Full disclosure: A review copy of Nova Luna was provided by Stronghold Games.
I was actually pretty excited to get a chance to review this one! I had been fortunate enough to get taught it a while ago at Nettersplays‘ place. Jon was really enthusiastic about it and taught me how to play, and I thought it was a nifty game. It reminded me a lot of Habitats (a game I quite enjoy) and Patchwork (a game I quite enjoy), so I looked up the designer. It’s … the designers of Habitats and Patchwork, teaming up for a game. I imagine it went sort of like people finding out that peanut butter and pretzels work well together. So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it plays like it does? I think I’m mixing a bit too much of the second paragraph into the first paragraph. Anyways, the opportunity arrived to review Nova Luna and here we are, with a fresh new review. Shall we dive right in?
In Nova Luna, you … want to fight the moon? No, wait, it’s an abstract game. Oh well. Games without lore make this section difficult, but since it’s a mini-review anyways, I’ll just go right into the mechanics. You and the other players seek to get rid of your tokens by completing goals written on tiles. Each turn, you may choose to take one tile and add it to your tableau. But nothing’s free; while you don’t pay with money, you do pay with time, and as a result you may not always take turns in order. As I said, tiles have goals printed on them, and completing a tile’s goal is as simple as making sure it’s connected to tiles of the right colors. Do that, and you can place a token on it. Place them all, and you win! It’s as simple as that, in theory. In practice, you’ll have to manage which turns you take, which tiles you seek, and the luck of the draw if you want to come out on top in this cunning abstract game. Will you be able to make full use of your new tile selections? Or will you just end up waning?
Player Count Differences
The game changes a lot at different player counts, mostly because of how taking tiles works. At lower player counts there’s some level of predictability, since you’ve got a decent idea of your opponent’s possible range given how far ahead of them you are, and that lets you figure what they may take and what will be available for you. At higher player counts, essentially, all bets are off. There’s no way to really nail down what tiles they’re planning to take because player two’s choices affect player three and both of their compounded decisions reflect back at you. It’s complicated! It’s a fair bit of player interaction beyond the typical “you can take what someone else wants” school of Minor Player Interaction, and I think that’s pretty interesting! It does increase the chaos of the game, though, so, if you’re looking for a game where you have a good sense of predictability vis a vis what your opponent is going to take, I’d recommend the two player version. If you’re looking for a more unpredictable and chaotic game, I’d recommend it at three players. Four is … very hard to track, for me, so I wouldn’t necessarily pick this title for a four-player game.
- Try to group your tiles of one color together as much as you can (to a point). Generally speaking, there are a fair number of tiles that really like having tiles of one color nearby. Naturally, this isn’t going to always hold in practice, but it can get you decently set up for certain tiles, depending on how you space them out. After four or so of those tiles in a block, though, you can move on; there aren’t any tiles that want more than that.
- Also keep in mind that generally you’ll want to take a fairly diverse set of tiles. Usually this leads to players specializing in a couple colors and only taking tiles that force them to go deep. If you can make a wide strategy work (taking tiles that require fairly in-depth mixes of tiles), it might be able to work, but the temptation to just go after color blocks is often a bit too strong for players to refuse, in my experience.
- If your opponent gives you an opening, take it. Generally, an opening here would be them taking a 7 and potentially giving you multiple free turns, especially if there are 1 or 2 tiles still available. If you can take a bunch of tiles, even if they don’t necessarily score right way, you may be better off than your opponent, depending on what they got.
- Try to always force your opponent into letting you be the one to refresh the board. It gives you a wider variety of options in a space where your options have dwindled significantly, and that’s usually a good idea, especially if the remaining tiles can’t help you. Just keep in mind if your opponent plays you and sticks you in a spot where even if you refresh, you’ll still only have those three tiles as an option, that you might try to hurt them back.
- That said, it’s not always critical that you refresh; it can just potentially help you a lot. Sometimes you don’t want to put a bunch of new tiles between you and the tile that you want. If that’s the case, let your opponent refresh; hope it was worth it!
- Remember that you don’t have to play perfectly; you just have to do well enough to run out of tokens. This is something that I think a lot of our more minmax-prone friends forget; the game isn’t about playing the best. It’s a race, and you can win a race even if you don’t always pull the perfect tile. That said, careful running a greedy algorithm and continually taking expensive tiles; that can also backfire.
- The critical tension of the game is that “cheaper” tiles tend to be harder to fulfill and more “expensive” tiles tend to be easier to fulfill. Your goal as a player is to figure out where to balance those needs. I tend to start with cheap tiles until I have a good base, and then I pull more expensive tiles when I can fulfill 2 or 3 goals in one placement. Strictly speaking, I try to optimize along the “spots covered vs. time spent” curve, and I find thinking about it that way helps me out a lot.
- Watch out for times where you give your opponent(s) multiple consecutive turns in a row. This can be the kiss of death, especially towards the end of the game. If you let them have multiple turns in a row, they may place four tokens before you get another turn. If they only have three left, well, you’re dead in the water, right?
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- It is a very pretty game. It’s got a very sort-of ornate quality to it, like an older game that you’ve just pulled out of the attic. I like it and Illimat for that; it evokes a strong emotion as though it’s a family heirloom. I wish more games went for that aesthetic; it really works.
- Clever puzzler. It’s got a lot of different things that you need to optimize if you want to be successful, and adds in a splash of color and some cool adjacency rules. I think it’s a solid title.
- Decently easy to teach. Usually players can snap to this one after a few turns, but I usually run them through an example of how it works and how tile placement / token placement works to give them a bit of a warmup before we get the proper game started.
- I find combo-based games pretty satisfying. You really can set down a tile and have it fire off four other tiles, which is nice. It’s not really much of a “combo”, since it only has one stage, but it lights up the pleased parts of my brain in a similar way to landing a good combo.
- I also enjoy the spatial elements of this game. It is nice to see how the layout of your tiles changes and expands as you play the game; you really do always end up with a very different post-game setup each time you play.
- At its core, it’s pretty solidly a combination of Patchwork and Habitats (which makes sense, given the designers of both Patchwork and Habitats … made it), and I like both of those games quite a bit. I think I may like them individually better than this one, but that may come down to those two games having themes that I prefer to this one, as well. Like, who doesn’t want to build a very specific zoo? I want to build one, even now.
- Having a shorter introductory game is a smart design choice. Yeah, I think that’s definitely something that is good for these kind of spatial / puzzle games. Players pick it up pretty quickly, but it also lets you surreptitiously gauge how vulnerable players are to analysis paralysis, which is definitely worth knowing for games like this.
- The tensions of the game change drastically with more than two players. I really like how much different it is at three players, since your options change much more rapidly. It makes it harder to plan what you’re going for, which hopefully helps players play a bit more quickly. In all likelihood, though, players will just offload any decision-making until their turns, which will slow the game down a bit. But I appreciate that it introduces a very different tension to the game!
- Random tile draws may leave you unable to get the tile color that you want for a while. This is kind of frustrating, but thankfully it doesn’t happen that much. You may end up in situations where every player wants, say, a yellow tile, and no yellow tiles currently are available. This means that you now have to wait until a refresh happens and hope that a yellow tile is one of the ones available to you on your turn, especially if other players are also going for a yellow tile (or they just see that that would help you out).
- It’s possible to screw yourself over pretty hard and be unable to recover, given the gap between you and your opponent. It’s a bit of a racing game and you can fall too far behind to recover; there’s not much in the way of a catch-up mechanic beyond the time thing, so if you don’t make full use of that then you’re going to get stomped.
- Any insert would have been nice. The tiles just kind of flop in the empty box; I’m definitely not loving that aspect of it.
- For a spatial game that somewhat lends itself to analysis paralysis, I wish the decision complexity decreased or stayed neutral instead of strictly increasing over the course of the game. As you add on more and more edges, there become more and more places to place tiles, which can cause a lot of decision trouble for players that struggle with that sort of thing. As a result, I tend toward playing this game at two players with other people who tend to make snappy decisions, otherwise you’ll be there for an hour.
- I wish the theme did anything for me. I don’t think I totally “get” it? I’ve been told this is very much a me problem.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I think Nova Luna is a lot of fun! I think one of the places where it falls flat for me is thematically. I think that might be a need for me to push games beyond the “good” or “great” to the fantastic? That said, I do enjoy games with so-so themes, so, hard to say. I think, for me, I see this game as the sum of two other games I quite enjoy: Patchwork and Habitats. But I ever-so-slightly prefer those games’ themes, so it’s hard for me to see Nova Luna as a value add beyond them. This is sounding pretty down for an otherwise very positive review score, though, so let me change my tune a bit. While the theme isn’t it, for me, I do really like the art style! It looks like a fancy game, and I could definitely see a like, Classy Wood Edition of this game being a piece that lot of people would like to have. I guess we’re still in the realm of board games as conversational pieces, even if they don’t necessarily make sense being that since like, you can’t invite other people over to the house to see the conversation piece. But I’m digressing, again. Part of the problem with writing some reviews at 2AM? Let’s focus up. Gameplay? It’s solid, in my opinion. It’s a good mix of Habitats’s adjacency rules (chains of the same color can be counted) and Patchwork’s time-management rules (certain tiles are “more helpful” but “more expensive”, and the time you spend determines how many additional turns you get). You don’t always see many clever fusions of two games, but it’s nice to see a title that really gets it (Realm of Sand [interestingly, another Patchwork hybrid] also lands this, in my opinion). It seems like a particularly good title for two players to go head-to-head, provided neither of them experience analysis paralysis. If they do, it’s going to be a tough time for … the other player. I wish there were a way to better resolve the randomness of the tile draws, but, that’s random tile draws for you. If you’re looking for a clever puzzler, a beautiful decorative piece, or just a fun game for a couple players, though, I think Nova Luna is worth checking out! I’m looking forward to playing it again.