Saturday, January 9, 2010

Review: Luna Llena

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, for the record, I am not a member of Team Jacob. Nor Team Edward for that matter. I'm more of a member of Team Don't Be A Codependent And Angst Magnet And Maybe Later Hook Up With A Mummy That Respects You Enough To Establish Independence And Get You Involved In CoDA.


The Overview:


Box cover showing the style of artwork to be found within. 



Box contents. 



Luna Llena is a semi-cooperative game where one player takes the role of a pack of werewolves in the forest and the other players all take the role of the hapless campers, lost and trying to survive and escape. While more powerful in strength and prowess, the werewolves don't just want to slaughter the campers. They want to infect them with lycanthropy and have them transform to join their pack. The problem is, the werewolves don't know if their infection took or not until night, so they want to keep them alive until that point. The campers, meanwhile, are trying to arm themselves and find the werewolves' lair to rescue their companions and recover the map that will lead them out of the woods.

The game is for 2-7 players and takes about 2 hours to play. Like most games, it moves quicker with fewer player and slower with more, so 2 hours is the base to work from. The campers are all on the same team and can communicate openly and work together. If a camper is hit by a werewolf, they may be infected. If they are, they can try to stop the infection and work with the humans or give into their fate and join the werewolves' team when they transform. The ends when all of the humans have left the forest, are transformed or dead. For the humans to win, at least one of them must survive and escape the forest. For the werewolves to win, at least one of the campers must be turned into a werewolf and they have killed all of the other humans to ensure that no one can talk about what happened. However, this isn't really a game about winning or losing. Don't worry about balance and equal sides or anything like that. The game is really about the story you are telling.

The game turns run through the hours of the day, beginning in the morning and eventually moving to dusk, then night. The forest is represented by a hex map. The campers begin in the center hex and build the map as they move out, drawing a random hex from the bag for the new hex they've move into. The werewolf player takes a map and draws out a path of 10 hexes from the campers' start hex to his lair. This is where the map is, as well as two hostage characters who are taken and placed aside before the game even begins.

The campers take their actions by playing cards from their hand. These range from options such as Running, Searching, Exploring, Hiding and so on. Exploring gives you a chance to determine if the path the lair lays along a hex, while Searching lets you try to find items in a given hex. Regardless of the action card played, each camper can also take a move action to move one hex on their turn. There is no exit to the forest until the lair is discovered and the map is found. Once the map is found, the exits are placed on the hex map and the campers need to try to escape as quickly as possible.

On the werewolf player's turn, he gets a number of action points to spend. He use them to draw a card, use some of the special abilities available to the werewolf or to try to sniff out and attack the campers. Each hex has a icon on it for the number of dice that the werewolf gets to roll to try to sniff out a camper on that hex. If he is successful, he can spend any remaining points to get his werewolves to attack the campers on that hex. If he is not successful, he cannot find the campers in that area and can try a new hex. If he attacks a camper and damages him or her, they get an infection token. The token is face down and it may either have an Infection Positive icon on it, or an Infection Immune icon on it. Neither the damaged player nor the werewolf knows if the infection worked or not. And once a camper has an infection token, they cannot get another. So either it worked, or it didn't. There is not second tries at infection.

After that, the time marker moves forward one hour and the turn starts over again. However, if the timer reaches the dusk spots, each player with an infection token can peek at their token. They get to know if they will be transforming or not. They can lie, bluff or be honest about what they have. It depends on if they want to willingly join the werewolves or try to stop the transformation and continue to help the humans. And, finally, at night, all infection tokens are flipped over and if a camper has an Infection Positive token, then he transforms and joins the werewolf team (though there are items that would stop the transformation, but it still becomes public knowledge that you have the infection, but are still on the humans' side).

Once night falls and the werewolves can see who is on their side, the game becomes a bloodbath of trying to kill the fleeing humans while the humans are just trying to move and escape as quickly as possible.

There are a few other mechanics that affect the game. The humans collect Determination at the end of each round, which can be spent on numerous things: remaining calm, healing, helping other players, drawing new action cards. The humans also have a Calm stat, which can be lost by many different situations. Some hexes cost calm just to enter them and the werewolf can play cards that lose a players calm. Lose too much calm and you become scared, which limits the Determination resource that you can hold. And finally, if you are scared and lose all of your calm, then you flee into the woods in a random direction.

Combat is determined by a press-your-luck mechanic where each camper and werewolf involved draws a card from the combat deck and adds the number to their character's combat value. Players can either stand or hit, like blackjack. The problem is that there are a number of cards in the deck, such as "Trip", which, if drawn, drops the character's combat value to 0. So if a werewolf currently has a 15 and the camper has an 11, he can decide to hit or stay. Staying means that he knows he will not draw a trip card. However, the camper might be able to draw enough to pass your total. Or he may draw a trip card. That is where the press-you-luck mechanic comes into play, though usually it is the werewolf player that is the one choosing to stay or hit. For the camper, it's obvious that you have to go for it regardless of the risk since you usually start below the werewolf in combat value.



The Theme:

Luna Llena has been described as a horror movie... A weird, messed up horror movie. I think that is fitting assessment. There is a lot of randomness in the game and it depends on how that randomness plays out, there may not be much strategy. So ultimately, what you focus on is the story being told. And that works for the game.

There is a lot of theme in the game. You are watching a story being told. There is suspicion and tension as the campers each get infected, knowing that one or more of them may eventually turn on their fellow campers. Once an infected camper gets to look at his infection token you have to start to wonder if they can be trusted or not. Perhaps they see that they are going to be a werewolf and have decided to sabotage their fellow humans as they have embraced the inevitable. It can create a lot of suspicion and tension between the campers once people get a chance to see their tokens. The end result doesn't give as much sabotage opportunities as say, an unrevealed Cylon in Battlestar Galactica, but as the night nears, campers may scatter for fear of sharing a hex with a friend who suddenly becomes a rampaging werewolf ready to attack them.

This theme is a little less felt by the werewolf player, however. You are a part of the story, but most of it is a waiting game for the werewolf. Make a strategic strike here and there and get up the intrigue by attacking and infecting the players, but you cannot see who is infected yourself. ScottE had made the remark that playing the werewolf is akin to being the GM in an RPG and I cannot agree more. You set everything up, control the pacing, but ultimately, the story is told by the reactions of the other players.



Learning the Game:

The game is not a difficult or complex game to learn and understand. However, the rulebook really tries to make it so. The English translations in the book are not always phrased the best, but it is not impossible to read through the rules and figure it out. The player aids are good. In fact, they better illustrate the turn order and options available than the rulebook itself.

Even after the rules are understood, there are a few timing issues that are not well explained in the book. Fortunately, most of these issues can be determined intuitively. But ultimately, this isn't a game where winning and losing is really that important, so even if you get a small rule wrong, it doesn't really matter that much.



The Components:

The components of the game are probably the worst part of it, which is a shame. The cards have beautiful illustrations. I really like the artwork on them and the stock of the cards is durable and quite fine. However, there are two specific complaints that I have with the other components that cannot be ignored.



The artwork on the character cards is beautiful.



The tiles that will be drawn for the map. Also, the small tokens that are used by the players. More on them in a bit. 




The board that sets up the tile placement and lets you visualize where you still need to explore. However, this, or any map board like this, is not included in the game. 



The first thing to remark on is the tokens. The campers have markers for their Health and Determination and such, and the werewolves have markers for their points that they can spend each round. The problem is that these tokens are really tiny. I mean, really tiny. Annoyingly so. It is very easy to lose them, especially if you are playing on a tablecloth. And they are of the size that it is not practical to pick them up in a normal way, but rather by pressing your finger onto them and letting the moisture on your skin cause them to stick to your fingertip.

The other thing is that the tile placement is supposed to be within a specified area with some tiles already placed face down. The problem is that there is no placement guide and you just have to freeform and place everything. This makes it a little harder to visualize the map until enough of it is laid down. This is easily solved by having a map tile placement board, but none was included in the game. Fortunately, if you are reading this on BGG, then you can go and download one of the files that have been uploaded and print them out yourself. However, it really is something that should have been included in the game.



Playing the Game:

The game plays well and is fun once you have everything up and running. However, there are a few things to note. The game involvement is not balanced. The humans' turn may involve discussing what they are doing, planning things out, deciding how to work as a team, playing their cards and then resolving their actions, perhaps taking 5-10 minutes if not more if there is a lot of debate. Then the werewolf player takes his turn. He gets his 3 points and draws a card. His turn is over, taking maybe 20 seconds. This may turn off some players to playing the werewolf. But again, the role is much like that of the GM in an RPG. The payoff isn't in what you do specifically, but the end result and story at the end. If you enjoy the GM role, then the werewolf player is the role for you. But if you are in it for the interaction, the Camper side is for you.

Later in the game, it is all about the werewolf hunting and killing the humans, but there is a lot of build up to reach that part and there is much more waiting on the werewolf player's side than on the humans.

The game also is not balanced because of the randomness. Lucky campers can stumble upon the trail and find the werewolves lair before nightfall and can get the map and leave before the werewolves even transform. A bad draw in a combat can find a werewolf dead at the end of it early in the game. However, that isn't necessary bad. Like I said, you are telling a story. The story where tiny Ruka finds an axe and chops off the head of Rufus as he trips while moving towards her shortly after leaving camp is all a part of a greater (and usually weirder) story that is unfolding.

Finally, since the randomness of the game breaks and feasibility of real balance, I think the game would be improved by foregoing any attempt to try to balance it and each game should have a random number of Infection Immune and Infection Positive tokens in it. I think that would add to the tension and, while it would make some games easier for the werewolf, you would always have a lot more mistrust and suspicion in the game, which would make it ultimately more interesting.



Scalability:

The game is for 2-7 players and it scales well for all of that range. There are a few things that are missing from fewer players, however. For example, in a two or three player game, the human players play 3 or 2 characters each respectively. This removes some of the suspicion and tension when one of the characters is infected. You know that you aren't going to betray yourself and so you work to curing or stopping the transformation. Failing that, you will simply move the infect character as far away as possible to help the humans and hinder the werewolves when he does transform. Other than that, it scales well, with more players making the game more interesting because of the interaction.



Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. Because this game is about story and theme, she is more likely to enjoy it. And she does. There are characters in this game that you assume the role of and I see the inner RPG geek in her and storyteller in her come out whenever we play. Of course, Dante is going to rush over to try to help Alice. In the story in my wife's mind, nerdy Dante has always had a crush on Alice and now he's going to try to win her over by being the hero.

She doesn't say these things out loud, but I know her well enough that I can see the story subtext in her actions. And you know what? That adds to the story we are telling by playing this game.

My wife really enjoys the game, but prefers it with more players. It lets her speak out and vocalize her story a little more and gives more players to interact with to create it. I think the length of the game, however, is what keeps this from reaching the table more often, even in 2 player form.



The Pros:

*Beautiful card artwork.
*A great story telling game, especially with the right players.
*Can create suspicion and tension once the infections start being given out.
*Excellent scalability.
*Randomness of set up allows a lot of replayability.
*The game feels like a werewolf movie, but not the type of werewolf movie where they are pining over Vampire rebounds.


The Cons:

*Poor translation in the rulebook making it seem more complicated than it really is.
*No hex map board makes the layout much less intuitive.
*Some components are unnecessarily small.
*Randomness can unbalance the game quickly.
*Can end up being quick and uneventful with a quick discovery of the Lair.
*A bit long for a game that really isn't that strategic, but building a story.



Overall:

Luna Llena is much like playing a werewolf movie in the same way that Last Night on Earth captured being in a zombie movie. Sometimes the randomness and luck can work against it being the most interesting movie, but for the most part, you have usually ended up with an experience and a story that is better than the sum of the mechanics of the game. Don't look here for a well-balanced, strategic game. However, if you like theme and story, this game fills that niche better than a lot out there. At the end of the game, you would have created something akin to a werewolf movie. Or, more likely, like a werewolf story being told around a campfire. And that experience and story is what is important here, not balance and mechanics.


7.5/10

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