It dawned on me that there was something weird about writing this review: I started with the coda then worked backwards. Which is kinda appropriate as Moonflight, the card game by Glenn Ford and published by Man O'Kent Games, has a very specific endpoint. The midnight black and white box is a thing of simplistic beauty, highlighted in spot UV and with a satisfying magnetic closure; but, here again, I'm getting ahead of myself...
Originally funded through Kickstarter and delivered to backers in summer 2020, Moonflight is a deck-building/dismantling card game that openly pays homage to Dominion (Rio Grande). While the granddaddy of all deck-builders currently has ten big box expansions with in excess of 250 unique cards to play, the base set of Moonflight has four jacks-of-all-trades to sample, each with about 10 different cards. It's an interesting proposition and I found the rulebook clear and easy to get along with; querying the rules during play was no problem. There is flavour text at the back and an accompanying sheet detailing 12 cards that are apparently unique to the Kickstarter edition and which should be swapped in only when you're more comfortable with the game. So, what gives?
Each player takes a 'Jack' - think Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas - which comes with its own main deck of 24 cards, 10 starter cards, 7 standard market cards, a reference card, and an AI card. After taking 5 coins and drawing a hand of 5, each participating Jack displays 3 cards from their main deck as an additional market, open to all. Each atomic card play - called an 'act' - is individual, so turns can potentially be quick when generating cash, or comparatively slow when the action cards start piling up. I guess the granulation of playing out a hand is to add tension on who might purchase a card from any of the markets or perform other 'acts'.
While the fundamentals of deck building are present - acquire cards; improve your deck; rinse; repeat - the game's arc is in two distinct halves: when a player exhausts their unique deck, all cards - in play, hand, and in decks - are literally turned 180 degrees to reveal secondary powers and the objective changes from building your deck to dismantling it. The aim now is to reduce your cards from actions/cash/draw to draw/discard/trash while retaining as many scoring cards as possible, to the point where at the end of a round you have just a hand, no deck or discard. Many 'post-turn' card effects are geared toward this aim but there are no general market cards which do so, meaning it's down to the Jacks.
Which... is a bit of a problem; each is so strongly focused on their particular mechanic - Trash/Discard manipulation, Setting (keeping cards from Round to Round), generating Coins, and Drawing/Hand Size, that any game missing one of them weakens it for the others. Which would be OK if all were equally useful, but it did not feel as though they were; in a game about Trashing cards and having scoring cards in hand after Drawing, those two Jacks felt by far the most powerful; the Coins were useful, too, but Setting as a primary ability felt weak.
It may be that the playtesters and design team are confident in equality or are happy with imbalance, but a first-time player or casual returner will likely not want to play the less obviously useful Jacks. Similarly, I think the pacing of the game could give rise to consternation for new players; even at the smaller player counts, both stages take quite some time to get through and I'd be surprised if building up and then dismantling the decks occurred with any alacrity.
Moonflight is enough of an interesting curate's egg, that I'd be happy to dip into it again but it would likely be against the timed solo challenge or against a single human opponent; the AI cards are quite high maintenance for a comparatively low challenge. Each additional player will use up a chunk more table space, which could have been mitigated by reducing the card size from Tarot to standard; the art and design by Henry Peters is nice enough but I'd rather the game had a smaller footprint. I enjoyed tasting each Jack's powers to the point where I'd deal out any missing Jacks' cards to additional market spaces; there's flavour there not otherwise tasted.
Moonflight has a very particular cadence to it: an attack and decay that already mandates a certain style of play even before you factor in the Jacks' peculiar abilities. It's a unique take on the genre and adds some thought-provoking twists but it could benefit from picking up the pace, especially at higher player counts when triggering powers might keep you going 'til sunrise.
Coda: I couldn't quite recall if 'Moonflight' was the name of a Camel song, so I fired up Spotify and did a search; turns out it wasn't. The songs that did come up under that search were either chilled ethereal numbers or driving thumpy numbers; this seemed appropriate to me, as it mirrored the dichotomy of the card game.
(Review by David Fox)