I’ve never actually been to a game convention myself, and I don’t plan to start at my time of life. After all - why go to the trouble when I can sort through the recommended new releases pre-filtered by people whose taste I trust? Out of that pre-filtering process as applied to this years’ Essen there was actually only one game that I found that I felt merited personal attention according to my own game tastes. That game was Luna Llena (Spanish for Full Moon) from Gen-X games who were kind enough to respond to my interest with a review copy for me to check out. As you might guess from the English translation of the name this is a game about Werewolves. I was extraordinarily lucky to get my first play on a raw December night in which a howling wind was pushing wisps of ragged clouds across the face of - you guessed it - a full moon. I didn’t plan it, but it certainly added to the experience.
One of the things that attracted me to the game was the set-up: this is one of a very small number of games that could be described as an asymmetric semi-operative game in which one or two players play against a bigger team and both sides have different rules and powers. Few in number though these games are I can number amongst them several of my favourite games such as Fury of Dracula and Battlestar Galactica. In this instance the “one player” is the Werewolf clan who will spend most of his game working out how best to use his limited pool of planning points on a variety of actions in order to frustrate and disable the “team” (who is just one in a 2-player game) who play members of a group of hikers lost in the woods. The hikers need to follow a trail to the lair of the werewolves, free some captured comrades (one of whom has a map) and escape. The wolf player is trying to infect one hiker and kill the rest.
The components in Luna Llena are probably best described as “serviceable”. Cards are thin and untextured and look like they’re going to wear quickly and yet, annoyingly, they don’t fit into standard-sized card sleeves. The various cardboard hexagons that comprise the game board appear somewhat more robust but they’re single-sided, not quite thick enough not to bend if you’re clumsy and care should be taken removing them from their sprues in case the back tears. The game also uses a fairly large numbers of tiny cardboard counters to track various things and these are a massive pain to punch out of the sprue and are probably best replaced with dice in any case. It’s from a small publisher so you’d kind of expect all this but I’m not sure at the moment of writing how much the game is going to retail for, so you might want to bear it in mind when you calculate value for money. Having said all that the game save itself in this department with some cracking artwork, rendered in a strangely serious comic-book style that suits the game atmosphere perfectly although it annoyed me that all the female werewolves are rendered with prominent genitalia whilst none of the male one are. I also like the fact that whoever packed the box is a completest: everything you could possibly need to play is here, including a pencil, so you can be sure all you need to do if you’re going out to play is pick up the box and you’re done. Call me a pedant if you like, but I like that sort of attention to detail.
Play begins with a lengthy setup portion in which each player chooses which characters they want to use from a pool. Human characters have a variety of skills such as life, combat, searching and so on and are correspondingly varied. Werewolves on the other hand have only one - a combat value, which starts low and then skyrockets when they transform - and so have a much easier choice on their hands. However, the wolf characters are not uniformly strong, and the wolf player can save some of his initial characters and take planning points instead so he has to choose between getting more but progressively weaker pack members and starting out with a greater variety of actions at his disposal from the off. Having chosen his characters the wolf player then takes a paper map and draws, in secret, a line of ten hexes from the starting hex through all the possible hex positions on the board. This is the trail the human characters must find and follow in order to locate the werewolves lair. A central hex is placed on the board where the human characters start as well as some face-down “friendly” hexes that the players can move to and play begins.
Because the sides are asymmetrical the two halves of each turn follow different patterns. The human player(s) each have a hand of action cards and each turn they must choose one action to perform - they can explore to seek for the trail (which involves asking the wolf player if the trail crosses certain hex sides), search for items, run around, hide and rest and so on, and each player gets a free move of one hex in addition to the action they choose to perform. If you move into a blank space, a new hex is drawn from a bag and added to the board. Most actions are resolved by rolling dice equal to a particular statistic and looking for 5’s or 6’s with more translating to better success. Werewolves on the other hand get a pool of planning points each turn which they use to buy actions or cards to play. They don’t have to spend them all and can hoard them up for “big” actions such as summoning one of their pagan deities or simply for a turn when they want to do a lot. The most common action is to “sniff” which means hunting for human characters in a hex: the wolf player pays a planning point and rolls dice equal to the number of wolf icons on the hex and succeeds on 5’s and 6’s. If he finds a character he can attack it. The combat mechanic is quite unusual and reminiscent of blackjack. Each side starts with the combat value printed on the sheet and can then choose to take cards from the combat deck, one each at a time. Most of these cards have a combat bonus on them, and you keep adding the bonuses up until you’ve decided you’ve got enough and “stand”. The catch? Also in the deck are “trip” cards that cause you to loose automatically and “ravine” cards that force you to stand. It’s a bit long-winded but it’s actually pretty tense.
The rules themselves are pretty atrociously written to be honest, probably as the result of an unfortunate translation job from the original Spanish and there are a number of loose ends that aren’t properly covered. An updated version is apparently in the pipeline. However the game is rather simpler to play than it might sound once you’ve figured out the rules because it’s actually a very procedural step-wise game and there’s a very clear step-by-step chart printed on a handy player aid included in the box. The procedural nature can get somewhat tiresome and fiddly at first, and it feels awkward and clumsy but it also lends itself to an easy familiarity, and whilst your first game or two might be long and drawn out, you’ll quickly find yourself within the 90-150 play time printed on the box. Not that any of this matters particularly because frankly, if you’re the sort of gamer who is more interested in clear, unambiguous rules than they are in becoming immersed in the game experience and making rules calls according to the spirit of the game at that given moment in time, this isn’t a game for you.
When you stand back and look at this game as a whole, frankly, it looks completely bizarre. See what’s thrown in the mix: a couple of very old fashioned but quite neat and underused mechanics like having someone draw stuff secretly on a map, some quite modern Euro-style resource management effects, some totally Ameritrash-style dice throwing and a lot of thematic attention that’s actually largely de-coupled from the mechanics (why do human players get a limited hand of actions, for example? Why can fights only take place one-on-one? Why do guns and knives turn up when you search in the forest?). It’s the sort of stuff that ruins games to be honest: thematic layers that aren’t supported by mechanics tend to fall down, euro-style efficiency mechanics usually mesh badly with dice. Yet, amazingly, in spite of all the conflicting things it puts into the bag, Luna Llena manages to pull it off. The game is engaging and fun, tense, atmospheric and challenges the players with some awkward decisions.
Why does it work? I think the answer to that is because in spite of the fact that the theme doesn’t come across in the mechanics, and in spite of the conflict between efficiency mechanics and the dice the game offers such a bounty of narrative that the players cease to care and just become immersed in the story. I saw one early adopter of this game, Daniel Danzer, state “You experience a movie. And a weird one!” and he’s right. It is just like a werewolf movie, only most certainly one you’ve never seen before. This is a werewolf movie in which the heroes can gun down werewolves with silver bullets and escape into the night on a quad bike. Or they might just all get eaten alive. You never know until the final card is down. There are some delightful thematic touches which are covered nicely with some relatively simple rules, such as the existence of talismans that can cure infected human players of their werewolf curse if taken to the right location and sacrificed: so if a human knows he’s infected he can either hunt madly for the cure, or secretly plot to join the wolf side when night falls. It’s a nice social dynamic that adds to the paranoia in the game. I also liked the fear mechanic which can see human players eventually loose their nerve, suffer a panic attack and run randomly round the board like headless chickens.
There is one thing about the game that doesn’t work well, though, and unfortunately it can be a pretty serious flaw. The human players all have plenty to do each turn: discuss tactics, choose and resolve their actions and perhaps fight as well. The werewolf player however sometimes has nothing to do at all. It’s quite common for the wolf player to spend the first few turns hunting humans and spreading infection markers but once all the human players have one there’s no point in risking further attacks until night falls. So all the wolf player can do most turns is collect planning points and buy the occasional card. The human turn can last ten minutes and the wolf player turn is over within seconds. The narrative arc helps keep the wolf player interested but it’s a shame that he usually spends a significant minority of the game doing very little. Considering that the werewolf player often doesn’t have that many characters it seems surprisingly easy for the humans to get lucky and kill a werewolf early on: I don’t think I’ve played a game as yet where at least one werewolf hasn’t been killed. Dead werewolves means there’s even less for the werewolf player to do, as well as making the already difficult task of a werewolf win even harder.
Whilst the focus of the game is very clearly on the narrative and the atmosphere, the designers didn’t forget to leave some interesting decision making out of the mix, particularly for the human players. At any given moment in time your choice of actions is limited by what you - and the other human players - have got in their hand of actions cards and choosing the most appopriate one from the mix is often difficult. Even more interesting, there is safety in numbers: one hiker standing in a hex alone is a werewolf magnet, unless they’re armed to the teeth, but of course the hikers need to follow that trail adn to do that the most effective thing to do is split up. Of course, you can get yourself all nicely weaponed-up by searching but if you do that, you’re not following the trail: and there’s a limit to how many items you can find in a given hex anyway which encourages further splitting up. Or not, as the case may be. Human characters also accumulate a pool of “determination” points which can be spent in a variety of ways - buying back lost health or more action cards or saving them up to try and cancel powerful werewolf pack cards.
I can’t finish this review without mentioning the little paper maps that each player uses - the werewolf to mark the trail and the human to follow said trail and to keep track of how many items have been extracted from each hex. The idea of making hidden notes on a map and having a sort of games-master like player (in this case the werewolf) giving out information as it goes along is not new, but for some reason the noting down of it on a paper map adds a certain something to the game experience - almost as if there were hikers, stumbling through the woods, making desperate scribbles on their trail map as they come across clues in the depth of the forest.
Luna Llena is a fun game with some rough edges. It’s a shame that too often there’s too little for the werewolf player to do aside from gloat over the eventual fate of his potential victims. But it’s a testament to the atmosphere of the game that gloating and watching the humans go through their paces is often engaging enough to keep the werewolf player interested even where there’s very little going on on his side of the table. The combat mechanic is a little drawn out, but it works and it illustrates nicely the manner in which the game builds on a number of well known mechanics - in this case Blackjack - but imports them into areas of design where they’re not normally seen. Rather than risking all on some wild innovation, the designer has been creative in re-using the tried-and-tested in new and unusual ways and on the whole the result is a success. It’ll be interesting to see what the revised rules look like, whether they can scale down on some of the unfortunate flaws in the design. But even as it stands, you’re not going to find many better candidates for play when a gibbous moon is riding high in the wilds of the night.
Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also a regular columnist for Board Game News.