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Blackhat

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Authors:
Timo Multamäki,
Thomas Klausner

Publisher:
Dragon Dawn Productions
2015

No. of Players:
2-6

EVALUATION

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Gamebox author Eike Lang writes about the game:

Black Hat is a combined trick-taking and board game in which each player takes the role of a black-hat hacker who is after some juicy piece of information and the various squares on the game board represent computer systems that the players have broken into. Winning a trick allows the winning player to move one of his (or in some cases another player's) pawns on the game board. At certain points in the game, scoring will take places, with points being given for cards still left in a player's hand and for the squares their pawns occupy on the game board. However , the goal of the game is to score as few points as possible, the rationale being that each point represents some attention that you as a hacker have drawn to yourself when all you want to do is go about your shady business unnoticed.

Before going into more detail there is a word of warning and at the same time my biggest criticism of the game: True to its IT-focused setting, where you are likely to be required to download a program update the moment you return from the store, you will have to "patch" the game by downloading an updated game manual from the game's boardgamegeek forum. Also, unlike software that will usually tell you that it needs to be upgraded, there is nothing telling you that you'd be best advised to scour the internet for an updated manual, leaving you with the print manual that has its fair share of errors, omissions and unclarities. I hope these issues will be adressed in later production runs of the game, but as things stand this is a likely source of frustration.

The manual downloaded from the forum all in all does a decent job of explaining the game rules. But even that version reserves the crucial information for last, that the goal is to score as few points as possible. Why the designers did not make the decision to call the score "attention" or "scrutiny" (which would have made things much more obvious), is beyond me. While the game itself can be played by less experienced players (and explicitly targets both family and hardcore gamers), I suggest to have someone more seasoned read the manual two or three times and then explain the rules back to the less experienced players. There also is a little source of confusion left because the manual does not explain the purpose of two tokens and refers to some material that only was included in the kickstarter version of the game.

Having gotten that out of the way, let's take a look at what is a really enjoyable game, that is both much easier to play (in terms of mechanics) than the manual is able to convey and at the same time far from easy in terms of winning it successfully against the other players.

Each player has two pawns that they set up in the two starting locations (shared by all players) on the game board (there is a second board for keeping score, which you could just as easily do on a sheet of paper) and starts the game with a set of ten cards. One randomly determined player will have the special "black hat" card that we will get to in a little while. Each card has a rank from 1-13, and a point value (which, remember, is a bad thing in this game), and there are jokers that take the rank of whatever cards they are played with, or rank 14 if played by themselves.

The leading player opens by playing any number of cards of the same rank, and all other players must either play one card, or the amount of cards the leading player played (again, all of the same rank). To take a one-card trick, a player has to be the first to play the highest-ranked card in the round (i.e.6-7-7-5 would have the player with the first "7" take the trick). For multi-card tricks, a player must have played as many cards as the first player and be the first to have played the highest rank in the round.

The cards are then discarded and the player who wins the trick is allowed to: - Move one of his pawns on the board - Move another player's pawn, provided the pawn is on a square with a negative point value

When a player is unable to perform either of these actions she must instead draw an additional card.

Whenever one player runs out of cards, a scoring takes place. Players receive points (which are, need I remind you, a bad thing in this game) based on the point value of the cards remaining in their hand and based on the point value of the squares their pawns occupy. All remaining cards are then discarded and new cards are dealt. The game ends when a player reaches the final square of the game board or when no player pawns are able to move.

Based on this description you might assume that simply winning a lot of tricks to empty your hand and advancing on the board may be the road to victory, but things are a little more complicated than that: For the most part, thegame board basically consists of two separate tracks and every player has one pawn on each track. The tracks do not join each other until after the large square that covers the height of the board and is labeled Honeypot. The upper track also contains an “FBI server” square. Whichever player pawn reaches one of these squares first, gets stuck there and can no longer move. Combined with the fact that player pawns cannot share any squares except the starting squares, but instead move by jumping over occupied squares, players are faced with the conundrum that it is not in their interest to race ahead because they will only get caught in one of these squares and pave the way for their competitors. It almost goes without saying that some of the squares leading to the FBI server and the honeypot happen to have a negative point value which means its occupant is in danger of being forced closer towards or even on the "sticky" square by another player who wins a trick.

As a final twist, there is the black hat card. This card, initially dealt randomly to one of the players, reverses the scoring of the round it is played in. So, instead of having the same number of highest-ranking cards as the initial player, whoever wishes to take the trick needs to have the same number of lowest ranking cards. On top of that, the cards of the trick do not get discarded but instead the winning player chooses to either take all cards played in the trick into his hand, or he must take the black hat card and as many non-joker cards as the initial player played. The black hat itself counts as a joker, so it will either have the rank of the cards it is played with, or 14 if played by itself.

While the black hat card has a powerful influence on the game mechanic, it is also worth 5 points (all other jokers are 4), so it is not a card you want have in your hand when a scoring takes place.

Taking all this together Black Hat players face the following challenges: - Winning enough regular tricks to get cards with high point values out of their hands (there are low-ranking cards with values of one and even zero points, having these won't hurt you). - Managing the positions of their pawns on the board. They want to be on low-point squares when a scoring takes place but avoid ending up in the Honeypot or on the FBI server. Ideally they would pick a square with negative points, but those are dangerously close to the "sticky" squares and enable other players to move the pawns if they win a trick. - Making good use of the black hat card (if they have it), but ultimately getting rid of it before a scoring takes place. - Deciding on when to make a run for the final square. Reaching the square is by no means a guarantee for winning the game (although it is worth a cool -5 points), but reaching the square ends the game. And any player who thinks that the final scoring round will leave them with the fewest points will attempt to make a break for it.

Once you have gotten a hang of the rules, the game proceeds at an engaging pace. Tricks play out quickly and the game board is small enough to make quick decisions but at the same time there are enough options to require players to plan ahead. Players are never eliminated and can still participate even if both of their pawns have landed on a sticky square. In theory, they can even win, but since most of the time they will not be able to move any pawns, they draw a new card each time they win a trick, which significantly reduces their odds of coming out ahead.

Once players are comfortable with the basic rules of the games, Black Hat has a few more things on offer to keep them on their toes. The game board can be modified by randomly drawing up to five tiles that replace parts of the game board and introduce squares with certain kinds of special effects, such as altering the point value of other squares, changing the layout of the board or introducing additional honeypot or FBI servers. Also, players landing on FBI servers will bring “tracer” pawns into play that they can move every time they win a trick. These tracers will send all player pawns they encounter to a “jail” and effectively keep them from moving. Depending on the circumstances this can lead to players racing to the FBI server, effectively sacrificing the mobility of one of their pawns in order to be able to thwart the efforts of the other players. On the downside this makes it even more critical to keep the remaining pawn out of the honeypot on the other track of the game board.

Visually, the game is nice and that's about all there is to say about it, the cards have a handful of quotes that fit with the theme of the game and the artwork is well executed. The game does not, and does not need to, impress with its visuals.

In closing, I found Black Hat to be a deep and enjoyable game. The various elements blend well together and the multitude of options constantly force you to adapt your strategy. The black hat card adds another twist to the mix, blending the power of effectively reversing the card ranks with an old maid kind of mechanic where you don't want to be the one to end up with that card in hand when the scoring takes place. I would take the claim that game addresses both families and hardcore players with a bit of salt - a group of casual gamers can easily enjoy this game (provided they can make sense of the manual or have someone explain it to them) as will a group of seasoned players, but I'm quite certain that a mix of the two will end up with the casual players not enjoying themselves all that much. Hardcore strategy players will probably be put off by the fact that luck has some effect on the outcome of the game and those who judge a game by the sheer amount of material might be disappointed by the relative lack of playing material, but for everyone else I can recommend this game.


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