Full disclosure: A preview copy of this game was provided by Weird Giraffe Games. As this is a preview, I will mostly keep my comments limited to gameplay. That said, huge fan of the theme. Additionally, some wording / imagery may be out of date, just by virtue of the preview copy / set of rules that I have.
It’s the year 2000, and just like the 80’s predicted, hackers are running wild! They’re climbing into your mainframes and snatching data up, trying to hack it. You (and your fellow players) are new hackers fresh onto the hacking scene, trying to amass hacker cred by performing excellent hacks against your opponents and even the government. That said, the government takes hacking pretty seriously, so if you’re not careful you might even get sent to Hacker Jail! (It’s like regular jail, but more neon). Will you be able to become the most elite hacker?
Setup’s super easy. There are a bunch of cards:
One of them is the Diskette:
If you are playing with any number except five players, remove the Diskette from the game. Next, shuffle the deck. If you are playing with two players, remove four random hacks from the game (and don’t look at them!). Deal out the rest of the deck such that each player has an equal number of cards in their hand.
When your play area looks like this, you’re ready to start:
I’m going to try to explain this the way I learned it, so I may interchangeably use some game terms and my own terms. If it’s an issue, remember this:
When I say “face-out“, I could also mean played face-up in front of a player.
When I say “face-in“, I could mean face-down in front of a player, or in their hand facing them. Or however it works for you.
Anyways, on your turn, you can play a card (“execute a hack”) from your hand face-out in front of you (either by turning it to face your opponents or playing it face-up to the table in front of you). This activates its effect. You can also play a card that’s currently face-out in your opponent’s hand — this returns the card to its face-in position, but the effect still occurs. Now, what kinds of effects can occur? Let’s talk about the cards really fast and find out.
Meet the Cards
0: The Diskette
This card is just immediately played face-out in front of you when it’s in your hand. Once it’s put into that position, you cannot flip it or execute it again. Generally, this means it’ll stay out for the rest of the game, but it might get moved around.
1: Socket Puppet
If an opponent attempts to Proxy Swap (swap a card; more on that later) with any of your hacks, you can reveal this card if it’s face-in in your hand and substitute it for the targeted hack.
Generally, this means that if I tried to swap my face-out 2 for your face-out 7, you could swap this Socket Puppet instead of your 7. The Socket Puppet would then end up face-out in front of me, meaning that I couldn’t use it unless it ended up back face-in in my hand.
2: Screen Door
This card blocks opponents trying to Proxy Swap with you for a round. Then, you Proxy Swap.
3: Computer Goggles
This card has you pick an opponent and a hack that they could legally execute (any hack in their hand, randomly, or any hack in any other player’s [including your] face-out zone), and then they are forced to execute that hack, unless that hack is affected by another hack before then (or someone else affects them with another pair of Computer Goggles). Then, you Proxy Swap.
4: Stolen Goods
As soon as you play this card, you Proxy Swap this with another opponent’s face-out hack. This hack cannot be executed while it’s face-out (meaning it can’t be executed and returned to someone’s hand, at least not normally).
You can either flip any one of your hacks (from face-in to face-out or vice-versa) or any two different hacks owned by opponents (so, potentially two hacks for two different people), but their effects don’t activate. A great way to get rid of cards or play cards without affecting the game state too much.
Also, blocks 3s from being played on you or affecting you — even the Proxy Swap!
6: Trace Spoof
This works very similar to 4: Stolen Goods, but you swap two other players’ face-out hacks. In a two-player game, however, it plays just like Stolen Goods, but it’s not a Proxy Swap, just an exchange.
It also blocks 2s from affecting you — even the Proxy Swap!
7: NOAA Weather Control Station (GOVERNMENT HACK)
This Government Hack forces all players to select a hack (face-in or face-out) and put them in the center. You shuffle the hacks and then distribute one to each player at random, maintaining their original state (so no hacks should get flipped by this).
8: (East Side / West Side) Monorail Control Center (GOVERNMENT HACK)
This Government Hack forces all hackers to choose a card (it’s hard to do this privately, but it should probably be private) and then pass them either to their left (East Side) or their right (West Side), again maintaining their original state (so no face-out hacks should end up face-in or something).
9: Spy Satellite (GOVERNMENT HACK)
This Government Hack lets you see two hacks in the hand of an opponent. Nothing else, but hey, that’s pretty useful.
10: The [Other] Mainframe (GOVERNMENT HACK)
This Government Hack does nothing; it’s just worth 10 cred.
What’s a Proxy Swap?
I promised I’d get to this and Hacker Jail, so let’s start with a Proxy Swap. A Proxy Swap is a bit different than a normal exchange, as it has some slightly different rules and requirements. Here’s how it works. You can:
- Swap any one player’s face-out hacks with another player’s face-out hack. Both stay face-out, as you might imagine.
- Swap any one player’s face-in hack with another player’s face-in hack. Surprising no one, they stay face-in. You will need to draw randomly if you’re choosing players who aren’t you (and one of them, at least, can’t be you).
- Swap any one player’s face-in hack with another player’s face-out hack. This is as you might expect from the other two — the face-in hack stays face-in, just in the other player’s hand, and the face-out hack stays face-out.
Hacker … Jail?
Yes, you can get sent to Hacker Jail. If you have too many Government Hacks in front of you (3, unless you’re playing with 2 players, in which case it’s 4), you go to Hacker Jail and instantly lose the game. Bummer. If this happens to you, you reveal all of your hacks and place them face-out. Other players can Proxy Swap and Execute your Hacks, but they will stay face-out as long as they’re in front of you (since you are in Hacker Jail). You also don’t participate in Monorail or Weather Control events.
So, now that you know about the cards and their effects, let’s finish turn order:
- Execute Hack
- Resolve Effects
- Proxy Swap, if required
- Check Government Hacks
If you were a bit too fast and loose with your Government Hacks and hacked the Government, you’d go to Hacker Jail, here!
- Check Hacker Cred
If any Hacker not in Hacker Jail has earned the required amount of Hacker Cred (from executing valuable hacks), they win! They also win if they’re the only player not currently in Hacker Jail.
And that’s about it. You play until someone wins, which is when they earn:
- 40 Hacker Cred, at two players;
- 32 Hacker Cred, at three players;
- 30 Hacker Cred, at four players;
- 25 Hacker Cred, at five and six players.
Player Count Differences
I haven’t noticed a ton of player count differences, other than time between turns. The only thing is at 5, you’ll notice people swapping around the Diskette a lot because it’s got no value, which is somewhat interesting?
Given all the text and some of the overhead for this game, I also think it tends to take longer with new people.
- I don’t think it’s necessarily that good to start with playing a 9 or a 10. They’re high-value hacks, for sure, but it just paints a target on your back in a game where people can and will gang up on you. Much better to start with a 7 or 8 and just pass them on to someone else — let them take the hit.
- Firewall can be a great way to end the game. If you play Firewall (5) and use it to play a Mainframe (10), that’s an instant 15 points. That’s 60% of the goal in a six-player game in one turn and only one Government Hack! That’s pretty solid. Firewall is also good for ending the game by forcing a player to play two of their Government Hacks and getting sent to Hacker Jail.
- Trace Spoof is also good for ending games. Generally it’s a pretty good idea to use Trace Spoof (6) to swap a Government Hack into your opponent’s play area when they’ve already got two, setting them up to go straight to Hacker Jail. This happens a lot when we play.
- It’s much easier to send people to Hacker Jail than it is to accrue lots of Hacker Cred early. I find that’s because people are happy to gang up on other players, but if you start accruing Cred they’re going to just gang up on you.
- Executing high-value hacks back into someone’s hand is a great way to stymie your opponent while also getting a good effect and no Government Hack in your pile. Keep that in mind before you play a Government Hack — other players can and often will execute that hack back into your hand, usually with positive results… for them.
- Socket Puppet isn’t bad to have around if you have high-value hacks. It’ll substitute itself for an attempted Proxy Swap, so you could use that to block an opponent from stealing one of your more valuable cards. Might be worth keeping in your hand, even if it’s not worth much.
- Computer Goggles can be used to both hurt opponents and waste people’s turns. If you can force someone to execute your opponent’s hacks, it’ll force the cards back into their hands. Bonus points if the hack is useless to the person executing it.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I love this theme. The whole retro-future / sci-fi theme is one of my favorite themes, and it does NOT get a ton of love (which, hey, Unfair, if you’re still reading these, that’s a good idea for another theme park theme). I also really loved this in Far Cry: Blood Dragon, along with pretty much every 80s movie that imagines the far-off year 2000+. It’s delightful. The game is also highly thematic, which can have its own issues (see a few of the Mehs / Cons), but as a fan of the theme it really feels like a labor of love.
- I also like the risk/reward aspect of Government Hacks. I appreciate that you typically have to play high-value cards in order to win, but that opens you up to not only getting targeted by other players (since they can count your points) but also to the looming threat of getting banished to Hacker Jail, which I also really enjoy.
- Generally feels pretty balanced. I think you have to make a lot of interesting decisions (which, for a microgame, can be a lot), but generally the cards seem pretty fairly balanced against each other. I never felt like, when I was playing, that there was a runaway leader that I could do nothing against, but as with many take-that games you need to balance keeping the leader down with scoring your own points.
- I like a lot of the cards and the strategies they suggest. I think, say, the “each player donates a card and they’re shuffled and redealt to each player” is a really interesting card (right amount of randomness for a microgame, imo), and I generally am a fan of weighing the tradeoffs for Proxy Swapping certain cards.
- I’m just generally really pleased with the number of cards they decided to use. I think that’s actually awesome, since 24 has 2, 3, 4, and 6 as factors, and they included an extra card for the five-player version so that everyone can have the same number of cards. Microgame designers, take note — that’s how you do game design right.
- Seems reasonably expandable. I could see this coming out with an expansion that features other card colors or types or gives low-value, extremely-high-power Government Hacks or something.
- Invents a fair number of new terms. I find that Kickstarter projects tend to do this a fair amount. For thematic reasons I understand why this is the case, but it increases the cognitive load of learning the game if you have to try and remember what face-in vs. face-out hacks are (and how those correspond to face-up / face-down, since generally if you’re playing at a table you’ll use face-up + face-in) and trying to remember the difference between a Proxy Swap and a regular card exchange and remember that executing a hack can make cards return to someone’s hand but still gain you the effect. I don’t personally have a problem with this (now), but it’s been fairly difficult to teach the game to new players. That said, once they learn it, it’s fairly intuitive to them and they get it. The cards are also generally color-coordinated between Proxy Swap, Shield, Government Hack, and “Other” cards, so I am surprised there’s not a more explicit reference to that in the rules. May help a bit.
- The take-that aspect seems to reward ganging up on one player. Rather than whittling down the player with the most or least points gradually, some instances of this that I’ve played really reward players who pile on whichever player has the most Government Hacks out at any one time. That said, that could also serve as a warning about trying to hack the government. The threat of Hacker Jail is pretty severe, actually, which does cause new players to play fairly conservatively.
- Can run a bit long with new players. New players tend to play fairly conservatively (rightly so — who wants to end up in Hacker Jail???), but that can definitely push the game towards the 25-30 minute end of that 5-25 minute range, which is awfully long for a microgame. This is usually because:
- Generally, I haven’t found this game particularly easy to teach to new people. It might be a combination of the cards being a bit busy (the last group, for instance, that I played with didn’t notice the Proxy Swap symbols on cards) and the new terms, but I have had difficulty getting this game in front of new groups. I think that part of it is that there’s a high cognitive load since almost every card 0 – 10 does something different, but they also tend to be more complex actions than, say, Love Letter or the various Lost Legacy games. I think there are a few examples of this:
- You can play your opponents’ actions, returning them to your hand. Suddenly, you need to pay attention to what cards your opponents have out as well as yours. Additionally, any card you play can (and may) be used against you and subsequently returned to your hand. This actually really messes with new players, who either forget to do it or get analysis paralysis from trying to read everyone’s cards.
- You cannot play your own actions that are face-out. This causes some slight disconnect and confusion for some new players, since they expect that if they can play their opponents’ face-out actions, they should be able to play theirs as well, or figure that if they can play their own face-in actions, they should be able to play their own face-out actions. That’s a common issue.
- 3: Computer Goggles is a very confusing card for a microgame. To wit, the card has you pick another player and a hack they can legally execute (which, to my understanding, can be any hack in their hand or any face-out hack in front of any player that isn’t them) and force them to play that hack on their turn, effectively forcing them to use a card that you select instead of playing an action. You then also Proxy Swap, which, as I’ve mentioned, a lot of players tend not to understand immediately. Oh, it’s also blocked by players with a 5: Firewall in front of them, and it can be cancelled if you modify the hack that it selected before the player gets a chance to play it, and also if a different player Computer Goggles the player, then they only do the action ordered by the most recent Computer Goggles played … you can see where this is going. For instance, I once wasted a three-player round by Computer Goggles’ing Player 2 to use Player 3’s Computer Goggles on their turn, knowing that I was safe behind my Firewall. Now, the text I have on it might not be the exact text that ends up on the Kickstarter version, but it might be good to simplify that card in some way, if it’s at all possible. I actually think most of the other cards are pretty reasonable to understand (albeit somewhat complex), but that card has caused a problem in almost every game that I’ve played.
Overall: 6 / 10
Overall, I think it’s pretty fun. As I mentioned, the game’s got a good feeling of balance to it, and the interesting decisions, while adding a bit to the game’s length, allow for a variety of paths to success and increase replay value. Generally, my preference for take-that microgames is that they need to be short enough that I don’t feel the take-that all that much. I can’t say that I’m over the moon with this game when it runs long, but generally if people aren’t playing heavily conservatively then you’ll start seeing people getting sent to Hacker Jail pretty quickly and the game should move at a good pace, especially if you start playing a couple Government Hacks to get the game moving. I find that now that I’ve played the game a few times I don’t generally get as confused as to what cards are or cards do, and a fair amount of that will also hopefully be rectified by some player walkthroughs / a finalized rulebook for the upcoming Kickstarter, since I’m working with a fairly early build of the rules. One thing I like a I’d say that if you enjoy microgames and can handle a bit of complexity, this might not be a bad game to check out, especially since it’s got an awesome theme.