As the Caliph stared out of their palace window, over the deserts, rivers, quarries and mountains, four voices on the wind greeted them. “This land ain’t big enough for the five of us,” the winds whispered. Peace, it seems, is a delicate fulcrum. The balance of power in this land is only ever one angst-ridden touch away from teetering one way or another.
Crescent Moon, by Osprey Games, is an asymmetrical area control game. Five different factions compete to dominate the lands of the Middle East in the 10th century. It’s inevitable that a game of this nature gets slung into the same sentence as Leder Games’ phenomenon, Root.
So: is that an unfair comparison? I can confirm Crescent Moon has taken an iota of inspiration from Root. Could it be the next big thing? Does it go as far as usurping Cole Wehrle’s crown?
An Ambitious Project, Full Of Potential
The first thing to note about Crescent Moon is that it’s for 4-5 players, only. With four, participants play as the aggressive Warlord, the wealthy Sultan, and the ambitious Caliph. Then there’s the mysterious Murshid, whose main weapon is manipulation and influence.
When you add a fifth player into the mix, they play as the Nomad. Their angle is they can lease their soldiers out to the other players – for a pretty price. Factions also play in this specific turn order.
You create a map of terrain hexes – 13 hexes for four players: 16 hexes for five. There are five different suggested layouts, recommended for your first few times playing. These set-ups also have a default starting positions on them for the factions. You and your opponents fight over this land, aiming to control areas of it at the end of each ‘year’.
Crescent Moon is an action selection affair, which results in a victory points battle. Each player aims to score as many points as they can over three or four ‘years’ (rounds). Three is the ‘short’ game, with four being a longer variant. Each year has four turns. The short game consists of players taking 12 turns, scoring at the end of the fourth, eighth and twelfth. Each faction scores points in different ways, as well as having contrasting attributes.
Depending on your faction of choice, you’ll also start with varying resources. (Quantities of units, forts, castles, and Influence Tokens.) Each player gets a four-page A4 rules book about their faction. Straight away, you realise this is an ambitious project, full of potential. But can it deliver?
Tabletop Politics And Dodgy Deals
The core gameplay is deciding which action to take on your turn, in about 10 or so. You can attempt to place Influence tokens in neighbouring hexes. Some factions want Influence in hexes to earn points at the end of the year. The Warlord, for example, wants them to play their unique ‘Mass’ action. It lets them add one military unit into every hex they currently Influence.
This can result in a card contest between two factions, since only one can hold Influence per hex. During a contest, the attacker and defender play cards simultaneous, to boost their chance of resolving the fight. Plus, the Murshid faction is always on the lookout for exploitation.
If they border an Influence contest, they too can get involved. Not to win the contest, per se, but to sway the outcome. They can charge [up to five] victory points to help swing the contest, by playing cards in favour of one faction. (Or not, in some cases; bluffing is an effective strategy!)
A lot of Crescent Moon is tabletop politics, talking dodgy deals and playing your opponents against each other. Some factions have symbiotic relationships. The Murshid’s main shtick is trying to poke their nose into every deal going. They rely on having a hand of cards to help them decide certain outcomes. Buying those all-important cards is another action everyone can take.
There are four different card markets, with varying prices for cards. Each faction has its own themed cards, shuffled into one deck and then dealt out across these markets. For one action, you can buy one card per market. Want to buy your own faction’s colour card? You pay the supply half the price. Want another faction’s card in the market? You pay that faction themselves the full price.
The Murshid’s faction has the most cards in the deck with 68 cards (54.4%). This tends to be how the Murshid earns money. Meanwhile, the Caliph only has 15/68 cards in the deck (22%). The Warlord and Nomad have fewer cards still, only 8/68 (11.8% each).
The Sultan has no dedicated cards, but they do control their own private market. They decide the exact price for cards here. They themselves can buy those cards for free, and they can price certain players out of that market. The Sultan earns a lot more money during the Income phase of each year. They alone can construct towns and cities, which earns them coins – other players can’t.
Yes, building is an action, too. This costs coins, with players looking to build forts and castles in hexes. They’ll do this for certain victory point conditions – especially in and around the Holy Site hex. (This is the most coveted area on the map; every faction wants to control this come to the end of the year.)
If you control hexes of particular terrain types at the start of a year they can earn you income. These buildings also count as combat strength, in case a rival faction tries to invade that hex and take over. That’s the Warlord’s philosophy, after all. Why build stuff yourself when you could claim or destroy the buildings of others?
As well as strongholds, you’ll need to recruit troops. The Murshid and the Sultan can hire them from the Nomad. The Warlord and the Caliph have other methods of gaining troops. Hiring is a separate action, as is moving them from hex to [empty] hex. As is moving troops into a hex controlled by another player. Then combat (with cards) occurs; and, once again, the neighbouring Murshid can get involved…
Objectives: Earn Yourself Some Crescent Presents
All factions have asymmetrical objectives that they’re aiming to complete by the end of Year One. This is a one-chance opportunity. Fail to complete this at the end of Year One and the moment’s gone. Each faction also has other objectives in their booklets that they’re shooting for. You can complete these come to the end of every year. This is when players earn victory points chits, which they keep face-down. You perform a big points tally reveal at the end of the third (or fourth) year to determine the winner.
Essentially, the Warlord’s looking to score points by winning combats. Attacking enemy units, and sacking (removing from play) other factions’ buildings. The Murshid is all about Influence Tokens. They want their fingers in as many hex-shaped pies as possible. That, and they nibble away at points with every successful contest they help win. The Sultan wants to build lots of cities and control them. The Caliph wants to control as much of the land as possible.
The Nomad can buy points at the end of the round, and they can earn quite the fee by hiring out their mercenaries…
So… How Does One Attempt To Teach This?
By this point, you’re either nodding your head in excitement about what kind of game Crescent Moon offers. Or, you’re rabbit-in-the-headlights confused, overwhelmed by information overload.
When I first learned about Crescent Moon, I’m not ashamed to admit I was in the latter camp. I read the rulebook and felt… panicked. ‘How the heck am I supposed to teach this?’ I thought, in the build-up to a games night.
Games like Root, or Crescent Moon, are not mere pick-up-and-play titles. They demand that all players invest a lot of attention into the preamble. I’m not talking about setting up the board. I mean everyone has to digest their own set of actions, unique attributes, and how they score points. For your first time playing, this is not a quick process.
To me, Root is actually more asymmetrical than Crescent Moon with regards to the factions. But somehow, I grasped the rules for Root a lot quicker than I did Crescent Moon. With Root though, there’s an example first eight turns in the rulebook.
This talks you through two rounds (so two turns each) for all four factions. It’s brilliant: it tells you exactly what to do, explaining the examples of what’s happening and why. Then you’re free to play on from that structured starting point. Or you can reset and start again, now you understand what’s going on.
This isn’t provided in Crescent Moon, but boy: I wish it was. The rulebook is not easy to digest. Not because it’s 24 pages long. I’ve read hundreds of rulebooks for complex Euro-style strategy games before.
This fails with there being too much text and too few visual examples. It uses faction iconography to inform which can perform what actions. But the lack of diagrams results in desperate thumbing through the pages, trying to locate answers. Gameplay got halted time and time again as we attempted to remind ourselves.
And then there’s everyone’s individual actions, attributes and objectives. They’re all listed in your faction’s rulebook, which is cute and all but isn’t as practical as I’d like. Your objectives are on the inner spread of this booklet, while your actions are on the front cover.
This means you have to keep opening and closing it dozens of times per game. It becomes dog-eared, quick-snap. One whole page on the inside is advice on how to play your faction, disguised as flavour text. It feels clunky in comparison to Root, which instead uses an action board. All the information you need in Root is on that single-sided board. Not here.
This also resulted in us not fully grasping what everyone’s faction’s objectives even were. How certain factions were scoring points at the end of the year came as a surprise to some players. The information is as good as hidden (inside those booklets). The key issue here is lack of public communication, about how your opponent can win. It comes as a nasty surprise to the uninitiated.
Your Grip Of Power Is Only Ever Temporary
Other issues I stumbled across were the punishing action economy. If you play the three-year game (12 rounds), you have to squeeze every last drop of efficiency out of each turn. Sometimes your turn is merely buying cards. One of the Sultan’s actions is to refresh his own market, which feels particularly harsh!
If you’re new to the game and you don’t quite grasp it from the get-go, you could waste precious time by performing the ‘wrong’ actions at the wrong time. Then you’re going to struggle to catch up. You can’t afford to fall one turn behind. Everyone at the table agreed they wanted to do a bit more on their turn. And not in an ‘Ahh, if only I had one more turn!’ kind of way.
Like any area control game, your grip on power is only ever temporary. In a five-player game, in the four turns between your last move, the board looks like a wildly different landscape. You can’t plan out turns in advance. You have to react. This means it’s a major blow to the chops when the last action you took is now moot. Especially when, as I mentioned, you can’t afford to waste them.
You could argue that “Well, you should play the four-year game then, if you want more actions!”. Of course, adding the extra year in adds a lot more time onto the game length. The irony is, when you play Root, you might have less than 12 turns.
But in Root, you’re not trying to manipulate the board by the end of turns 4/8/12 (and 16, in a four-year game). Root is a public points race. The games of Crescent Moon we played averaged out at 3-4 hours long. I’ll cycle back to the awkwardness of the rulebook(s), for bloating the game length. That, plus analysis paralysis occurring for players trying to figure out how to score in rounds 4/8/12.
It didn’t feel satisfying to play the game at this kind of pace. I wanted Crescent Moon to be a 90-120 minute game, at most.
Dancing To The Designer’s Beat
It’s clear that you’re supposed to play the factions in a certain manner. They need to work together with one another (when the time is right). This is all well and good, but it sometimes feels like the game is too driven in this respect. Scripted, even. In other asymmetrical games, even though my faction had a direction, I still had freedom to play with variation.
I could create cool combos and thrive in among discoverabilities. You can’t do that as much, if at all, in Crescent Moon. I felt like I had to dance to the designer’s beat, especially with the Year One objectives. They’re the same objectives, every time. I get that this gives players an initial strategy to shoot for. But could some variability freshen this up?
When I played as the Warlord, you have no choice but to go down the combat route. And because it’s likely that you’ll be the first faction to do this, it strikes a table-wide psychological fear into everyone else. ‘We’ve got to stop the Warlord!’ the masses say, grabbing their pitchforks. ‘They’re the clear aggressor!’ In one round, my presence on the board got near-destroyed by three other players.
I wasn’t in the winning position, but because my role was to be ‘the bully’, they treated me like I was. Root’s victory points are public, which helps avoid this. In Crescent Moon, everything’s kept secret. Is that a good thing?
There’s a saying from the tabletop RPG scene, that if you DM a game, you shouldn’t railroad the players. This means you should let the players have control over their destiny. You shouldn’t force them down certain paths because you, selfishly, want the plot to go that direction. Otherwise, they’re not actually playing a game at all.
They’re trapped in a specific scenario you – not them – wanted to see unfold. While playing Crescent Moon, I felt that designer Steve Mathers had a too-distinct idea in mind for how players should interact and play with one another. And if you dare deviate from this path, things go awry. If no one buys the purple Murshid cards, for example – and this happened in one game! – the Murshid is starved of income. And that sucks for that player. And doubly so in a 3-4 hour game!
Despite this, for me, the most interesting faction to play is the Murshid. They’re like Varys or Littlefinger from Game of Thrones, the Master of Whispers. Getting involved in combat from afar, and playing opponents against each other, all the while keeping quiet in the background. In comparison, the Warlord feels so one-dimensional.
Looks-Wise, It Suggests A Deluxe Experience…
I’m glad to see that there are modular set-ups. Instead of suggested printed layouts, you can vary the layout of tiles in a communal fashion. The river crossing tile sits in the middle, and then every player gets dealt three tiles. Players take it in turns to add a hex into the layout.
This reminded me of how Battle Sheep starts (a marvellous abstract strategy game). This is a great addition for variation, in particular, due to the location of the Holy Site. That, and the river: troops cannot cross the river apart from the river crossing tile. Players can create a unique map with these factors in mind.
I also have to commend the art. The game looks stunning. Navid Rahman’s box art aches with beauty – it wouldn’t look out of place in a gallery. The hexes themselves aren’t too busy – and rightly so; they don’t need to be. The wooden buildings are superb.
They pop when you place them into the fray, silhouetted castles with painted windows. Each player gets their own coloured draw-bag to house all their pieces. The physical and visual components – the rulebooks aside – imply quality. A deluxe experience. Alas, the gameplay itself didn’t live up to those expectations.
One component factor that fast-outlived its welcome was the market boards. They have notches in them for cards to sit. This looks cool! Problem is, any time a card gets bought, all cards shunt down to the left, becoming cheaper. It means you can’t slide down the cards with ease; you have to untuck them all one at a time. Style over function is an issue here.
Final Thoughts On… Crescent Moon
Crescent Moon, to me, feels like the kind of game that could work well – eventually – with a regular group. Friday nights are Crescent Moon nights, that sort of thing. Where you and the same group of buddies all know the game inside out. When you can all appreciate the nuances of the game and how the factions can dovetail with each other.
Because when these nuances occur, they can be awesome. I mentioned bluffing earlier, with regards to the cards. In one game I bought a card near the end and made sure my opponent saw me buy it. I wanted them to think I would use it against them, and sure enough: they did. They started talking to other players before my next turn. They needed to try and counter-defend me attacking them, via that card, right?
This diverted everyone’s attention away from my actual goal, which got left unattended – the Holy Site. I was able to swoop in and control it, which was satisfying.
The problem is, real life doesn’t tend to offer up these kind of regular gaming opportunities to adults. Marrying schedules together is hard. Chances are you’re going to play this on an intermittent basis, with different groups of people.
You need a minimum of four players; there’s no two- or three-player option. And there’s absolute danger for newbies at the table getting pummelled. Will they want to play it with you again?