Board Game Review: Luna – Power to the Priestess

While I don’t love every one of his designs, I tend to really enjoy Feld’s influence on the hobby. An older title, Luna, has recently come back into print thanks to Tasty Minstrel Games. I’ve often seen it touted as one of his best designs. But is that just out-of-print jealousy or is this title legit? In Luna, the players train acolytes to the moon priestess, and have designs on the temple itself and the knowledge within.

The Basics. The main board contains the temple and up to 28 semi-randomly arranged spaces. On the outskirts of the board is a track where up to 28 matching tiles are placed in descending order. Around the entire board are seven islands. Each island can bestow a different favor on the player. And, traveling the islands are the moon priestess, shrine builder, and apostate.

Players start with two novices on each of four islands. They also get a shrine on a fifth island and a starting favor from the remaining two islands. In turn order, each player can take one action. Actions are numerous and include building shrines, taking favors, and recruiting novices. But the most important actions take place on the big temple board.

Favors make the world go round

Players can claim one of the tiles on the path around the board (typically one of the lower numbers). Once claimed, they can take an action to place that tile on its matching location within the temple. Once they do, they not only get a victory point bonus, but they also kick off any other adjacent novices on other tiles. They get a bonus point for each novice displaced.

Once the round has concluded, there is a separate scoring for novices in the temple and novices on the same island as the moon priestess. There is also a penalty for being on the same island as the apostate. Then, the shrine builder, priestess, and apostate all move a number of islands in clockwise fashion.

The game ends after six rounds and the player with the most points wins.

You want to be on her good side

The Feel. Among my favorite games are those that make you feel like you don’t have enough time to get everything done. Constant hard choices drag your attention in conflicting directions as you decide between competing opportunities – or sometimes different calamities. And that’s exactly how Luna operates.

In fact, in the first turn or two, it may even feel like you’re basically doing everything you want. A novice goes to the temple, a favor is taken. Heck, maybe a shrine is built. But then you realize a few rounds later that, after sending your novices to the temple, you only have three or four left to do the actions you need. Of course, you could go the other way and get novices early and then make a big push at the end. But then, you miss out on the big points offered early game and take the comparatively meager points later on.

Should you build a shrine? Not only are they worth end-game points, but they also can make your novices more efficient. But you can only build where the Master Builder is – and maybe you want that shrine in a different spot. Is it worth delaying until then?

Only the master builder knows how to make shrines

One of the most fun aspects, though, is the way you can push your opponents by shortening the round. Sometimes, you want someone to take a particular action before you do. Maybe you have some novices at the temple that have been displaced and need to come home. You can spend a tide favor to do just that. But it looks like an opponent is positioned to knock off another one of your novices. Better to save the tide and do it after he knocks you.

While you can’t force him to take a particular action, you can shorten the round by flipping a meditation tile. Once all four flip, the round is over. Suddenly, he doesn’t have all day to do whatever he wants and has to get to the important stuff – including, hopefully, displacing your novice so that you can tide him out of there. But maybe he dares you to flip the last tile and continues taking other actions. Luna allows the players to engage in this game of chicken. And, with more players, it can become even more tense. This is especially true where one player might flip the last tile simply to prevent his opponents from playing further.

Luna is also gorgeously illustrated. Many euros feel quite drab. I don’t mind that, of course. It’s the gameplay that keeps me interested. But I can’t help but smile at the islands and other illustrations in Luna. They feel rich and lived. It makes the game a more upbeat, even serene experience and it’s easy to focus on the board.

Don’t listen to his heresy!

The temple tiles leave a little to be desired. Rather than four distinct colors, they are yellow (distinct!), greenish-grey (distinct?), grayish grey (is this a green one?), and grey with a tinge of blue (huh?). That makes them annoying to separate at game start, but otherwise Luna’s graphical design is fantastic.

Luna also does a wonderful job of pitting the players against one another. When it comes to building an engine or getting the right favors and using the right novices, there is little an opponent can do to stymie you. While the competition for the apostate and moon priestess defeat charges of multiplayer solitaire, you can’t really stop me from building a shrine (other than by ending the round early, I suppose).

But this is distinctly contrasted with the temple. When you place someone there, you bump off all the adjacent figures with a lower value. Getting the right temple tiles, and in the right order, becomes critical. The play order of those tiles is also important. Layered on top is the protection of the books. Players will try to steal books from their opponents and place them under themselves. Without protection, the novice can be cast out. So intricate maneuvers and cunning plans are hatched within the walls of the temple. It creates a fantastic space for direct competition.

These colors really should be more distinct…

Components: 4 of 5. The bits are mostly standard. Little novice meeples, painted wood shrines. The temple board is also fairly typical of euro games. But the island boards are sturdy little things, and they contain artwork that provides a wonderful ambiance. The little irregular islands, and the fun little touches just tickle me. Luna is a game with a view.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Aside from a somewhat randomized setup, there is absolutely no luck in Luna. Sure opponents might get in your way, or send the Apostate to your island, but it’s all within the realm of control. The randomized setup, though, strikes just the right tone of adding variety without becoming a gimmick.

Mechanics. 4.5 of 5. Luna is pretty darn fantastic. I love the way the game gives you all the options in the world, but novices get used quickly and there isn’t nearly enough time to do everything you want. There is good tension between more points now vs. flexibility later. And, I adore the round timer which can pit players directly against one another.

Replayability: 4 of 5. I see myself coming back to this title repeatedly. There is so much to love. While the randomized setup will keep things from being too stilted – and may provide reason to alter favored openings – that isn’t what conveys replay value. Luna is replayable precisely because it provides tension in the decision-making. Plus, it allows you to build toward something, but then forces direct competition once built. Gameplay puts the focus directly on the players and their strategies.

Spite: 3 of 5. There is one major source of spite. That’s the apostate. Particularly vindictive groups might try to run him to a leader’s island and stick the leader with some negatives. But, frankly, the few points you lose isn’t a game changer. The real aggression comes in the temple as you steal a book from someone else and then send their novice packing before they can stop you. But despite the greater assault to your position, it feels less spiteful becomes the attack isn’t targeted and happens automatically.

The player aid reveals that there are many options that can be taken

Overall: 4.5 of 5. Luna is exciting, challenging, and fun. It requires long-term planning but still forces you to react tactically. It entices you to do more up front for bigger points, but has incentives to prep early and have big turns later. Its very construction is based on significant and substantial decisions. The way all good games should be.

(A special thanks to Tasty Minstrel Games for providing a review copy of Luna)

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