Secret Moon from Seiji Kanai is the sequel of Love Letter, one of my favourite games. It is also a card game and a microgame, but it is a very different game from its predecessor. The story is a continuation. In Love Letter players are trying to deliver letters to the princess. In Secret Moon, some of the letters from a wanderer has reached the princess, and they are going have a penpal meetup, in the garden under the moonlight. Very romantic. The minister thinks this is totally inappropriate and wants to stop the princess. He is bringing his guards to search the garden and bring the princess back to the palace. So this game has two competing factions. The princess faction wants to have the princess meet the wanderer, and the minister faction tries to prevent that.
These are the characters in the game. The player count supported is unusual – 5 to 8 players. The recommended player counts are 6 and 7. In the princess faction you have the princess herself, the wanderer and the priestess. The priestess appears to be in the minister faction but she actually wants to help the princess. The minister faction includes the minister himself and four guards. Regardless of the number of players, all characters are to be in play, just that some of them will be randomly placed face-down at the centre of the table and these become non-player characters.
The numbered cards are the player order cards. In each of the three rounds, they are shuffled and dealt out to every player. That means turn order is random every round. The player order cards list the actions you may perform, so they also serve as reference cards.
The markers at the top right can be used to remind you who has seen which card, and who have been confirmed to be in which faction. When we played, we found them a little tedious, so we soon gave up on using them.
The two factions win in different ways. The princess faction can win by capturing the minister, and the minister faction can win by capturing the princess. In addition, the princess faction also wins by simply lasting until the end of the game. That means the time pressure is on the minister faction. The minister faction can also win by revealing the character cards of both the princess and the wanderer.
Every round, each player may only perform one action. One important rule in this game is you are not allowed to discuss or openly share information. This is very different from typical secret identity games. Normally such games encourage discussion and communication. You are encouraged to lie and misdirect. The designer Seiji Kanai considers himself a shy person, so he wanted to design a secret identity game that works for shy players.
There are many types of actions available to you. The simplest one is to simply look at the character card of another player. You will know the character of that player, but you cannot tell anyone directly who it is. So this may not be as powerful an action as it seems. It is not exactly an efficient way to distribute information. Another action is to question another player – who are you? Depending on how that player responds, everyone else at the table will gain some information. If the princess or the wanderer gets questioned, they must remain silent. So you will know they are definitely in the princess faction. If the minister gets questioned, he must angrily reply “you idiot, it’s me!” (because his identity is exposed now). If the priestess or a guard is questioned, they say “it’s just me”. It’s not easy to find out who the priestess is.
You can accuse another player by declaring his character. If you are right, he must reveal his character card. Otherwise, you must reveal yours. Another action you can take is to capture a character. You can only do this to revealed characters. So to capture the minister or the princess, you need at least two actions, accusing to reveal the card and then the actual capturing.
Guards are vulnerable fodder. Once they are revealed, they are automatically captured, i.e. they are out of the game. So they are usually sacrificial pieces. However being out of the game doesn’t mean you lose. As long as your faction wins, you are a winner too.
There are two other actions. You can protect another player from attacks for the rest of the round. However you cannot protect in the third round. You can also sacrifice yourself to prevent one player from taking an action.
This is a tiny game, but it does have a fair bit of rules. This is not exactly a simple game.
I did a 5-player game, and there are some additional rules. During game setup, the priestess and the guards are shuffled and one is randomly removed from the game. You won’t know who is missing from the game.
The card on the left is a player order card, and you get dealt a new one every round. The card on the right is a character card. You are assigned a character at the start of the game.
When I started playing, I was rather clueless what I was supposed to do. Three rounds went by quickly, because everyone only had one action per round. I soon realised that every action was precious. You really have to think carefully how to make every action count. There are 6 types of actions. When you are still new to the game, this is a little overwhelming. It takes a little while for things to click.
There is challenge in identifying your teammates, due to the restrictions on communications. You have to think one or two steps deeper why a player has chosen a particular action, and why target this particular other player. These small pieces of information can mean something. There is a warm feeling when you cultivate mutual understanding despite the lack of direct conversation. Most secret identity games achieve understanding through a lot of talking. They are extrovert games. Secret Moon is an introvert game. You are not allowed to openly exchange information. When you succeed in working out the same ideas through subtle hinting and quiet actions, it’s like falling in love – the kind where you can sense that the other person also quietly likes you, without neither loudly proclaiming their interest. When you play, you can chat about other things. The table doesn’t have to be like a graveyard. It’s just game information that you can’t openly discuss. It can only be conveyed through the game mechanisms.
The rulebook comes with strategy tips for every character! I avoided reading it because I wanted to discover the strategies myself. That’s a big part of the fun. The fact that there is a strategy guide section in the rulebook means that this is not a simplistic game, despite being short and having very few components. You need to put some thought into it. If a player boldly asks “who are you?”, does that mean he’s definitely not a guard? Because guards would be afraid of accidentally exposing the minister. Would this player then be on the princess team? Or maybe he’s the minister? But if he’s the minister wouldn’t such a bold move be too risky? It would hint at his identity. Behind every small decision in the game, there can be such deeper considerations.
There certainly is some luck in the game. The turn order every round is random, and sometimes when you get to the third round, you know turn order will determine who wins. Turn order affects how players make decisions. If you are late in the round, you likely won’t be using the protect action, since there are not many actions left to protect your teammate or yourself from. The luck element is acceptable, since this is a short game. Luck injects some unpredictability and excitement.
The markers are pretty, but we ended up not using them.
This round the minister is third in turn order.
The impatient, the tickled, the thoughtful and the laughing.
Secret Moon is a game designed for shy players, the quite people, the introverts. It is not exactly a simple game. It’s short, and you only have at most three actions the whole game, but underneath this microgame you see some tricky decision-making. It feels more like a medium-weight strategy game. It takes a little time to learn and appreciate. If you want to get casual games to enjoy it, you need to teach the game with care. If you play Secret Moon like a mindless and random game, you probably won’t enjoy it. It is a thoughtful game.
I like this kind of compact game. Short yet rich. It’s a good filler for seasoned gamers.
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