“See the Galaxy,” They Said
Dark Moon will never entirely escape its association with Battlestar Galactica — fair enough, considering it’s a retouched version of the print-and-play game BSG Express. Out with the Cylons and space-jet dogfights, in with the alien parasites and handfuls of dice.
Let’s get the parallels between Dark Moon and its progenitor out of the way right up front, because they’re fairly pronounced. The turn structure is largely identical to Battlestar Galactica’s, with players gathering resources (dice instead of cards), taking an action like repairing something or calling a vote on someone, and then confronting a “task” as a team, inching the uninfected crew closer to survival or defeat. The setting is a deteriorating mining base on Titan, and while the artwork does a fabulous job of selling the idea that you’re trapped in the bowels of a mechanical habitat where any number of technical malfunctions could mean your death, it’s still outer space and there are still good guys and traitors. Locking people away means they’re trapped in quarantine, functionally indistinguishable from BSG’s brig, so saying the setting is different is a little bit like telling me the difference between two types of drywall. Most of the time, my group reflexively called the bad guys “Cylons.”
But for all its similarities, Dark Moon has a couple tricks up its sleeve that make it a very different game from the one it’s based on.
Its biggest — and best — difference is the way it uses dice to represent each crewmember’s abilities and stamina. These are mean little buggers, most of their faces showing negative numbers. Whenever you want to do something — for instance, repair the station’s failing shields — you roll your dice behind your screen, out of sight of everyone else, and “submit” one to determine whether you’ve succeeded or failed. In the case of repairing the base, you need to submit a positive number, so everybody gets to see what you discard to the board. When it comes to tasks, big malfunctions that see multiple players pitching in to help, it’s not uncommon for people to submit a negative die, cuss a bit, reroll, and then submit something else.
The beauty of this system is that unlike the hidden piles of cards in Battlestar Galactica or the crises in Dead of Winter, everyone gets to see what you’re doing, examining the look on your face when you happen to “Argh dammit I just rolled nothing but negatives!” All the sneaking around found in those other games is forced out into the light, face to face, and it gives the game an entirely different feel, more about outright bluffing than being subtle. Being less than half as long as Battlestar Galactica gives its infected players just enough time to identify their allies and make a move against the rest of the crew, but not so much that they’ll be able to parade their bad guy status and get away with it.
What makes this really work is that the dice are distributed in such a way that, sure, it’s entirely possible to get crummy rolls. Did the life support system break down because of sabotage? Or because the guy you sent to fix it was too tired, too stressed, and too dumb to actually put it back together? When a task gave your buddy a glimpse at your wife’s identity card, is he telling the truth when he proclaims she’s infected? Or is he the traitor, cleverly trying to get the wrong person locked up in quarantine? It’s even possible for an infected player to join a task hoping to tank it, only to roll positives and come off like a big damn hero. And you can bet they’ll capitalize on that bump in status down the line.
Other than its use of dice, Dark Moon handles itself with the practiced confidence of an infected station commander. The setting really is pitch-perfect, each of its bits laid out like a busted-up control panel. “This plant has worked 562 days with no lost-time accidents!” it cheerfully announces, only for the 562 to be crossed out with blood and replaced with a goofball-ominous zero. Its procession of events is displayed through crummy security cameras. Malfunction reports shriek from an ancient printer on hole-punched continuous form paper. Even the task of identifying who’s healthy and who’s infected feels right, more reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing than its actual source material.
Another nice touch is the way the game occasionally forces a vote. Some malfunctions report “SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY!!!” when they spit out of the printer. Get enough of these and a vote must be called by the current player. This is great at forcing people to act on their suspicions early on, without necessarily having to use their turn making enemies or announcing themselves as infected by suddenly locking up an innocent player.
Or you can issue another player an order, letting them take two actions right away. This is an ideal option for when the station has fallen into disrepair, effectively doubling the number of actions taken on any given turn. On the other hand, it also carries a lot of risk. If used on an infected crewman, they might use their first action to reveal their identity and the next on one of the super-mean infected actions. Handle with care.
Between these two options, I’ve yet to see a game of Dark Moon go by without a great deal of agency on the part of its infected players. Rather than merely protesting their innocence and occasionally messing up a task, it’s not uncommon to see big swings as the infected strike in tandem, especially near the end once they’ve figured out who their pals are. In one game, the innocent crewmembers watched in horror as their station went from undamaged to having its life support dismantled within just two well-executed turns; in another, the commander found himself locked in quarantine, insisting that the people running the station were imposters.
Which isn’t to say that the game is unbalanced, just that it tends to come down to big dramatic moments where suspicions are voiced, lines are drawn, and deception crumbles in the face of open sabotage.
I’m sure there will be plenty of digital words comparing this to the original Battlestar Galactica, but in spite of a bevy of similarities, it ends up providing a very different experience, one that’s fresh in its openness and hard-hitting gameplay. I’m a big fan of traitor-style games to begin with, but Dark Moon stands out as one I’ll continue playing for years to come.