Asymmetric games, where each player has access to different abilities and ways of scoring points, are very much in vogue right now. That’s partly down to the success of cute animal tyranny simulator Root (which you can find in our roundup of the best war board games). But it’s not a new concept — it’s just very hard to design and still retain a balanced game. The latest entry in this niche is Crescent Moon, a quasi-historical game based on feuding factions in the medieval near East (see it on Amazon).
What’s In the Box
Before you even lift the lid on Crescent Moon the game is already trying to impress you with its production quality. The box art is fluid and lavish and surrounded by a gold trim. At first glance, the contents don’t seem to live up to that promise. There are some sheets of tokens to punch and some cardboard hexes to unwrap alongside a bag of wooden components and a deck of cards.
When you take a closer look at what you’ve got, the magic comes back. The cards and hexes bear the same style of art as the box cover and the wooden buildings are printed with doors and windows, some even shaped with curving minarets. As a nice touch, each faction has a printed drawstring bag to store its pieces in.
Assembled on the table it’s a striking thing, full of pastel tones and curious shapes. You assemble the map from the provided hexes according to one of a number of suggestions in the back of the book or pieced together at random. Then units and tokens are placed atop it and you’re ready to begin.
Rules and How It Plays
Approaching an asymmetric game is always a little nerve-wracking. With different rules for each player, it can be a lot to learn, as well as hard to understand how all the pieces fit together to make a whole game experience. Although moderately complex, Crescent Moon is more accessible than many of its peers, thanks to two things. First, all the 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 helpful set of player aids which include an outline of what each faction does and how it plays.
There are five factions to choose from, as befits a game that supports four to five players, each with its own objectives. The Caliph is a militaristic ruler who can build forests and castles on the cheap and seeks to subdue and control territory. The Sultan is an economic leader who can sell cards to other players and wins by founding prosperous towns and cities. The Warlord cannot build structures, but gets points for sweeping in and ransacking those of other players. Finally, the Murshid is a peddler of influence who interferes in other players’ conflicts and scores by spreading their reputation.
You may have noticed that’s only four: that’s because those are the core of the four-player experience. With a fifth player, the additional faction that enters play is the Nomad. They’re distinctive for being able to raise military units wherever they want and also for cashing in coins for victory points. But more interestingly they’re also able to hire out mercenaries to other players: indeed this is the only way the Sultan and the Murshid can get troops at all. In a four-player game cash for mercenaries goes to the bank, whereas with five it goes into the Nomad’s pockets.
This setup tells you a great deal about the kind of game that Crescent Moon wants to be. Every faction is, at least with five, in thrall to another faction to some extent. 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 at all you’d better stay on good terms with the Nomad, a key reason why this game is much more enjoyable with the full complement of five.
The key to success, then, is making deals. In keeping your enemies close and your friends closer. But with all the interdependencies in the game, this isn’t a simple matter of maintaining a peace pact until it becomes inconvenient and someone gets stabbed in the back, although you can take that route as part of your plans. In Crescent Moon, you have to forgive and forget to some extent because you’ll always need something that someone else is offering. It’s a much more subtle and realistic take on factional negotiation.
While networking may be key to your overall success, that doesn’t mean that the game is lacking in crunchy strategy. The core of this is the game’s peculiar differentiation between control, influence and presence in each map hex. The first is the standard state of having military forces there. The second is a token which indicates that your faction has a cultural or social stake in the area. The third simply indicates that you have something in the hex: influence or some kind of building. These three states mean that you can spread your power across the map in different ways. If your troops are blocked, you can still peddle influence or construction.
However, the way the factions interconnect can sometimes feel like a straightjacket, especially if other players don’t interact with you the way the game expects, such as no one wanting to buy the Sultan’s cards. Every faction is clear on what it wants to do and has specific ways to score points. So while there’s always a route to advance your goals somehow, it can be frustrating to find you’re blocked from making optimal plays. There’s also limited room for creative strategies because you’re boxed in by your faction goals. To some extent, this is all true of every asymmetric negotiation game but Crescent Moon feels more brittle than most.
Influence and control can both be contested in different ways. Combat is a straight-up calculation of the player with the most powerful forces in the hex. Influence contests are more complex, factoring in all types of pieces in the contested area and, deliciously, allowing multiple players to get involved, declaring support for the attacker or the defender. In both cases, there’s a chance to select cards in secret first which adds the needed uncertainty for an exciting conflict.