Maybe it’s a generational thing, but when I first heard of Moonrakers, I assumed it was something to do with the strangest James Bond film – Moonraker. It’s not though, it’s a deck-building semi-coop game from publisher IV Games, and it’s very clever.
Semi-cooperative is an interesting concept. When it’s done well, it’s genius. Battlestar Galactica (now re-imagined as Unfathomable) and Nemesis are brilliant examples. Despite knowing this, I tend to wear my ‘hmm, dubious’ face when I learn that a game is using it. Even though I haven’t played a truly bad example. Games with a hidden traitor lend themselves to the concept really well, but a deck-builder? Dominion with negotiation?
Dominion in spaaaaaaaace!
I’m going to cut to the chase here, and say that the way Moonrakers plays has a lot in common with the original and best* deck-builder, Dominion. Each reactor card gives you another two actions, thruster cards let you draw more cards from your deck… sound familiar? if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. The difference comes with the additional cards you might have, like shields and damage. These don’t give you anything extra, but you need a certain combination of cards in order to fulfil contracts.
So what’s a contract? At the start of your turn, you choose a contract to attempt. Contracts award you with different bonuses, but the ones you’re most interested in are money and victory points (VPs). Some of the contracts need a lot of cards to be played in order to complete them, and it’s not the sort of thing you can do by yourself. This is where we talk about the co-operative part of the game.
Let’s say that I’ve got a really tough contract to fulfil. I can do some of it myself, but I can’t get the number of damage I need. I can open it up to the table, and ask if anyone wants to join the contract with me, if they’ve got damage to contribute, in return for some kind of reward. We get to decide the terms of the deal ourselves, so it might be that I suggest I take the VPs for the contract, while you take the money. Sounds good to you? Mutually beneficial? Good, good. Negotiation in action.
* Dominion is the best pure deck-builder, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.
Only those you trust can betray you
The aim of Moonrakers is to be the first to 10 Presitge (VPs). So while I might need you to help me complete a contract, you might decide that it’s in your best interests to let me fail. So you tell me “Sure Adam, I’ve got a handful of damage cards here, I’ll help you”. We start the contract, then you decide to reveal that in fact, you have none. You just wanted me to commit to a contract I couldn’t fulfil, in the hope I take damage from the hazard dice I had to roll, and didn’t have the shield cards to mitigate them.
If this reminds you of games like Cosmic Encounter, then you’re on the right track. Knowing who you can and cannot trust is a big deal, and even then you’ll sometimes get screwed over by someone you thought never, ever would. This can be a problem for some groups. If you have players who are sensitive, or others who find it very hard to leave what happens at the table, at the table. You might find need to house-rule it. Make deals binding, something like that. Otherwise, this probably isn’t the game for you.
Non-binding agreements happen to be something I really like in games. As much as I like the mechanical dryness of a decent, crunchy Euro game, sometimes you just want something which gets the table talking and interacting more. Moonrakers hits a nice 50/50 balance between the game developing on the table, and the meta taking place above the table.
Directly comparing Moonrakers to the base game of Dominion does it a disservice, as there’s a lot more going on. As well as carefully constructing your deck of cards, there are hidden objectives for each player to chase, and a player board to consider. When it comes to the buy phase of your turn, as well as purchasing crew cards to add to your deck (which can be very powerful), you can also buy the small, square, ship part cards. You add the ship parts to your player board which give you ongoing or instant effects, and usually more of the basic cards into your deck.
This kind of limited engine-building is really clever. It doesn’t feel as important as the main part of the game, but in a game in which you’re trying to get to ten points, every little thing you can do to swing things in your favour is important. It could be that getting that third ship part manufactured by that one company is enough to complete an objective, earning you a final point, and with it, victory. It’s another of those really clever, very subtle things that Moonrakers does so well. Showing you most of how people are scoring, but not everything.
Fans of deck-building haven’t had many truly great options recently. Aeon’s End and Thunderstone Quest do a good job, but there aren’t many more that spring to mind. That’s what makes me really glad that Moonrakers exists. It’s nice to have a new game that keeps the core mechanisms of classic deck-building intact, but adds enough new things to make it feel fresh. The engine-building and negotiation don’t feel forced, or disjointed. It all melds together nicely.
I found that playing the game with people you don’t normally have in your group, can make the first few rounds feel a little stilted. It’s hard to gauge what kind of deals to propose with people, and even harder to know how people will react to having an agreement torn out from under them. Tread with care for your first few rounds. Once you get into the swing of things, however, it’s really good fun seeing who is desperate enough to help you in a deal that’s massively unbalanced in your favour.
I don’t usually talk too much about component quality in my reviews, but the bits in the box with Moonrakers are fantastic. The metal coins, little plastic ships, and even the cardstock is gorgeous. The same goes for the artwork and graphic design, it’s excellent throughout. The base game feels like a Kickstarter deluxe versoin. There’s even a comic in the box, explaining the backstory to the game. At its best with three or four players, Moonrakers is a fantastic example of a classic deck-builder with a modern twist.
Review copy provided by IV Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
Designers: Austin Harrison, Max Anderson, Zac Dixon
Publisher: IV Games
Art: Lunar Saloon
Playing time: 60-120 mins