There’s an undeniable beauty to script that has yet to be deciphered. I recall watching a street artist pen words in soaring Arabic calligraphy. As a child whose English cursive looked orcish, the artist’s handiwork seemed indistinguishable from magic. The words themselves could have been anything. Whatever they were, they were elevated by the form itself, transferred from paper to some glimpse of a divine image.
Every so often, a board game prompts a similar feeling. Colored inks on shaped cardboard, painted wood in various sizes and arrangements, cards laden with unfamiliar symbols, their combinations speaking to some deeper understanding into which we have yet to be initiated. Crescent Moon, the recent design by Steven Mathers, draws on lush illustrations by Navid Rahman to evoke a world apart. I think I’ve finally decoded its meaning.
For many, the immediate draw will be the setting. The Near East has long been underrepresented in board games. That or misrepresented, which amounts to much the same thing. It’s a narrow tightrope Mathers has chosen to walk, but his depiction isn’t all that far off from the storybook version of Europe we’ve toured so often, offering a broad perspective that compresses centuries and smooths out certain rough patches. It’s a little drier, perhaps. More cautious when talking about religion. But still familiar, and absent the lurid exoticism that could have easily marred such a project.
Of course, it’s difficult to ignore the comparison to Cole Wehrle’s Root. The fingerprints are all over Crescent Moon. The obvious touchstone is its total commitment to deep asymmetry. There are five factions to explore, all of them essential to the strange and delicate ecosystem that is the game’s play space. But that’s hardly the only detail. There’s the shared deck of cards that everybody draws from, the similar but not totally overlapping objectives, the callbacks to the various control states of the COIN Series.
More interesting, however, are the profound ways in which it differs from Root, and even the occasional spots where Crescent Moon finds room to innovate or improve on Wehrle’s formula. For example, despite mirroring Root by requiring a solid three hours for five players, it uses interleaved actions, bouncing between minor antes and movements rather than asking each faction to march through their entire turn one at a time. It’s pacier, in other words. The map is more textured, its geography filled with bottleneck river crossings and desirable quarries and fertile soil. “Texture” is one of its watchwords. Even the suits of its cards are deliberately imbalanced.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we go any further, let’s talk about those five teams.
Like Root — that’s the last time I’ll say that, I promise — Crescent Moon is interested in the workings of power. Each faction expresses the concept in its own way, often unsettling everyone else’s definitions and status quos. This engenders a delicate economy, for better and for worse.
There’s an old temptation that often creeps into historical discussions where the current power is labeled “civilized” while the encroaching powers are called “barbarous.” The more accurate option is to define them in terms of establishment. In Crescent Moon, the establishment wears two faces: the Caliph and the Sultan. Within the first few actions, these twin rulers secure their interests across the map. In the Caliph’s case, this is represented by cheap fortresses and loyal but limited reserves of manpower. He can march into a territory — say, a precious quarry — and swiftly raise forts and later castles to keep the territory under lock while their troops pivot elsewhere. The Sultan’s power, meanwhile, is more commercial. While he can also build defenses, his real advantage comes from the people. First via civilian towns and cities; these are surprisingly potent because they offer income to whomever controls them, while also still paying rents to the Sultan. Meanwhile, the Sultan has “presence” in those locations, meaning he can influence the outcome of any local power struggles. Second, he also controls a private market of cards. Anybody can purchase these cards from the Sultan, but only at an agreed-upon price.
These two make unsteady allies. One gets the sense that the Caliphate and Sultanate would both prefer to inherit the other’s holdings, but that their respective methods of rulership are so incompatible that neither would know what to do with them. If anything, they’re uncomfortably symbiotic, a trait that soon hallmarks the entire game. The Caliph knows how to rule militarily; the Sultan knows how to lead through land and merchants. It’s rare for one to attack the other, at least directly.
On the fringes of the establishment are three encroaching powers. The most straightforward of these is the Warlord. Unlike everyone else, his symbiosis looks more like parasitism. Unable to build structures, anything he gains must be taken by force. Even that, however, is slightly too simple. While it’s true that his goal is to sack structures and control via conquest, his ability to levy staggering numbers of loyal troops speaks to a degree of fervor the other factions can’t quite muster. He bides his time on the periphery, exchanging influence for manpower, until it’s inevitable that a few wealthy cities will burn. By that point, the established Caliph and Sultan will have transformed themselves into bristling hedges or they’ll watch their early natural power melt away in the face of the onslaught.
But while the Warlord hews close to stereotype, the others are harder to pin down. There’s the Murshid, the religious leader and perennial meddler. In fact, his meddlesome nature is his greatest strength. Influence tokens can coexist with military strength, leading to situations where one faction commands a city’s material strength while someone else rules the people’s hearts. In the Murshid’s case, those hearts are his domain. He spreads influence rapidly and easily. Worse for his enemies, his widespread influence lets him contribute cards to other players’ battles or influence contests, often in exchange for some negotiated value in victory points.
Finally, there are the Nomads. These are the only “dispensable” faction in that Crescent Moon can technically be played without them, although doing so is a grave error. To everyone else, the Nomads are the easiest source of manpower. Their mercenary tokens are plentiful and often sell cheap, letting anybody transform an empty town into a military power with surprising haste. The Nomads, however, aspire to build a nation of their own, often carved out via mercenary desertions, ease of movement, and their own rapid mobilization. They’re essential allies but testy friends, and more than one would-be potentate has watched in dismay as some vital city, staffed only with Nomads for security, switched sides at the least helpful moment.
Put these together and you get something marvelous. Its disparate factions fit together like an invention of Ismail al-Jazari, some mechanical water pump or automaton, with factions for the gears and the transfer of wealth representing the fluid raised to the surface. The Sultan and Caliph transfer their money, and eventually some portion of their land, to the Nomads and Warlord, while the Murshid tinkers with the balance of power. The map, so simple yet so rich with its textured geography, makes every battle matter. Which is a good thing, considering how deliberately paced the game is. Rather than letting territory change hands willy-nilly, every action must be carefully considered, and risky battles are often best left unfought. The exchange of one or two territories can spur sudden realignments: allegiances, flows of wealth, and priorities, all upended or doubled down. It really is something to behold.
At its best, these moments make a splash at the table. Unlike Root, Crescent Moon is an intensely social game. It gets people talking. Whether that takes the form of haggling for mercenaries and cards or bribing the Murshid to tip a battle in your favor, there’s usually some angle to negotiate. The one exception rests with the Warlord, who’s a touch too alien for a game that freely humanizes its outsiders. I was shocked that there wasn’t an option to extort a neighbor for protection — “Nice city you got there… shame if someone were to burn it down” — but it’s an omission that makes sense as a gameplay consideration even if it leaves the Warlord player out in the cold.
That’s because the game tends toward stasis. Without a measure of boldness and the occasional nudge, territory doesn’t often change hands. The entire thing is so delicate that its clockwork interior begins grinding at the slightest introduction of grit.
The market is the perfect example. Card suits are weighted. There are over twice as many cards for the Murshid as for the Caliph, who has twice more than the Nomad and Warlord. The wealthy Sultan, meanwhile, has none in his suit. When taking the market action, you’re allowed to purchase your own cards for half the price, or pay full price for another faction’s card. The proceeds are paid directly to that faction. In theory, this circulates coins between players. The Murshid is cash-poor but desperately needs to buy cards to manipulate battle outcomes. The Warlord and Caliph don’t have any need for additional sources of income, and the Nomads should be selling their mercenaries. It’s pretty common, however, for certain factions to find themselves so strapped that they don’t have many ways to contribute to the game’s ecosystem. If buyers aren’t interested in the Murshid’s cards, he can quickly spiral into irrelevance.
Not every faction is equally fragile, but the gist applies to everyone. To some degree, it feels like you’re meant to lean into your role not only by chasing your scoring objectives but also by behaving according to your character’s in-game (or perhaps meta-game) logic. The problem is alleviated with further plays, especially once you recognize the relative value of everything on offer. The Sultan, for example, should be paying far more for mercenaries than the Caliph or Murshid. If you’re buddy-buddy with the Murshid, you should be buying their cards, therefore enabling them to buy cards and help swing fights your way. These steps aren’t always intuitive. Given the game’s tight action limit — four per year, with the whole thing lasting only three to four years — there isn’t much wiggle room to actualize them. The result is a game that stammers between vivid and murky.
Crescent Moon lacks Root’s freewheeling ease and understated flexibility, but it’s a worthy experiment in its own right. I was impressed with so much of what it does well: how it gets the table talking, its textures of geography and economy, its mature portrayal of established and migratory nations, even the way its tokens and structures and many colors give an intuitive impression of what’s happening on the map. It has a long eye, sighting beneath the surface both as a game and as a commentary, while lacking the tongue to quite express itself. That said, it contains rich flavors of complexity. Even if it buries some of its subtler notes a little too deeply, Mathers has shown that there are yet-unexplored ways to fold asymmetry and power dynamics into a single title. I’m glad to have played it.
A complimentary copy was provided.