Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone
It’s become more popular to bag on Reiner Knizia over the last couple years, to the point that it’s increasingly easy to forget that he has some pretty amazing designs floating around. Case in point: Blue Moon, Knizia’s take on the collectible card game that turned out completely unlike any CCG before or since. It wasn’t even a real CCG! Psych!
Now Fantasy Flight Games has taken Blue Moon and all its expansions — just shy of a whopping 350 unique cards — and released the entire thing in a single box. It’s a lot to take in. So much, in fact, that I went through four major emotional stages as I tried to get a handle on why so many people have fond memories of Blue Moon.
Stage One: Utter Confusion
In order to understand my puzzlement with Blue Moon, you need to understand two things.
The first is that I’d heard of this game before, usually in hushed, reverent tones, possibly echoing through stone cathedrals or carried on a very serious autumn breeze. To say that this game has a fanbase is an understatement; everything has a fanbase. But Blue Moon? It’s got acolytes.
The second is that your first game of Blue Moon is going to be truly underwhelming. Somerset and I broke out the game, breezed through the rules despite Fantasy Flight’s continuing insistence on verbose rulebooks, and broke out the starter decks for the Hoax and the Vulca. According to the in-manual blurb, the Vulca were about sheer firepower and the Hoax were about capitalizing on their abilities. Sounds good.
That first match, though, is so simple that it’s hard to understand how it could have garnered such respect. See, you’re one of nine races fighting over this fantastical place called Blue Moon City. You win by attracting dragons to your side of the conflict, either attracting all three (plus one more “attract” to solidify their allegiance) or having more than your opponent when someone ends the game by running out of cards.
Attracting the dragons is the underwhelming bit. One player lays out a character card and announces which of two elements (earth or fire) both players will be using for that fight. They might play a booster to make that character more powerful, or invest support cards that hang around, but it’s more likely that they’ll hold onto those cards for a later round. Then you get a chance to play a character, matching or breaking your opponent’s number in this battle’s declared element. Again, you might boost the character or use a support card or something. The character you played might have an ability, or you might play a “leadership” card at the start of your turn.
Then back and forth it goes until someone can’t meet their opponent’s element value. The loser retreats and the winner attracts a dragon. If they’ve played enough cards, they attract two dragons instead.
“It feels like glorified War,” said Somerset. I’m sure you’ve heard of War, that game where you and some other bored individual peel cards off a regular deck and whoever has the highest-value card “wins,” though really you’re losing because you’re playing War.
And of course, I’m thinking to myself that Blue Moon isn’t War. It can’t be. For one thing, you have a hand of six cards, and you’re choosing what to play, and when, and there are abilities, and clearly there are combos…
But yes. I have to admit, in my deepest heart, what I’m playing feels a little bit like glorified War.
Stage Two: Feelings of Betrayal
I have a policy here at Space-Biff! that a game must be played at least three times before I’ll review it. It isn’t as many times as I’d like, and often we’ll play something more than three times, but by and large that’s the number I’m comfortable with for getting a feel for most games.
After three games of Blue Moon, I was just getting grumpy. It felt like a Royal Nonesuch of a game — like a hundred people went out and bought it and hated it and didn’t want to feel embarrassed that they’d gotten their ankle caught in this bear-trap, so they gave it glowing ratings and roared mightily when other people got their ankles snapped too. After a while, those hundred hucksters became a thousand, and the in-joke, the conspiracy, reached epic proportions.
This might have had something to do with my desire to see everything Blue Moon had to offer. We played one deck after the other, despite the rulebook’s insistence that we really should play those first two decks a few times. But I’m a stubborn soul, and in one sitting we’d played Hoax vs. Vulca, Mimix vs. Flit, Khind vs. Terrah, and Pillar vs. Aqua. We saw a bunch of beautifully illustrated cards, laughed about how superfluous the board felt, and continued to scratch our heads over why anyone would want to play this thing.
Stage Three: The Click
Like many of the best games, Blue Moon stuck in my head over the next few days. I found myself wondering about some of those combos I’d seen. Could I make better use of my caterpillar cards as the Pillar, chaining them until my opponent was bullied into retreating and giving me dragons? Could I trick my opponent into using up way more characters and boosters and supports than they needed by playing a high card first? Could I bluff by playing the wrong element and change it to my stronger element later with a mutant card, or make a tactical retreat right on the cusp of my opponent attracting an extra dragon, or use particular cards in a doomed battle to draw out the fight only to reveal that when my enemy won they wouldn’t be attracting diddly squat, let alone a dragon?
Of course, the answer to each of these questions was yes. We sat down and played a few more games, and the result was completely unlike our earlier crapshoot. Where before we found ourselves winning at random, now we were actually outmaneuvering each other, holding onto certain cards because we knew they were valuable or wagering extra resources during critical fights.
Knowing the decks was crucial. In our earlier frenzy to see everything Blue Moon had on display, we hadn’t taken the time to learn a deck, to realize which cards could be chained together and which could be used to prod the opponent into overextending themselves. We won as many games by draining the opposing deck as we did by attracting dragons.
All at once, Blue Moon made sense. Sure, it was simple. And sure, there was luck to it. But now, at least, we were beginning to see the brilliance of the thing, and it lay in the psychological game playing out between two people who had a decent idea of what the other person could do with the cards in their deck.
Stage Four: Acceptance / Intimidation
That brings us to tonight, after yet another long session of playing Blue Moon. I’m still a long ways from understanding each of the game’s nine starter decks, let alone all the additional customization options, but at least I can now recognize each faction at sight. The balanced Hoax, the Vulca with their piles of fire-friendly characters. The bird-folk Flit that can bounce back into your hand at the start of your turn. The Mimix and their paired chains of barely-clad warrior women. The Terrah with their storms and straightforward fighters, and the overwhelming gangs of Khind, and the Pillar with their ridiculous caterpillars, and the Aqua floods. Not to mention the crazy-as-hell Buka with their ships and bluff cards.
Three times? I could give Blue Moon fifty plays and still have things to say about it. Of that I’m certain.
It’s fair to say I’m impressed. But on the other hand, I’m also intimidated. There are very few games I dedicate more than a few plays to, and this is definitely one of those games where I have to warn you: there’s a lot here, definitely a fantastic investment if you’re interested in plays-per-dollar, but you’ll have to give it some time before you can see the edges of the thing. It might take a few more plays beyond that before you really start to form winning strategies. Yes, you’ll eventually feel like a genius, but you’ll have to earn it first.
That’s where I’m at. Blue Moon Legends is overflowing with smart gameplay, gorgeous art, and a whole mess of stuff to toy around with. It takes some energy to get up to speed, but once it does, it’ll likely surprise you with how much it gives back.