A couple of months ago, I started seeing ads on Instagram for an upcoming board game called Moonrakers. The graphic design of the game caught my eye, and the mechanics of the game — deckbuilding and semi-cooperative play — are ones I like, so I tracked the account to learn more. It was fun following the build-up to their Kickstarter launch, and one day I saw a comment about playtesting opportunities, right here in Nashville. I hadn’t noticed that the publishers of Moonrakers were local!
Two weeks later, I had a pre-production copy of Moonrakers on my kitchen table and three friends over to help me test it out. Since the Kickstarter is now live (and running through October 1), I thought I would share some thoughts about the game here on the blog for those on the fence about backing it. First, however, here’s a two-minute over of the game from the publisher, IV Studios:
The folks at IV Studios specialize in animation and visual storytelling, which is why their intro video looks so good and why the game itself looks so good! Seriously, the card art is amazing and the overall graphic design is stunning. Icons and colors are used very intentionally throughout the game, which makes learning and playing the game easier. I really appreciate game designers who put this much thought into their visual design.
Players take on the role of Moonrakers, slightly shady spaceship captains who are building ships and assembling crews to take on increasingly challenging contracts to win prestige. Each player starts with an identical desk of basic action cards: thrusters, reactors, shields, weapons, and so on. There’s a market of contracts available with names like “Abandoned Vessel” and “Escort Duty” and “Icarus Run,” each carrying risks and rewards. On your turn, you draw five cards from your deck and then pick a contract you think you can accomplish using those cards. Reactor actions led you play more cards from your hand, and thruster actions let you draw more cards, so you’re betting your contract not only on your cards in hand, but the rest of the cards in your deck. Each contract requires different combinations of those basic actions, and some contracts are way harder than others. Once you pick a contract, you play cards from your hand and deck, chaining cards together to try and meet the requirements for the contract.
That’s the basic game play. Where Moonrakers gets good is in the deckbuilding and in the negotiation. First, the deckbuilding: As you win contracts, you’ll earn credits you can use to buy ship parts and crew members. Ship parts give you abilities you can use on your turn, like reducing the “shield” requirements for a contract or discarding cards from your hand to draw more cards from your deck. Ship parts also add more of those basic actions (thrusters, reactors, and such) to your deck, allowing you to take on harder contracts. Crew members are cards that go straight into your deck. You play them like action cards, but they’re way more powerful than the basic actions. As the game goes on, each player’s deck (their ship) will look dramatically different as they add different crew members and ship parts.
Second, the negotiation: When you pick a contract, you can invite other players to help you accomplish that contract. Each contract comes with some risks in the form of hazard dice rolls that could lower your overall prestige. You win the game by hitting 10 prestige points, so hazards aren’t good. But each contract also comes with rewards, in the form of prestige points, credits you can use to upgrade your deck, and sometimes extra cards you can add to your deck for free. Before you try to tackle a contract, you’ll want to decide if you want one or more allies with you and you’ll have to negotiate how you and your allies will split the risks and rewards for the target contract.
This is where the game really shines. You might have your eye on a particular contract, but you know you’re short on the shields you’ll need in your deck to win that contract. You could team up with Ashley to take on the contract, since you know her deck is full of shields, but Ashley’s ahead of you in prestige points. You need her help, but you don’t want her to get further ahead of you. Maybe she’ll agree to take the credits from the successful contract, while you get the prestige points? Maybe not! These are the kinds of questions you’ll be asking yourself every turn. And when it’s not your turn, you’ll be trying to get in on other player’s contracts, so there’s always something to do.
Because of the temporary alliances, the game stays tight throughout. If one player pulls ahead in prestige points, the other players stop collaborating with her. But every player has a secret objective card or two, each with a condition that, when met, grants a prestige point. So if Ashley is sitting at 7 prestige points and wins a 2-prestige contract without allies on the same turn she meets her secret objective, she’ll jump to 10 points and win. This is exactly what happened when we played, in spite of our best efforts to slow Ashley down. Nicely done, Ashley.
I’ve loved deckbuilding games since I first played Dominion, the original deckbuilding game, a few years ago. But I really like deckbuilding games where the deckbuilding is about more than just increasing your buying power to purchase victory-point cards. The Quest for El Dorado is like this, with the cards you’re adding to your deck helping you move faster through the jungle to find the lost city of gold. Clank! does this too, with cards that help you navigate a dungeon full of treasure (and one very angry dragon). Moonrakers takes the basic deckbuilding mechanic and adds to it the semi-cooperative contract play, so your deck isn’t just about buying power and points, it’s about the actions you need to win contracts. And, unlike some other deckbuilding games, you really want to pay attention to how other players are constructing their decks, so you know if you want to ally with them on specific contracts.
My only concern about the game is that it ran a little long for us. The negotiation of contracts can take a bit of time, especially since you can try up to three times on your turn to assemble your team of allies. But, it’s important to note that (a) we were learning the game and (b) my game group tends to take their time thinking through choices. I would plan, however, on a good 90 minutes for a four-player game, once you’ve got the hang of it. I haven’t played at other player counts, but I would expect similar play times, since everyone has the chance to play on every player’s turn. The game has 1-player and 2-player modes, but I can’t say how well they work. The negotiation element needs at least three players, so I’m expecting the game works best at 3, 4, or even 5 players. Also, the typeface on the cards is pretty small. The intentional color scheme helps with visual identification, but players with poor eyesight will need to reach across the table and pick up cards to read fairly often.
I really enjoyed playing Moonrakers, and I’m excited to back the Kickstarter. I had the chance to talk with Austin, one of the designers, at IV Studios when I picked up my playtest copy. He and his colleagues have put a ton of work and testing into this game, and it was fun to hear about their process and all the ways the game has evolved over time. For more on the game, visit their Kickstarter page, where they’ve posted lots of behind-the-scenes and playthrough videos. The Kickstarter runs through October 1st, so if you’re thinking about backing Moonrakers, you’ve got nine days left to decide, as I write this.
- Highlights: Moonrakers is a stylish game that combines deckbuilding with temporary player alliances to create a tight game that gets more intense as you go. You get the satisfaction of building a great engine while enjoying the tension of semi-cooperative play. Moonrakers is a medium-weight game with lots of replayability that should appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike.
- Concerns: The game can run a little long. There’s a chance Moonrakers will overstay its welcome if you have players prone to analysis paralysis. Also, it’s pretty intense. You might miss the fact that your wife walked through the kitchen and said hi while you were playing.