For lovers of semi-cooperative games, there are very few titles on the market that can touch the epic scale of Battlestar Galactica. Political intrigue, combat, positions of power, swayed votes and hidden information all woven together in a beloved Science Fiction IP that just creates such beautiful moments that are remembered by all involved. While I look back on fond memories of my time with the base game and the Pegasus expansion (my first Ameritrash gaming experience) it’s seldom that I want to spend around 4 hours or more playing a single game. While other games have teased relieving the same hidden role itch as BSG, including Dead Of Winter, I’ve not found any of them to contain the constant threat of racing towards a set goal with the knowledge that at least one among you is a camouflaged threat bent on your destruction through manipulation and subtle trickery. Last year Stronghold Games published Dark Moon which was based on BSG Express, a print a play game developed by Evan Derrick, but without the theme of Battlestar Galactica as the rights are owned by Fantasy Flight Games. It promised many of the same elements; positions of power, hidden choices of events and votes to quarantine to name just a few, and all wrapped up in less than 90 minutes. Is someone lying to us, or is this guaranteed safe passage?
In Dark Moon, players will each take on the role of one of the research team stationed at the Dark Moon outpost of the Noguchi Masaki Interplanetary Mining Corporation. Something has gone horribly wrong when Matthews and Kilroy went to investigate a freshly drilled site and returned with unknown pathogens registered by their suit diagnostic systems. While monitored in quarantine, none showed any adverse effects when examined by the outpost doctor until 3 days later when Matthew attempted to eviscerate Private Garcia, who died during the assault before you could inject a bullet between his eyes. Kilroy appears to have left the station, but not without damaging the critical systems of the outpost, the shield control systems and the life support. You’ll need to work together to keep the systems under control while performing tasks to get you through 3 events before you’re able to make it off the outpost. However one or more of you are infected with the pathogen and need to prevent the crew from leaving and exposing you so that you may leave alone to infect other worlds.
Each crew member has a special ability that makes them unique to others in the form of an advantage in certain elements of gameplay, such as repairing shields. Each player will then receive a status card, telling them whether they are infected or uninfected and lastly a crew member is randomly given the rank of commander before the mind games begin. Uninfected players will need to complete tasks around the station in order to gain progress markers through 3 events, whose effects and difficulty are chosen by the incumbent commander all while they keep the station running by ensuring the shields, life support and outpost systems remain intact. The infected player(s) simply need to make sure that the crew succumbs through the shield systems failing, the life support damaged beyond repair to fatigue all the crew members or the outpost systems breaking down to the point that the cannot escape the Dark Moon. To be most effective, infected players cannot be discovered to hold false allegiance and risk the threat of quarantine by vote of the crew. They are able to remain inconspicuous through the fact that tasks and repairs on the Dark Moon station are never certain to be successful, even by the most able and willing of crew members.
On each turn, players will choose to repair one of the three systems of the outpost or order another player to make 2 actions, call for a vote or opt to attempt to make progress through the event by choosing to Lone Wolf. Remember how I said nothing is certain? The way that you perform any actions is through the use of stamina, represented by a selection of dice. Initially players will start with two strong and two weak 6 sided dice (plus the commander dice should you hold that role) all of which have negative and positive sides. Behind your player screen, you’ll roll up to 3 die in secret and submit one of them to complete the task. Should you submit a positive die, the repairs are successful and you’re able to restore part of the station but any negative die will be be considered a fail. However whatever you submit will be removed from your stamina pool until you are able to rest and retrieve dice from the used pool equal to your limit. The Lone Wolf action has players rolling up to three die and submitting two. Both have to be positive for the task to succeed and no matter the outcome, both dice will be expended and submitted to the pool.
After performing an action, players will then need to draw two tasks in secret and declare one to be attempted by the crew and the other discarded. Tasks can range from performing a simple event beneficial to uninfected players, such as a medical examination on another player to check whether they are infected through to attempting to stop a system malfunction. System malfunctions will require players to collectively reach a difficulty number through expending stamina by rolling and submitting die towards the value, depending on whether they opt to participate in the task or not. All those participating will, similarly to repairs, roll up to three die in secret behind their player screen and MUST submit at least 1 die per roll and attempting to participate more than once should they choose before passing to the next player. After all players who opted in have submitted at least one die, success is determined by difficulty number being equaled or surpassed, or failure if players fall short. Should players succeed, a success token is placed on one of the event cards. Failure however often results in damage to the said system.
System damage can be severe as each affects the crew in different, yet always awful ways. When shields fail they can often have a knock-on effect of further damaging the same system immediately, The outpost system damage prevents the crew from performing certain actions or abilities and should the life support system start failing, random crew members will become fatigued. Becoming fatigued has a massive impact on your effectiveness in the game, as your reduced die limit makes you less effective in contributing to group tasks or system repairs. Should any of these three systems completely fail, the infected will dance among their corpses while taunting with a maniacal chicken dance of victory.
Dealing with the infected requires the forces of “democracy” to work in your favour through calling a vote to quarantine your suspected pathogen carrier before they reveal themselves to be infected. Should they reveal outside of quarantine, they’ll be able to trigger a special infected ability which is sure to wreck havoc on the station, and sometimes even multiple times with a lucky roll. Once revealed, infected players will be able to sabotage equipment, influence the draw of the task deck and even force uninfected players to swap strong die for weak die from the pool. However, it’s seldom in the infected players best interest to reveal before they could end the game swiftly, as the seeds of fear, mistrust and the ability to pick and orchestrate terrible task failures is only available to those who wear the human facade for long enough.
The dice, deception and manipulation of the interactions of the crew is where Dark Moon smiles its menacing grimace from the side of the mouth. The die frequently provide uninfected players with miserable outcomes for the group which consistently makes them have to defend their health status and this allows infected players to constantly cast doubt on others and ease the pressure of constant defense. Each task feels like the worst choice the player could have made, each event chosen by the commander appears to be slanted towards the abyss and every suspicious action forces the players closer to a vote where they need to optionally quarantine a player. You’re consistently assessing whether the player to your left is just having the worst night with lady luck, or whether he is simply pushing your team towards their doom with the belief that he understands the slim chances of success. Infected players are unaware of other infected players until they reveal, which can cause additional doubt and issuing an order to an infected player can allow them to perform multiple actions that could crash your life support systems. Was this task too challenging despite the commander protesting that we need the benefits associated with success? Why didn’t the doctor focus on fixing the life support systems, his specialty, and instead went to fix the shields and failed miserably? And why oh why is the mechanic hoarding dice when we really need her to contribute to this task more than ever? Can you ever really trust anyone?
And that’s the hidden beauty of Dark Moon that flashes before your senses in a 90 minute wave of confusion, angst and betrayal. Whereas BSG is the full banquet with an abundance of food that keeps arriving at the table long after my hunger is satiated, and The Resistance offers a wafer biscuit when I want something more substantial, Dark Moon offers me a game with enough complexity and depth of choices in a sea of doubt that doesnt drown the infected players too early with the pressures of remaining unknown by providing the scorn of lady luck. The re-theme of something akin to John Carpenters: The Thing or Event Horizon gives a gritty pulp horror feel that fits the mechanics of the game well. The cards reminds you of scenes from older science fiction horror like Aliens and the hidden roles, hidden actions and constant mistrust make this a game that balances well with the number of players. I’ve yet to play with a full allotment of seven, but would love to taste the anxiety of the knowledge that three out of seven of you are infected.
If I were to complain about elements of Dark Moon, it would be that the initial rules are not some of the finest written in the industry, although errata and FAQ’s have been provided on Board Game Geek by the designer. The stock of card used is also somewhat poor, which is noticeable when shuffling or with frequent use that may become marked, ruining the game going forward. While the theme works, it’s missing the characterization that BSG has, which makes me yearn for the BSG Express version that SHOULD have been picked up and created, however massive thanks to Stronghold and Mr Buonocore for making sure that this title got published.
In closing, I enjoy so many mechanical elements of Dark Moon, from the dice relieving tension from the infected, the constant mistrust of each and every bad element that happens, through to the politics of players vying for control and trust in an environment so bent on their failure, all wrapped up in a game that we could play twice in an evening if we wanted. While components required more love, you’ll find none of this while while you stare into the eyes of your comrades to discover who has your back, and who is pressing the knife into it.