Moonbreaker is a tabletop gamer’s digital dream

It’s been a busy week at Gamescom, and while there’s been some incredible stuff on display it’s fair to say that Moonbreaker, the newly announced title from Unknown Worlds, is something a little bit special. Coming from the team behind Subnautica, it’s taken them in an unexpected new direction, with a sci-fi fantasy setting overlayed across a strategy-heavy series of tabletop-style skirmishes. What sets this apart from others in this hallowed genre? Its characters – every unit here is a digital miniature, a beautifully rendered recreation of the types of models adorning tabletop aficionado’s shelves around the world. The best bit? You can pick them up, you can look at every detail, and, crucially, you can paint them in-game.

When you think about tabletop gaming, it’s worth remembering that you have to pour a lot of time and money into it. Whether it’s Warhammer 40K, Infinity or Kings of War, they keep making cool miniatures, and you keep having to buy them and then spend hours carefully painting them – look, I don’t make the rules. It’s a hobby that can take over every moment of your waking day if you let it, but Moonbreaker is set to change that. The only question is whether it’s an alternative, an addition, or a tabletop gaming gateway drug that’s going to eventually lead to a house full of miniatures and a wallet full of regret. Perhaps it’s all three.

Strategy is at the heart of Moonbreaker. It’s a skirmish game, meaning that it’s focussed on smaller, pitched battles as opposed to huge armies tearing each other apart. You’re going to start off by selecting your crew, and at the head of that crew is your Captain. The first of these that’s going to be available in Early Access is Extilior, and if you’ve checked out the reveal trailer, he’s the giant robot guy with an equally giant sword. He’s a melee character, and you’re going to want to get him all up close and personal with any enemy miniatures that are in your way.

Next up is Astra. She’s a 12-year-old child prodigy who rides into battle on a huge frog-like steed named Furg. He also happens to be her best friend. The final addition to the starting lineup will be Zax Jak’ar, a smuggler and scoundrel whose last job went poorly, resulting in him being thoroughly dead. Fortunately, his consciousness has been uploaded to the cloud, and he’s now able to continue with his shady dealings as a hologram. As they’re miniatures, Unknown Worlds has made their movement seem like they’re being picked up, but they’ve also been able to inject some personality into it, with Astra’s frog-like hopping or Zax’ holographic floating across the battlefield.

The design of each model is simply incredible. Unknown Worlds has managed to recreate the feeling of picking up the model – you can do this at any point while you’re playing the game – and turning it around in your hand, focussing on specific details just as you would in real life. Each of the character models is simply brimming with life, and you can’t help but marvel at the physicality that they manage to carry. That’s helped by the diorama-like appearance of each of the maps. These have been built to emulate a real-world tabletop, so they’re painted using the kind of techniques that real modellers employ, and use the kind of materials they do as well, such as sand and flock.

Painting might just be Moonbreaker’s defining quality. You are able to paint all of the in-game miniatures using a full set of painting tools and techniques, all of which have been taken from real-world painting. Every of the completed models were painted by a real-world painter using the in-game tools, which gives an indication of what you can achieve. It perfectly captures the zen-like state that you can enter when painting, and it feels as though people will spend a huge amount of time in this mode. The advantage is that you’ll be able to achieve those results considerably quicker than you would in real life, with none of the mess and none of the waiting around for each layer to dry. You can, in the one digital concession they’ve made, also hit undo, avoiding the abject anger that follows a shake of the hand or an unruly brush bristle.

It’s a game about detail, and that extends from the tactical encounters through to the characters and storytelling. Unknown Worlds has worked in partnership with Brandon Sanderson, creator of the Cosmere universe, and famous for finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga, and he’s poured his incredible intellect into the mythos of Moonbreaker. The game is set in the Reaches, a tiny cluster of planets that are joined in a struggle over Cinder, a crucial resource that powers nearly everything, providing special abilities to those that can harness it. It’s also part of the game’s mechanics, letting you deploy your crew, or use special attacks.

Unknown Worlds are really hoping that you’ll dig heavily into the game’s lore, and alongside each new Early Access Season they’re also releasing a radio drama. You’ll be able to listen to these while you’re in the paint mode, making for a lovely bit of synergy between the background storytelling and the physical game, again evoking the same deepening knowledge and interest you get when you’re digging into a new tabletop game.

Moonbreaker uses a turn-based combat system, and you’re limited to one move, one attack, and one special each turn. This keeps the action streamlined, and means you have to really consider where you need to be. Your units have a free range of movement, just as they would on a tabletop, forgoing the grids we often see in tactical games. Cover plays a key part, with both hard cover and soft cover, as well as map-specific places for your units to hide. The Cinder Refinery stage for example has steam rising from grates, which reduces your unit’s visibility making it harder to hit them.

Each round you can choose from three random ship assists, with your craft floating around in orbit ready to help you out in a variety of ways. These assists are as characterful as the models calling them down, and they start with Plink where you can either heal a character for 1 point, or damage an enemy for the same. Choosing damage sees someone in the ship chuck a load of old rubbish out of an airlock to rain down on your opponents which is the kind of lovely touch you can expect to see throughout Moonbreaker. It’s fair to say that you should absolutely keep your eye on this one, especially if you’re a fan of tabletop gaming, strategy, or evocative sci-fi settings.

Moonbreaker is coming to PC Early Access on the 29th of September and will be available via Steam.