I don’t know about you, but I can never find anything through a telescope when the astronomers say we should be able to. Oh, Saturn is over here. Uh-huh. And you’ll see that comet streaking by over there. Whatever. We’re lucky if we can pick up a leaf clearly on the neighbor’s tree. If you’re as astronomically challenged as I am, then I’ve got an easier way to learn a little bit about the solar system.
How To Play
As a trick-taking card game Moons orbits the genre fairly closely, but also adds some twists to rocket up the fun. It is a plain trick-taking game with no trumps. That is, instead of capturing cards worth points, winning a trick allows you to take a moon token that is worth a point at the end of the game – more if part of a set.
Moons actually represents the satellites of Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus – the game’s four suits. Cards depict their orbiting bodies in values 1 through 14, complete with illustration and scientific factoid. There are also four asteroid cards, as well as a deck of mini asteroid cards.
Everyone begins a hand with the same number of cards, which varies depending on number of players. The rule book says to deal out the entire deck. You also get a couple of mini asteroid cards before the first hand, which provide special abilities during play or additional scoring bonuses at the end.
A game consists of multiple hands. Before beginning a round, each player chooses three cards to form their tableau, which will impact scoring. Then play begins.
The first player leads a card and all others must follow suit, if possible. The only exception is that you may instead play an asteroid, which allows you to take another mini asteroid card. If you cannot follow suit, you may throw in any card. The highest card of the suit led wins the trick and its owner may take a planet token corresponding to any of the three suits in his/her tableau. If one or more played off suit, the one who discarded the lowest card may take a planet token of that suit. The winner of a trick leads to the next.
At the end of a hand, the player who won the most tricks may take an additional planet token of any type. If you manage to avoid every trick, you may take a planet token matching any in your tableau.
Before contributing to any trick, you may first play a mini asteroid card that provides a special ability. These include swapping a card with another from an opponent’s tableau, exchanging planet tokens with someone or blocking others from messing with you.
When all players have had an opportunity to deal, or if the planet tokens are all exhausted, the game ends. Tokens score ten points for each complete set of four planets, or two points apiece for each in a three of kind or greater. Singletons are only worth a point. However, some mini asteroid cards provide for additional scoring opportunities, although planet tokens may only be counted in one set or as part of one bonus tally.
Small Step or Giant Leap?
The credited artist for Moons is actually the United States National Aeronautics Space Administration. The various moons depicted are from official NASA images and photographs. Of 90,000+ games in the Board Game Geek database, it’s the only one seeming to take advantage of the public domain imagery. So that’s pretty neat. It’s also not the only aspect that makes this design unique.
At its foundation, Moons is a basic trick taking design. There is no trump. The highest card of the suit led simply wins a trick. This makes gameplay very manageable to teach, even to the uninitiated in the genre. It also doesn’t involve bidding or contracts, which admittedly make for more nuanced, bold and strategic play, but often at the expense of clarity. On the other hand, this is a designer game, adding a few elements familiar to the hobby that make it much more than a rebooted Whist, that granddaddy of all plain, no trump, trick taking games.
First and foremost among those aspects is the set collection scoring. Since there are no individually valuable cards to capture, you’re circuitously awarded points for successfully taking tricks. Sure, you can get one point for any trick because you get to take a single planet token. But instead of just counting up your wins or getting a notch for taking a majority of them as in classics like Whist, Euchre, and the Preference group, you have the opportunity to improve your score by gathering sets. The two primary scoring collections are diversifying with a set of all four (ten points) or concentrating in one type (two points apiece for each in a set of three or more). Mini asteroid cards award bonuses for other sets – all for three of kind or less and usually with a couple extra points.
The bonuses are completely random and not one of the game’s better features. It feels disjointed from the rest of both the design’s traditionalism and long-game planning set collection. There are entire games where only one player may acquire any and, well, good for them. As for the rest of you, too bad. Still, randomness is inherent to card games, so it’s unconvincing to argue it’s totally out of place. But since there are so few opportunities to acquire them, and those also by chance, it can often feel a cruel case of double jeopardy.
The normal manner in which you collect sets, however, is wholly decision-laden and largely determined by your tableau. You will need to take stock each hand and determine which suits to construct your tableau based on which tokens you want to collect. Then again, it’s not just about making planets available to nab their corresponding tokens. The tableau also proves a very convenient way to short suit your hand. If you manage to exhaust one or two suits early, you can take advantage of earning tokens for low discards – even with mid to higher value cards that you might not otherwise get anything for later in the hand. That presents an interesting decision point that is rewarding to work in your favor.
Indeed the low off suit element is the other major twist to this traditional category. Generally the only interesting uses of worthless cards in trick taking have been to sluff them off when they’re of no value to who wins it; or in some games that allow a holder to keep the lowest card, as in most versions of Pitch. Using what would normally be considered trash to instead win point-earning tokens really opens up opportunity and strategy. Discarding can often be boring in trick taking games. In Moons it’s a new and valuable avenue.
Including the other type of mini asteroid cards seem appropriate to me, and add an interesting wrinkle to play. First of all, just using a regular asteroid card to acquire a mini one is a way to avoid following suit and save something for a later trick. But the mini cards themselves can be useful. Yes, it’s also rather random, and so may feel out of place to experienced card players. But I view it in the same light as savvy play in traditional games that force another player to dump valuable suits or cards. Whereas the sparse presence of mini asteroid cards give a disproportionate boon to holders of bonus sets, their limited use has the opposite effect on these actions. It injects some fitting interaction and additional decision-making without proving too jarring.
The combination of traditional framework and modern design elements create a uniquely satisfying trick taking game that is different enough to own, even if you have a variety of other titles in the category. One area where Moons doesn’t overcome a persistent problem that other classic and modern trick takers struggle with is scalability.
With only two players it’s completely uninteresting and, as written, laughably unwieldy. You are supposed to deal the entire deck, giving thirty to each player who then have twenty-seven to play after building tableaus. That’s just insane. But even strategy-wise it’s boring. With that number of cards the player opposite the lead will be forced to follow suit for a while, until he isn’t and then automatically gets the compensatory token for running out of a suit.
The three player game is much more effective in balancing out the low suit token distribution. I recommend one of the official online variants, however, in reducing the number of cards dealt to each player to fifteen – three for the tableau and twelve for the hand. There are some other variants that sound nice. Space Race allows you to acquire planet tokens from other players when the supply runs out, which ramps up the interaction. Therefore it’s probably not for everyone. Taking inspiration from the Ace-Ten style family like Pinochle and Jass, Apollo 8 changes up the ranking a bit by making the 8 in the suit lead the highest value card.
Moons will play to six, which is an interesting option, in theory, as trick taking games rarely go to that number. But there is a reason for that, as becomes apparent here. You simply don’t have enough cards per hand to get into the meat of the game. You’re dealt ten at a time, and play with seven after building a tableau. Invariably, one is short-suited enough to begin earning that low discard token really quickly, which negates the advantage of leading with high cards for a few tricks in order to be the sole token winner and sticking the others with nothing.
Therefore, the sweet spot is 3- and 4-player games with 5-player sessions close behind. It’s just enough to highlight the classical trick taking feel, while also making the most of the set collection and interactive elements more akin to today’s hobby games. The only other glaring omission is lack of a partnership variant. Trick taking games are fertile ground for savvy team play, and one of the major attractions they hold over board games.
Fundamentally Moons doesn’t stray far from simplistic traditional trick taking fare. It’s plain trick taking in which the highest card of the suit led wins, and there are neither trumps nor bidding. Therefore, it’s familiar enough to remain an approachable design and welcomes newcomers. Still, it manages to stand out. The reward for discarding low off suit detritus is wholly original to the genre. And the set collection scoring and asteroid cards give it a wonderful designer game personality. That adds a rewarding twist and personality that will gratify experienced card players, as well.
QSF Games provided a review copy of Moons for this review.