I tried the clash-like “Hackers” (by Trickster Arts) because there’s no way a decent one can be made with a computer hacking theme. Boy was I wrong! The mechanics of this are original, feels very computery, and results in interesting choices and tense battles. This is a great game.

Before getting to how fights work, the theme: other players are rival hackers. That actually makes sense — they’re your natural enemies, and can be attacked around the globe. The two currencies are credits (money) and bitcoins. Clever — as we know, some businesses want one and won’t take the other. It’s also fun how they scaled bitcoins down by about 20x — you’ll have some things that cost 30K credits next to others costing 1.5K bitcoins. Both amounts are as difficult to get.

One more neat non-combat feature is having a limited number of total buildings. As usual you can buy 2 of one type, 3 of another, and so on. Maybe adds to 18 buildings, but you’re limited to 16 total. You’ve got to decide which you can live without. I like it. It makes every base just a little different. I skimp on buildings that make money — I prefer to steal.

A typical base showing connected buildings

Now on to combat. Your buildings are “nodes” in a network. You connect each to 3 or 4 others — not just to your neighbors — to anywhere. Nothing happens “outside” of the nodes or network: your troops (programs) are placed in buildings and only attack along the connections. Instead of destroying buildings, you conquer them. Programs can’t be moved, so you’ll need to place new programs in newly conquered nodes to attack out from those. At first, bases tend to be a straight line of nodes and attacks aren’t very exciting, but it gets interesting quickly.

Defenses are doing the same thing as you but in reverse — attempting to retake connected buildings. Special defensive buildings are better at it, but all nodes have some counter-attack. When you capture a new node it will eventually be retaken unless you capture everything connected to it. Midway through attacks is the worst — you’ve got lots of exposed building being slowly retaken. You can either rush ahead and let them be recaptured, or attempt to capture pockets. Dealing with recaptures is a big part of an attack plan.

The basic attack program (your troops are “programs”) attacks one connected building at a time, switching to a new one when the old one is captured. The next attacks all connected buildings at once, but with less power. You later get “shield” programs which make it more difficult to be recaptured. A fun thing about shields is how the defender wears them down first, then they pop out of existence, freeing up the program slot. If you were paying attention you can quickly replace it with another shield program.

Later you get a program which can copy itself. At first it slowly copies into all slots of the building it’s in, then copies to every open slot in connected buildings. That seems incredible, but it only makes copies when there’s nothing left to attack. It’s still pretty good, but will need a lot of help from other programs.

Much later the powerful Kraken program can be placed in a start node and will attack all the way through to the HQ. But then it stops. It won’t attack anything past it, or off that one path. More fun, if 2 or 3 Kraken beams meet, they get extra power. This makes Kraken great for punching through those “all tough defenses in front” set-ups. But you’ll need other programs to help it.

Then they add “stealth” programs which can only be used at the start of an attack. One type can quckly “stealth conquer” a line of buildings. Then another drains the cash from a stealth-conquered building. A 3rd will permanently neutralize one building which has been stealth-conquered to help with your real attack. Much, much later, you get an expensive program allowing you to start stealth mode from anywhere, not just an official entrance.

Defensive buildings aren’t that exciting, but don’t need to be. One attempts to reconquer adjacent buildings, 1-at-a-time, with a so-so attack. Another does the same, but with a slow but strong pulse. One is just very tough with an extra shield (and one type of attack program is specially made to beat this). One is extra good at detecting stealth (it speeds up the “stealth will end” countdown).

The most interesting defense is the anti-virus building. It starts with “anti-virus”, which slowly spreads to adjacent friendly buildings (which then spread it to others, eventually to every building). Any building with anti-virus active attempts to recapture all adjacent buildings. So I lied when I said all buildings counter-attack. They do, but only when the anti-virus building spreads it to them. This is neat since it encourages the attacker to “waste” programs for a quick start, before anti-virus spreads much. Where to place that anti-virus building is an interesting choice (further back is safer, but takes longer to spread it to the front areas).

Play-wise, you can get to early mid-game relatively quickly. The stealing and being stolen from isn’t too stressful but keeps you working. And the recapture tug-of-war is really something to experience.