If ever you need an object lesson in demonstrating the singular importance of art, style and design, you need look no further than this game from Bombyx/Asmodee: Catch the Moon. Or in its original French version: Décrocher la Lune.
This game is so light that it risks floating off into the clouds. And it is in the clouds where Catch the Moon begins.
In Catch the Moon, players are Dreamers building a tower of ladders from the clouds to the moon.
To start the game, players insert two wooden ladders into a plastic base plate representing a billowing cloud. Each turn, players roll a special six-sided die showing either one ladder, two ladders or the image of the moon. If one ladder is shown, the player has to balance a ladder on those already placed so that it touches only one other ladder. If two ladders are shown, the ladder placed out has to touch exactly two other ladders. If the moon is showing, the ladder must be placed so that its tip becomes the highest point of the structure.
With each ladder that is added, the structure becomes increasingly rickety and unstable. Inevitably, a player will fail to meet the requirements of the die or a ladder will fall and touch the base or the table. These are removed from the game and they cause the moon to shed a tear of sadness.
Once there are no more ladders with which to build or once the moon has shed its last (seventh) tear, the game ends and the winner is the player with the fewest tears.
That pretty much sums up the entire rulebook.
Pretty much…? Is there more?
There is just a bit more… If you turn over the pages, past the actual rules and the pages of lavish artwork, you will also find in the rulebook a two-page display of some of the different ways in which ladders might be balanced on other ladders. These are each described, illustrated and given titles that jar somewhat with the otherwise carefully calculated concept and design of the game. It’s as if the designer finally got bored and decided to spice the game up with pages of the Kama Sutra. The captions include “The Swing”, “The Mischievous Tightrope Walker”, “The Sin of Pride” and “The Shameful Support”.
Don’t worry, these aren’t actually as risqué as they might sound. You probably don’t need to ask your maiden aunt to shield her eyes while perusing the Catch the Moon rules: the illustrations do show only ladders in various states of congress. Nevertheless, this seems a strange diversion: a joke from the designer that doesn’t quite come off.
So if Catch the Moon is a simple dexterity game? What’s the appeal?
This is a package with wow factor. As soon as you open the box, you’ll be struck by the look and quality of the components, from the wooden tears to the array of thirty 4-inch (10cm) ladders. The ladders vary: not all are straight and some have missing rungs. This contributes to the game play because it affects how they might be balanced but, more important, it contributes further to the aesthetic of the game.
Indeed, the quality of the design hits you even before you open the box. The dreamlike artwork is reminiscent of the picture books so beloved of pre-school children. It immediately grabs the attention of those who fondly remember such books from their own infancy or from reading them to their offsprings. A stylised figure stretches out from the top of a ladder protruding from pastel lemon clouds. Some stars are falling but those that remain in the sky hang by silvery blue threads, just as the moon hangs, almost within touching distance of the dream figure. The appealing art is mirrored in the rulebook.
There will be seasoned games players whose hearts will be hardened by such twee and cutesy illustrations. If you’re one of them, this game almost certainly isn’t for you. If you’re looking for a dexterity balancing game, you’ll probably be better off going for something chunkier and with more player interaction built into it – Pretzel Games’ Junk Art, for example. If the artwork melts your heart, however, then you’ll already have placed your order for Catch the Moon, regardless of how well the game in the box plays.
So is there much of a game here or is Catch the Moon just Buckaroo without the mule?
The fact that there is no impending existential threat like a ticking bomb or a donkey about to buck gives this game a very different feel to other balancing games. It means that, in play, Catch the Moon conveys a serene calm rather than a growing tension. If the game were Japanese in origin rather than French, we’d be using words like Zen to describe it. The designers must have been aiming for precisely that: after all, a page in the Catch the Moon rulebook is devoted to a quote from 17th Century Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho: “Clouds come from time to time and give men a chance to rest from looking at the moon.” Perhaps it sounds better in the original Japanese, or even in the French translation in the rules.
Catch the Moon is still just a balancing game but players know that control and their success or failure is entirely in their own hands. Or rather hand – you are only allowed to use a single hand when placing ladders.
Catch the Moon still sounds a lot like other balancing games. Isn’t there more to it?
If you’re looking for innovative mechanics, you won’t find them here. Catch the Moon is a simple dexterity game and it is only one of several on the market.
Riff Raff (Zoch Verlag) gives players a bunch of wooden objects (including chests, barrels, flagons, rats and clinging sailors) to balance on the mast and yardarm of a ship that rocks from side to side like a ship on a rolling sea. In play, this game generates guffaws of laughter: you don’t expect that playing the much more sedate Catch the Moon.
At the other end of the scale in terms of theme and components, Librium (Librium Games) simply involves adding plastic cards to a growing structure of cards built on a pivoting fulcrum. It has the advantage of being a very portable game: the Librium-Lite version will even fit in a pocket and the magnetic pivot is designed so it will fit perfectly well on the cap of a beer bottle: a game then that you can take with you to the pub. You probably wouldn’t do that with Catch the Moon.
Both these balancing games have their merits. In terms of gameplay, both are at least as good or better than Catch the Moon. And yet… And yet, neither of these games has the sheer charm of Catch the Moon. You can have fun playing any of these games, but Catch the Moon is the only one where I’ve found non-gamers so intrigued by the design that they’ve begged for a chance to play the game. They’ve enjoyed the game and they’ve wanted to play again. That’s a very big plus! It earns the game a 7/10 rating. You’re not going to be agonising over strategy, and I doubt you’ll be deliberately trying to replicate the Alex Comfort-style positions for the ladders, but Catch the Moon is a game that will certainly get played, and it may just help to introduce a non-gamer to the Joys of Gaming.
If you want to see a 360º photo of Catch the Moon, you can find one on Board’s Eye View.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.