Moonbreaker is a digital tabletop turn-based strategy game developed by Unknown Worlds Entertainment and published by Krafton, Inc. In the future, a rare resource known as cinder is discovered. Highly sought-after, starship crews across the galaxy are out to find the valuable commodity. But when two crews find themselves landing on the same planet, after the same haul, things are bound to get exciting.
When a trailer for this game landed in my Twitter feed fresh out of Gamescom last month, I knew I needed to get my hands on it. After all, tabletop miniature games have been in my blood for over two decades. Everything from the classic large-scale Games Workshop games like Warhammer 40k, to smaller and lighter games like Star Wars Minis and Heroclix. While Moonbreaker manages to deliver the classic elements of the tabletop miniature games that players around the world have always enjoyed, it also leverages the opportunities provided by its digital medium to give players something that doesn’t settle for nearly mimicking the games that came before it.
Moonbreaker is a small-scale game where players take control of a captain and a crew of ten additional figures. In the first round of the game, only the captains of each of the opposing teams are present on the battlefield. Meanwhile, several of the crew units will be waiting on the bridge to be deployed to the battlefield. This is done through one of the game’s many uses of its core resource, cinder.
Every crew unit has a cinder cost attached to it. With prices ranging from one to seven currency, and the more costly units being the most powerful, it is a balancing act when building your crew to find the right blend of affordable and powerful. But you’re probably wondering, how does one accumulate cinder? At the beginning of each round, each player will accrue cinder. On the first turn, a single cinder is gained. On the second two, and so on. Also, up to three leftover cinders from the previous turn can be carried over to future turns. This helps players not feel like they are wasting their cinder if they can’t utilize it all each turn. Or sometimes, they may actively not want to use it all so next turn they can do something bigger.
Along with calling in units, cinder is also used for activating the various special abilities of the players’ units. These abilities range from combat buffs, to removing stun effects, lowering costs of future units, and movement enhancers. But with so much demand for cinder, players will find they often won’t have enough. And while cinder is always in short supply, there is another commodity Moonbreaker keeps in short supply for players as well: time.
During player vs player matches, each turn is limited to 85 seconds. With a max of six units on the board at any one time, there is enough time to do everything the player needs to. But you have to be quick. Players need to spend their opponents’ turns planning their next actions so that as soon as the turn becomes theirs they can launch into their moves before the clock ticks away.
This level of time crunch is an unusual feature for a turn-based game and took me thoroughly by surprise. Happily, if you are looking for a less hectic experience, AI matches are not bound to a turn timer. So when you want to take your time, particularly when learning a new list, AI matches are often a better speed.
Virtually all strategy games include an element of chance to them. This allows thrilling come-from-behind wins and bold risk-taking. While the standard elements of chance like the possibility to miss attacks are present, Moonbreaker also utilizes additional forms of randomization to keep players on their toes.
While several members of your crew start on your bridge awaiting deployment, it won’t be all of them. When you need to replenish your bridge with additional units cinder is spent. When a player does this, one of their units that haven’t entered the game yet will be chosen at random. Whether it’s the one-cost small fry or the six-cost death engine can greatly alter how a player proceeds with their strategy.
The other big randomizer, and arguably my favorite element of Moonbreaker, are the Orbital Assist abilities. Each player has access to two of these abilities in each game. Rather than running on cinder, Orbital Assists have a cooldown meter that recharges a point at the beginning of each round. Instead of selecting these abilities during their team construction, players get offered three different random sets of two abilities to choose from for the coming match. These abilities can wildy change the flow of a game and I can see matches won or lost by who picks what at times. The game also keeps your opponents’ Orbital Assists hidden from you until they are activated. Between the random choices presented by them and the hidden potential they hold till they are used, these abilities deliver gameplay that creates tension, while impacting each game in a way that guarantees no two games ever play out the same.
In the opening of this preview, I mentioned that Moonbreaker capitalizes on its digital medium to deliver elements to a tabletop experience you can’t find in a traditional tabletop game. This is most prominently done through how the game handles, and presents, line of sight.
When a player is deciding where to move a piece, they will see red lines going from the base of the unit to any models that they have a line of sight to. Not only does it inform the player of what the chances are of hitting the enemy at the other end of the line, but it also informs the player of how much obstruction each piece of terrain is causing. How the game handles these obstructions is the single biggest innovation over classic tabletop miniature games presents here.
Due to a need for unbiased and clear rules, the terrain in miniature games has always provided a static effect on models that typically doesn’t change, no matter how much the model is being blocked by that piece of terrain. If even a sliver of the base was obscured, the model would often get complete coverage. Since there is no concern about Moonbreaker‘s program fudging the numbers in favor of one player or the other, the game will adjust how much cover a model receives based on how much of its base is protected. This forces players to choose between more coverage or hedging their bets on having enough distance to reach their target during their next activation. As someone who would always get frustrated with the way cover could be abused in many minis games, this is a joy to see not just implemented but in a way that allows everyone to actively see exactly what is providing what to a unit.
The last element of the game’s core presentation we need to talk about is its personality. Everything from the design of the units to the voice lines of the characters delivers a charming level of quirk. The off-beat energy that runs through every design facet of Moonbreaker makes the game feel like its cast might have shown up fresh from a Guardians of the Galaxy story. This laid-back, humorous tone helps alleviate some of the pressure of the game’s strategic depth and timed pressure, reminding you that it is just a game. And if even the pieces are having a good time, shouldn’t you?
While the core gameplay of Moonbreaker delivers tons of nuanced gameplay and strategic depth, this isn’t the only thing that the game offers. There is also an impressive painting suite included in the game so hobbyists who wish to customize their armies can do so. With mixable colors, washes, dry brush options, and more, the paint program feels like everything one needs to dig in and spend hours detailing and customizing the look of their favorite units.
The last element that needs to be talked about is a bit of an unknown at this point. That’s player progression. Along with an experience-based season pass system to unlock things like icons, custom banners, and unique paint jobs for units, the game also requires players to unlock many of the game’s units through gameplay. However, for the playtest, all units were already unlocked. So exactly how one earns whatever currency one needs, or how long it will take to accrue it is unknown. Hopefully, it will be reasonable, and if it is a bit steep in its demands of players when it comes to early access later this month, the developers at Uknown Worlds will be quick to tweak the system. After all, that’s what early access is for.
With great gameplay, a wonderful painting tool, and loads of tactical depth and variance, Moonbreaker looks like a strategic challenge that will offer players many hours of fun. I cannot wait to dive back in.
Moonbreaker is coming to Steam Early Access on September 29th.