A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes; however, I always strive to provide fair and honest reviews
In Moonrakers you assume the role of a space-faring troublemaker attempting to become the leader of a group of loosely-bound mercenaries known as the Moonrakers. To achieve this you must successfully complete contracts to earn prestige. Until you have upgraded your ship and recruited talent it will be difficult to complete missions alone. Entering tenuous alliances with your rivals will be crucial for a large portion of the game.
Before taking on a contract, players may ask their peers to join the mission. Each contract has perks in the form of prestige, card draws, and/or credits. These contracts may also come with hazards that have the potential to reduce your prestige. The mission leader will negotiate terms with their peers to split up the perks and hazards in a way that everybody agrees on. After terms are set, participants play their Action cards to add Thrusters, Shields, Weapons, Reactors, and Crew to fulfill the requirements on each Contract. Only successful missions reap the benefits, but the hazards are doled out no matter the mission outcome.
Shrewd negotiation tactics are crucial to success in Moonrakers, and backstabbing is not unusual. The first player to 10 prestige wins and is declared the leader of the Moonrakers.
Moonrakers provides a unique gameplay experience. I have seen deck builders utilize dice (Dale of Merchants) and hand management mixed with negotiation (Bohnanza) but have never encountered all of these combined into one game before. Occasionally when a game combines new mechanics it results in a clunky, disjointed game. Fortunately Moonrakers does not suffer from this, and feels like an incredibly smooth experience from the beginning.
The deck building itself should be familiar to those who have played others in the genre. Everybody starts with the same deck of ten cards, draws five, and plays them. How the cards are played is what differentiates Moonrakers from other common deck builders. Each person starts their turn with one action, or card play. The blue Reactor cards in the starting deck grant two additional actions and are therefore extremely important for building action chains. The yellow Thruster cards are wonderful for cycling through your deck, and the green Shields are essential for stopping Hazards from destroying your prestige.
Additionally, you will add crew members to your deck and parts to your ship. The game comes with a variety of unique crew members and ship parts that can provide powerful rule-breaking benefits. Each crew mate and ship part in the market has it’s own credit cost, but blind draws from the decks are sometimes a perk of certain contracts. There are a lot of directions you can take your deck and engine in Moonrakers.
I find the deck building interesting, but the shining jewel in Moonrakers‘ crown is the negotiation. This game practically forces players into lively discussions, bidding and backstabbing. Completing contracts solo is very difficult to do early game – with most contracts it is impossible. That gives non-active players a lot of negotiating power and tends to spice up the interactions. You may use the information about your hand to choose a contract you think you can pull some of the weight on and hope that another player or two would be willing to help fill the gaps. In cases where you have a terrible hand you might bluff your way into forging allies that will do all the heavy lifting for you. Either way, you’ll have to be willing to share the loot with your temporary allies. Sometimes it is beneficial to purposely fail a mission because the loss of the benefit is worth the hazard hit to your friends. It is extremely interactive and has the ability to get rowdy very quickly.
The objective cards do a good job of giving players a direction at the start. Each completed objective gives a prestige bump on the track, which is significant in a race to ten prestige. Many objectives will require players to build their ship in a certain way or to collect credits. Some ask you to complete Contracts in very specific ways while others require you to sabotage a mission. Each player starts their game with two objectives, but additional cards can be drawn throughout the game if you choose to stay at the base during your turn as Mission Leader. These objective cards add a lot of variability and replayability to the game and ups the stakes at the negotiation table.
Moonrakers is very accessible. It has a medium-light weight and players with deck building experience will be able to pick it up extremely quickly. The rules are simple. We have taught the game to six people so far and in each case everybody was playing confidently after a quick teach. Any crunch from this game does not come in the form of overly-complicated mechanics or fiddly rules, but instead from the decisions and mind games that arise from the game structure itself. Everybody has meaningful decisions to make nearly every turn, and that makes the game feel vibrant and adds fun for gamers who enjoy this type of interaction.
I like to consider game length as a part of the accessibility equation; however, and many brand new gamers aren’t going to have the interest or capacity to sit down for a 60-120 minute game of heavy interaction. And in my experience Moonrakers tends to run over it’s maximum estimate for playtime. For me this is not a complaint – I find the entire experience to be enjoyable and the extra time spent laughing and negotiating is not a bad thing. In my experience Moonrakers can drag a bit at the end, though, especially as tensions for the end of the prestige race really ramp up and players are spending a lot more time on tough negotiations. That game flow might not be a good fit for newer or less-patient gamers and is something to be considered before playing (more on that later).
The Moonrakers box art is simple and beautiful, and the art & style throughout all the components lives up to this advertisement. Lore is injected in the form of a comic book that explains the origins of the Moonrakers. The graphic design throughout the game is cohesive with a minimalist, futuristic aesthetic. Personally my favorite artistic touch is on the crew cards. Each unique crew member is illustrated in a way that implies a certain amount of criminality, almost like a mug shot or most-wanted poster. Many of these crew mates have faces half-hidden by shadow which makes sense considering these people are part of the seedy underworld (outerworld?) of this story. The tone of the aesthetics works well with the gritty cyberpunk theme.
The components are superb and everything feels highly upgraded (at least in the Kickstarter version). The metal coins to signify credits have a nice weight and are fun to collect. The cards are black core and of a very nice quality. And the player markers that run up the prestige track are uniquely-shaped plastic ships that match the artwork on the respective player boards (which are also very high quality). Another wonderful touch is that Moonrakers comes with a well-designed functional insert. I have nothing but praise for this game’s aesthetic and components.
So does Moonrakers have that fun factor that is so crucial to most gamers? This is of course always a very personal question. The answer for me is, absolutely. This is the type of game I can’t imagine turning down with the right group. But what is the right group? Moonrakers could be a miserable experience when played with people who are not comfortable with the negotiation aspect, or people who dislike interaction in games. I have not experienced this yet, but it’s important to consider your audience before bringing Moonrakers to game night. With the right people, this game is a blast.
Like many people around my age in the board game hobby, I cut my teeth on Catan way back when it still identified as Settlers of Catan. And although I can appreciate what that game has done for myself, my friends, and the hobby in general I have moved on from it. One thing I miss most about that game is the negotiation aspect. When I played my first game of Moonrakers I was over the moon to find that this game takes that negotiation mechanic and injects it with futuristic steroids. The entire game is built around the negotiation and backstabbing and I find it delightful.
One thing I worried about in this game is “dog piling” – in which players will actively try to tank the player in the lead’s chances for victory. This does happen to a certain extent in Moonrakers; however, the entire point of the game is to build a powerful deck so you don’t have to rely on your competitors much towards the end of the game. If anything, it enhances the game by altering the atmosphere during negotiations. People who shoot up the prestige track early often don’t have the engine built to hack it in the end game, which forces them to stall until they have beefed up their deck and ship. In my experience, Moonrakers tends to level out into a very tense and close game in the last few rounds.
Moonrakers has been an enjoyable, interactive game full of lively table moments. As much as I want to shout from the rooftops that everybody should try this game, I have to stop short because I know that there are people who will find the level of interaction unpalatable. It’s also not a good choice for gamers who do not want to sit at the table for longer than an hour since the high level of interaction tends to draw things out, especially towards the end of the game. If you gravitate towards the low-interaction, Euro-style games this will likely be a bad fit for you. I also would not recommend this game to anybody who struggles to play games with three or more players because Moonrakers really shines as a group experience.
That being said, if you have a group of friends who love to negotiate, table talk, and double-cross, this game is a collection essential.