One of the neat things about the Android universe is that Fantasy Flight has managed to create a rich, expansive cyberpunk setting without resorting to geeky hacker clichés and outmoded tropes. The world is filled with unique characters with extensive backstories and character development, and while the universe was created for an original big-box board game with a million references and “borrowed” elements from other sci-fi franchises, new games in the franchise vastly expanded the lore into something entirely unique. Netrunner, especially, dove deep into the people that populate this somewhat dystopian, blade-runner-esque place.
Not everyone can get into Netrunner, though, thanks to the heavy cost in both time and money in order to buy card packs, build decks, and test them against other players with their own unique constructions.
Android: Mainframe is a smaller, self-contained game that provides a taste of the hacking brand, pitting up to four players head to head in a contest to break into a computer mainframe to steal corporate data.
How It Plays
For you historians out there, Android: Mainframe is a reimplementation of a game called Bauhaus. That probably doesn’t mean much to most of you, since it was released only in Spain and only 17 people have it marked as “owned” on BGG. Allow me to explain.
No, there is too much. Let me sum up. The goal of Mainframe is to capture “nodes” (squares) on the board by surrounding them with “partitions” (little blue walls) with your Access Point Tokens inside. You only get points at the end of the game if your enclosed zones contain only your own tokens, and no other players. The bigger the zone, the more points your access tokens score.
Players cycle through turns, installing programs and adding access points. Most programs come from the generic program stack. These come in a few varieties; most allow the placement of partitions on the board (usually in a specific shape), some allow partitions to be moved, and some allow access tokens to be moved or swapped. Players also have 3 unique programs they can utilize with more unique (and generally more powerful) options, such as adding two access tokens at once, replacing an opponent’s access token with your own, adding bigger and better sets of partitions, and a whole other slew of neat activities.
You can always add a new access token by discarding the top card of the program stack instead of running a program.
The game ends when the program stack is empty, at which point players calculate their total score and see who is the best hacker of all time.
Stickin’ It To The Man
The world of Android may be rich and colorful, but Mainframe isn’t exactly a thematic game. The instant you start playing, all that stuff about hacking and nodes and stealing corporate data just kinda dissolves, and your brain goes into geometry mode trying to figure out how to close off your zones without setting up your opponent for big points. This is one game where I kinda wish they had toned down the terminology a bit; After running through the rules explanation with Access Point Tokens, Zones, Partitions, Secured and Unsecured, Nodes, blah, blah, blah, my tongue is all in a twist. There are plenty of simpler, shorter, easier-to-remember words like “walls” instead of “Partitions” that wouldn’t ruin the thematic immersion, because there isn’t much. It’s not a game killer, but these fancy words don’t carry much meaning beyond the basic mechanic they’re tied to. In this case, simpler is better.
But whatever. Sometimes it’s fun to pretend like you’re some kind of hacker, so I guess using words like “secured zone” provides some entertainment value. I just hope the theme isn’t a turn-off to anyone who would otherwise enjoy this abstract area control game.
There’s a very interesting challenge here: how do you block out other players and at the same time set yourself up to score big? If it was easy to do, it wouldn’t be as tense; it would just be a race, essentially, to get your big sections together. But it’s not easy, and it’s not so much a race as a dance. You’ve got to keep in step with your opponents and wait for the opportune moment to outmaneuver them and score big.
It takes some visual and spatial thinking to really succeed here, so Mainframe probably isn’t for everyone. It’s similar in many ways to Patchwork, but perhaps more cutthroat; you’re fighting over the same area instead of putting together separate boards. It’s very focused on shaping the board, though, and perhaps even moreso since the shapes aren’t predetermined. The board is relatively enormous, and with the limited way of placing walls, you really have to spend a lot of time visualizing your moves. Can Zig close off your zone and cut out the other players, or do you need Zag? If I put a wall here will that open up the door for Jane to score more points than me? Maybe it’s safer to add an access point token.
To succeed you’ll need to look at multiple sections of the board at once, and if you’re not great at visual processing, it’s easy to make mistakes. One mistake you can probably recover from; many mistakes can hand server-loads of points to your opponents. At least the game is short, so the pain of your mistakes will be short-lived, but if you’re not motivated to train your brain into the type of thinking required, you probably won’t have much fun in the long run.
If you can get into this style of game, then it is extremely engaging. With a variety of paths to score points, you can try different strategies to test your skills. You can go for the direct assault, stepping on other’s toes to make sure you share in any goodness they manage to set up. You can try and score a bunch of small zones to rack up points little by little while keeping your opponent from scoring anything major. You can spread yourself across the board, setting yourself for multiple ways to score so that your opponents can only stop one of those things. There’s rarely an obvious “correct” choice, with multiple actions that will accomplish your needs even in specific instances. There’s definitely no railroading here.
That does mean the game can slow down as players consider their options. It’s a short game, but be prepared to wait patiently while people think through their moves. I wouldn’t consider that a problem, but it is a facet you might not necessarily enjoy.
With only two players, the game hits its best stride. In that area, it’s a pure battle of wits and tactics; every move directly affects your opponent and vice versa, so you’ve really got to be careful about leaving any openings. The back-and-forth is much more intense and thinky, and you really have a lot of control over what happens. There can be a little bit of luck-swing thanks to the randomness of the program stack, but as you learn the game you’ll learn when to take risks and when to avoid them. Whoever outmaneuvers the other the best will come out on top, and it makes for quite an interesting, strategic game.
At three or four players Mainframe is still fun, but it falls a bit more to the will of the sea, so to speak. Players are almost always at the peak of scoring, so a mistake by player 2 could give player 3 a bunch of points, with no say by player 4 or 1. Each player has to hold their weight, and it can be frustrating if you’re sitting in a group of varying skill levels when the weaker players are handing someone an easy victory. On the other hand, there’s less pressure to make the perfect move; the board changes so much between your turns, there’s no point in over-analyzing every possible action, and scoring will happen.
4-player is also where the unique cards really shine. Those programs are fun any time, and they add a nice bit of seasoning to the gameplay, but with a larger group the unique cards grant your best opportunities for scoring. If you play smart, you can buck the status quo at just the right moment to finish off a zone when no one expected it. 2-player could easily be played without the unique programs and still be a tense battle of wits; 4-player needs the uniques to keep the possibilities open and the game moving along.
The unique powers are for the most part pretty well designed. Nothing seems incredibly overpowered, although some powers do seem a little bit weaker than others. Using a program card from the top of the discard pile (especially when you can use another player’s unique power) is pretty neat, just limited by what other people play. Swapping someone’s access token on the board for a new one of yours is cool. Placing 4 partitions at once can get you some really big zones at surprising times. Then, there’s the unique program that simply adds 2 partitions in a straight line; sure, it’s usable in certain situations where other partition shapes might not fit, but it’s actually weaker than the generic program that lets you add 2 partitions in any arrangement you want (including the 2-in-a-line option). So that seems markedly weaker.
It is possible the differences in strength were intentional, allowing some weaker and some stronger cards for each player. Any card played at just the right moment can have a might effect, and each power is one-time-use only anyway. You probably won’t notice a huge imbalance, and just about all of the unique programs are fun to play.
Unfortunately, that does bring me to another issue: the rulebook. Thanks to those unique powers, there are a number of edge cases – rare circumstances that still need a clear judgement when they occur. Unfortunately, I encountered several edge cases that had no clarification. Oddly, there is a section for clarifications, but they didn’t touch on some of the things I encountered, so that was a little frustrating. The rulebook is otherwise simple and clear, and I’m sure an FAQ will be released soon. But in the meantime you may have to make judgement calls when you encounter these scenarios. The biggest one I ran into was with a unique program that can cancel another player’s program; it didn’t specify if that program went back to the player’s hand (or the generic program pool) or got discarded. Kinda important, especially in regard to the unique programs.
As for the rest of components; wow. There’s a lot of love for such a little box. The board is made of nice hard black plastic; yes, plastic, with molded ridges to keep the partitions in place. This definitely keeps things from being knocked about, and that should help you avoid arguments about whether or not a partition wall was HERE or THERE. The partitions themselves are a vibrant blue that contrast excellently with the board, making it easy to analyze what’s happening. The player tokens are cardboard but illustrated and with strong, unique icons for each runner. Men and women are represented equally here, and with a variety of ethnic backgrounds as well – which is pretty standard for an Android game.
I believe all the art is ported from Netrunner, but it’s still beautiful art. The iconography on generic programs is very clear and easy to see, even across the table. The only cards with text are Unique, meaning they’ll be in your hand for you to read easily.
Mainframe is a game that I don’t think is for everyone, but if you like the visual/spatial challenge and you like facing off directly with other players, this little box packs a punch. With fantastic components, easy rules, and fun powers, it’s a tense and interesting game. It’s not an extremely forgiving game if you make mistakes, and it’s best with 2 players, but it’s quick and entertaining and works well enough with four. Definitely give it a look if it sounds interesting.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee North America and Fantasy Flight Games for providing a review copy of Android: Mainframe.
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