That Game Came From the Moon
I picked up Moon Base on the aesthetic alone. It was the rings that persuaded me. Three colors and two sizes, countless at a glance. Were they metal? Plastic? No, wood, with that smokey scent once reserved for laser-cut games in cheap pizza boxes. An odor that will likely never grace the moon, and already it’s what I associate with lunar colonization.
But here’s the big surprise: Moon Base is far more than a pretty face.
It’s appropriate that Moon Base should be so spartan. That’s the thought that kept occurring to me as we completed our first play, only moments after dismissing my knee-jerk impression. And what was that? Oh, nothing much. Something to the tune of, This is it? It was an unfair thought. The appeal is in its half-and-half mix of tranquil base construction and spiteful hate-placement. Like tending a zen garden, except you keep scuffing over your rival gardener’s rake-lines.
First, the tranquility. There are a number of motifs in this hobby of ours, but none are quite as omnipresent as the need to assemble something functional. Finding an example is almost as easy as picking a game at random. Whether it’s the teetering mess of a stacking game or the churning efficiency of an engine builder, games often revel in the thrill of combining things to create other things, imbuing lifeless components with meaning and purpose.
Moon Base, with those three colors and two sizes of rings, starts out as a pure expression of that phenomenon. The rings are stacked in rows beside the board, their colors all mixed up. Both players take turns selecting rings, two from the large piles, two from the small piles. There’s no rhyme or reason to this, not at first. Nor is there any logic to their initial placement, rings conforming to the natural curvature of the lunar landscape. Or, to put it more bluntly, the craters trace where the rings go.
It’s lovely to behold. Creation in miniature. The marbled blue Earth plays moonrise, sitting beside the playing area to denote who went first that round. To place it too far to the side, anywhere other than backlit by stars, feels like a warning sign of sociopathy.
And then Moon Base changes. Because you aren’t merely piling rings together. You’re piling them in a particular way. And often, thanks to the way you gathered them from the side of the board, you’re making a choice between all three types of rings at the same time. Big or small. It matters. Your gold or your opponent’s silver or neutral navy blue. It matters.
The rules aren’t dense, but they are meticulous and, at first, easy to mix up. To place a ring atop other rings, you need to match the color of your foundation and be able to see the curvature of the rings below. No silver rings atop two rings of gold, no rings barely grazing the rings beneath. This last point is because the structure isn’t meant to teeter; at no point is Moon Base a game of dexterity or toppling components. The sole exception to the matching-color rule is the research tower, that lavender pacifier that begins in one of the moon’s large craters and eventually bounces between privileged destinations. Such a feat requires all three colors at once, with the final ring large enough to host its circumference.
It’s the research tower’s movement that finally breaks the illusion. Moon Base retains traces of its initial tranquility, never shedding that thrill of co-creating something winsome with your play partner, and counting score is also an opportunity to appreciate what you’ve constructed. But when the research base hops from its starting crater to some skyscraper-tall resting place, you realize that the moon is also a harsh mistress. Or maybe it’s just that your opponent is a big bastard.
Here’s what I mean. There are multiple goals to pursue, but foremost among them is the settlement of colonies. At round’s end, a large ring above the lunar surface — raised above it, not touching the regolith — can host a colony. The rub is that the colony’s ring must be your color and accessible from above. You can see where this is going. Each placement is not only about creating access to your own rings, but also about wrecking access to your opponent’s rings. And that mobile research tower can act either as a safeguard for a large ring, preventing anyone from building over it, or a way to deprive your opponent of a colony, at least until you’re able to move the tower and pile a rinky-dink small ring above their viable colony plot.
The transformation is complete: the lunar surface is now a maze of competing interests, building rights, and open spaces, while each drafted and deployed ring is an intersection of opportunities and hindrances. The exact same ring might provide a foundation for a future construction. Or it might complete a colony plot three or four or five levels high. Or it might block an opponent’s construction plans with all the intrusion of an I-beam welded across a transport tunnel. Or all three at once.
Perhaps best of all, each placement carries its own subtleties, causing rippling consequences many minutes later. It’s possible to lay traps, forcing an opponent to place a particular ring in the sole viable location you’ve provided, so that you can build something even better on top of it. As real estate is claimed, both by rings and the pity-prize resource bases that trickle out when you’re deprived of a colony, each placement becomes more restricted but also more liable to upend the state of the board. That opening permissive attitude is gradually choked until every placement matters. And keep in mind the bonus goals for owning the most connected rings, the tallest ring, and the research tower. While colonies are your always foremost in your thoughts, many matches are won or lost by the advantages found elsewhere.
Beauty and cruelty in the same breath. Combined, they’re both sharpened. There’s nothing quite like looking at the finished board and being able to say, “Ah, I see what happened there.”
The last game I played from Naotaka Shimamoto was Tokyo Highway, an attractive but flimsy thing that relied too much on steady fingers and a stable playing surface. With Moon Base, Shimamoto jettisons the balancing while showcasing a similar cluttered charm — only this time, he produces gameplay to match.
This isn’t to say that Moon Base is infinitely rewarding, especially over successive plays. Its simplicity is a wonderful asset, but familiarity begins to tarnish the shine. It almost pitches itself as an abstract game, but contains only a portion of the mutability that gives some abstracts their longevity. And although the third color of rings have a definite place in the game’s strategy, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been done if there had been a set of navy blue colony tokens as well.
But those are nitpicks. The real takeaway is that Moon Base lets its players exult in both the beauty of their creation and the spitefulness of their last play. Much like the moon itself, its chalk and cheese may only come in one flavor, but it’s also an object of stark beauty and surprising mystery. You can see for yourself that it’s a looker; what you can’t tell from the surface is that it’s vicious in all the right ways.