Full disclosure: A review copy of Moonrakers was provided by IV Games.
Alright, let’s try something a bit heavier. I do these occasionally, but they take a while to photograph and edit, so I try to do them infrequently. I still have a few in my queue that I need to finish up, actually. Castles of Burgundy, Merv, Imperium, Maglev Metro; a few others. All fun, to be fair, but all requiring a bit more time and finesse than I always have available to write them up. Moonrakers is a similar one, but, hey, I’m making a bit more time, so let’s see what we can do!
In Moonrakers, you are a group of mercenaries who each seek to become the Moonrakers’ latest leader. The only way to get there is to become the most prestigious mercenary around by fulfilling dangerous contracts and taking on challenges nobody else would ever dream of! You can rope in your opponents for temporary alliances along the way, but that might be costly. Essentially, Moonrakers is a deckbuilding and engine-building game of ship construction and contract fulfillment, challenging players to play cards that meet requirements of various Contracts to get them done. While your allies may say they’re going to help you, when the Hazard Dice are rolled and the chips are down there’s no telling which of them might stab you in the back to potentially drop your prestige, either. Completing Contracts earns you credits, which you can spend to hire new crew or upgrade your ship to take on even bigger challenges. Who will lead the Moonrakers to a new age of space outlaw shenanigans?
Player Count Differences
This one’s interesting, since I’ve managed to hit both ends of the spectrum. I’ll be up-front and say that the five-player game, especially with teach, is long. Players don’t totally have a good sense of how to value the abstract rewards of a negotiated Contract, so there’s a lot of thinking and slow-moving, early on. I think by the mid-game, players start to lock that in, but there’s definitely an advantage for players who are more able to quickly assess the value of certain types of resources and apply that. The two-player game really appeals to me, though, since I have trouble with that abstract assessment. With two, you can still negotiate with your opponent, but that will eventually and obviously fall through as soon as one of you gets more prestige points than the other. Your goal, instead, is to get to the point that you can push yourself over the finish line with a solo Contract or two. To aid that, the game gives you the Mercenary Deck, or three cards each round that are drawn randomly that you can rent with Credits (or sometimes Prestige) for the purposes of completing Contracts. It’s essentially a dummy player who always helps you in exchange for some Contract rewards. I actually really liked the Mercenary Deck. It’s got its issues (primarily around random card drawing, but you can pay to refresh the deck), but I think it makes the two-player game much more viable than it would be otherwise. I will say that the negotiation aspect will likely appeal to a lot of people, but it’s not my favorite mechanic, so I prefer playing this one at two. I feel like I can better understand how to make deals and move forward when I’m not trying to get a word in edgewise with a bundle of additional players. I think your tolerance for that kind of heated negotiation will determine your ideal player count, I think.
- I mean, don’t help the player with the most Prestige, pretty much no matter what they offer you. That seems like just a good idea pretty generally, but this is especially true towards the end of the game. Even if they’re gaining 0 Prestige off of the Contract, they might be playing you so that they can complete the remaining Objectives that they need to win (or building up money to buy cards that will help push them over the line with a solo Contract on their next turn). I’m generally wary in negotiations in games, since folks usually don’t make offers that benefit you more than them, but I’d especially be wary of deals from the current lead player.
- Just also keep in mind that refusing negotiations can piss off other players, making them less likely to invite you onto Contracts in the future. I always hear that the way to play Catan, for instance, is to routinely make trades that are mildly suboptimal for you. This way, everyone slowly sees you as the go-to person for trading, and you’re always able to get what you need. I imagine it works similarly in Moonrakers. If you’re consistently helping on Contracts, players might see you as a useful add (and maybe even add you when you just want to cycle your hand). If you’re consistently not helping, then players may be less likely to help you in the future (or demand more when they do!). It’s a tough balance to strike, but that’s true for almost any player negotiation-focused game.
- Try to make yourself an attractive ally. In the early game, I try to take Ship Parts that boost my allies’ abilities. That makes me more valuable to have on Contracts, even if my cards are terrible. Just by being there, I can often give everyone an extra card and an extra Action, both of which can be critical to success (especially on the more complex ones). If you set your ship up for that kind of play, you’re bound to get some points just by association.
- Don’t be afraid to push during negotiations; you want to be part of the mission, but don’t just work for peanuts. You’ll definitely go on a lot more Contracts if you offer to help out for free, but … that won’t win you the game. You should always demand at least 1 – 2 coins, and demand even more if you’re doing the bulk of the work. It’s a negotiation, after all; what are they bringing to the table, and how can you help?
- Also, if you need to be on the Contract, don’t be afraid to undercut players. I do hate advising this because it kind of high-key sucks, but you can pretty explicitly offer to take less money than another player if you really want to be on the Contract. It’s a great way to make another player angry with you, but it also can help you get the money you need to buy a good Ship Part or hire a Crew Member.
- Sometimes going on a Contract is a great idea just to get rid of a bad hand. Truly, I’ve asked a close ally if I can just go on their Contract with them for 0 money and 0 Prestige just because my hand is garbage and I want to dump the whole thing. They sometimes say yes! Just keep in mind that if you’re doing that, there are Crew Members that can be pretty clutch to play, and you might be helping your opponent out more than you know. There are some that grant immediate Prestige and others that let you trash cards in your hand for money. They’re great to play, and your opponent is allowed to play them if they’re on a Contract with you. So be careful! You might be getting played.
- Don’t underestimate the value of Shields. This is something I routinely forget about, but rolling the Hazard Dice can really mess you up if you happen to roll poorly, and Shields are going to be one of your few available outs for that. They’re not always incredibly convenient to play, but building up your deck so that you can mostly focus on Reactors and Shields will set you up to defend against most bad outcomes. Just make sure you have enough Thrusters to actually get those cards into your hand.
- Early-game, money and Ship Parts generally out-value prestige. Behave accordingly. Getting the right Ship Parts early in the game can get you new cards and new abilities that can be very useful for completing future Solo Missions. It’s significantly better to get a Ship Part (especially one that costs 5+) in the early game than it is to get 1 Prestige, but it may be helpful if your opponents don’t see it that way so that you can negotiate your way to it. Early money is also helpful, since you can buy more useful Crew Members (or, you know, Ship Parts).
- Watch out for diluting your deck with bad cards from Ship Parts; trashing in this game doesn’t happen frequently. Naturally, this depends a bit on the cards you get, but it’s possible that you won’t see many cards that allow you to trash other cards, so junking your deck with a bunch of Miss cards or Damage that you won’t use isn’t necessarily wise. That said, if you get Crew Cards that allow you to trash for Credits or something, it might actually be worth diluting your deck so that you have more fodder for that.
- It’s sometimes better to stay at base and get new Objectives than it is to risk taking on a Contract (and the potential Prestige loss). You still take the Hazard Dice effects if the Contract fails, which may cost you a lot of Prestige. It’s less glamorous, but if you think that taking a Contract on might be a stretch, it’s often worth it to just remain at base and grab an Objective and a money. You can get additional Prestige later and there’s no risk! Or, at least, less risk.
- There’s a huge engine-building aspect to this game; try to find groups of ship parts that synergize well together. One game I had a dream combo, one that allowed me to use Miss Cards as any card in the game, and another that let me take Miss Cards to upgrade my Damage output. That just meant that I kept filling my discard pile with Miss Cards that became functionally Wilds on subsequent turns. It was a super useful combination! There are tons like that, though, so finding which sets of abilities work well together is essentially a game in it of itself.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Oh, that graphic design is slick. It’s very cool. I like the art style and the choices made around how to show stuff on the boards and the cards. The whole game just looks kinda future-neo-space-y, and I’m a huge fan of it. I also really like how subdued the box cover is? It’s intense without being busy, and I think a lot of the game’s design aesthetic can be summarized in a similar way. I just think the whole thing looks great.
- Say what you want, but a dark-color box with gold inset foil lettering also looks pretty slick. It’s almost impossible for me to photograph well because I just don’t have that kind of talent for that, but it does look good.
- I love the engine-building elements of this game with Ship Parts. I think it’s really fun narratively to try to build your ideal spaceship, and I like the way that the Ship Parts matter for gameplay, both for their abilities and also for the extra cards that they add to your deck. They’re functionally the only way to get new cards (aside from certain Crew Members), so they’re kind of invaluable to your Whole Thing.
- I appreciate that they have a pretty solid rulebook and they even teach how to do the Action Tree that we all use for Dominion. It took me a couple passes to learn the game, but it’s a heavier game. Making the “play cards such that they branch off of your +2 Actions cards” tree explicit is also just a great deckbuilding learning tool. I still might not present this game to players new to deckbuilding, but if you’ve got friends looking for a heavier title,
- There’s a fun and diverse range of crew, which is cool. They’re from all over the place, which, as they should be in a spacefaring game.
- I just like games about space? It’s one of my favorite thematic choices. I just think that space is neat.
- The negotiation elements are super interesting, especially since you have to split the rewards in a mutually-agreeable way. I like that everyone has to agree before anyone can play anything. It resolves a lot of potential subterfuge (but, importantly, not all of it).
- I appreciate that the negotiation is limited to two potential contracts, though; otherwise, this game would take forever. The particular strong choice of suggesting a timer in the rulebook helps keep the game tight, though I would probably not recommend playing with a negotiation timer in players’ first games. They need time to examine the cards and consider the implications of Ship Parts and Crew, which is much easier when you’ve already played once. Either way, I like that there are rails in place to prevent this game from running too long.
- I was genuinely impressed by the two-player mode. Adding the Mercenary Deck as an alternate source of support is strong design work. The Mercenary Deck is essentially another fake player deck that rotates through standard cards and a few Crew Members that you can buy by spending your potential earnings. Allowing players to buy from that at two players helps the game keep moving without stalemating in negotiations that players don’t want to participate in. The one drawback is that particularly lucky draws can swing missions, but that’s still true of players drawing from their decks, as well.
- Honestly, I’m just impressed that this is their first Kickstarter. As far as I can tell, at least! This kinda goes up there with Cake Duel and Sol: Last Days of a Star for “very impressive first productions”. I’m a bit late to the party, but I’m excited to see what games they develop next!
- The insert is also very good. It’s not amazing if you suddenly switch from flat storage to vertical storage (just had to reorganize a lot of cards), but everything has a place and it’s well-marked. Makes it easy to grab
- And I really like metal coins. They make the game feel more space-y, I think. They’re a bit of a pain to stack and I always forget to grab the 3s instead of a bunch of 1s, but, I think they look great within the theme as well.
- I like the compactness of the Objectives as well. They’re simple enough to do, worth a few points if you can get them done, and it’s easy to get more. For a game where you only need 10 points, it’s nice to rattle off three or four Objectives along the way (and often, that’s a big path to victory).
- Similarly, I appreciate how straightforward the victory condition is. You just need to hit 10 Prestige points. When you do that, you win! I like that there’s not much else to it, and the rest of the game is just the challenge of actually implementing that thing. It gives the game a nice racing element and it makes it easy to see who the effective leader is during negotiations, which helps balance the game a bit.
- I was definitely thrown off by how hard the actual “deckbuilding” part of this game was. It’s not easy to actually build the deck! You really need to be buying Ship Parts or using their abilities to gain or trash cards if you actually want to be deckbuilding. It reminds me a bit of Nine Ravens, in that regard, but Nine Ravens had even less deckbuilding to it. This isn’t a bad amount of deckbuilding; I was just surprised by it.
- This box is huge (for the type of game and for the style of box). The player boards are most of the blame, here; the bottom of the box is mostly just the plastic insert and space for the cards, which makes the box deeper. This means the box is unfortunately long, wide, and deep, which can make non-KALLAX storage challenging.
- If you overindex on one type of thing, it can be challenging to pivot mid-game. That’s just the challenge of overindexing, but since deckbuilding is so challenging, it can be hard to get your deck back into a usable state if you have, say, five Shields or something. Naturally, the fix is “don’t do that”, but it would be nice if there were a way to trash cards at Base or something so you could at least speed up the process.
- I understand the appeal of allowing players to lie and betray each other during negotiations, but that just … makes the game take longer, even if you are rewarded for it with the Sabotage objective. I’m not really into that kind of gameplay style, and I don’t love that the game explicitly encourages it with the Sabotage Objective. While it may be better for more cutthroat players, it really just ends up losing players Prestige and slowing the game down, which isn’t really to anyone’s benefit. That said, if you like that kind of thing, then yeah, this will be right up your alley. You can promise cards that you don’t have and then just “whoops, sorry, I really thought I would draw those!” with basically no consequence. The only thing you can’t lie about is whatever you negotiate for the Contract; you can’t help someone and then get screwed out of money.
- This game is expansive enough that I don’t think I’d really see myself playing it with 4 – 5 players. I tried it at 5! It was a lot! There are just a ton of negotiations that you are left out of and loose alliances between players (that don’t last). I’d probably most likely stick to three or fewer for this one; the game just takes a while at high player counts and I only have so much table space.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I think Moonrakers is quite good! I’m getting into games that are a bit heavier than my usual, and I think this is a nice transition into heavier deckbuilders for players that lets you cut the game the way you want to play it. If you like loud negotiations and undercutting and counterbids, the higher player counts will let you do as much of that as you want, with a little deckbuilding and engine-building to connect the dots. If the deck and the engine are your focus, then the lower player counts allow you to have some mild negotiation but keep the focus on the game’s core mechanics and not the other player(s). There’s an artfulness to a design that’s flexible, like that, and I’m very impressed with Moonrakers. It’s not that I thought it wasn’t going to be good; it’s just, when you see a game that looks impressive and has all the bells and whistles of a fancy Kickstarter, you can be forgiven for wondering if the game itself is the draw, or if the appearance of the game is what drew folks to it. I’m pleased to say that Moonrakers, for me, is the real deal. It’s a fun game that also has great art, great components, and an impressive box, even if the box is gigantic. It’s a longer game that I’ve elected to play a few times because I find the negotiations engaging, the engine-building compelling, and the deckbuilding strategic and satisfying. I’m not as keen on lying during negotiations, but, that seems like it will only pop up with certain groups, anyways. The game makes me excited to see what the expansions have in store, as well, and every time I play I look to the Ship Parts to see if I can craft a different experience for myself in each game (even if that’s occasionally to my detriment). Moonrakers is a large, heavier title, for sure, but if you’re looking for a cool and slick negotiation game with some deckbuilding and engine-building elements, you just really like space games, or you want a game that looks as good as it plays, I’d recommend checking it out!
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