With the popularity of tabletop miniatures booming right now, it’s somewhat surprising that digital recreations of games such as Warhammer, Infinity, and Malifaux have not appeared. That’s what makes Moonbreaker, the new Early Access project from Subnautica developer Unknown Worlds, so appealing. It’s a video game version of the full collect, paint, and play hobby, complete with fun tactical battles and admirably detailed painting tools. Its 1v1 skirmishes are packed with personality as you combine the powers of vibrant sci-fi heroes to reduce your enemy’s own to crumbling plastic fragments. But as I spend more time with Moonbreaker, I’ve begun to question its strategy potential, how it will develop over time, and its deeply concerning approach to microtransactions.
Compared to the often complicated tabletop skirmish games from which it draws upon, Moonbreaker is refreshingly simple. Your sole aim is to defeat your opponent’s captain, a high-HP character with an array of special abilities. It’s a goal that echoes card games such as Hearthstone and the now defunct Duelyst, and that’s not where the comparisons end. Moonbreaker is built on many of the same fundamentals as a typical CCG; you pick a crew of 10 miniatures (your deck), each of which costs Cinder (mana) to deploy from your randomly arranged Bridge (hand). But the presence of a physical arena and the movement of miniatures adds – quite literally – another dimension to that structure. Four different maps provide a variety of obstacles around which you can plan your turns and combat engagements, from choke points that can be blocked off with landmines to steam vents that can be hidden in to provide a cover bonus.
Duking it out on those maps is a colourful collection of characters drawn in a heroic style familiar to anyone who’s played a minute of Overwatch. Each of the 41 miniatures currently available hails from one of three different cultures – the Roman-like Methedori, the ragtag Smugglers, or the spiritual Cholek – and your crew can include characters from all of them. While their miniature nature means they forever remain in a static pose, there’s a huge amount of personality in the way they move and attack. Sneaky characters skitter with rapid zigzags, while tankier units land heavy shots that erupt in bright particle effects. Combined with charismatic voice acting, Moonbreaker brings its hopeful sci-fi world created by beloved author Brandon Sanderson to life on the board, despite there being no in-match storyline to speak of.
Every character has a particular role to play in battle, which is often augmented by a special ability. The most impressive are reserved for each of Moonbreaker’s three captains; the centaur-like battle robot Extilior, for instance, can spin around in a circle and deal big damage to enemies that surround him, as well as bestow an energy shield to himself or allies. Regular crew members tend to have buffs; Deadeye is a gunslinger who can provide an accuracy buff to ranged characters, while Drumdancer Tlalli can upgrade a melee miniature with the ability to attack twice in a row. These powers also cost Cinder, which replenishes in increasing amounts at the start of each turn , so there’s a simple but engaging resource economy to manage as you find a balance between calling in reinforcements and using your abilities.
There’s a lot of satisfaction to be found in discovering ideal ability pairings. Drumdancer Tlalli, for instance, pairs beautifully with Tipu, a bizarre lizard-dog that increases its attack and health values with each successful hit. But while there are clear overlaps between certain miniatures, the links are simplistic. Most units feel designed to act as solo warriors rather than depend on a strategy that creates cohesion with every other character in the crew. This is likely due to the nature of its randomised Bridge; if you don’t draw two complimentary units together, it can be hard to put their synergy to work. As such, a good crew is made up of characters who can largely be independent agents, but shine twice as bright when their ideal pairing also finds its way onto the board.
In many ways, this limits the strategic depth of Moonbreaker, at least with its current roster. But, right now, I actually really like the format. The unpredictability promotes short-term tactics and adapting to what’s on the board at any given moment, rather than doggedly pursuing a pre-planned strategy. There’s still plenty of room for clever plays and combos, but they rely more on effective use of individuals and positioning rather than stacking up a complex multi-hero synergy. It’s a very approachable design that, while by no means casual, offers mid-range tactical thrills without the need for a prior career in Warhammer’s back catalogue. That said, I’m worried the emphasis on lone wolves could eventually cause Moonbreaker to grow static and stale, particularly if that approach doesn’t evolve over Early Access. Going forward, I hope Unknown Worlds can maintain that strategic spontaneity while also creating more interesting cohesion across crews.
Moonbreaker Early Access Screenshots
Moonbreaker isn’t totally devoid of long-term strategy, though, it’s just that you’ll find it in the single-player Cargo Run mode rather than competitive matches. Starting with a pre-assembled six-member crew, Cargo Run sees you build out and enhance your team over five increasingly difficult matches against the AI. This is done by collecting crates that are randomly dropped into the arena, each of which contains a perk, buff, or new character. This on-the-fly team building is hugely satisfying, and demands you make a wider variety of tactical and strategic choices each turn. For instance, one match saw me move my sniper, Aria, to pick up a crate containing Rapidfire. This temporarily put her in the open, risking death, but the perk upgraded her to fire twice per attack for not just the rest of the match, but the remainder of the whole run. That means you’re planning as much for the next round as you are the current match or even turn. You can create truly monstrous builds in this mode, upgrading already formidable characters with mountains of extra hit points and outrageous damage potential. It’s the most fun I’ve had with Moonbreaker, despite the focus being on its PvP mode overall.
Until just a few days ago, playing Cargo Run required a Contract; an entry ticket paid for using either Blanks (a free currency earned through play) or premium Pulsar coins. One free Contract was provided per day, but considering Moonbreaker is – at least for now – a paid-for game (currently £25/$30 on Steam), it was an inappropriate system. Unknown Worlds was quick to act on player feedback and removed the need for Contracts entirely, which is certainly an encouraging initial sign for the Early Access period. But sadly Contracts were the least of my concerns about Moonbreaker’s approach to microtransactions.
As previously mentioned, Moonbreaker is a recreation of the collect, paint, and play hobby. The collect part of that comes via a monetization system as ubiquitous as it is infamous nowadays: loot boxes. To add new miniatures to your rosters you need to open up Booster Packs, each of which contains a random selection of three characters. You can likely already see where the pay-to-win and gambling issues begin. Those with cash to spare will be able to open pack after pack in search of powerful characters, while those without will have to endure what currently feels like a slow and uneven grind to collect enough free currency to gain access to the entire roster and any future characters added to Moonbreaker.
To be clear: while this system provides the guise of a free-to-play game, Moonbreaker currently costs as much as Unknown Worlds’ own single-player adventure Subnautica. That price includes all three captain characters, a pre-assembled (and pretty good) crew of 10 miniatures, and enough Booster Packs to – theoretically – unlock the entire 41 character collection. But you are, of course, at the mercy of RNG. There is a concession currency for opening duplicates, which can be spent on specific models you don’t own, but there’s a nasty five-tier rarity system that means duplicates often aren’t technically duplicates. For example, if you own a common version of Jailbreak and then get an epic variant in a booster pack, then you don’t get the duplicate currency. That means you could pull the same character up to five times before getting a genuine duplicate, which is frankly absurd. The kicker: all rarity does is make minor cosmetic changes to a character’s deploy and death animations. It’s a system that’s labelled as “still in development”, but one that’s woefully inadequate when your money is potentially already at stake.
Moonbreaker – Painting Tool Screenshots
The final component of Moonbreaker is its painting module, which is what really cements it as a proper miniatures game. Every model comes pre-painted in handsome default schemes, but you can take any miniature in your collection and create a whole new colour scheme. This is done with tools designed to replicate actual miniature art; standard paints provide even coverage, washes pool in the recesses to create shadows, and drybrushing picks out the highest points of a model to add contrast and highlights. This works surprisingly well, creating characters with a genuinely authentic tabletop look. The system understands paint opacity, allowing for layering techniques like zenithal base coats and underpainting to be used, although the best results come from the very traditional base, wash, and highlight three-step process. As someone who paints miniatures in real life, I’m genuinely impressed by the authenticity and flexibility of the tool (even if rotating the model and getting into crevices can be a bit fiddly), and desperately wish I could bring its magic ‘undo’ button into reality.