The new game from the developers behind Subnautica is not a lone, pelagic pilgrimage through the hostile waters of an alien planet, but a strategy game designed to integrate Warhammer-esque miniatures into a world penned by Mistborn author Brandon Sanderson.
Moonbreaker, available now in early access on Mac and Windows PC via Steam, is therefore something of a surprising pivot from Unknown Worlds.
“My pitch was always like, we’re making a digital miniatures game, full stop,” Unknown Worlds co-founder Charlie Cleveland told me during an interview for Moonbreaker at Gamescom 2022. “Think about it: Painting? Yes. Digital miniatures lore? Yes. Turn-based strategy? Yes. Sharing paint jobs… It just seems so obvious. But it’s not until people see the painting that it starts to click.”
Moonbreaker has been in the works behind closed doors for a whopping five years. Both it and Subnautica: Below Zero were made simultaneously at Unknown Worlds, although Cleveland himself only worked on Moonbreaker.
“I needed to switch away from Subnautica,” he said. “I’d been working on it for five years, as intensely as I have been working on Moonbreaker for five years. But this one I want to keep working on. I love Subnautica, but those five years were really tough.
“Some of the team dynamics were tougher on Subnautica, because we had so many people and we didn’t know what the game was going to be for so long. I wanted this open-world, challenging game that wasn’t going to hold your hand, and other people wanted it to be a little more guided. It was ultimately really good, because we came to a nice middle ground. It was just completely draining. And then Moonbreaker… I feel like a lot of the time, we didn’t know it was gonna be a good game.”
What the team did know, however, was that they had a very clear and cohesive vision for what Moonbreaker should be. It was a game that was partly inspired by Warhammer, but not just because the latter has miniatures. Unknown Worlds wanted to allow you to paint your own minis, sure, but it also wanted to build a dense world with engrossing lore in which all of the individual parts contributed to a gestalt.
As mentioned previously, this was achieved with the help of a particularly well-renowned author who happened to have played — and loved — Subnautica a couple of years prior.
This was another reason Moonbreaker was kept secret for so long: You can’t just announce Brandon Sanderson is writing your game without being absolutely sure that said game is as good as it can be.
“Brandon is extremely prolific, super creative, and he’s basically a game designer,” Cleveland said. “He thinks about his magic systems very mechanically, in a systems-oriented fashion with integrity and rules. He’ll create a magic system like in Mistborn, where characters are basically eating different metals. They ingest the metals and they burn them inside their bodies, and depending on what the metal is, they have a new power. Only certain people can use certain metals, and each metal gives a certain ability. It’s a very systems-level approach, [which is why] it was such a no-brainer for him. We loved his work already, and then talking to him is so natural, because he understands we’re making a game. He built a universe that is systemically perfect for a video game.
“[The systems] are already gamified. I can just tell him, ‘Hey, we need this substance that we can use as an energy source, and it can give someone powers.’ And he comes up with this idea of Cinder, this magical rock. He’s figured out exactly how it works in the universe and why it’s there, where it lives, how people get it, what happens when they get it, what happens after people get it, what happens after second order, third order, fourth order. It’s a lot easier to work with someone like that — a traditional author, I guess.”
But lore is only one part of Moonbreaker, which still has a strategy component, a painting component, and an entire audio drama series to back it up. It’s worth delving into all three of these streams, especially given Cleveland’s earlier nod to Warhammer, to gain insight into how Moonbreaker hopes to launch in a scene where “digital miniatures strategy game” still sounds pretty niche, if not completely unheard of.
The core game was inspired by not just contemporary strategy titles, but a host of TTRPGs and CCGs. In terms of the latter, Cleveland regularly mentions Magic: The Gathering, of which he is an enormous fan. But he’s also inspired by other offshoots of Magic — namely, Hearthstone — and, perhaps more importantly, the influence of Magic itself: Cosmic Encounter, which Magic creator Richard Garfield has spoken about on many occasions.
Cleveland said that in particular, Unknown Worlds is trying to capture the absurdity of Cosmic Encounter’s abilities in its unit effects, which is partly because of how hard the devs are trying to ensure Moonbreaker doesn’t develop a de facto meta.
“I mean, there always will be some form of meta, but we don’t want a stale meta,” Cleveland said. “Richard Garfield actually talks about this too. Each new unit that you add, you think adds more depth to your game. But often, it actually makes the game less balanced, because each is an opportunity for imbalance.”
This has been a core tenet of Moonbreaker’s design ethos, to the extent that every match begins with each player being given a choice of three ability pairs known as ship assists. These are always randomized, meaning there’s a cap on how much planning you can do before entering the fray.
But the measures employed by Unknown Worlds to achieve randomness used to be much more extreme. Up until about six months ago, players weren’t even able to build their own rosters — instead, the game provided you with a new, procedurally generated squad based on units you already owned once every 24 hours. This meant that if one person lucked out and got an OP roster, nobody else could replicate it until they, too, were gifted it at random.
More importantly though, this fought with the overall premise of Moonbreaker. Not only did it introduce imbalance — it actively fought with the core of the game: collectibility.
“We tried to make a business model that made sense, but it was just so gross that we had to throw the whole thing away,” Cleveland said. “I’m glad we did, because the game actually got a lot better. But what’s interesting is we played it that way for two years — you could not build rosters for two years. So we got used to trying a lot of new units and new unit combinations, and it kind of forced us to play everything and see how they all work.”
This obviously helped the team in their endeavors to prevent a meta from forming. Among the measures taken to ensure this were limiting the viability of unit combos, removing players’ ability to use dupes, avoiding aggro decks by not including “+1 to all beasts” buff cards that are typical of modern CCGs, and more. There are subtle synergies, but they usually only become apparent in the moment, and you can’t pull them off without paying attention to the strategy element of the game. It sounds complicated, but when you play it, it’s all very intuitive — I was on the verge of winning my first ever match until I made a misplay that I will not repeat here, because almost two weeks later, I’m still pretty embarrassed about it.
But more so than the mechanical implications of limiting people’s ability to build rosters, it stood in complete opposition to the fact that part of this game revolves around allowing people to get minis from boosters and paint them to be their own. While the painting aspect of the game might seem a bit odd to people who don’t come from a minis background, it really is an enormous part of its appeal. And Unknown Worlds wants to build on it: You can’t share your designs with others just yet, but eventually, either during or after early access, Cleveland said they would be “crazy not to” support that. It makes sense, given just how much time people put into painting the perfect mini.
“The painting is a time-suck, but I feel OK about it,” Cleveland said. “I don’t know how much you followed Subnautica or my stance on that stuff, but we did not want any extrinsic rewards in that game. I pushed for that so hard for so long.
“Because I don’t want to waste people’s time and I don’t want to convince people to play a game that is not worth playing. If we have to put in achievements and junk to make you play the game, I kinda don’t want you playing it. because you kinda should be doing something else. We break that rule a little bit with Moonbreaker. There’s a lot more progression here. But the painting is pure bliss. I feel good about having time melt away, because it’s so relaxing that it feels worthwhile to me.”
And then you have the final piece of the puzzle: The audio dramas. While Moonbreaker currently has three game modes — PvE, PvP, and a roguelite mode — none of these are story-oriented.
“That wasn’t from a lack of trying,” Cleveland said. “We spent way too much time — probably about a year during COVID — where we tried to make what we called ‘Adventure Mode.’ It was blending the narrative and all the characters with a single-player mode. We wanted it to be replayable — you don’t want to make a Starcraft 2 campaign just because.
“We basically gave up, because we ended up with a mediocre single-player mode — because it wasn’t showcasing the units and the versatility, and it wasn’t replayable — and a mediocre story mode because we couldn’t really control the narrative.”
That’s when the idea to tell the story of Moonbreaker via podcasts came into play. After initially toying with that premise, they eventually realized that listening to podcasts went hand-in-hand with painting, and so they finally figured out how Moonbreaker might nail that holy trinity of Warhammer, integrating minis, lore, and gameplay into a cohesive and compelling whole.
As for the audio dramas themselves, they’re fully voice-acted with music and sound, and the plan is to drop them at regular intervals. Cleveland said the aim is to produce “the best episodes you’ve ever heard.” Meanwhile, playing the game and exhausting each character’s barks will provide you with further context of Moonbreaker’s world.
Moonbreaker may still seem niche, but after playing the game and talking to Cleveland, that clear, uncompromising vision he talks about is impossible to miss. And it’s not uncompromising in that it is resistant to change — on the contrary, it actively desires to become the best version of itself, and will do anything to make that a reality.
So where do we go from here? Cleveland has some ideas.
“I would love it if people painted in real life after they painted in-game,” he said. “Miniatures or anything, it doesn’t matter what. I just hope it gets people excited about making art. And I hope they’re moved by the audio drama, and the drama that’s actually within those audio dramas. I was welling up a little bit at the end of the first episode, maybe because it took so long to get the damn thing done. But there’s some really nice feels in there.
“And then because the world is so accessible — we haven’t talked about it, but we have a disabled Captain coming, we have a gay Captain, we have tons of people of color, we have tons of women, there are kids in the game. We want everyone to find themselves in this game. This is for everyone. This is not about war. It’s about positivity. Also just the whole world itself — it’s not grimdark. It’s not race war, it’s not war at all. Yes, there’s conflicts, but there’s lots of humanity. And you’ll find out the motivations all the captains have for what they’re doing, and they’re human stories.”
Moonbreaker is $29.99 at launch, although Cleveland said that the price will come down as the game comes to other platforms. It’s “going to eventually be practically free, if not free.”
“We want to make a game that’s gonna last a decade or longer,” he said. “Subnautica couldn’t do that, because it just wasn’t designed to be expanded. This time, we’re like, ‘OK, let’s get all of our ducks in a row. If this works, how can we figure out a way to support it forever?’ And so here we are.”
“Ten years is a long time. I don’t think I’ll be working this much on it. I mean, Mark Rosewater is the chief designer of Magic, and he’s been doing it for 20 years. He’s not slowing down, he’s doing these daily podcasts in his car. Who knows? I could be that guy”