Influence and Control: An Interview with Crescent Moon Designer, Steve Mathers

In this month’s designer interview Steve Mathers joins Diagonal Move this month to discuss his latest design, Crescent Moon, an area control game set in the Middle East during the 10th Century.

crescent moon box

Hi Steve, thanks for joining us. Please could you tell us about yourself and you game design career to date.

Im a computer programmer by trade, and avid gamer of all sorts.  The first game I sold was a board game in the late 90s called Ancient Empires, to a Japanese company, although they never took it to print.  Since then I have released a RPG system called Ingenero and a mobile game called Dungeon Bash, although that Kickstarter didn’t succeed. 

What games have influenced the design of Crescent Moon and why?

As a board game player I gravitate towards conflict style of games because the best thing about board games for me is the player interaction.  Dune, Chaos in the old World and Forbidden Stars are some of my favourite games and all of these were inspirations for Crescent Moon

Crescent Moon Factions
The factions in Crescent Moon

Crescent Moon is an asymmetric area control game set in the Middle East during the 10th Century. Who were the historical figures and events that inspired the game and how are they represented by the factions in Crescent Moon?

The Nomads represent the Bedouin people.   The Caliph represents the Abbasids.  The Hashashins were the inspiration for the Murshid.   The Warlord is based on the Mongols.  Lastly the Sultan represents the various governors  or rulers of states that nominally owe allegiance to the Caliph.  The goals of the factions align with these historical interests.  The Murshid pursues political influence and winning people to the cause.  The Warlord seeks to loot and conquer.  The Caliph wants stability and control.  The nomads want independence and prosperity and the Sultans want wealth and power in whatever form they can take it.

Could you tell us about the journey Crescent Moon has had from idea to publication?

Its been a very long time in development, although progress has been at a slow rate.  The game started development in mid 2016 and the basic factions and their goals were fleshed out within a few months.  There was a local Australian publisher that became interested in the game around 2017 and I worked with them for a few years on a casual basis, but in the end they couldn’t commit to it, so I contacted a bunch of other publishers and Osprey took it on in late 2020. 

Playtesting was difficult for many reasons!  The conflict style, the longer teach, the number of players and the game length were factors.  When I was demoing the game at PAX, many of my fellow designers would get through half a dozen playlists or more in the 4 hours allotted, while I would get in just the one. 

I think the best thing to happen to Crescent Moon would be the success of Root, which broke out of the niche status that heavy conflict games traditionally inhabit, and attracted a mainstream audience.  I think that caused a few publishers to take more of an interest in Crescent Moon than they otherwise might have, although having said that, Osprey has always done their own thing and they have that historical/martial tradition from their book publishing activities over many decades.  Crescent Moon is a good fit for them.

The Murshid spread their influence in the Sultan’s cities

Control and Influence are central to a game of Crescent Moon. Can you tell us about the interaction between these two ideas and how they influence each faction’s play style?

Crescent Moon is primarily a conflict/negotiation game.  So while control and influence are both good to have for all factions, certain factions prefer one over the other, in line with their objectives.  This is important because it gives the factions room to negotiate in interesting ways.  It avoids making the game a 5 vs 5 head-butting competition.  Agreements can be made that legitimately benefit both parties.

The Caliph wants control but may be willing to forgo influence.

The Murshid much prefers influence and has limited uses for control.

The Sultan wants safe cities above all, so may be willing to trade influence or control to achieve it.

The Nomad wants money by whatever means, and also wants to have influence free of foreign control However, the nomad also earns VPs from proximity to cities, so location can be more important than control or influence specifically.

The Warlord wants to smash things primarily, and also seeks to spread control of conquered lands.  Influence and money are just means to an end, so its possible to negotiate with the Warlord over influence and city placement.

The Caliph and the Sultan have money and power thanks to control and influence in fertile regions…meanwhile the Murshid lurk in background and the Warlord prepares to smash

In terms of design process, how did the factions develop? Did you start with symmetric factions and then develop them in different directions, or did you know you wanted certain factions to play a certain way from the beginning?

The inspiration for the factions came from  Chaos in the old World which is an area control game with four asymmetric factions. What struck me was that although all the factions had different powers, three of the factions had basically the same agenda – drop corruption in various areas for various reasons. Whereas the 4th faction didn’t care about dropping corruption at all – it won the game by killing the units of the other factions. This agenda was not only different, it was very important to the overall gameplay. So important I would call it a structural part of the game. I feel like the game would not play as intended without that faction in play. The other 3 were more or less interchangeable.

So Crescent Moon started as a thought experiment – what if I made a game whereevery faction had different agendas, and every faction was somehow structural to the game?

You can see that the Horde (Warlord) is basically the equivalent of the Chaos in the Old World ‘Khorne’ faction – the killing faction. And naturally, if you have an area control game, the agenda of one of the factions should be controlling areas – the Caliphate.

This is when I was casting about for themes to go with the main concept, one of which was the Crusades. Peasant armies, Knightly orders, Islamic states, Assassin Cults — there was a lot going on!  In the end I chose the Abbasid period, but the idea of an assassin Cult faction that competed not by warfare but by stealth and influence was one I was sure I wanted to include, along with all factions fighting for control over a ‘Holy Site’ (aka Jerusalem)

Having a faction that pursued influence added that mechanic to the game. It became not just an area control game, but also an area influence game. Which led me to consider what other arenas of competition could there be? Surely it had to be ‘economic’? Which led to the faction of the Sultans – the rich faction.  Lastly, riffing on the economic theme, and also playing to the negotiation and interconnectedness of the factions that I was shooting for, I added the Nomads. They hire out their own units to other players for cash. And they can use cash directly to get VPs – reliance and consequence. 

The card titles speak columns about the factions…would you trust the Murshid?

Designing a game for a specific 4/5 player count must have had its own challenges. Could you tell us about them and how you overcame them?

The fixed number of players is a natural consequence of the premise of the game – highly interconnected factions that play a structural role.  Finding many groups of exactly 5 new players willing to playtest a heavy asymmetric conflict game was hard, and there is only so much you can learn about balancing a game with new players naturally making ‘mistakes’ and being overly cautious. 

After a while I found I got great results from the same team of experienced players – players who I could rely on to notice every nuance and exploit every loophole, until we collectively were all satisfied.  And I think that mirrors how the game will be best enjoyed by the public – by getting the same group of like-minded friends together for repeat plays.  Osprey was of course concerned with how the game would ‘land’ with new players, so made various changes in that vein, such as the shorter format, and a revised turn order.  Their play testing resources allowed them to better judge than aspect than I could.  There is the possibility of a slightly revised set of rules for an ‘advanced’ game that caters exclusively for the repeat play groups.

Negotiation was not a priority from the from the very start, but as the consequences of the premise started to become apparent over repeated plays, we really enjoyed that aspect and actively started to tweak the game more in that direction over time. 

Are you able to tell us about any other projects you are currently working on?

Ive been working for a number of years on a few different concepts, none of which is really panning out as yet.  My main concept at the moment is a heavy narrative, character based mashup of board game and RPG.  I can imagine the experience of playing the game but I haven’t been able to get the mechanics to provide it, its really frustrating!

Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring game designers?

I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that question.  My design history has been slow development of  a string of niche game concepts, generally biting off more than I could chew, and until Crescent Moon, generally failing to find an audience.  So I guess my main advice would be – enjoy the process, and look at failure as learning experience.  Every one of my projects has taught me a lot, and each of them has been fascinating to work on, so I don’t regret all the hours poured into them.  Lastly, I would say that for an unknown designer, a ‘blue ocean’ strategy is likely to be both more personally fulfilling and more likely to get attention than iterating on tried and true formulas.