reviewed by Donovan K. Loucks
Hacker is a great game for those on the Internet who would like to be hackers but dont have the skill, dont have the time, and dont want to attract the attention of the Feds. Steve Jackson Games attracted the attention of the Feds. When they were working on the Cyberpunk worldbook for their roleplaying game, GURPS, the Feds busted them. Our humorless government thought that this roleplaying supplement was a manifesto of computer crime. At least Steve has a sense of humor, which inspired him to create Hacker.
In Hacker, youre trying to illegally gain entry to computer systems on the Net the first person to get 12 such accounts is the winner. Some may complain about the subject matter, but like Grass, the topic doesnt detract from the high play value of the game. Although Hacker comes with 110 cards, its not a card game in the traditional sense. Like the groups in Illuminati, youll be using some of the cards to build The Net.
The deck is almost evenly split between System and Special cards. The System cards represent computer systems on The Net and have control arrows on them to show where they can connect to other systems. Also on each card is the name of the system, like United Vaporware, or our favorite, ComSecMilNavPac. The card also lists the security level of the system, whether its part of a particular sub-net (BizNet, ComNet, or MilNet), and is of a particular system type (Yentendo, Hal, Vermin, and so on).
The Special cards have a wide range of effects and can really hurt when played at just the right time. They might allow you to get more equipment for your computer, improve the success of your die rolls, avoid a bust, or hinder another players attempt to avoid a bust. Many can be played at any time, but some are played at particular instances, such as when an opponent just hacked into a system or before an opponents turn begins.
To get to systems on The Net, you have to break into an Indial first. These are systems whose telephone connections are commonly known. Once you get into an Indial, you can connect directly to adjacent systems. Its kind of like using Telnet. Some special cards let you locate the secret indial number of other systems so you can get directly to them.
Hacking into systems requires you to meet or beat the security level of a system with a roll of two 6-sided dice. If you manage to do so, youve got a regular account on that system. Beat it by 4 or more, and you have a root account, which gives you all sorts of abilities: you can get bonuses to other hacks, kick other hackers off the system, or even bring it down.
Beating some of the security levels is pretty hard with only two dice, and getting root access is even harder. For example, the National Crime Information Center has a security level of 14 and its 18 to get root. Thats where all the bonuses come in. Its a lot of fun scrounging up bonuses to your roll, and you can get a lot if you know what youre doing. You can get bonuses for having root on other systems if theyre adjacent, on the same sub-net, or of the same system type. There are also Special cards that give you bonuses, and if you happen to have the most accounts on The Net, youre the Net Ninja, which gives you another +1. I once tried to determine the maximum possible bonus to your die roll if I remember right, it was an astounding +22! But, no matter what your bonus, if you roll snake-eyes, you fail.
At first, you can only attempt two hacks per turn and you dont have any bonuses. This is because you begin with a PC (Plain Computer). Sitting out a turn lets you upgrade your system to give more hacks and bonuses, and its quite common for players to spend the first couple of turns doing so. A Hackintosh gives you 3 hacks, the Yodel modem gives you a +1 on your hacks, and the Icebreaker helps minimize the effects of ICE. ICE?
If your hacking roll was so bad that its equal to or lower than the ICE (Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics) rating for the system, you trip the ICE. You lose your account on that system, and the one youre calling from. If youre hacking into an indial, the authorities come to your house and take all your upgrades away. And it could get worse. If you then roll less than a 7, they also bust you. You then lose all your special cards and you get a handcuff marker to show youve been busted. Get cuffed three times and they send you up the river and out of the game. If you know what youre doing, this wont happen to you. But even if you do, the dreaded natural 2 still ICEs you.
Accounts may also be lost through several means. The ever-watchful sysadmins may perform a housecleaning and kick you off. If theyre not alert enough, you can nark on your opponents. If thats still not quick enough for you, you can houseclean yourself, provided you have root access. If all else fails, you can stop an opponent cold by crashing a system and causing him to lose access to the accounts beyond it. Accounts that you cant reach dont count towards victory and bringing a system back up may take several turns.
All these options make it necessary to negotiate with your opponents to stay alive. You can give them your bonuses to their hacks in trade for a free hack in their Phreaking phase. You can promise them immunity from your Special cards, or even trade cards. Not having a resource such as cash sometimes makes it difficult to strike bargains, but it can be done when you work at it. Rugged individualists that we are, we tend to refrain from deal-making, which can drag the game on for hours.
Hacker is a reasonably elegant game with simple and easy-to-remember rules. Theres no difficult math (all you do is add up 1s) and play is pretty quick-moving. Players are given a number of tough choices on each turn. Do you go for the easy systems that everyone else might also go for and risk being kicked off by one of them or having the sysadmin perform a housecleaning? Or do you go for the really difficult systems that no one else is going to get near and eat up valuable time doing so?
One of the biggest drawbacks to Hacker is waiting on your opponents to take their turns, which is a common problem to many multi-player games. Its easy to get distracted in a game like this, so I suggest making a lot of deals to keep everyone involved and move the game quickly. As in other multi-player games, Hacker doesnt play as well with only 2 people, and while the box suggests a minimum of 3, the rules give the necessary setups for 2 through 6. Ive been content playing with only one opponent on several occasions, and it wasnt as bad as one might suspect. Another drawback is having to cut up all the system consoles and upgrade counters before play begins. Just make sure you do so before you show up to play.
The expansion set, Hacker II: The Dark Side, adds several more complicated elements that Hacker players asked for. Black Ice not only throws you off two systems, itll track you down through system after system. Outdials help make this path long, and multiple accounts can make it even longer. Viruses and The Worm clog up computer consoles and The Net itself. Military Upgrades help to combat all these nasty things, but if youre raided with one, youre automatically busted. Im of the opinion that most of these rules add needless clutter and randomness. But for those who like their hacking hardcore, this might be just the thing.
Hacker has won several awards, including the award for Best Modern-Day Boardgame at the Origins convention in 1992 and is reviewed in the Games Magazine 1995 Buyers Guide to Games. Also, Steve Jackson Games has a WWW Page on the Internet that has a Hacker page: http://www.sjgames.com/hacker. Included there is the short errata for the game and a review from issue 39 of Phrack magazine.
When Hacker came out 3 years ago, we played it a lot. So much so that we kind of burned out on it. We played it again recently to refresh my memory for this review. Doing so rekindled our interest in the game, and I suspect well be playing plenty more in the near future.
Donovan K. Loucks is currently finishing a card game design that is being playtested in Phoenix, Arizona, and blindtested in South Africa. He works as a FoxPro database consultant for several government agencies and private corporations. He also has the responsibility of being the FAQ-keeper for the alt.horror.cthulhu newsgroup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hacker, from Steve Jackson Games, PO Box 18957, Austin, TX 78760, (512) 447-7866. Cost: $19.95. Stock Number: 1313. ISBN: 1-55634-222-5. Players: 2 or 3 to 6 (up to 8 with Hacker II: the Dark Side). Type: Card. Time: 90 minutes to 2-1/2 hours. Skill: 6. Complexity: 5.