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Tales from the Fireside – Thematic Atac

Another Tale from the Fireside, in which Campfire recieves a gift that gets him to thinking…


The first thing I do whenever hearing about a new game is check to see whether it’s a thematic title or not. I’ll do this before noting the kind of gameplay in it, its cost or even its title. It could be called The Free Sex and Chocolate Adventuregasm, but unless it’s a thematic game, I probably won’t be interested.

It’s not that all abstract games are bad. Take Quarto, for instance. I’ve played a bit of Quarto, and I quite like it. It’s a multidimensional take on Connect 4, where you and your opponent take turns placing pieces on a grid. Each piece is unique, but all share certain characteristics with the other pieces in the game. So, half the pieces have holes in them and half don’t, half are round and half are square, half are white and half are black, and half are tall while the other half are squat – but there’s only one short, square, black piece with a hole in it, just as there’s only one tall, round, white piece without a hole in it. Like Connect 4, the object of the game is to line four pieces with a similar characteristic across the board, but – and here’s the clever part – you don’t choose which piece you put down; you choose which piece your opponent puts down, and she chooses where to put it.

It’s a devious game about laying traps for your partner to blunder into, and it’s a lot of fun. But there’s something missing.

There’s been a lot of discussion in board gaming circles about what constitutes a thematic game. Here’s my answer:

Thematic games are built around your imagination.

When I play Quarto, I don’t use my imagination for anything other than than strategy. I’ll imagine what I might do if my opponent moves her piece here, and guess what I’ll do if she chooses that piece for me to play – but that’s where my imagination ends.

Last week, Boss Michael sent me two starter decks for a mid-90s trading card game called Netrunner. Netrunner is a thematic game. In fact it’s difficult to imagine a game more thematic than Netrunner. The game’s so entrenched in its own theme that its rules are written in a dense jargon that requires its own glossary. If you don’t understand that jargon and the world in which Netrunner is set, you won’t understand the game.

I love that about it. I haven’t even played a full game of Netrunner yet, but I love the jargon and the world; I love the theme, and the theme makes the game.

In Netrunner, you and your opponent play as a Corporation trying to protect its secrets and a hacker trying to steal them. The opposing sides play differently. Corporate relies on bluff and subterfuge; Corporate cards are played face side down, and their effects aren’t revealed until the hacker accesses them or the Corporate player ‘rezes’ them by paying money to put them into play.

Meanwhile, the hacker – or Runner, as she’s known in the game – places cards representing pieces of software and hardware, and uses them to probe Corporate’s defenses. Eventually, once she’s gathered a suitable set of tools and thinks her hand is strong enough, she’ll make an all-out attack against Corporate to steal its secret Agendas.

Every stat and card type used on either side of the game has its own jargon name. The Runner’s card deck is called the Stack. She can install Program cards, and pay a cash value from her Bit pool to use them to search through the Stack for Hardware that will boost her attack, or other Programs to neutralise the effects – or Subroutines – of Corporate’s defense cards – or ICE, as they’re known.

Corporate’s deck of cards is called R&D – Research and Development. Every card the Corporate player draws from it represents a new product cooked up by the boffins down in the basement of the Corporate building. Corporate’s own cash pool of Bits represents far more wealth than the Runner’s. The Bit Pool and Corporate’s hand of cards are collectively known as HQ – they’re Corporate Headquarters. The Corporate player must install ICE defenses such as Sentries and Firewalls in front of HQ and R&D to prevent the Runner stealing Agendas, and from generally messing up his strategies.

Corporate can also create Subsidiary Data Fortresses by installing Agendas – the source of Agenda Points, which are used to score the game – and protecting them with ICE. Corporate can also install ICE on his discard pile – the Archives – to stop the Runner stealing old cards he’s discarded, but which might still be worth points.

If all this sounds complicated, well, it is. But by having this immersive story and world wrapped around the game’s mechanics, placing cards and making moves takes on a new meaning. As a Corporate player I could bluff the Runner by placing a worthless Agenda – a Commercial, say – as a Subsidiary Data Fortress, and protecting it with Tracer ICE to distract her from making a Run on HQ, where I hold a valuable Agenda in my hand. When the Runner makes a Run on that decoy Data Fortress, she wastes her turns stealing something ridiculous like one of those banner adverts for Thai Bride dating agencies, and goes away with a Trace on her which allow me to send cops after her, who’ll shoot her in the face, inflicting Meat Damage.

But then, on the Runner’s turn, she plays a Prep card allowing her to escape the trace on one of those kick-ass motorcycles from Akira, and busts open my HQ’s defences with a Virus that leaves Looney Tunes cartoons on all my computers while she steals a load of money.

Yes, it requires a bit of imagination to see the game like that, but the commercial, the ICE, the bike and the cartoons – they’re all there in the game. The cards even have little return keys on them, to signify using an action. It’s all too easy to imagine some grungy hacker chick with braids and over-sized scarlet-tinted goggles knocking back Mountain Dew and tapping the return key on her keyboard, to flood a corporation’s e-mail system with spam.

Netrunner is 90s cyberpunk par excellence. Its world of day-glo hair extensions and sleek slabs of hardware isn’t an afterthought; it’s the heart of the game. There are lots of abstract games that have had thematic makeovers to appeal to this or that pop culture phenomenon – you could argue that The Simpsons Chess is a thematic game, although I imagine you’d have a problem explaining why there are sixteen Maggies on the board, or why Bart can only move diagonally. But Net Runner wouldn’t work as a card game without its theme. Every card you play corresponds to an action inside its fictional world, and when your game’s done, you won’t be talking about the great hands you’ve had and the cards you’ve played; instead you’ll boast about the time an impudent hacker thought she could steal your Bioweapons research, and your Lich-designated black ICE left her brain-dead and drooling beneath her cybernetic implants.

And that’s something that won’t happen even in the most heated game of Quarto.


Email campfire@littlemetaldog.com with your thoughts. He’d love to hear from you, honestly.


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