Steve Jackson Games, £16-20
Designed by Steve Jackson
3-6 Players, about 60 minutes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

Without fear of legal action, I can truthfully say I was once something of a hacker. This is because, before the media got at it, hacking was a legitimate pastime and a quite apposite word. It used to mean squeezing everything you could out of a micro, in my case graphically, and it was quite acceptable, even a little bit exciting, to be a hacker back in the early eighties. 'A good hack' meant a neat program, not that you had dialled into the Pentagon's mainframe, cracked the passwords and diverted three armoured divisions into Gibraltar. But in common parlance, hacking is now an underground, subversive and illegal occupation. This doesn't mean it is without an illicit appeal for many. Oddly, two games of the same name have appeared in recent months covering this darker side of hacking but in a distinctly lighthearted fashion.

The first is from Steve Jackson Games who I know went through a hard time with the infamous secret service bust, and that they probably need to recoup some lost time and profits, but is that reason enough to start charging us the earth for games? Of three recent releases, Coup has the lowest heft factor on record, Hacker is not exactly a bargain at $20 much less £20, all the other games have gone up substantially (despite a weak dollar pre-Lamont) and The Illuminati Membership Kit is nothing short of a rip off. No, I didn't buy it, but take a look if you get a chance. Whatever, Mike Clifford was good enough to 'lug' this back from the States and I'm glad he did. It is quite a good game with some appropriate and flavoursome systems, on a par with Illuminati in complexity and scope, but I think it suffers from quite a high element of luck based on the fact that I am, so far, unbeaten at the game. But then fortune does favour the competent.

The idea of the game is to be the first player to hack into a number of systems on the global computer networks and maintain access to them. The actual number is variable depending on how long you want to play - a target of nine systems gives a game lasting about an hour and which offers no real strain on one's boredom threshold. The neatest design trick in the game, borrowed in concept from Illuminati, is the interlocking network of cards that show the many institutional computers and how they link with others in the world. This network is random, but ever growing across the table, so there are some unusual connections such as the US Treasury being attached to Fruitbat Technologies. The justification seems to be, as we well know, that Mr Jackson is heavily into conspiracy theory and the connectedness of all things. All hail Fnord, or something.

Each player gets given a neat little console set-up which represents his PC clone at home. Attached to it is a basic modem and an accessory port that can be upgraded throughout the game, thus improving your chances of hacking. In the same way, the PC can be upgraded to a Hackintosh and then an Amoeba 3000 (interesting that the Amiga is acknowledged as the top hacking machine in this way), giving you more hacking opportunities per turn. From then on, it is simply a matter of gaining access to a 'dial in' system that will, in turn, let you attempt to hack systems closed to the public telephone network. As an example, if you manage to hack into Catatonix, this card might be connected on two edges to Malefactors Handover Bank and The Mondo Institute of Technology (there is lots of American humour in the cards, including 'classics' such as Wong Numbers). The next hacking opportunity could then be used against these branch systems and so on through the network.

Access to systems, by way of a successful hack, is achieved by beating the system's security number on a simple two dice roll with some modifiers for like systems and so on. Normally if you fail there is no cost but in the spirit of cyberpunk (which after all caused all SJG's problems anyway), the various systems can feature ice, the jargon for anti-hacking or defence software (cf Neuromancer et al). This clicks in when you fail the access roll by too much (it is extremely hard to avoid on the super-secure systems) and triggers a nasty sequence of events that will often end up with you being busted and losing your equipment. Although rather lacking in flavour, the simple die roll seems to be an effective way of handling the hacking process without going to the lengths of simulating the actual phone number and password hunting procedures.

If it remained at that level, with players gradually building up their access codes, Hacker would be nothing more than a dice rolling exercise and an unsatisfying diversion. Thankfully, there is player interaction in the shape of an informal hacker's circle and a pack of event cards that will offer bonuses or problems to spice things up. The hacker's circle is headed up by the Net Ninja (which gives another bonus on hacks) who is played by the current game leader, but it is the rules allowing for making deals, squealing on other players or having systems cleaned of infiltrators that adds the interest.

The idea is that in real life, to have a worthwhile hack, you have to brag about it to people who will understand you. This means other hackers will get to know which systems you are on and which lines you are using to get in. If you happen to be building up to the winning margin, and one of the other players is on the same systems as you are or an adjacent one, he can alert the system managers to your presence and get you forcibly removed. In turn, knowing this, you may be willing to offer assistance in hacking various systems in an effort to buy them off for a while. As with most deal systems, this will become futile as one player is clearly about to win and the others realise there is no merit in helping him. Perhaps as a result, the games we played didn't have a great deal of this negative play but I can see that it should be important in the future. The worrying thing is that the more negative play becomes, the longer the game is going to take with no real upside. This is slightly counterbalanced by the power of the Net Ninja which improves the leader's chances of doing anything, but overall I wonder what merits, if any, the longer game option has, wherein it is necessary to link an appreciable number of systems.

In essence, that is the game. Players build up to the target system count, often by a sequence of good dice rolls, do the odd trade with rivals to allow mutual access or similar, and someone wins. It works on the level of feeling close enough to the subject matter to make it all very atmospheric (surprisingly, it does feel vaguely 'underground') though, as you've seen, there isn't too much brainpower required. There is a modicum of skill needed in selecting the systems to hack and working out the best odds, but that is all. Crucially, although I thoroughly enjoyed it the first couple of times, I really can't see this as a game that is replayed much in the future. I think it runs on atmosphere and little else, and that will probably fade quickly away. A tough call, but worth at least a couple of games especially if you can find it on sale cheaply.

mike clifford

On to the review of Hacker or back to the review of Banana Republic.

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