Asymmetrical games, where each player has access to different abilities and ways to score points, are very popular right now. That’s partly thanks to the success of cute animal tyranny simulator Root (which you can find in our roundup of the best board war games). But it’s not a new concept – it’s just very difficult to design and maintain a balanced game. The latest entry in this slot is Crescent Moon, a quasi-historical game based on rival factions in the medieval Near East (see on Amazon).
What’s in the box
Even before you lift the lid on Crescent Moon, the game is already trying to impress you with its production quality. The box art is flowing and sumptuous and surrounded by gold trim. At first glance, the content doesn’t seem to live up to that promise. There are sheets of tokens to punch and cardboard hexagons to unwrap alongside a bag of wooden components and a deck of cards.
When you take a closer look at what you have, the magic returns. The cards and hexagons carry the same art style as the box lid and the wooden buildings are printed with doors and windows, some even shaped like curved minarets. As a nice touch, each faction has a printed drawstring bag to store their coins.
Assembled on the table, it’s a striking thing, full of pastel tones and curious shapes. You assemble the map from the hexes provided according to one of the many suggestions at the end of the book or pieced together at random. Then the units and tokens are placed on it and you are ready to start.
Rules and how it is played
Approaching an asymmetrical game is always a little annoying. With different rules for each player, it can be difficult to learn and understand how all the pieces fit together to create a complete gaming experience. Although moderately complex, Crescent Moon is more accessible than many of its peers, thanks to two things. First, all players choose from the same palette of actions, it’s just that each faction only has access to a subset of them. Second, there’s a useful set of player aids that include an overview of what each faction does and how they play.
There are five factions to choose from, as befits a game that supports four to five players, each with their own goals. The Caliph is a militaristic ruler who can build forests and castles inexpensively and seeks to subjugate and control territory. The Sultan is an economic leader who can sell cards to other players and earn by founding prosperous cities. The warlord cannot build structures, but gets points for sweeping and ransacking those of other players. Finally, the Murshid is an influence peddler who interferes in the conflicts and scores of other players by spreading their reputation.
You may have noticed that there are only four of them: that’s because they’re central to the four-player experience. With a fifth player, the additional faction that comes into play is the Nomad. They are distinguished by their ability to raise military units wherever they want and also to cash in coins for victory points. But even more interestingly, they are also able to rent mercenaries from other players: indeed, this is the only way for the Sultan and the Murshid to obtain troops. In a four-player game, mercenary money goes to the bank, while in a five-player game, it goes into the nomad’s pockets.
This setup tells you a lot about the type of game Crescent Moon wants to be. Each faction is, at least with five, under the sway of another faction to some degree. Card purchases enrich other players, especially the sultan. Aggression risks the Murshid getting involved and tipping the scales one way or another. And if you want mercenaries, you better stay on good terms with the Nomad, a big reason why this game is much more enjoyable with the full complement of five.
So the key to success is to make deals. By keeping your enemies close and your friends closer. But with all the interdependencies in the game, it’s not just about keeping a peace pact until it gets awkward and someone gets stabbed in the back, although you can go that route in part of your plans. In Crescent Moon you have to forgive and forget to some extent because you will always need something that someone else gives you. It’s a much more subtle and realistic approach to factional bargaining.
While networking may be key to your overall success, that doesn’t mean the game lacks crunchy strategy. The heart of this is the game’s particular differentiation between control, influence, and presence in each hex on the map. The first is the standard state of having military forces there. The second is a token that indicates your faction has a cultural or social interest in the region. The third simply indicates that you have something in the hex: an influence or some kind of building. These three states mean that you can distribute your power across the map in different ways. If your troops are pinned down, you can still peddle influence or construction.
However, the way factions interconnect can feel like a straightjacket at times, especially if other players aren’t interacting with you as the game expects, such as if no one wants to buy the Sultan’s cards. Each faction is clear on what they want to do and have specific ways to score points. So while there is always a way to achieve your goals one way or another, it can be frustrating to find that you are being held back from making optimal plays. There’s also little room for creative strategies as you’re limited by your faction’s goals. To some extent, all of this is true for all asymmetric trading games, but Crescent Moon seems more fragile than most.
Influence and control can both be challenged in different ways. Combat is a direct calculation of the player with the strongest forces in the hex. Influence Contests are more complex, taking into account all types of pieces in the contested area and, delightfully, allowing multiple players to get involved, declaring their support for either attacker or defender. Either way, cards can be selected in secret first, adding the uncertainty needed for exciting conflict.