We’re never going to turn down a free Xbox game, particularly when it comes laden with achievements and no monetisation to speak of. When it’s a collaboration with NASA, carrying a simple objective to raise awareness and understanding of the International Space Station, well, we can’t think of a game that is more guilt-free than To the Moon and Beyond.
But while it’s guilt-free, it won’t be for everyone. To the Moon and Beyond is a card game, and not a particularly dynamic or visually alluring one. To be slightly unfair to it, it’s stuffy and ugly, and that’s going to cause more uninstalls than we care to imagine. But if you’ve got a predilection for card games and couldn’t care less about Gwent-style animations as you play a card, then To the Moon and Beyond is absolutely worth the install. We’d have been happy shuffling a few quid their way.
The overall concept of To the Moon and Beyond is that you’ve been handed control of the ISS for four years. What you do with those four years is up to you. Now, you can’t turn it into a themed country-and-western bar or port your Sims into it, but you can determine what experiments are performed on the station. Perhaps you want to perform more biologically oriented tests, or you’re more interested in robotics? Through cards that represent research and projects, you get to decide on a four-year calendar of tests.
It’s a noble theme, but one that doesn’t really work. Or, at least, it’s a theme that has no drama to it. To the Moon and Beyond clearly wants to inspire you with feelings of pitching experiments on Earth, before launching them into space to be researched in zero gravity. But there is no thrill to that experiment: they are always successful (give or take some event cards), you don’t see the results of them, and they’re represented on cards where the experimentation topic gets lost in game information, like the card’s cost, the resources it generates, and what research it relates to. We soon ignored the theme.
It’s perhaps the most surprising failing of To the Moon and Beyond: we came away none-the-wiser about what it’s like to work on the International Space Station. If we’re being charitable, it reinforced the notion that the ISS is a place of research without borders. But considering this is a collaboration with NASA and clearly a lot of effort has been invested into it, we struggled to see what was being taught, and we carried away very little. As a game, it’s also a bit complicated and knotty for younger generations, so the opportunity to teach an under-10 also gets jettisoned out of the airlock.
But shoo away the feelings that To the Moon and Beyond’s raison d’etre is faulty, and there’s a wonky but fun card game here.
To the Moon and Beyond plays out across four separate years, which translates into four separate turns. Each turn is structured the same way: you are given an amount of NASA coins (subtly sidestepping any singular nation’s currency) in which to spend on two different kinds of cards – Research and Progress.
Research Cards have a very singular, simple function, so they’re the easiest to describe. Once bought, they don’t trigger immediately: they have to be plonked onto a space shuttle to arrive on the space station the following year/turn. So, they’re delayed in their gratification, and there’s absolutely no point in placing them on the last turn. But, once you have them socketed into one of ten different slots on the station, they act as a discount on the Progress Cards you wish to purchase (as long as the Progress Card has the corresponding image), or they unlock the ability to play certain locked Progress Cards. Research cards are basically Progress Card enablers.
The Progress Cards are what win you games. Like Research Cards, they cost an amount of NASA coins, and – as mentioned – Research Cards can discount their price dramatically (often down to a single coin). Progress Cards contribute progress in a few different ways. The simplest is by offering you more NASA coins in the next turn, investing in your future. They also come tagged with four different colours (blue, red, green and yellow). When you reach a turn end, if you have four cards of the same colour, or you collect all four colours, then you can cash them in as ‘sets’, which generates you points that can be spent on building aspects of the ISS.
These points are what determine victory or failure. The ultimate aim of To the Moon and Beyond is to build all eight of the facilities on the ISS. There are STEM (red), Science (yellow), Earth (green) and Exploration (Blue) categories, with two facilities in each, and they need upwards of eight points to be fully constructed.
The sets you create will contribute a small number of points, but the lion’s share comes from the Progress Cards. Buy them, and they will top up certain facilities. In the endgame, particularly on higher difficulties (there are three on offer here), you will likely spend the last turn scanning the remaining facilities and desperately building the final space suit or launcher that you need for completion.
It’s more complicated and fully featured than we expected from a free gift like To the Moon and Beyond. It also has some chunky foibles that we’d have been harsher on with a full-priced release. The largest is the Research Cards – effectively half of the game – as they don’t add much in the way of enjoyment or strategy. They only have value in the first two turns, since they take a year to arrive and need to discount two cards before they start becoming redemptive. And they’re just not interesting: while you need to stock up on turn one if you want to win, and it’s occasionally valuable to scan your Progress Cards to see if they partner up with your Research Cards, they’re mostly best ignored.
And To the Moon and Beyond keeps adding steps that it doesn’t need to. This could have been a swift, moreish little game, but the process of discarding cards each turn – something you have to do – is bizarrely slow and laborious, needing multiple button presses. At the end of each day, you also have to choose what each spaceship part looks like. In a game for kids, this would have been a fun bit of tinkering, but the game is beyond that demographic. You’re left with some inconsequential choices that occur every turn, and it gets old extremely early. Nearly half of the time spent in To the Moon and Beyond feels wasted.
Luckily, the other half has its moments. When things are going well, with fully-stocked Research in the ISS on turn one or two, and discounted cards wandering into the marketplace for cheap-as-chips prices, it can feel quite satisfying. You buy up dozens in a single turn, constructing your facilities early, and stocking up with NASA coins for the following turn. It’s a game that snowballs, and – even on higher difficulties – you can feel unbeatable, where nothing in the game (even some random events) can stand in your way. There aren’t a huge number of paths to victory, as one will feel much like another, but for a free game, it’s at least a path that feels good.
Waking up to To the Moon and Beyond, a free game in collaboration with NASA. was the first surprise. The second surprise was how full and unusual it was, far from the empty advertisement that we expected. It’s too sterile and slow for us to wave it over our heads and tell everyone to download it, but those of us with a geeky love for card games and space research will find a diverting hour or two orbiting around To the Moon and Beyond.
You can buy To the Moon and Beyond from the Xbox Store