Tabletop Review: Moonshine Empire
By: Chad Christian (TapRackBang)
Kickstarter has been a great platform for game developers for quite a while now, yet Moonshine Empire was the first Kickstarter campaign I backed. Barrel Aged Games’ campaign was met with success - over the pandemic no less, a notable feat in and of itself - and they waded through all the complications with production and distribution quite well. When I jumped on Kickstarter and saw this in development, I didn’t hesitate pass GO or collect $200; I backed it immediately. I get a kick out of the fact that I have some not-so-distant ancestors that bootlegged shine in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee, and I tell you what: I was SO excited to see a game where you make and run moonshine in a gator-filled swamp! In the game, Pappy runs a tavern in the middle of the swamp, where he offers the best moonshine around. However, he’s getting ready to retire and wants to know his moonshine empire will rest in good hands. He’s decided to run a competition to see who can manage to distill and deliver the best shine. You and up to three friends each take on the role of a resident of the swamp and have eight rounds to recruit more shiners (or “cousins”), distill moonshine, and deliver it to Pappy’s tavern to sell it to him or fulfill customer orders. Whoever manages to run their operations most efficiently becomes the sole heir of Pappy’s moonshine empire!
The aesthetic of the game is on point. Fun, creative characters decorate the cards, each with their own little perks and fantastic backwater names (like Gus Chuggins). The game board is fairly simply designed art-wise but fits the style well and helps keep things simple enough to focus on what’s happening in the game. The components, though, are some of my favorite things about the game. Your cousins look like standard little meeples, but with slots in them to hold their little jugs of moonshine as they run them around the swamp. Vehicles, such as trucks, ATVs, and airboats, are great quality and have slots on them that securely hold your cousins in place as they bump along on their way to Pappy’s tavern (or to steal from other shiners…). Overall, everything is of good quality and visually pleasing.
As far as the gameplay goes, as a whole, it is a fun little game. It’ll take a couple of hours your first time through, but once you’re familiar with the ins and outs, you could probably cut that time in half. Again, the game takes place over a series of eight rounds. Each round consists of determining turn order, gaining another cousin and distilling that white lightnin’, choosing customer orders, bidding on auction cards, and moving/making deliveries. Once you get the flow of these steps, the game can move along quite smoothly. Turn order is determined by randomly choosing colored cubes that match your chosen color and placed on a track (including cubes for the gators and the police!). Every round, another shiner joins your cause no matter what, and they are immediately available to begin makin’ shine, moonlighting for some cash, or placed into vehicles to start haulin’ jugs to Pappy’s. Customer orders are selected in turn order and help earn you extra cash and victory points. The auction is a simple process, has two rounds, and is optional, which is nice for those trying to save some cash, but those cards can greatly affect the game, so spending your cash here is usually worth considering. Movement can be a bit complicated at points. For one, I feel like it could use some tweaking as far as the amount each shiner/vehicle is able to move, but I’m not being helpful here because I don’t know exactly how you would adjust it. Of course, being able to move more spaces would be great, but simply allowing for that could easily throw the game out of whack. There are just times where it feels like you’re moving too slowly for the amount of time given, as it takes three rounds to distill XXX (triple distilled) jugs of shine and usually at least two more rounds to deliver them. That’s over half the game. You don’t have to always triple distill your moonshine, and there are other options for it that could come up in swamp tiles or auction cards, but those options aren’t guaranteed. There are, however, some creative movement combos you can make between cousins and vehicles, hopping from one vehicle to another to chain some movement. We’ve had some fun and hilarious moments with the game watching all the creative antics only a true hillbilly could muster (i.e., a gang of cousins hopped up on energy drinks in a monster truck swooping in to steal an unmanned truck full of XX shine and running off toward Pappy’s, dodging gators and shady cops along the way).
I do have a few issues, which mainly come down to discrepancies in the wording of rules and events. During each round, there is the opportunity to bid for auction cards that can increase your supplies or distilling capabilities, offer upgrades, and more. A couple of times, we ran into an auction card that allows you to change a player’s position in the round’s turn order. It was unclear to us whether you’re to swap that position with another or move that player and bump the rest down one in the order. We also ran into that card right at the change of around, which conflicted with another player’s character ability to rearrange the order in which the gators went, and we had to come to our own consensus on how that should go. There are also swamp tiles in the game which represent residents of the swamp, and they all have unique little side jobs that allow for additional income and perks. Some of these can leave your limited amount of shiners completely stranded and, with only eight rounds in the game, can quite literally take them out of the game completely. That complication is more of a setback than a discrepancy, though, that just feels a little heavy compared to others. However, they make it clear in the rulebook that some of those tiles can be “downright nasty.” Never mind the fact that last time I played, my character’s perk was “each completed tile offers an extra victory point,” and both tiles closest to me were “downright nasty.” Luck of the draw, I guess. One tile, however, did have some confusing wording between the flavor text and the instructions, leaving us wondering what was actually intended to happen, and we had to make another group decision. That being said, I don’t mind filling in the gaps from time to time. Not every gaming group is as forgiving, but the folks I play with are usually just there for a good time and usually don’t mind making some decisions on the fly like that. Another silver lining to these issues too is that the developers are quite responsive on social media and Board Game Geek, and while you may not be able to get an immediate answer for your current game, you should be able to get some timely instruction for future play-throughs.
As I’ve mentioned before in other articles, my opinion of a game boils down to “was it fun to play?” Of course, I have a personal affinity for the setting and style, making it easy to get into. Moonshine Empire had a few frustrating moments, whether it was due to some lack of clarity on the game’s part or just plain bad luck on my own, but the times we’ve been able to play so far have always ended with us laughing about the crazy antics we got up to around the swamp, and it’s always been fun to play. Moonshine Empire normally goes for $69.99, but you can find it on their website right now for $59.99. If you’re in the market for another fun little worker placement/resource manager, I recommend it. Overall, I give Moonshine Empire 7 jugs o’ shine out of 10.