WBG Score: 8.5/10
Player Count: 1-5
Published by: IV Games
If you like the back-and-forth nature of the negotiations in Comic Encounter and the deck-building aspects of games like Clank and Dominion, then you are going to love Moonrakers! I have not played a deck-building negotiation game before, but I loved the sound of these two mechanisms being merged in this way. After multiple games I have not been disappointed. Moonrakers is a fantastic game.
The game has a wonderfully illustrated graphic novel within the box detailing the backstory to this game, and you can get lost within this brilliantly constructed world if you want. But the basic premise is to get to 10 points before your friends by developing your deck, negotiating alliances, and clever card play. The theme is fun, and well implemented, but this game shines from the well executed game play and an original blend of mechanics.
How to play Moonrakers.
Moonrakers, like all deck builders, starts slowly. In the beginning you will have a standard hand of cards offering limited options. On your turn, you can choose to either remain at base to claim one credit and a new objective or you can attempt one of the eight available contracts. Contracts can be attempted on your own or with the help of one or more of the other players. Each contract offers a mixed reward of points, credits and free upgrade cards. You must offer out suitable rewards to entice other players to come to your assistance, but beware, their offers may not always be genuine!
The contract cards require a certain mix of specific cards to be played in order to meet their requirements. A mix of thrusters, damage, crew, shields, reactors etc. Your deck starts as ten uniform cards which you will shuffle and deal five cards to make your starting hand. However, on your turn, you only have one action! This is where reactors come in. They allow you to gain two extra actions, so you generally need to start your turn with one of these cards being played. The thrusters are a popular second card to play, they allow you to draw two more cards from your deck into your hand. Damage cards create damage, shield cards block damage to you, and the miss cards are blanks you need to try and remove from your deck as soon as possible.
How to Set up Moonrakers.
The set-up for the game, as displayed above for a two-player is simple. All the mats are clearly labelled and the iconography is exemplary. It clearly shows you where to place each card, how many to lay out, and what you need have in your starting hand. I love these boards.They look great but are also highly functional.
The cards are the only down side to the game. They are very glossy and with a game that uses a lot of cards, its hard to keep everything as neat as above. They are very skiddy! I encourage you to embrace the chaos and get stuck in, especially in a four or five player game! And in truth, that is where this game shines. It works fine in solo and two-players, but you need the higher player counts to really allow the engines of this game to run at their maximum. It's all about negotiations, and in a four or five player, this is where the fun really happens. I say fun, I mean arguments. Which in this game... are fun!
The Strategy of Moonrakers.
Similarly to Cosmic Encounter, players rely on their negotiating skills to do well in this game. You won't be able to complete many contracts at the start of the game on your own. And later on in the game, you wont be able to complete many of the higher scoring contracts without help from your friends. But when you start to get close to the end-game, people will obviously not want to help you as much. Especially if you are looking to take the points. Players need to offer the points to other players in order to take the credits themselves in order to advance their deck to a stage where they can later complete the missions alone.
Like all deck-builders, as much as the game can start slowly, it ramps up quickly! Ending the game unexpectedly when on five points by completing a five point contract on your own is not out of the question. In a race to ten points, getting 50% of your required points in one turn is obviously huge. But doing so, requires time to build up your powers. The early rounds is all about forming temporary alliances. If you cannot reach an amicable resolution in your negotiations then you can try again with another contract. But if this also fails, then you must either go alone and try to complete the mission without any help, or stay at base.
This perhaps is where the game falls down a little for me. There are no real consequences to failing a mission other than not getting the rewards from the contract. It is not always certain if you can complete contracts or not when looking at your starting hand. Most of the time you need more than just the five cards in your hand, so you are relying on thrusters to get you more cards from your deck. But of course, you don't know exactly what will come when. There is some guess work here.
Let's take a real game example. You need one more thruster than what you have in your hand to compete a mission, and you know there are two more thrusters in your deck of seven cards. The odds are in your favour, especially as you will be playing two thrusters from your existing hand which will allow you to pick up four more of those seven cards. 4/7 chance sounds good enough to me so most players would attempt this alone. Although of course, it doesn't always work out like that and I had this exact scenario and I did not draw the extra thruster or another card that could help. I failed the mission, one that statistically speaking I entered into in good faith. But failure just means you don't get the points, and in a game where most of the time you only get one or two points anyway, this doesn't seem to be that bad. As such, failing a contract has limited jeopardy. Deciding on entering one that is a little risky doesn't create enough tension. Players are not encouraged enough to partner with other players to increase their chances. Equally, winning a contract does not generate as much joy as I would have liked.
Where the tension comes from in Moonrakers.
Where the game does bring in the tension is with the damage dice. Each contract asks you to roll zero to four damage dice. There are more damage dice with the higher reward contracts. You can divide these up among the allies helping you this round as part of the negotiation just like the points and credits so you don't have to roll them all yourself. You can block the damage from the dice with shields, but if you don't, each damage counts as one negative point, which can be huge. Some contracts require shields to be played anyway, and these will count towards your damage dice too if required.
But some contracts don't need shields, and you may be attempting a contract without any shields in your hand as you only need to roll one damage dice and feel the risk is negligible. You could then roll two damage on this one die and see yourself in quite a tight spot. This is the suspense and excitement I would like to see in all missions simply from the danger of either succeeding or failing at it. The damage dice go a long way to correcting this issue, but I feel a bigger punishment from failure would encourage more negotiations and a hugely heightened sense of achievement when successful.
Time to build your deck!
Once you have finished a contract, either successfully or not, you can then head to the shops. There are ship upgrades available as well as new crew members to recruit. The crew cards go into your discard ready to be shuffled back into your hand in a later round. They offer some exciting new powers and can significantly develop your hand. The ship cards are placed on your own personal player mat and offer constant powers as well as bringing extra cards into to your hand based on the symbols in the top right.
Developing your hand and powers in this way is crucial to successfully navigating the more treacherous contracts, and surviving on your own later in the game. This is where the game does deliver a real feeling of achievement. It feels great to start a round with two actions instead of one, or to have a larger starting hand due to your upgrades. I enjoy the development of power, and the cards are all priced relativity low so I find in most games you can purchase one new card each round. I end most games with a surplus of credits. As such, this is more a race to get the cards you want more than a race to save up the required credits. With three crew and six ships parts always being shown face up, if a powerful card is shown, it is unlikely it will stay in the shop window for long!
Each player could take a different strategy though of course. It may well be that one persons dream card does not work as well for another player. You could be focusing on developing your ability to create high damage to take on the contacts that require that. As such, a card that helps you with other areas is not as attractive to you. Players developing different skills this way create better opportunities for alliances. If you become aware that another player offers the things you don't, very fruitful partnerships can be formed.
In the race to ten points, working with other players in the early and middle stages of the game is crucial. You don't want to get left behind from a refusal to negotiate. However, as the games' tension ramps up, your trust in other players will start to wain. When another player agrees to help you, their full and unbridled support cannot always be guaranteed. Players may offer help in order to sabotage your own attempts as they see you as a threat. Or, simply they offer their partnership in order to flush their current hand. Wasting a weak hand on your turn so they have a better hand on their own. Be weary of players accepting deals that don't appear to work for them, or those too eager to reach a deal just that little bit too quickly!
I have found this element of the game to only really come in to play when playing with those more familiar with each other, or in game two or three. Players generally want to be nice to other people in games. More so on game one. But game two... all bets are off! It often transpires that someone will eventually double cross another player. And of course, as in life, once the flood gates open, there is no stopping the tide of treachery! This where the game really shines. When playing Moonrakers I try to encourage players to remember this is a negotiation game with semi co-operation in temporary alliances. Bluffing, double-crossing and down right skulduggery is encouraged! Of course with younger players or those who find this side to games less than appealing, you can always house rule this out of the game. (Or is that a bluff too?)
Outside of the deck-building and negotiation, what stands out for this game is the card play. Being able to complete a contract using your powers, acquired crew, and clever order of cards is very satisfying. You will often be sat staring at your hand, thinking to yourself, how can it be that with only five cards, the correct order in which to play them so easily escapes you! But when you figure this out, and get it right, it feels great. Other players will be invested in watching this too. Either they will be in a temporary alliance with you and cheering you on, or watching from afar, wishing ill luck on you as you draw two more cards after a thruster. Screaming for just one more shield! Attempts at contracts are quick, so the wait is never long, and even in a five player game I found myself to be constantly involved and always fully engaged.
Playing Moonrakers is a lot of fun. I would say it is now one of my favorite deck-building games and in my top three for negotiation games. The merging of these two mechanisms works brilliantly, and the game really has executed the balance between working solo and forming semi co-operative alliances very well. As I mentioned, the only issue I have other than the shiny cards, is the lack of genuine tension in a missions success or not in the early part of the game. But come the end, when players are one or two missions away from victory, this tension very much exists in abundance.
I would recommend this game to anyone who enjoys clever card play, or games that encourage direct and constant interaction with other players. I very much look forward to trying the new expansion for this, and cannot wait to get it to the table again.