personal experience, I feel like 8 out of 10 is a very fair score for the game. Ten Candles gave our table a solid horror experience that was full of excellent tension, but there were times that the game mechanics fought us on that. These moments didn’t define our game, but they maybe held it back a little bit, particularly in the early sections of the game. Once we got rolling and the mechanics really started working with us, Ten Candles felt amazing and it allowed our group to work together to craft an engaging horror story. Everyone who played enjoyed the experience and wanted to try it again in spite of any perceived issues. I highly recommend Ten Candles for your next horror tabletop game, and with Halloween coming up tomorrow, now is an excellent time to give it a try!
FINAL SCORE: 8/10 – GOOD