Lunacy… on the MOON
Being honest upfront, there are very few topics I know so disproportionately much about as lunar colonization. So when I bellyache that Jose Ramón Palacios’s LUNA Capital doesn’t even mention regolith printing, lava tubes, basalt radiation shielding, or the deposits of thorium, titanium, and lunar ice that would be the few resources of value to corporations settling the moon, don’t take it the wrong way. Did I really expect LUNA Capital to take a serious stab at what a real moon colony might look like? No. I’d say I hoped. Hoped forlornly.
But it’s bad practice to write about the game I hoped for rather than the game I got. So instead, I’ll say that LUNA Capital is defined by some excellent set drafting and some very tired tile placement.
We’ll begin with the rough part.
LUNA Capital is about putting things together. Two very different types of things. First, cards depicting the lunar landscape, complete with the occasional meteorite, pre-fabbed structure or construction zone, and lots and lots of empty building sites. Second, the tiles that become your buildings. There are plenty to choose from. So many that teaching the game’s scoring criteria is sort of like rattling off a grocery list without giving your listener the benefit of first retrieving a pen.
Here’s the upside. For the most part, those scoring criteria prove easy to recall. Nearly all the important structures boil down to “adjacency.” What’s the difference between hydrogen, oxygen, and water collectors? Not a single thing. They’re so similar, in fact, that it’s possible to build a lunar habitat without one or the other, provided the ones you do have are bustled together like eggs in a carton. Habitation modules? Only that they each want to be adjacent to different structures. Greenhouses? You’ll score a bonus if you collect sets of lemons, limes, and oranges, but that’s small potatoes compared to ensuring they’re all next to each other. On the moon, proximity is the watchword.
The big difference between cards and tiles is the manner in which they’re placed. Cards create the foundation for your structures. These may eventually be spread across three rows, with the big limitation that their numbers must always be increasing. Why is that? What are these numbers? Who put these numbers on the moon? Hush now. You’re playing a board game, not surveying the actual lunar landscape. Every so often, one of these foundations will be blocked by a meteorite. Don’t worry, these are also worth points. LUNA Capital is one of those games where you can’t help but jab yourself with scoring opportunities every time you place your socked foot on its LEGO-strewn living room floor.
Piling together these cards and tiles is vaguely pleasurable, in that insectoid way that derives enjoyment from piling grains of sand in such a manner that a hole transforms bit by bit into a hive. This isn’t anything we haven’t done a hundred times before, except the landscape is grayer and more lifeless and everything is clumped together and even the bonus structures that let you place a card out of numerical order or swap two structures during the draft come across more as utilitarian necessities than birthday surprises. One gets the sense that lunar colonization is going to be very drab indeed, a suitable breeding ground for space madness and eventual cannibalism, if only for the sake of imbuing the procession of months with some color. If it weren’t for the very Bezos-ian cocketship that holds the tiles and distributes them like tasteless Pez, the whole thing would be flatter than its crater-absent surface of the moon.
Which is a shame, because the way you collect all those cards and tiles is rather clever.
The idea is that cards and tiles come as sets. Choosing a stretch of Luna that happens to have a greenhouse pre-built might also mean taking yet another meteorite tile. As rounds progress, more tiles are added to these piles, until you’re claiming a card that comes with an oxygen collector and a greenhouse and a robot workshop and one of those useless sales offices. Repeat across three phases of tiles, each with its own gradually increasing stakes, and that’s the game.
This is the one thing that adds a finger-cutting edge to LUNA Capital. As those phases escalate, it becomes increasingly difficult to squash the glut of new structures into your allotted space. Before long, you’re even forced to make, dare I say it, trade-offs and concessions and decisions about which adjacencies to interrupt and which to chase. Will the proper buildings be available next round? It’s hard to say, in part because the board soon becomes such a riot of barely distinct structures — but, hey, the decisions are there. These never quite become as interesting as the similar trade-offs and concessions and decisions we’ve made in other tile-laying games, largely thanks to the blandness of the tiles you’re being asked to distribute, but that choking feeling of having to pick up three or four tiles at once seems like the game’s most thematic touch, even if the verisimilitude it’s stretching for is a leak in your oxygen tank.
There are other problems — the goal cards that barely make an appearance, the values that somehow didn’t get printed on the scoring notepads, the view-hogging cocketship — but those are ancillary to the larger problem. No, not that LUNA Capital doesn’t know the first thing about lunar colonization. Rather, that it fails to stand out. It’s like a hydrogen collector in a sea of oxygen collectors. It’s there. It’s churning along. It’s technically collecting the thing it was designed to collect. But it’s in the wrong place or the wrong time or both, and kid, the score for one lonely hydrogen collector is one measly point.
A complimentary copy was provided.