Hackers Guild: Preview

Let’s jump into the future: corporations now control the world. But not everyone is happy about it. Fairway joins a group of hacktivists in their attempt to break into Monolith corporation’s servers and prevent the complete and total takeover of the world. See whether Fairway is able to exploit his way in or whether the corporation’s network administrator successfully defends the status quo as he previews The Hackers Guild, coming soon to Kickstarter.

The Hackers Guild is a three- to five-player, one-versus-many, dice chucking game set in a dystopian world. How’s that for a list of game attributes?

Initial Impressions ^

  1. The components and art are really nice for a pre-production model. There’s a large, thick central board and player boards, nicely finished cards, and a good number of dice.
  2. There seems to be a good variety of variable player powers.
  3. The rules feel long for what they real are. They’re so long that it’s a bit daunting to even get started.
  4. There isn’t a ton of art, but where it’s used it’s effective and eye catching. Similarly, the graphic design is gets the futuristic-hacker world just right.
  5. There’s a lot of dice rolling.

Game play ^

The Hackers Guild is a one versus many game. All but one player take on the roles of an eclectic group of hackers and are given a player board, action selectors, and dice. The each character board describes a set of character-specific hardware (CPU, RAM and disk space) as well as a character-specific power or set of starting conditions. The other player takes on the lonely role of network administrator and receives a set of dice and cards of his or her own.

The game is played over a series of eight rounds.  Over the course of these rounds, hacker players are attempting to defeat a series of “objective hacks” to take out Monolith corporation.  The network administrator player is trying to prevent them from doing that.

During each round, the hacker players can allocate a limited set of actions to upgrade their computer systems, buy things, attempt to hack money- and hacker-credibility generating targets, and/or go after one of the Monolith corporation targets.

Key to the game for the hackers is upgrading their computer and acquiring useful tools that will improve their chances of hacking.  Using a communal pool of money, each hacker can spend turns building up their comptuer.  By adding processing power, the hacker gets additional dice during hacking attempts. Adding RAM lets the hacker use more interesting hacking tools. And by adding Hard Disk Space, the hacker can have more tools at their disposal.

The hackers can also spend actions to buy hacking tools to install into their computer.  These tools mostly act as luck-mitigation strategies to counter bad rolls.  The more tools, the more luck mitigation is available.

More to the core of the game, hackers can also attempt to earn more money and more credibility by going after such soft targets as the NSA. These hacks don’t advance the end game, but provide the necessary precursors to attempting the objective hacks.

During one of these hacks, the individual hacker takes on a series of dice rolling objectives against the Network Administrator player.  So long as the player’s hacker has the requisite skills, the hacker will take a certain number of dice (equal to their CPU plus any bonuses) and the network administrator will get a card-specified number.  Then, the dice rolling begins.

Each hack card (including objective hacks discussed later) have four objectives such as “all applicable dice are evens” or “all applicable dice sum up to some value.”  Hacker players attempt to successfully perform all of the objectives in order (one to four) before the network administrator can do it in reverse order (four to one). At any point, after having successfully completed one of the tasks, the hacker can stop his or her attempt and take some money and credibility. Or they can press their luck to see if they can get through all four before the administrator. If they can, hacker players get the maximum money and credibility as well as the opportunity to install a botnet, which gives the hacker players an additional die during subsequent hacker attempts. If they cannot, the network administrator will catch them and the hacker players suffer a set of consequences.

Importantly, during each roll, the hacker players must select one die to “lock”.  If they have not completed the task before all the dice are locked, they will also fail and suffer the same consequences.

In addition to rolling, most of the hacker tools provide some opportunity for the player to “fix” bad rolls.  Towards the end of the game, these tools are incredibly necessary to complete the ever-increasingly difficult hacks.

In addition to these soft targets, ultimately, the hacker players need to also target the Monolith corporation.  These objective hacks become available when the hacker players have a sufficient amount of credibility.  The hacking, though, works essentially the same.

Finally, after all the hacker players have taken their actions, the network administrator uses credits to “buy” administrator actions.  These actions can be devastating: losing entire rounds, clearing all botnets, etc.

On the Green ^

Theme and art.  There’s definitely a futuristic-hacker appeal going on. The minimalistic art and graphic design nicely mesh with the theme. The designer made some excellent choices on this front.

Luck mitigation.  I’m very happy to see that there was a lot of time and energy put into the luck mitigation strategies for the hackers.  Without this, I think the game would have been in a lot more trouble design-wise.  Ultimately, I’m not sure that this completely saves the day (discussed below), but it’s very close.

Immersive.  The game does a good job of getting the players to think of themselves as hackers.

Communal money.  This is going both in the good and bad. I really like the idea that the hackers operate with a common pool of assets.  I feel like this heights the collective feel of the hacker players.

Where it comes up short ^

Too long and too much downtime.  This game says it plays 120 minutes [note, the publisher now indicates on the KS page that it’s 150 minutes]. Our experience was that seems to be the minimum. Rounds can take a very, very long time. Hacker players spent a lot of time coordinating their purchases (common pool of money).

Individual hacks and many series of dice rolling puts a bunch of players in idle as one player takes on the network administrator. In essence, each hack attempt is a two-player game of Roll for It! or Yahtzee. And the hacker player rightfully evaluated each roll too and considered which die to lock and whether there’s a tool to use. The use of tools and increasing number of dies toward the end of the game exacerbates this problem.

Even objective hacks, where Hacker players do round-robin hack attempts tended toward frustrating.

What could fix this?  We thought hard about this issue. One thing that might help is to figure out how to make certain actions simultaneous.  For example, move the “upgrading” and “purchasing” out of action-selection to a post- or pre- round phase.

We also thought about moving the hack-attempt, die rolling to frenetic, simultaneous rolling versus the administrator. There’d be a lot of room to cheat and the cards aren’t really set up for this.

Communal money.  The “bad” part of the communal money is the bickering over how spend it.  Because individual players start off with different computer setups, the costs to perform basic upgrades is all over the place.  One player, who goes first, for example, might spend all of the money to upgrade their rig thereby depleting the resources.  And because they have a great computer, it means they’re more likely to do the hacks.

What could fix this?  One thought we had was to get rid of money all together and standardize on some other singular currency like number of hacks or credibility.  You can then trade cred or “hacks” for upgrades to components in a more uniform manner.

Network administrator.  We were not fans of this role. He or she was not actively engaged in the game’s politics until summoned to roll dice. And then it was just a rolling without much purpose. While the network administrator had a lot more dice throwing opportunities, there wasn’t the same sort of “risk” for the administrator as their is for the hackers.

The network administrator also puts the player in the unenviable position of being the game’s spoil sport.  He or she could either extend the game or ruin it by not taking the optimal actions. In some cases, the administrator cards were quite devastating too, like essentially skipping an entire round.

Hack attempt “luck.”  One of the other head-scratching aspects for the hackers thematically is that the non-objective hacks are luck of the draw.  You have no idea who your target is or whether you’re able to even do it until you flip the card. If you can’t, all you do is waste an action.  The hackers can’t even strategize about which hackers should take which hacks because it’s all hidden information.  This is counter-intuitive for an elite group of hackers to not know what they’d attempt to hack.

In the hole ^

The Hacker Guild is an immersive take on the hacker game genre. The game has a lot to offer a group looking for a theme-heavy, dice game. If a hacking game immersed in a dystopian future is of interest, this game is probably worth a look. And, since production hasn’t completed, there’s probably time for the designer to take a closer look at certain aspects of the design to improve player enjoyment.

The Hackers Guild is in the hole for One Over Par. ^

Fairway was provided a copy of the pre-production version of The Hackers Guild to write this preview. He was not otherwise compensated for this review. Of course, this footer might have been hacked and you’d never know it. #BraveNewWorld

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