Thursday, April 19, 2012

Board Game Night: Luna

The board game group has had Luna for awhile. I've been wanting to try it, and this past Saturday I finally got the chance. It was fun while playing it (although I won, which probably makes me biased). Afterwards, I got to thinking, and I started seeing fundamental problems with the game design. Then I started thinking some more, and realized that it was deeper than I thought.

Luna is sometimes categorized as a worker placement game, but it's not. Yes, the core mechanic is using meeples at locations to perform actions, and using those actions to achieve victory points. But unlike most of these games, getting to the right locations is more difficult than just placing a meeple there before another player. Most ways of moving a meeple use up their action for the turn, and different actions are available at different spaces on different turns. So you have to plan ahead.

There are four serious ways to earn VP: You can build shrines (which have the additional benefit of making it cheaper to perform certain actions), advance your position in the council, court the favor of the high priestess, or move your meeples into the temple. There are ways to pick up little 1 VP bonuses along the way, but those four are the major VP sources. There are also favor tokens, which are one-use special actions that you can get by using two meeples at a given space. Some of these are more useful than others: the gold favor is nearly useless, the shrine favor (which allows you to build shrines) is critical, and most of the rest are situational. The tide favor, however, is game-changing. It allows you to move all your meeples to new positions. Upon arriving, they've lost their action for the turn, but you can move them with the tide even if they've already used their action for the turn. Since being at the right place at the right time is crucial, a powerful strategy is to camp out on the tide island with a meeple and a shrine, get the tide favor every turn (there's enough for all players), and use them near turn's end to set up the next turn.

What made me think the game was broken initially is that there's very limited interaction between the players. Other then grabbing openings in the temple, you can't stop other players from doing most actions. You can, with some effort, sic the apostate on other players to rob them of VP, and to win the priestess' favor you have to compete, but generally your game does not affect anyone else's. So I figured that with an experienced group, the game would degenerate into everyone doing their own thing, and whoever finds the better strategy wins. Then once everyone knows the best strategy, the game becomes a trudge with few surprises and the winner decided by little details and getting lucky with the turn order, an unsatisfying play experience.

But upon looking closer at the VP sources, I realized I had it dead wrong. What the game is really about is efficiency. A shrine is worth 4 VP. To build one, you have to use two meeples to get a shrine favor token, then two more to build the shrine. So you earn 4 VP for 4 meeple-actions, or 1 VP per me-act. The council is the same way: using 3 meeple-actions gets you 3 VP, using 3 more gets you an additional 3 VP, then it's 2 for 2 and 2 for 2, for a total maximum of 10 VP for 10 meeple-actions. 1 VP per me-act, same as the shrines. The priestess' favor is tricky: at the end of each turn, you count up unused meeples on the same space as the priestess (she moves to a new space each turn). The player with the most earns 6 VP, second place gets 3 VP and third gets 1 VP. So, if people ignore the priestess, you can earn 6 VP for a single me-act. But if a lot of people are trying to win her favor, you might get better return for your meeples elsewhere. So it's a bit of a wild card.

Then there's the temple. There are only a certain number of openings in the temple at a time, and only from certain spaces. Taking an opening requires 2 meeple-actions, and earns you points based on what turn of the game it is. On the first turn, placing a meeple in the temple is worth 6 VP. The reward decreases over the course of the game, until on the last turn it's worth only 2 VP. So between 1 and 3 VP per me-act. Additionally, for as long as your meeple stays in the temple, he earns you 1 VP per turn, in exchange for not being able to use him for actions.

In other words, there are only two major ways in which you compete with the other players: getting spots in the temple and winning the priestess' favor. But these are also the only ways in the game to get a return of more than 1 VP per me-act. So the game is really about outmaneuvering your opponents for the big points and maximizing returns when you're forced to take the small ones.

So it's a fun game and deceptively deep. I'm eager to play it again.

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