We’ve been MIA for a bit, but we still have quite a few case studies to present from Meeples Together. So here’s the next one, our first extracurricular look at a traitor game, and one that was directly derived from the classic, Battlestar Galactica.
Dark Moon by Evan Derrick
Publisher: Stronghold (2015)
Cooperative Style: Traitor
Play Style: Action, Dice
The players take on the roles of the staff of a mining colony on Titan, trying to stave off infected infiltrators and to keep the outpost in good repair while surviving long enough to resolve a final event. En route, they must deal with constant tasks that cost them dice and that damage the base. Meanwhile, some of the crewmembers are secretly infected, tasked with thwarting the actions of the human crewmembers!
If that sounds slightly familiar, it’s because Dark Moon was originally an amateur fan-made game called Battlestar Galactica Express (2011). The major beats of the two games are similar, though Dark Moon is a vastly streamlined game — and also replaces Battlestar’s cards with dice.
Like many co-op games, Dark Moon’s challenges come in two parts. The players are trying to ward off bad tasks and by doing so they advance toward the completion of the required events.
Tasks always start off with a choice. The player secretly looks at two tasks cards, picks one, and hides the other.
Most of Dark Moon’s tasks are “malfunctions”, which are skill tests. Whereas Battlestar’s skill test was card based, with players expending card resources to support task completion, Dark Moon is instead dice based, with players expending dice resources to support task completion. The catch is that those dice are rolled each time a player wants to work on a task, then the player must use one of the random results. This introduces tension and uncertainty because players must first decide they’re going to aid in the task, and then see if they can!
Some tasks are instead “complications”, which require some interaction among the players. One player might be asked to give a die to another or to engage in some other “Act of Trust”.
Whenever the players successfully overcome a malfunction or complication, they also get to advance the current event. This increases the tension for the tasks, as they’re required to not just avoid losing the game, but also to win. However, in reality the events act as a timer: they should gradually progress over time.
Dark Moon has traitors, who make up between 25% and 42% of the total player count. These traitors are well supported, as the systems have been carefully designed to give them the opportunity to act badly. A traitor can choose a bad task card or choose a bad event. (“I’m sorry! The other was worse!”) They can purposefully submit a bad die to a task. (“Oh no! I rolled horribly!”) They can choose a task resolution that either disadvantages all the players or advantages someone that the traitor has identified as being on their team. (“If you give him a die, it’ll prove we’re all on the same team.”) It feels like the designer carefully considered every situation in which some part of the decision-making could be hidden, then ensured that there were ways for traitors to abuse that secrecy in order to make mischief. It’s an excellent methodology for designing games of this sort.
However, Dark Moon doesn’t just support the traitors: the randomness of the dice rolls can make loyal players look like traitors too! If someone is always choosing bad cards, it might genuinely be because his other choice was worse; and if someone is always submitting bad dice, it might genuinely be because he was rolling horribly. But he’ll have to fight extra hard to convince his team of that! Making innocent players look guilty is the flipside of traitor design that is usually neglected.
Though the challenge system in Dark Moon is relatively simple, it also has the room for a controlled cascade: when the colony shields worsen, a random roll determines if other systems are also affected.
There is also decay in the system: damage to life support makes players less effective, and damage to the base itself curtails certain actions. This is a general trope in challenge system design: constraining future actions due to the worsening conditions on the board. The give and take is particularly obvious in Dark Moon, which makes it easy to control and easy to respond to.
The only downside of the challenge system in Dark Moon is that it is overly player-driven. The players as a whole probably have the resources necessary to defeat the tasks, and absent traitor malevolence, they can probably keep the base in good order. Compare this to Shadows over Camelot (2005), where the players can lose even without a traitor, or to Battlestar Galactica (2008), where the resources are tight enough that the group may just not have what they need to defeat a challenge. Making the enjoyment of a game too dependent upon the specific way that a group plays can be a danger to any game; here, it can result in a co-op that’s not challenging enough if the traitors are too helpful.
Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Digger; Exponential Cascade Environmental Consequences; Task Threat.
Unsurprisingly, the cooperative system of Dark Moon is quite similar to that of Battlestar Galactica. The players cooperative strategically in order to fix the base systems, each taking actions based on their own specialties; they then cooperate tactically when they’re playing dice to resolve a task.
The biggest cooperative innovation in Dark Moon is the idea of orders. Instead of taking one action himself, possibly supported by his character’s special powers, a player can instead allow another player to take two actions, not supported by their special powers. This seems like a no brainer, but it isn’t at all due to the traitor system. Because orders depend heavily on trust, they fly straight in the face of the traitor system — and thus are something great to include in a traitor game.
Compared to the evocative and thematic Battlestar Galactica, Dark Moon is much more abstract. Characters have a one-note power, and the various system breakdowns are somewhat colorful, but still relatively abstract. In part, this may reveal how the power of a license can increase the theming of a game.
Expansions & Variants
Dark Moon was originally released as a free print-and-play game under the name Battlestar Galactica Express (2011). Stronghold Games released the rethemed game in a professional edition as Dark Moon (2015). They’ve since released a supplement, Shadow Corporation (2017).
Overall, Dark Moon is an excellent example of a traitor game, thanks to plentiful opportunities for traitors to secretly do bad things and to random systems that can make good players look bad.
When compared with Battlestar Galactica, it’s easy to see how players could prefer either of the two games. Battlestar Galactica is denser and has more depth, but it’s longer than most modern games, making it too long for many; Dark Moon doesn’t have the same depth, and might not stand up as well to repeated plays, but it’s easier to teach, easier to play, and more playable in a reasonable amount of time.
Evan Derrick is a freelance graphic designer whose first game design was the print-and-play Battlestar Galactica Express. It was interesting enough to be picked up by Stronghold Games, and Derrick has since begun working on other designs, the first of which was Detective: City of Angels (2019).