Sunday, 14 August 2016

Android: Mainframe

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Android: Mainframe is a game based on the Android universe. It is originally an abstract game published in Germany, called Bauhaus. Players try to form regions on the board by placing walls. When a region is walled up, and it contains the marker or markers of only one player, it is locked and will score points for this player. There is a deck of program cards. A pool of four face-up program cards are maintained throughout the game. On your turn, what you usually do is execute one of these program cards to perform an action, e.g. placing walls, moving a wall, or moving a marker. The game ends when the deck of program cards run out.

Each player plays a different character. Every character has 5 unique program cards, and 3 are randomly drawn for each game. These are powerful, single-use cards which you can execute as your action on your turn. The third and last thing you can choose to do on your turn is to simply place one of your markers on the board. Placing a marker requires wasting the top card of the general draw deck, so the countdown doesn't slow down when you do this.

The square tokens are the player markers. They are two sided. The side showing the face is the default state. The side showing player logo is the locked state. When a region is secured by a player, he turns all his markers inside the region to the locked state. A secured region cannot be altered in any way - markers cannot be moved in or out, walls cannot be touched. In this photo there is already one secured region - the 2x1 region with a purple marker. It is only worth 2 points - the region size of 2 multiplied by the number of tokens, which is 1.

This is the card back of a character-specific program card. Each character in the game has his own set of unique program cards. At the bottom left you can see the default (face) side of the player marker, and on the bottom right the locked side showing the character logo.

These are the generic program cards displayed at the centre of the table. The upper left and lower right cards let a player place walls onto the board in these exact configurations. The upper right card lets a player move one wall. The lower left card lets a player move a player marker, whether his own or an opponent's.

The game shares the same artwork from Android: Netrunner.

The Play

I did a four-player game, which is the higher number of players supported. All four of us were new to the game.

On the right, a large region was about to be created, and everyone wanted to get in. It is not easy to create and monopolise a large region, because it is very easy for others to put down a stake.

Ivan (purple) had completed and claimed the zigzag shaped region, which was a lucrative one. 5 spaces x 2 markers meant 10 points for him. At this point all other secured regions were low valued. Most were forcibly secured by opponents. This is defensive play - by "helping" an opponent secure a region, you are wasting his marker and neutralising a threat at the same time. Would you be better off spending your turn building your own region? Possibly. It depends.

I was red, and was trying to build the region on the left. It didn't take long for others to start barging in.

Later Boon Han (green) swapped one of his markers with mine (red), and the yellow player played one of his unique cards to cut the potentially large region into multiple small regions. I ended up scoring one (1) glorious point for all my efforts.

Ivan (purple) continued to stay in the lead, because of the 10pts he had scored in the early game. He just needed to play conservatively to maintain his lead, scoring small points here and there and preventing others from creating any large region. At this point there were two potentially large regions. I was the only one working on the region on the left. The other large one near the top had all four players fighting.

The large region was later completed. Initially it was not secured due to the presence of markers from multiple players. Boon Han (green) played one of his unique program cards and managed to move the markers of all his competitors out of the region. This allowed him to secure the region with three markers present. 7 spaces x 3 markers meant a whopping 21pts! What a twist! He overtook Ivan and went on to win the game.

The Thoughts

Android: Mainframe didn't give me a good first impression. It is difficult to do long-term planning. You are limited to what program cards are available when your turn comes around again. The card pool can change dramatically, especially in a four-player game. The board situation can also change dramatically. You may have a perfect plan in mind, but more often than not the moment you start executing Step 1, your opponents' actions will already completely mess up your plan. So the game becomes a very tactical one of trying to spot opportunities that come up at the start of your turn. There is little incentive to plan far ahead, because the game situation is so volatile. In this game it is very easy to attack and to interfere with your opponents, and hard to defend your own positions. I felt helpless when playing. It was frustrating. It is difficult to make large regions, because your opponents will gang up on you if they know what they're doing. Most of the time you can only hope to score small victories, and hope they will be enough as they add up.

The card deck is the countdown timer. Players feel time pressure as it dwindles. You need to watch the deck closely. If time runs out before you can complete your perfect, huge region, all your hard work will be in vain.

It helps if you are familiar with the cards in the deck. If a certain type has appeared many times, you know you won't get many or even any from then on. If a certain type hasn't appeared, you can expect many more to come.

The big twist near the end of our game changed my mind about Android: Mainframe somewhat. I appreciated better the importance of the 3 unique program cards. You draw these at the start of the game, and they are your long-term strategy, in this sea of short-term considerations and tactical moves. These cards are powerful, and you should try to position yourself to be able to make use of them. This is easier said than done. Of my own three unique cards, I never managed to use two of them, and the one I did use was not all that effective. However if you manage to pull off a great move, it is exhilarating. You need to know your character and your opponents' characters. This helps you plan your killer move, and prevent others from pulling theirs off. It's like football (soccer) - you may not score all that often, but when you do, it feels wonderful. It's also like fishing. You have a long boring wait where you don't feel like you're making any progress, but when (or if, to be more precise) you get a nice catch, it's a joyous moment.

Overall, Android: Mainframe is not a game I'm eager to play, because I feel I have little control. I'm mostly waiting for my turn to come again, and hoping at that point a good opportunity will come up. I don't bother to analyse the board situation and the available program cards on others' turns, because by the time my turn comes, any analysis I have done might be useless. I think the game is best played briskly and lightly. Our game went slowly, and that contributed to my negative impression. The player count may be a factor too. It will be less chaotic with fewer players, and I might have enjoyed it better that way.


Marco Wong said...

Nice read. I believe the game is primarily designed for 2 players, in which the game would be much more predictable and tight. For 4 player game you have to utilize your unique cards carefully in order to score big points.
This is 1 of 2 two-player game that my wife would eager to play, the other being Sun Tzu.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thanks! I was suspecting too that I might like it better with fewer players.