If there’s one thing I’ve learned from TV and movies, it’s that hacking isn’t easy. There are lines of code to pore through, a cyberpunk fashion aesthetic to adopt, and declaring “I’m in” at pivotal moments. Renegade is a distillation of these challenges into a card-management, deckbuilding fight against a nefarious Super-Massive Computer (SMC) named “Mother” that, of course, you need to bring down.
How To Play
The core of Renegade is easy enough: play one or more cards to generate Commands, i.e., actions. Each Command is color coded, corresponding to what action you can perform. Generally speaking, you move around the board, uploading Contaminants (your “good” programs) and attacking Sparks (the “bad” programs). Each round, you have a hand of five cards to take actions with. You can do whatever you want in any order, but cannot carry over any extra Commands from cards. For example, a card with a red Command and a purple Command cannot be split into two actions. This is a game all about efficiency. To aid this, you can hold onto one card in rounds 1 and 2, making a hand of 6 in rounds 2 and 3. Though new Sparks get added each turn, they don’t attack until each player has taken three turns. This means that you will play out your entire 15-card deck in a given round.
Here’s a quick rundown on how Contaminants work. By laying down blue Data Nodes, you can expedite your movement around the board. Green Uplinks let you project to other Uplink tokens, acting in locations you’re not present on. Yellow Replicants allow you change Sparks to your own Contaminants while red Viruses attack Sparks. And if those aren’t enough options for you, Contaminants can also be turned into Installations, providing upgraded version of the other abilities.
Your reasons for moving around the board and uploading Contaminants are determined by Countermeasures, i.e., objectives. Each game consists of Countermeasures (bronze, silver, and gold). Success or failure at each Countermeasure results in different board outcomes. Success may allow you to place Contaminants out for free whereas failure may cause more Sparks to come out. These Countermeasures are also paired with an SMC Adversary each game – the “villain” you must defeat who adds different challenges in between rounds.
Remember, though, that Renegade is a deckbuilding game. Part of your turns may involve visiting the Hack Shack, a row of patently better cards that immediately get placed into your hand when purchased. While you will never have more than 15 cards in your deck, these improved cards provide you with more Commands and some include effects that enhance actions.
Now, if you’ve followed along with all that, the last thing to cover is how Renegade ends. Once you make it through the gold Countermeasure, the game is over and you total up a score based on how many “good” things are on the board and “bad” things are still in the supply. Based on your score, you are placed in one of three tiers, each of which comes with a small paragraph of flavor text. What, you weren’t doing this for some kind of glory, were you?
Mess with the best, die like the rest…
If it wasn’t obvious in the gameplay description above, Renegade is rife with terminology. Though the rules include a glossary of terms, you practically need to pass a vocabulary test before you can play the first round. Each color of Command, Contaminant, and Installation has a name. Each of these correspond to an action with its own name. If you’re doing the math, that’s over a dozen unique names and I haven’t even counted the Sparks, Guardians, Flares, Firewalls, Open versus Closed Partition, or a number of other terms. The list goes on. While I appreciated the thematic immersion the terminology brings, it’s a bear to comprehend at first, second, and even third blush. It’s even worse to teach. That said, if you can overcome the discount Mr. Robot lexicon, the game can be quite rewarding.
Each avatar has a different ability that makes each game feel challenging in different ways. Oshin Noro, a red avatar, adds +2 to your attacks against Sparks. This came in incredibly handy as I ran around the board, deleting Sparks left and right. At the same time, I missed playing Tilda Sweet, a blue avatar, who is the only character that can pick up and move Sparks. Though I’m not of the belief that variable setup means more replayability, the variety in Renegade does make you want to keep coming back to try new things out. I’ve had equal amounts of fun playing as the different avatars and getting to use their abilities. Because Renegade is ultimately a puzzle, the joy in the game is figuring out how to combine players’ abilities and options with the current game state.
This also means that turns can take a while as you parse out what needs to be done and how to maximize the actions in your hand. It’s for this reason that the game is best solo, allowing you to silently contemplate for as long as you want. I admit that I’ve gotten impatient with my own analysis paralysis. Renegade openly forces you to play efficiently each turn. With the number of options available, it can take some time to figure out the best path. Sometimes, it’s only in retrospect that you realize not only what you should’ve done, but what you could’ve done too.
I’d be remiss to not mention how cool the three-turn structure is. While new Sparks can get added at the beginning of each turn, none of the super bad stuff happens until the round is over. You get three rounds to accomplish your goals and even set yourself up. Plus, you know you’re going to go through your whole deck, so you can plan to a certain extent (even if you won’t know exactly the order that cards will come up). It’s a nice change from the normal “everyone goes, then the bad stuff happens” structure that most cooperative games have. Also, getting to see your whole deck in a round means that the fun of deckbuilding (which is to play through your deck and see all the cool cards you’ve upgraded to) is always present. This is a notable aspect of Renegade that makes it stand out uniquely among other deckbuilders.
Aside from the terminology dump, the lack of a true win condition may be the most bothersome part of Renegade. Even though Countermeasures each round give direction to your turns, the culmination of all your hard work throughout the game ends in a mere pat on the back. Counting up how many tokens are in the supply and on the board to reach a score is hardly satisfying. There are no big sighs of relief as you defeat the final boss or high fives for skirting through the last onslaught of attacks. It’s just a number. But hey, you weren’t doing this for the glory, remember?