Saturday, February 11, 2006

Blue Moon

Civil war has ripped across a fantastic world of beasts and magic. Two royal heirs, Prince Roland and Princess Elinor, each seek ascendancy to the throne of Blue Moon City, but the land is in chaos. In an outburst of violence during the ceremonial contest of succession, the two contenders lost control and slew Ordrac, the golden dragon of guidance and wisdom. With the death of the dragon, earthquakes shook the city on that Night of Doom, and the land's most holy relic, the crystal of psi, symbol of harmony and source of power, shattered into pieces.

Now the enmity between the rivals has deepened, and the two heirs enlist the aid of the eight peoples of the Blue Moon world to further their causes: the mighty Terrah, tenders of the land who control earthquake and storm; the Vulca, priests of fire and magical arts; the Aqua, guardians of water who command serpents and floods; the Flit, elusive rulers of the air striking from above; the childlike Khind, the city's crass brawlers who overwhelm with their numbers; the proud Mimix, fierce women warriors of the wilderness; the Hoax, protectors of knowledge who strike with science; and the mysterious Pillar, explorers, traders of potions, masters of the fearsome giant caterpillars. As the battle rages, successful leaders are awarded shards of the broken crystal by the three elemental dragons who guard them; when enough pieces are collected, the victor will be crowned and—it is hoped—peace and unity will be restored to the land.

Such is the setting of Reiner Knizia's two-player strategy card game Blue Moon, published in German by Kosmos Verlag and in English by Fantasy Flight games. In the game, each player is a general commanding one of the peoples of Blue Moon in battle; there are a series of fights in which players lay down cards of escalating strength, and the winners of these fights gain advantage in the tug-of-war for the three dragons' favor. When one player has run out of cards, crystals are awarded to the player who has swayed the dragons to his side, and the first player to amass five crystals is the winner.

The eight peoples of Blue Moon are each represented by their own deck of cards, and before the game begins the players will select the decks with which they will do battle. These decks are made up of four kinds of cards: Character, Booster, Support and Leadership. The most important card type is the Character, as these are the individuals who will be doing battle on the players' behalf; on a player's turn he must either lay down a character and continue the current battle or retreat. Each Character has a strength in the realms of fire and earth—for example four fire and six earth, or three fire and two earth, or even zero fire and zero earth—and these numbers are the basis for the way that battles are fought. At the beginning of a fight, a player will lay down a card, choose whether the fight will be in the realm of fire or earth, and then announce a total power within that realm, for example "four fire." His opponent must then lay down a Character card and announce a power that matches or exceeds the current total; if he is able to do so, the ball is tossed back to the first player, who then plays new cards on top of the old, announces a new power, and so forth, until one player cannot or does not wish to match the current total and so retreats from the fight.

In addition to the characters, players will also have Booster cards and/or Support cards in their decks; these are weapons, magic, monsters, forces of nature and other elements which aid the characters with additional power or by conferring other special advantages. The difference between the two types of card is how long their effects last: Boosters' effects only last for one turn, and are covered over by the next character played in the fight; Supports, however, last for the duration of the fight, and are only discarded when a player retreats. The rules governing how they are played are the same, however. On each turn after the first turn of a new fight (so as not to give the starting player too much of an advantage, presumably), players may play one Booster or Support card along with their character. Some Boosters and Supports will merely show values in fire and earth, and these numbers are simply added to the character's values (along with as any Support cards from previous turns). Instead of or in addition to values for earth and fire, Boosters and Supports can also have special power text which confers advantages on the player; they may alter the total power that may be announced, or the total power that needs to be met, or it may restrict what the opposing player may do on his next turn, or cancel the effects of other cards, et cetera. Character cards may also have special text as well, and so there is often a complex interaction among the various cards on the table.

The final card type is the Leadership card, of which each preconstructed deck has two or three. These cards confer powerful one-time advantages which are beyond the scope of power values; for example, they can allow a player to draw extra cards, or retrieve a card from the battlefield, or discard cards to attract a dragon, or remove cards from the opponent's display, et cetera. Players may play one Leadership card at the beginning of their turn, regardless of whether or not they plan to continue the current battle.

I have purposely not gone into too much detail regarding the specific rules and details of the game so as to keep the thematic strengths of Blue Moon in the forefront, but there is one particular rule which is important to highlight in order to fully convey the depth of the game play. When, during a fight, a player has laid down six Character, Booster and Support cards (not all of which need still be active), his potential gains double; if that player wins the fight, the dragons' favor is adjusted by two dragons rather than just by one. However, while one player is amassing cards, so is his opponent, and so one must always be aware of when the other player's potential reward will increase. What this means in terms of strategy is that players must constantly be judging their strength mid-fight; if weak, or if it would require the use of too many good cards to compete, one can bail out early to avoid a two-dragon loss; conversely, if a player is confident, he can try to string their opponent along so that they reach six cards and then try to deal a knockout blow. Players can even bluff by putting down a dangerous support card with nothing left in-hand to back it up in the hopes that the other player will be frightened away lest the contest drag on. What also factors into these decisions is the element in which players are fighting; the player who retreats will be starting the next fight, and so choosing whether the next contest will be in fire or earth. If one knows that he is generally strong or weak in one element or another, he can try to string the opponent along in his weak element, drop out before his opponent reaches six cards, and then make a more concerted push in the element in which he feels more confident.

Reiner Knizia's games often seem to have that "extra idea" which elevates the game from good to great. In Euphrat & Tigris, it is the balanced scoring; in High Society, it is least-money instant loss; in Amun-Re, it is the blind bidding for favors simultaneously determining economics. In Blue Moon, it is the interplay between the need to struggle in two different suits combined with the stakes-doubling of the prolonged fights. Without this concept the game would only be advanced War; with it, there is a constant need to assess one's situation, both short- and long-term. As one might imagine, there are a fair number of special powers which allow players to put down more than their typical allotment of one Character plus one Booster/Support on their turn, and these only add to the strategizing that needs to be done.

Such is the basic strategic framework for the game, and what fleshes out this system are the decks of cards themselves, for each has its own particular personality, strengths, and strategies. Each deck even has its own artist, style and color palette, and so one can usually tell which deck a card comes from just by glancing at the artwork.

The Vulca are tall, angular humanoids with multicolored fire erupting from their heads and who are rendered in deep yellows, oranges, reds, purples and blues. They are one of the more simple decks to play, as their advantage lies the strength of their characters; their numbers in fire are on the average greater than that of any other people deck. In addition, their supports tend to be negative rather than proactive in effect and frustrate their opponent's offense, for example by disallowing him to play Leadership Cards, disallowing him to play Support cards, or disallowing him to draw new cards into his hand.

The Hoax take the form of elderly scholars, painted in pale grays, blues and browns with precise detail; the characters always have books or writing as part of their accoutrements, and the supports and boosters tend to take the form of technology, from ballistae to strange science-fiction devices. They are also relatively straightforward to play, but their strength lies not in their characters' values but their cards' special power texts. Arguably some of the best cards in the game are to be found in the Hoax's deck (Tome of Wisdom, Duplicator of Strength, Brain Drain and Muster Reinforcements), and they have more Support cards than any other people. They are slightly harder to play than the Vulca because in order to compete they need to keep in their hand a good balance between Characters and Supports and Boosters.

The Mimix are fierce, feral, female warriors of the wilderness painted in a more-or-less naturalistic palette. The Mimix have fewer special-text tricks than either the Vulca or the Hoax, but their advantage is in their ability to play multiple characters on their turns, both to achieve high numbers and to more quickly reach the goal of six cards. Each Mimix is one of a pair of sisters who can be played together on one turn, and in addition there are "Free" Characters which do not count towards the typical limit of one Character per turn. In order to help the Mimix player find the mates to their cards, the deck also includes shamen who let the player draw extra cards from their draw or discard pile.

The Flit are strange, taciturn bird-men rendered in a simple, almost cartoonish style in watercolor-like tones. The Flit are one of the most unusual of the decks in that Characters make up less than half of the cards; however, most of the Characters have the "Retrieve" ability which allows them to be taken back into one's hand for reuse at the beginning of their turn. Each Character is relatively weak, but many have valuable speical power texts, and most of the rest of the deck is made up of Booster cards which can be paired together like the Mimix Characters, except that all there are not specific pairs but rather any two can be played together. These characteristics result in the Flit's being one of the most thematic decks, as the Characters will swoop in and out of battle dropping destruction from above. They are probably also one of the more difficult to play well, as one needs to make judicious use of the boosters and resist the urge to always retrieve their Characters (thus stagnating their hand).

The Terrah are men and women of a Native American or South Sea Islander look, painted in vivid reds and deep earth tones. They are the mirror image of the fiery Vulca, being strong in Earth values, and like the Vulca they have relatively straightforward Boosters and Supports that tend to hinder the opponent's free range. In addition there are also three Storm Boosters in the deck which can be used to draw the dragons' favor each turn until the opponent retreats. The Terrah are so strong and easy to play, in fact, that they are perhaps best used in handicap situations when there is a skill mismatch between the players.

The Khind are childlike creatures painted in a wry, surreal style with oversaturated reds and greens and purples and oranges popping out from chaotic backgrounds. The deck is primarily made up of Character cards, and all of these belong one of four gangs, the Cool, the Top, the Fun and the No. Individually the characters are weak, but like the Mimix and their pairs the members of a gang can all be played together and their power added, and, more importantly, one gang member can be played into a gang already on the table from the turn before and the cards are not pushed under the new play but are instead added to it. It can be difficult to mount a Khind offensive if the player is unable to draw into gangs, and so may have to tread water until he is able to collect a set, but once that player does have a healthy gang in his hand, he can be impossible to stop.

The Pillar are grim, wire-haired humans clothed in chitinous body armor and painted in browns and oranges. They are a relatively straightforward deck, like the Vulca or Hoax, but with more thematic supports; some of their Boosters are potions which increase their strength, while others are the dreaded giant caterpillars which force the opponent to discard Characters or retreat. Additionally there are giant butterflies which act as Supports or which force opponents to reveal the cards in their hand.

The Aqua are made up of amphibian women and the undersea creatures they control, painted in deep blues and greens. The Aqua is perhaps the most subtle of the decks and so the most difficult to describe, but you could sum it up by saying that there is a certain fluidity to the Aqua player's hand; there are cards that let the player discard cards, move cards to the bottom of his deck, and, most importantly, reshuffle his discard pile into his draw pile. Because of all this the Aqua have more ability to tailor their hand to the needs of the moment than the other decks.

However, it should be mentioned players need only buy as many Blue Moon decks as they wish; the base game comes with a straightforward but fascinating and replayable matchup, the Hoax versus the Vulca, and each deck can be purchased separately after that. With three decks there are three different matchups, with four there are six, with five there are ten, with six there are fifteen, with seven there are twenty-one, and between all eight peoples there are twenty-eight different matchups (or thirty-six if both players have a complete set of decks and you allow a people to fight against itself). Each matchup has been playtested, and, because of the interactions of the various cards, each has its own particular nuances. A combination that is devastating against the Flit may be harmless against the Khind, and vice versa.

If players want an additional challenge, they can incorporate deck-building into the game, although it might be more accurate to call it "deck-tweaking." Each player chooses a people* and then may swap or add in cards from other sets up to a total of thirty cards and ten 'moons', the moons being a rating of how powerful a card is (a relatively weak card may have no moons on it, whereas a very desirable card like Muster Reinforcements will be rated at four moons). If players want further leeway in the deck-building, they may buy one or both of the expansion sets, the "Emissaries and Inquisitors." These decks contain additional cards for each of the eight peoples, plus Inquisitors, which are meta-cards that allow players to have decks larger than thirty cards and ten moons and/or confer other special abilities, plus new types of cards which can be included in a deck to add new dimensions to the game and metagame (most likely in an inquisitor deck with its extra room, I would think).

This "scalable-to-interest" nature of the Blue Moon world I find very exciting; even just the base game on its own is perfectly enjoyable and highly replayable in its own right; in fact, it is just another entry in the Kosmos "Spiele für Zwei" series, and a comparatively good one at that. For just a little more variety a person could pick up a couple more decks and, as said earlier, have six different matchups to explore. Those who are captivated by the world can acquire all eight people sets and begin making their own decks, and for a more CCG-like experience they can put their creativity to the test and design something even more personalized using the Inquisitors and expansion cards. As of this writing the world of Blue Moon continues to grow, with invaders from other lands appearing for the first time, namely The Buka, and perhaps later the Phar.

The overall feel of the game is that of a struggle for which strength must be mustered, consistent pressure must be applied, and energy and advantage must be conserved for the moments when their judicious use will achieve results. The players are managing their decks of cards as they pass through them, and, unlike a war played out on a map where strength and weakness have locations on coordinates, the battlefield is that of time, where players must make the most of their forces and recognize the opportunities for triumph or disaster as they coalesce in the moment. As players get to know the decks better and better, they can plan for certain threats, count cards, look forward to certain combinations and play the odds.

As a game I feel that Blue Moon offers a great deal to those with an appetite for discovery and who like to sink their teeth into a system. There is depth, intensity and flavor; players can explore all the races, delighting in the different chemical reactions between the various reagents, or else concentrate on their favorites, studying their decks so that mid-stride they can see the continuum of force that they are marching through, passing through shuffled uncertainty closer and closer towards a known, inevitable, and hopefully prepared-for endgame. Skill and knowledge will be fearsome weapons, twin scythes cutting crosswise through the grain, but in every battle there are also moments of lightning surprise and blown kisses from fortune, turning the tide and sweeping startled armies out to sea. It is strategic...but alive.

It's rare that one has the opportunity to be present and aware as a great, sprawling creative effort is unfolding for their pleasure, being there to see each new chapter in the story as it is unveiled. Each new step on the journey brings us not merely farther, but deeper. For those who are gaming on the frontier, I highly recommend Blue Moon.


* This may be more information than is necessary, but the preconstructed sets are not purely made up of only one people; each preconstructed set contains three cards from other sets swapped in plus one mutant which does not belong to any specific people.


gnome said...

Saying this is an extensive, complete and excellent article is an understatement...

Thanks and (please) do keep your quality articles coming...

Anonymous said...

Very well done review! Even being a fan of the game, and thus already familiar with everything you said, it was still a pleasure to read. The descriptions of the decks are extraordinary. Fantastic work.