Though you usually see this game classified primarily as strategy with a dash of action, I'd really put it more in the category of an action-oriented party or board game. I feel like it shares more space with something like Mario Party than with Gain Ground or Populous. There is a strategy element, but the emphasis is much more heavily on winning action sequences that are intentionally slippery and hard with extremely little room for error. As with party games, this appears to be intentional to keep any one player from getting too practiced and dominating.

The setup is about as simple as it gets. Pick one of four primary-colored knights, and you're dropped onto a one-screen map. Each knight gets a turn in which they can move a limited distance. The central objective is to be the first to collect the four Magical Doodads and bring them to the valley in the center of the map. Said Doodads are randomly distributed in monster lairs throughout the map with each new game, so you'll have to explore around to find them. In addition to the monster lairs, the map has a couple of cities you can drop in on to heal up and buy better armor/weapons, and a couple of wizards who will give you a one-time stat boost.

If you're playing without four actual humans, a cadre of computer-controlled Black Knights fills out the remaining slots. Whether human or computer, each knight gets five lives. Get killed by a monster or another player, and you revive with full health the next turn in the same spot, minus one life. Other players can pilfer one item out of your inventory when they kill you, though, including of course the Magical Doodads. And if you get killed assaulting a monster lair, one of your Magical Doodads will remain there if you are carrying any. Once a player loses all five lives, they're out of the game. The game claims you can replenish lives by visiting your home village, but I never figured out how to actually make that work ... you can also restore lives by visiting Stonehenge near the southwest-center of the map, however, and sacrificing one of your magical items per life (which also burns one turn per life). I've read in many places that people were able to sacrifice one of the cheap and easily replenished daggers to get a life back, but I must have a later/patched version as that's not possible in my game, you have to sacrifice a legit good item.

Speaking of items, they add another element of randomization and chaos on top of the somewhat slippery combat. You find these in monster lairs along with gold, and they have a few different effects. One allows you to remotely snag an item from the inventory of the nearest opponent, one lets you see which lair one of the Doodads is currently in, and one will let you veto combat one time if another player runs up on you. There's a small chance of any given item being cursed, however, and you won't know until you use it. The cursed protection scroll will send you into combat with backwards controls, and the cursed "remote theft" item will randomly FedEx one of your items to the opposition instead. Perhaps the meanest one is the one that controls the Red Dragon, a mega-enemy who starts making random passes over the playfield after a few turns, is very difficult to kill and has a one-shot bite attack that can instantly kill even the best-upgraded players. Sending it to attack another player is a Filthy Bagginses trick, but even worse is when the cursed version sics the dragon on you instead!

Oh, and if you don't care for gore, this is definitely one to avoid. Much of the art emphasis went into very bloody death scenes. There's a unique "fatality" animation for when each monster lands the final blow on your weakened character, and some of them even have multiple fatalities. Knights are also free to execute each other by beheading at the conclusion of each battle (though the loser is docked one of their lives regardless).

Moonstone is one of those games really intended for multiplayer. Playing in single-player mode makes it like the Dark Souls of party games, with the odds just colossaly stacked against you. There is some perverse fun in throwing yourself at it, trying to find chinks in the armor to slip through. However, the main issue that eventually slams you into a brick wall is the monster lairs. Certain monster types are just too hard right from the jump, chiefly the undead things in the swamp that can one-shot you at will and the orcs with the ridiculously long spears. This also appears to be a situation like Heroes of Might & Magic, however, where the monsters are rutting furiously in the lairs and shoring up their numbers with every turn ... so if you skip the hard ones early in an attempt to power up, it just gets worse for you later on when there's piles of them and they also start pincer-attacking you two at a time. Not only do you have to retrieve the Doodads from their lairs, but they are also the only source of gold as you aren't allowed to cop that off other players. I tried a dozen times and couldn't finish the game, but I suppose if you did there would be little point in playing it again solo as there's only the one map. Still, an awesome concept and awesome visual polish.