Fifth columnist for Magic: The Gathering, or classy Knizia gem? Blue Moon is a 2-player card game from one of our most popular game designers, and is sure to attract attention not just because of his name, but also given the ambitious and innovative method by which the game is being sold. The basic box provides two very different decks, with which a pair of players can compete, but additional expansion packs add more decks, and thus more cards, combinations and, of course, cost to your wallet. Each deck of a particular flavour is pre-constructed, but a costing system is in place to allow players to build their own decks from the entire pool of cards they own.
The parallels between this release strategy and the basic idea behind collectible games such as Magic, Pokemon, Legend of the Five Rings or Spellfire will be immediately obvious. Blue Moon effectively offers a game with the versatility of Magic, but with the wallet-crunching collectibility of those games tempered somewhat. While there has been considerable overlap between the worlds of board gamers and collectible card game (CCG) players, it is probably fair to say that there is a certain amount of antipathy towards trading card games from many players of "German-style" games. The apparent rule that the CCG player who buys the most wins the most, and the need to purchase and trade to explore certain strategies or tactics, can seem bizarre. While I would argue that there are also many good points to such games, the clear influence of collectible card games on Blue Moon will add an interesting element to the debate, as this non-collectible game comes not just from the workshop of one of the most prolific of board game designers, but a man who is on record as a skeptic of the CCG format for games.
In seeking to make a game that is customisable; in which players can react to their local meta-game by adapting counter-strategies; and in which a textured story is revealed in the background text on the cards, Dr. Knizia appears to have aimed to take those parts of the other format that are interesting, and bend them into a mainstream board gaming phenomenon. While the very fact that one will not get everything in the basic set will arouse the suspicions of those of us tired of being offered "vital" expansions for most popular new games that are released, I would argue that Blue Moon does an excellent job of capturing the admirable features of CCGs, while remaining a distinctly German-style and Knizia-authored game.
Having spent so long explaining the expandable premise to the game, I am actually going to limit myself to the basic set in this review. While doing so clearly misses the point of Knizia's project, on one level, it does seem the best way to approach the entire product line, and I will hopefully provide some thoughts on the expansion sets, and an overview of the complete set, in the next few months. While a total of 6 expansion decks have been announced, I have got the impression that more are planned, although that remains to be seen. The foundation, which I am discussing this month, is the original package containing a rulebook, board, three dragon miniatures and two 30-card decks, each of the latter with its own very distinct playing style.
After reading the rulebook, I was left with a distinct impression that the game had very little depth or interest, but was nothing more than an essentially pleasant but dull trick-taking game. How wrong I was. While the game certainly gives the impression of being straight-forward, there is considerable subtlety in the special cards, and in the decision of when to concede defeat in a fight and so withdraw gracefully.
To summarise the mechanics, players receive six cards, and each turn will contest fights in the hope of attracting dragons to their side. All three dragons start in neutral ground, and will align themselves with a player as he gains the upper-hand. In fights, players each take turns to place a character and declaring whether this fight is in earth or fire; these are the two suits, values for which are on every character card. Their numbers vary from 0 to 7 (we may see higher ones in the expansions, I would guess). After the opening of a fight, subsequent characters must personally equal or exceed the previous total, which consists not just of the previous one played by the opponent, but any additional support that character may have had. These are played right after a character is laid down, and come in two flavours: support and booster cards. The former stay active until the end of the fight, helping future characters you play as well as the current one, while the latter are stacked with character cards and thus forgotten once they've been covered up. You can play either one booster or one support card after you've lain down a character. A player withdraws (and concedes the fight) early in his turn if he cannot, or does not wish, to play a new character card.
While you too may be suspicious about the game from that overview of the most basic mechanics, rest assured that there are a myriad of factors adding to this system, that provide the sort of depth and intrigue we would expect from a designer game. For example, the winner of a fight attracts two dragons, rather than one, if a fight has been sufficiently prolonged that he has six or more cards laid in front of him when it ends. This means that there is a very tense and meaningful decision to be made as your opponent approaches that threshold—press this fight and risk handing him another dragon, or concede now and minimise your losses whilst preserving your resources. There is also some fun to be had in calculating whether to make do by playing low-power characters while you can do so, or whether to ratchet up the stakes by thwacking down the high-powered ones. That decision should rest on what you've got to come in your deck (something you should know after a few games to familiarise yourself with it) and the style your opponent seems to follow.
The game ends instantly when a player attracts to himself a fourth dragon or when a player has completely played out their deck and their hand. An interesting twist, though, is that a player loses if the game is drawn when they ran out of cards: there is thus an interesting incentive to be careful with your cards throughout the game, if you are to avoid that fate.
Many cards have special powers, all of which add some form of twist to the game, without, it seems, adding too many incongruous or bitty exceptions to the main game. Those bearing one particular icon can be bounced back to your hand at the beginning of a turn, providing another chance to use them. This presents another agonising decision in judging when they are needed and when they are safely recalled for use in a later fight, as they would be discarded at the end of the current one. As a player automatically refills their hand to six at the end of a turn, re-drawing such a card will prevent you from accessing a card you could have been taking from the top of the deck; it also slows down your approach to the vital six card limit, as it is no longer stacked on the table.
Leadership cards are a fourth type, which I have previously not mentioned, and they add some spice to the game. Played before you choose to either lay down a character or retreat, you are limited to one per turn. They have the most varied effects, and do not directly participate in a fight, but generally have a more indirect (and often powerful) effect. However, while they are almost always welcome, they do reduce the chance of drawing a character, a good stock of which is always necessary, so requiring some balance in knowing whether to store them up in your hand during a game, and also whether to include many of them when customising a deck.
The two factions modeled in the basic game are the Hoax and the Vulca. The artwork for cards of each faction has been commissioned from a particular artist, so that each has its own style. Generally, these are quite nice pictures, certainly expertly done, although a bit garish and comic-book-ish for my tastes. The cards certainly succeed in showing off the art better than those extracts used on the box, where they look particularly busy and chaotic in composition. In addition to the two decks, the game includes the board and three dragons used in every game: these are handsomely produced, with the board being functional but attractive and the serpents very fine plastic miniatures.
Moving on to gameplay comments, we may begin with the Hoax: they have relatively low numbers but plenty of clever special abilities on their character cards (for example: if you retreat while one particular character is active, your opponent won't get any dragons—a very nice escape route!). While all decks will have to offer some form of competition in both of the elements (fire and earth), the Vulca are an example of a faction which specialises in one of the two. In their case, this is fire and they sport some very high-numbered characters in that area, backed up with solid supports and boosters, but with some particularly interesting leadership cards. One of these ("Charm Holy Dragon") allows them to instantly attract a dragon if they discard enough character cards. While the cost for this is a fair balance to its ability, that card is a good example of the fact that knowledge of the cards available in the game will be important; against a Vulca pre-constructed deck, one should always anticipate their instant win with only three dragons. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it helps highlight my belief that this game could form very negative first reactions with players if they suffer apparently unfair losses as a result of such cards.
This is not the sort of game to win universal affection from gamers in the way that a few occasionally do. I predict that it will prove to be a love-it-or-hate-it title, with people either "getting it" or finding it ultimately disappointing. This may be a relic of its CCG influences, which are a sure-fire way to rile the most extreme detractors of that genre, but I would think it is sufficiently different and sufficiently subtle as to deserve a trial play. Give it a chance to show its true colours and I think many players will discover a nice 2-player game using only the basic set. I'll report back on the expansions in the future, which should make the game shine even more, albeit with the outlay of more money. Even with only the basic set, I think this is a worthy addition to anyone's collection of two player games, particularly as it sustains such repeated playings. Blue Moon may be a "try before you buy" game due to its unusual style, but I would seriously suggest you give it such a try.
- Richard Huzzey