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Computer Love – Black Hat review

Black Hat

Back in the eighties, if you were to mention the word ‘hacker’ you’d generally be met with a blank face and a “huh?” response – unless, of course, the questionee has recently watched one of the greatest films ever, WarGames. Now though? Everyone knows about hacking – hell, even my mum knows about it, because we had a discussion about it when we went out for lunch recently. Hackers take down Sony’s PlayStation Network on Christmas Day and it’s a major worldwide news story. In this era where the technology is ubiquitous, the internet is a modern day Wild West where the good guys are doing their best to keep DDOS attacks from taking down their sites. The folks on the other side, meanwhile, have nothing but having fun on their minds…

And what better theme to build a trick taking card game around? Coming soon from Dragon’s Dawn – the guys behind the expansive Elite-on-your-tabletop Phantom LeagueBlack Hat puts you in the role of one the internet’s bad guys, though we’re looking more at the kind of folks who use the Hollywood operating systems seen in movies like The Net and Hackers than someone with a fully working knowledge of Linux. The aim is to be the best of your group at pulling protected information from hidden systems, while also screwing over your fellow hackers wherever possible. But how does it all come together?

Like the excellent Diamonds from Stronghold Games, Black Hat is a trick taking affair that has a little bit more on top. Rather than shiny gems though, Black Hat comes with a board that looks like it comes from a control panel in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Paths are laid out all over said board, with each player having two pawns representing their current state and arrows linking different spaces. Each spot has a score that will be earned at the end of each round; most are positive, and in a game where the lowest score at the end will win, you can be sure that the few negative spaces will be fought over.

Some examples of the cards you'll get in Black Hat. The art's pretty sweet throughout, actually - nerdy, techy style.

Some examples of the cards you’ll get in Black Hat. The art’s pretty sweet throughout, actually – in a techy NetRunner style.

Players begin each round with ten cards in hand that can be numbered anywhere from 1 to 13 (though there are also a few Jokers in the deck that count for any value). One player will start the round with the special double-sided Black Hat card taking one of their hand spaces, telling everyone that they’re the person holding on to it – the only piece of open information in the game. The lead player lays a set of however many of the same number cards they wish – two 4s, for example, or four 9s – and yes, a single card can count as a set. The other players follow on in traditional trick taking fashion, either playing the same amount of cards but with higher values or getting rid of a single card from their hand. As always, whoever has the highest takes the trick… unless someone around the table throws down the Black Hat card as part of their play.

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Apologies for the slightly moody action shots – we were playing in the pub, and it was dark. Still though, ATMOSPHERE. I was yellow, by the way. And I did very poorly indeed.

In this case, things turn on their head. The round goes upside down, with the lowest value winning the trick instead – whatever the lead player goes with, whoever has the lowest value equivalent wins. Now, while they’ve won that trick, there’s a problem – they’ve made themselves public and must take a penalty in the form of some cards. It’s a little convoluted but I’ll try and explain it as simply as I can; essentially, they have two options. First, you can either take all of the cards played that round, or second, you take the Black Hat and the same amount of cards as played by the lead that round. Either way, it can end up quite the punishment, as every unplayed card has a points value of either 0, 1 or 2 that will be added to your total at the end of each round. In a game where the lowest final score wins, a bad decision with a Black Hat round can really end up screwing you over.

At least one good thing comes from winning a round, whether it involves the Black Hat card or not – you get to move one space along the board. Divided in two, your pawns will progress from server to server, getting ever closer to the Critical Files space that, when reached, will end the game. Only one pawn may occupy each space (apart from the starting spots, of course) so should someone be in the next space as designated by the arrows on the board, you get to leapfrog them. Should another player be on one of those rare negative point spots, you also have the option of moving them along instead, but there’s always that hard decision to make – help yourself or harm someone else?

To add to the replayability of the game, cards are included that cover four spots on the board and alter the routes you can take. Without these, your path will be relatively clear; however, with the different cards in play, things get really nasty really quickly. Brutal 5-point spots appear all over the place and more areas pop up that lock your pawns in place. Remember, you score points at the end of each round, so being stuck somewhere that’s going to pull in a lot of them in a game where you definitely don’t want that to happen is definitely A Bad Thing. These new cards really change the flow of play, and it’s fun deciding different ways to use them – fancy a game that’s utterly horrifying to start with and then turns into a desperate race to the safe haven of some negative points? We’ve got that for you. Perhaps a game where everyone’s trying to gently pick their way through a digital minefield without getting punched in the face? That too. Awesome.

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Same time, slightly better shot. Note the pathways give you a fair amount of options as you work your over the board, but with only one pawn allowed in each spot, you’ll speed across in no time meaning games of Black Hat never outstay their welcome.

Thing is, it actually *is* rather awesome. Black Hat is a lot of fun, certainly up there with the previously-mentioned-and-equally-splendid Diamonds, and discussing it with my fellow players led to the group consensus that it actually fits into the theme too. As with any trick-taking game you’re looking to be a sneaky bastard – like what a proper hacker does – and you’re trying to do leave behind as little evidence of your activities, which is nicely reflected in the scoring system (and the fact that you’re trying to screw over everyone else by ensuring that they’re stuck with the Black Hat at the end of a round).

I really like that you get to scale the game to whatever level you like to as well. Sure, the engine is exactly the same each time – you’re always playing with the trick taking element – but the layout of the board with its different spaces really does give you new journey. The plain board is great for beginners or those who don’t want to get too nasty when playing, but the simple addition of a couple of those route-changing cards soon puts paid to any thoughts of being pleasant. It also gives a nice, escalating path to the game, so you can start on a relatively chummy footing and soon move up into terrible, wretched, full-on nasty backstabbing incrementally. And isn’t that just what we want in life?

Black Hat was designed by Thomas Klausner and Timo Multamäki and will be on Kickstarter soon. Between two and six people can play with games taking around 40 minutes, but I’d recommend that you get as many around the table as possible because – as with any trick taking game – it’s all about interaction and swearing at people when they ruin your plans. Honestly, though, this one gets a definite recommendation. Go back it when it launches.

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