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Review: Black Hat

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Cyber security is a rising concern these days.  China hacks our systems.  Crooks steal our identities.  Stalkers lurk on public internet places.  Bank accounts and insurance policies might as well be open books.  Malicious computer thugs devise new viruses, worms and malware all the time.  And just this week some lowlife hacked my NCAA bracket challenge and tabbed Austin Peay to win the whole thing!  Indeed digital crimes are alarmingly out of control!  And apparently a subject long overdue for board game treatment.

How to Play

Black Hat pits players against each other as hackers infiltrating a network, hopefully without leaving a trace of their transgressions.  With a hand of cards essentially representing your hacking skills, you and others vie to win tricks in order to root into the network’s path laid out along the board.  Spaces represent accounts, assets and cyber traps worth varying points, so some are better than others.  While there is a final critical asset space triggering the endgame, its occupant doesn’t always signify the winner.  Instead, whoever leaves the least evidence of their presence by occupying low-key spots and dumping high skill hacking cards will prove the ultimate black hat.

Players begin each round with ten cards apiece with the black hat randomly assigned.  To begin a trick, the first to lead may play any number of cards as long as they are all of the same rank.  The deck consists of values 1-13, with no suits and a few jokers.  Each other player in turn then plays either one card or the same number of cards as the lead, again as long as multiples are of similar rank.  Once everyone has played to the trick, the highest value in the number of cards as was lead wins, with ties going to the most recent card or cards laid down.

start
It all begins innocently enough…you’re just minded your own business in the internet cafe.

Whenever the black hat card is committed singly or as part of a set, the trick is reversed and now the lowest value played wins.  Alone the black hat counts as value 14.  When combined with one or more other cards, it acts as a joker of similar value to the ones with which it is paired.

After winning a normal trick, all played cards are discarded.  The successful hacker may now move a pawn on the board and will lead to the next trick.  In black hat rounds, the winner still moves a pawn.  However, he must also either pick up all of the cards played to that trick, or the black hat card plus others equal to the number which the lead played.

Hacking skillz.
Hacking skillz.

Each player owns two pawns and typically the hacker will move one of his own, although they may move an opponent’s pawn that occupies a negative value location.  Other than the beginning spaces each spot may only be accessed by one pawn, so when advancing you simply jump over any number of adjacent occupied spaces.  Most of these are generic accounts or cell phones, nothing sexy or worth boasting about.  Others provide some ability or other advantage.  Gaining root access helps lower your score.  Hacking the FBI server gets you stuck, but allows you to send another pawn back to the beginning.  There are also honeypots which trap you, randomizers which shake up the network and exploits which allow you to change the value of a board space.

A round ends when any player is out of cards and cannot participate in the next trick.  Each player counts up the points on the cards remaining in their hands as well as the points for the spaces their pawns occupy on the board.  These are tabulated on a separate track.  In this game, you don’t want points, though.  Then a new hand begins.  As soon as a pawn reaches the critical assets space, the game ends and a final scoring round is calculated.  And while the critical assets space can be worth negative points, reaching it doesn’t always guarantee victory.  Instead, the player with the fewest points overall proves the greatest hacker.  Just don’t expect the FBI’s Cyber Division to come recruiting you anytime soon, though…

hand

Denial of Service or Busting Through the Firewall?

Trick-taking games are old school. Cyber espionage isn’t.  I’m a huge fan of the former with great memories playing a variety of classic card games growing up.  However, experience in or knowledge of high-tech hacking skills is completely foreign to me.  I have a hard enough time as it is just keeping my personal and iSlaytheDragon Twitter accounts straight!  When it comes to this setting, I’m decidedly a script kiddie and won’t be exposing Ashley Madison users nor starting any games of global thermonuclear war any time soon.  Yet, it’s an interesting and unique setting melded to a mechanic I’ve always enjoyed.

Black Hat surprisingly represents its hacking theme well.  I say surprisingly because when I  first heard, “trick-taking card game about cyber hacking,” I immediately doubted such a design could really pull off anything remotely conveying that subject, even though I still fine the genre of card game intriguing.  And while you won’t be able to write the next script for CSI: Cyber just by playing this game, manipulating the board mimics the essential concepts of cyber shenanigans.  Hacking is all about getting in, getting information and not getting caught.  Well, at least that’s what “black hat” hackers are all about.  That requires planning and skill as well as careful plotting and pacing.

Hacking the ultimate!
Hacking the ultimate!

The design’s general card play broadly conveys those first two aspects.  Cards themselves abstractly represent technical skills.  The higher the value, the more points they’re worth.  If you fail to utilize those skills and get stuck with them in hand, the penalty for your ineffectiveness is greater, you’re reputation as a quality black hatter taking the hit.  Meanwhile, the specific trick-taking mechanic evokes the need for planning.  Trick-taking games have always been about strategy.  A very focused strategy within a tight structure and often influenced by luck of the draw, but strategy nonetheless.  You need to know when to commit high cards, when to sacrifice others, when to give up the lead and let go of a trick and (in the case of partnerships, which this title woefully lacks) when to surrender the initiative or seize it.  Those tactics are present in Black Hat.  You don’t always want to win tricks, say when you’re about to fall into a honeypot.  And sometimes you need to grab the black hat, even though you risk getting stuck with it and its five points.

Moving through the board’s network captures the hacker’s sense of careful plotting and pacing.  You want to stay out of the easy, high profile spaces as they’re not as glamorous to mine or easier to trace – though you still need them to access data (aka, keeping moving along).  You also may not want to race to the end’s critical asset.  Doing so could trap your pawns, strand one or both in high value spots or leave too many top skill cards in your hand.  Speed isn’t necessarily the goal.  Elusiveness is.  On the other hand, data traps like the honeypot won’t spell game over – unless you manage to trap your other pawn, too.  And while hacking the FBI server might bring one pawn to a standstill it could be worth it to send an opponent’s piece back.

Pen and paper not required to keep score...this is the computer age, after all!
Pen and paper not required to keep score…this is the computer age, after all!

For classic card game lovers such as myself, Black Hat will pose nary an issue.  Yet even for relative newcomers or strictly casual card gamers, this simplistic climbing trick-taking framework will prove quick to pick up on.  You simply play one card or the same number as what the lead tossed in.  The highest set – or single value in the case where only one card is lead – wins the trick.  Resolve board movement and then move on to the next trick.  The black hat switches that up to some degree in reversing the values which take a trick, but not to any confusing degree.

While extremely accessible for new or casual gamers, the design also includes half a dozen modular tiles with which you can configure the board to increase variability.  Some of those will enter play during the game by landing in the randomizer, thus changing up locations even currently occupied.  That can create both fortunate and unlucky swings.  Using those tiles to lay extra traps in honeypots, denials of service, and FBI servers can restrict the board and create tight network lanes.  There is also an optional rule with the FBI server to ramp up complexity and interaction.  The player who hacked the FBI may control a tracer pawn which will eventually move onto the network and can then move into spaces occupied by opponents, eliminating them.

These tiles will reroute you through the network in no time.
These tiles will reroute you through the network in no time.

While I wasn’t able to try Black Hat with five or six players (I rarely see any sessions with that complement), it plays equally well with three or four.  The number of pawns restrict complete freedom while still creating enough room to maneuver and implement smart plays.  Over the course of a game, tricks seem to equal out, although you will experience nice runs and unfortunate dry spells as with any classic card game.  It’s a good balance that I think would be lost with 5-and 6-player sessions.

There are two glaring issues regarding scale: the two-player variant and the lack of a partnership one.  With two players, each shares control of a robot hand which could theoretically win the game, in which case you both lose.  It’s completely unintuitive, losses all tension inherent to card games and woefully underwhelming.  I cannot recommend it even in a pinch, and cannot believe it was included as a variant.  Aside from that, I think Black Hat also missed a prime opportunity to include a partnership variant.  That aspect is part of traditional card games’ eternal allure – reading, feeding and playing off your teammate is rewarding, fun and brings a whole new level to such gaming.  Perhaps with the simplistic climbing aspect, it’d be a tad more rudimentary.  Still worth the effort, I believe.

The black hat cards. And no, I don't know what these are supposed to be exactly...
The black hat cards. And no, I don’t know what these are supposed to be exactly…

Black Hat is an interestingly unique design which for me really floats atop the tsunami of titles flooding the modern market.  So many new games lack any spark of innovation.  Mechanisms, settings and themes are rehashed ad nauseum.  Not that it’s the fault of designers and publishers.  When producing 1,000+ new games every year, considerable redundancy is inevitable.  To be sure, Black Hat isn’t breaking new ground with its core mechanisms.  Its trick-taking foundation is classically time-tested.  And its board manipulation is pure area control.  It’s not even the first design to wed traditional trick-taking to a board.  However, those examples are rare in the hobby.  By giving its card play greater purpose and stressing clever movement over mere speed, Black Hat captures the hacking theme well and combines two familiar elements for a pleasantly refreshing experience.

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Dragon Dawn Productions for providing a review copy of Black Hat.

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  • Rating 8.5
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Summary

Pros:

Trick-taking is familiar and accessible
Board gives the mechanic a “purpose”
Does nice job of capturing hacking theme
Unique combination that stands out in today’s glut of games

Cons:

Can be swingy, experiencing runs and droughts
Board can be confusing at first
Really needs a partnership variant
Not good with 2-players

8.5 Very Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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