Science fiction might thrive on speculation, but it also serves as a reflection of our own times. The space race brought us tales of heroism and discovery. The cold war inspired stories of clashing galactic empires. Our own era of terrorism and financial panic has spawned a host of post-apocalyptic stories set in the ruins of a fallen civilisation.
For a child of the 80s like me, though, there was cyberpunk. Authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson looked at the promise of a high-tech, interconnected world, and they saw the potential for something dark: rogue AIs, shadowy corporations, data-driven oppression and advances in cybernetics that blurred the lines of what it meant to be human.
That’s the kind of world you enter in Fantasy Flight Games’ Android universe. Inspired by the likes of Neuromancer, Cryptonomicon, Blade Runner and even The Matrix, the setting has played host to a string of games, most notably card game Android: Netrunner. And now there’s a new addition to the series.
Designed by Jordi Gené and Gregorio Morales, Android: Mainframe casts players as elite hackers competing to loot funds from a compromised banking server. Using your wits, intelligence and some legally dubious security tech, you’ll fight to gain control of the Titan Transnational Bank’s data systems while blocking off access for your rivals.
Mainframe represents the target server using a black plastic grid divided into square-shaped sectors. Over the course of the game, you’ll take turns laying down partition tokens – blue strips of plastic that slowly divide the board into segments of different shapes and sizes. You’ll score points by creating completely closed-off zones, with victory going to whoever controls the greatest area of the board at the end of the game.
In essence, it’s a bit like the games of dots and dashes you might have played as a kid. You’ll look to create scoring opportunities for yourself while denying them to your opponents. But there’s more to Mainframe. It’s deeper and more duplicitous, with a wealth of ways to screw with your opponents and boost your own chances of victory.
Your available moves on any given turn are dictated by a set of program cards. These all come from a shared deck, with four laid out face-up to choose from at any given time. Some of these let you lay down partitions wherever you like, some force you to play them in a certain configuration, and others allow you to do sneaky things like move an existing partition or swap the positions of players’ access points – tokens that indicate who controls different walled-off sections of the board.
The result is a game that’s constantly in flux. What starts out as a wide open board very quickly becomes crowded as you and your rivals start to stake out your respective territories, and with the amount of available space diminishing with each passing round, your decisions become harder as the game goes on. You’ll struggle to find room for the partitions you need to close off scoring zones, making the game feel like a kind of highly combative Tetris. You’ll weigh the rewards of each available play against the advantages you could be handing to your opponents, and just when you think you’re about to surge into the lead, another player will snatch the card you need, or move your access point, or otherwise disrupt your carefully laid plans in some underhand and infuriating way.
The most devastating of these usually come in the form of character cards. As well as the communal program deck, each player has access to a personal hand of cards representing their character in the game. There are six to choose from, and each has their own distinct set of abilities which affect the game in different ways. There’s the anti-authoritarian hacker who delights in messing with his opponents; the cold, calculating data broker who gains an advantage by accumulating more information than his peers; the cybernetic android who uses his bionic brain to access systems on a level incomprehensible to his flesh-and-blood rivals.
It all adds a touch of variety to what’s already a pretty chaotic game. Play it for five minutes and it becomes clear that it’s more about quick wits, split-second decisions and reactions to opponents’ moves than overarching strategies and long-term plans. That fits well with Mainframe‘s theme of high-tech bank heists, and it feels like a high-stakes, high-pressure situation where every choice matters and every mistake will come back to bite you when you need it least.
If you’re a Netrunner player, this game has a very different feel. Where its predecessor revels in complex strategies and asymmetrical play, Mainframe is far more accessible. It’s quick and simple with just enough thought involved to keep you coming back for more, but if you’re looking for something drawn-out and mentally taxing, this isn’t it.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the game can play very differently depending on the number of people at the table. With four players you’re constantly reevaluating your position, reacting to opponents’ moves and looking for the slightest little edge that could nudge you a point or two clear of your rivals. With three players there’s a little less potential for conflict, and with two it starts to feel a bit less pacey. With less potential for multiplayer chaos it becomes a little more strategic, but at the expense of the anarchic, scrappy atmosphere that comes from a multitude of opponents all fighting over the same limited space.
To be fair, most games suffer when you boil them down to two players. But for me, Mainframe loses some of its shine when played head-to-head, and if you’re not playing with a group then you’re missing out on a big part of what makes it worthwhile.
But otherwise, this is a light, fast-playing and seriously enjoyable little game. It’s quick, simple and compulsively fun – a great way to discover just how exciting life can be in a futuristic corporate dystopia.