There’s a mystique about Crescent Moon. Some of this is attributable to the Eastern setting, and some to its strategically dense ecosystem. This is an opaque game, one that can be difficult to discern, but it possesses an inviting presence that is deceptive. These are the types of titles I seek, ones I can fall into, coming out the other side bewildered and perhaps even uncomfortable. These are the types that deserve to be studied.
Designer Steven Mathers must be annoyed. He’s stated that this game was primarily influenced by Eric Lang’s brilliant Chaos in the Old World, but unfortunately, it’s impossible to escape a bigger shadow.
Every review of Crescent Moon must mention Root. It’s been willed.
Root is a landmark moment in asymmetric design, working as a tentpole to increase the appeal and spotlight of the genre. It’s still kicking and receiving ongoing support and people are still playing it.
But we’ve entered a post-Root asymmetric expansion. Just like the post-war baby boom of the late 40s, we are witnessing the genesis of a proliferation of Root spawn, including titles such as Merchant’s Cove, Free Radicals, and Oath.
Even though Root was not a direct influence on the design of Crescent Moon, it certainly altered the advertisement, production, and development. Root forever changed the broader market. Just like that Leder Games production, Crescent Moon performs a similar trick of obfuscating a wargame with a very soft and affirming visual motif. This new design is able to springboard off Root’s popularity and cultural significance, despite presenting a very intricate and abrasive political conflict simulation underneath the colorful surface.
While Cresent Moon falls under the Root umbrella, it would be more accurate to describe this design as somewhere between Dune and the COIN system. Some of these comparisons are obvious. Much like Dune, this is really a game that wants to be played at a specific player count with every faction represented – five in the case of Crescent Moon. The economy and environment suffer when playing with only four, as you remove the Nomads from the game much like you’d remove the Bene Gesserit in Dune. You can also directly correlate the power dynamic between these two games, as there is a well-defined class structure with both Dune’s Emperor and Crescent Moon’s Sultan juicing a trickle-down economy. On the surface they have a stranglehold on their respective hierarchical struggles, able to overtly control much of what occurs in terms of economic development.
The economy is one of the most interesting elements of Crescent Moon. For some factions, money is tight. For others, it comes fast and easy. It’s semi-closed in that coins are minted by holding fertile land and quarries, but the bulk of currency flows between players when cards are purchased from the market.
The market itself is most similar to the Pax series of games. However, each card possesses a suit belonging to one of the factions in play. When you purchase a card, the money spent goes to that faction and remains in circulation. This is wonderful for the economic implications, but it also dovetails splendidly with an aspect of identity as cards parallel the various themes of each faction.
This is a blunt display of Crescent Moon’s fundamental underpinning of interconnectedness. It’s in this quality that the approach intermingles with the ethos of GMT’s COIN system. In that wargame series, each faction is wholly unique, leveraging their own assets and actions to manipulate the ecosystem for both economic profit as well as achieving a board state that aligns with their victory conditions. You do this by leaning into your opponent’s and allies, manipulating each other’s assets and property for gain. This perfectly describes Crescent Moon.
Unlike Root, the exploration of your first few plays won’t occur at the faction level on a mechanical basis. You won’t be futzing about with a wild sub-system like the Eyrie’s decree or Woodland Alliance’s sympathy loop. Your faction rules are not an unconventional isolated set of mechanisms, they’re a cluster of modifications to the existing framework for the most part. They’re a whole suite of special abilities that modify what is already there as opposed to conjure magic out of nothing.
This is fundamental to the play experience. While this is a complex design, the core ruleset is actually rather bare and foundational. The difficulty of interfacing to the game with your assigned faction is not one of rules process, rather, it’s one of strategy.
The core challenge of Crescent Moon is the process of discovering how to manipulate the other factions and adapt to the present situation. There is a great deal of subtlety in identifying how you connect and overlap with the various factions, where natural alliances occur, and how to use your weight to bludgeon those rising to the top. It’s a complex social dynamic fueled by various special abilities and unique scoring mechanisms.
Negotiation is paramount. This also is a COIN touchstone, as you will openly discuss various tit for tat agreements such as asking another player to protect your village so that you may both benefit from increased income. Players will openly skirt the normal market through buying cards from the Sultan at negotiated prices. The Nomad player will send mercenary troops to the highest bidder, quietly manipulating the balance of war.
You can strike all kinds of soft deals, but the constant friction and lack of formal alliances reinforces the feeling of grandstanding in a pit of vipers. Almost every deal may be violently revoked. The Sultan’s cities can be abandoned and then sacked. The Nomad can recall their mercenaries and cause them to desert. The secretive Murshid may break their promise, refusing to offer support in a key battle and instead helping your foe.
These qualities are bloody lovely.
There is a bit of a struggle here. This is not an easy game to get along with, as it’s rather unintuitive at times. There are two different types of conflict – overtly physical military battles and more abstract secretive political maneuvering – each with overlapping rules as well as key differences. There are two layers of control on the board as well, reflecting this duality of combat. Players can hold ground with warriors, or they can maintain civil influence on the area. This repeatedly tripped up players in my experience, even during subsequent plays.
Other oddities include two types of strongholds that boost military presence – forts and castles. Simply reducing this to one type would have removed two additional terms. A similar problem occurs with the Sultan’s villages and cities.
This granularity adds texture to the victory conditions and does deepen the strategy, but it creates resistance to fully internalizing a ruleset which is much simpler than its layered adornments project.
Another rough point is the combat system. The structure is actually very solid. It’s a deterministic comparison of army strengths supplemented with card play to produce numerous swings and dramatic effects. The coarseness arrives through a procedural system of assigning units to cards in order to signify that an ability has been used. It can get a little messy and convoluted as these units count as in the hex despite being on cards, and it’s not a particularly familiar mechanism. Despite being unique, it doesn’t feel particularly effective or worth the cost. I would have preferred cleaner card effects with less fiddly state tracking. Yet, the actual decision space of combat and how you build out your capabilities through navigating the card market is a fantastic approach with an intriguing premise.
Crescent Moon is also very tight in terms of action economy. You have 12 total actions over three rounds. That doesn’t sound restrictive until you spend an action building a single fort or buying a couple of a cards. A solitary market action eats up roughly 10% of your entire activity over a 2-3 hour session, so you better make it count.
This forces interesting decisions and helps to support the constant tension at work, but it can also drive poor performance while players are learning the intricacies of the wider economic interplay between different facets of the game. Early efforts can be quite poor for this reason, pushing you into dire straits strategically. It also occasionally neuters more interesting plays, instead forcing you into more narrow avenues to collect what points you can before the final sun sets.
Some of these issues I can’t shake, but I do get along with the early struggle of internalizing the incongruencies in such designs. Learning these types of games is a journey with glimmer on the horizon’s edge.
One reason why I really admire titles of this ilk is that the experience of play feels far removed from process. Another way to put it: in the most beautiful moments of expedition, I come to be not playing a game at all. Instead, I’m inhabiting a shared social and cognitive space of engagement and discord. It’s really the magic of play and everything it promises to be.
I don’t think this title is quite as impactful or novel as Root. It’s not as legendary or narratively rich as Dune. It’s not as vivid or delightfully entangled as COIN. And it’s not as sophisticated or regal as Pax Pamir 2nd edition. If pressed, I would choose all of those before this. But it is strangely haunting, and it is Crescent Moon.
Sometimes I get lost in thought. These games do that to me.
Crescent Moon could be specified as the most proper Osprey board game. I think many in the tabletop space aren’t even aware that Osprey has been a publisher of books on military history for over five decades. This tabletop design astutely pairs their thorough commitment to historical literature with their beautifully produced board game aesthetic.
And the end result is something bold and weird.
Despite paralleling several other influential designs and squarely riding the post-Root asymmetry boom, this one feels rather esoteric. I’d liken it to a cultural artifact to be studied in some sense, a relic of foreign thought and land.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.