Android Mainframe is set in the futuristic dystopian Android universe (think Blade Runner crossed with 1984) and unless I’m mistaken, this the fourth game in this setting. There was the complex Android, the not so popular Android: Infiltration and the amazing Living Card Game (if I do say so myself) Android: Netrunner all released by Fantasy Flight Games. One thing all of those games have in common is the strong theme. It’s such a vibrant universe, one that would actually suit a big screen in my opinion.
However there is a phrase used among gamers known as “pasted on theme”, which is the term used when a theme attached to a game is so light or so out of place that you could literally remove it entirely or replace it with another, and the game mechanics wouldn’t be affected. It doesn’t a bad game make, but it does raise a concern with me when I see it as it feels like a bait and switch (i.e. draw you in and reveal something different). Knowing in advance that Android Mainframe is advertised as an abstract game, this means it’s going to have to rely on something other than its theme to impress me.
Designer: Jordi Gene & Gregorio Morales
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games
Time: 15-30 min
In Android Mainframe, you and up to three opponents become elite cyber criminals known as Runners. When the mainframe at Titan Transnational Bank is suddenly compromised, it’s time for you to go to work. But you’re not the only runner in Titan’s servers hoping for a piece of the action. It’s time to show your competitors what you can do and be the best Runner of them all! After all, the next best thing to stealing from greedy Corporations is to show off your superiority to other Runners while you do it. There’s a lot of rivalry in the Android universe!
The four-piece board represents the accounts at Titan Transnational and each Runner begins with an access point node in a spot chosen by themselves. The aim of Android Mainframe is to secure as much of the accounts as possible for yourself by surrounding your access point with partitions, the larger the area the better and sealing it off completely, i.e. no gaps. This is done with the use of programs. Once this is done, your access point is turned face down and the account is yours for scoring at the end. Until you have created a sealed area containing only your access point, the account is not secured and it can still be manipulated by other players.
Programs are represented by cards, some of which will be in your hand at the start of the game and are unique to your Runner (signature programs). The rest are contained in a generic deck available to all players. Four of these generic programs will be laid out (the program suite) face-up for players to use on their turn, replenishing after every usage.
On each turn, you get to take a single action: you can place another access point or execute a program.
- By establishing an access point, you add one of your character’s tokens to the game board face-up.
- When you execute a program, you can execute any of the generic programs in the program suite, or you can execute one of the three signature programs in your hand.
Most of the generic programs in the program deck allow you to place a specific number of partitions in a specific shape. You can rotate the shape, but you cannot mirror it. Nor can you place the partitions if you cannot place the whole arrangement. But programs can also move partitions, allow you to swap one of your access points with one of your opponents’, and disrupt your opponents’ plans in other ways. Do not assume for one minute that you’ll be left to your own devices in Android Mainframe, you need to be prepared for rival Runner intervention!
Signature programs are a little more complex and have one-use special abilities that can have a bigger impact on the game state. Each Runner in Android Mainframe has their own personal set of 5 signature programs and will only have access to 3 in any game. Careful timing of when to use these is key as once you’ve used them, you’re not getting them back!
Turns continue in this fashion until the generic program deck runs out of cards. Each Runner will get one last turn before final scoring takes place. A Runner scores points equal to the size of all secured zones they hold with their access point tokens and whoever has the most is the greatest Runner in cyberspace!
Sending The Trojan Horse Program
You may have noticed by now that Android Mainframe is essentially a four player abstract puzzle game. The theme is consistent through out with the setting, the use of programs and the Runner’s unique signature programs, but you could easily replace the theme or remove it entirely and the mechanics would be unaffected. Therefore do not jump into Android Mainframe if you’re a Netrunner fan like me and expecting a highly thematic experience as you may be disappointed. At best you’ll choose your Runner identity based on who you like in Android Netrunner. However don’t let that put you off as this is not simply a cash grab. There’s more to this then meets the eye and I’ll tell you why over this review.
As I said, what there is of the theme is consistent throughout. All the Runners and signature programs are lifted directly from Android Netrunner and the artwork for every card in the game is a direct pixel by pixel copy of what that game contains. I guess that made the illustration job a whole lot easier when designing this game. A little bit cheeky I admit, but given how vibrant and impressive the Netrunner artwork is, I’m not going to complain. It’s all very striking and so is the board itself when you start loading bright blue partitions all over it, enough to make you forget you’re playing Android Mainframe and not a re-enactment of the movie “Tron”. It can be a tiny bit fiddly slotting the partitions in and out of the board at times, but it’s a very minor nitpick and just takes a little bit of finesse.
Slip In Through The Back Door
Abstract games tend to minimize the amount of luck involved in order to preserve as much strategy as possible. For the most part Android Mainframe still achieves this, with only a small amount of luck being a factor with regards to the generic program cards. Having a bad row of cards for your needs will hinder you a little, but with four to choose from, generally you’ll find something that’s worth doing so it’s relatively minor as a negative point. Knowing when to play your signature programs is key though, it’s a big waste not to use them as their effects are substantial enough to swing the tide in your favour, but then that’s why you only get to use each one once. I’ve yet to find any I would consider overpowered, but you do find the odd few that seem a bit weaker than others.
With Android Mainframe, you’ll be constantly fighting a balance between two points. How much do I focus on my own set up to score big and how much do I screw the other players over so they don’t? You can’t leave the opponents to do what they want because you’ll either end up at a stalemate or they might build better zones than you. You’re not so much racing against the other players as dancing with them as all sorts of tricks get pulled with the partitions changing the board state constantly. But be warned, this can get pretty cut-throat so if that’s not your style, look elsewhere.
It takes a lot of spatial and visual awareness to succeed at Android Mainframe, so you could think of this as a nice teaching tool for younger players. Your mind is always taking snapshots of the board with subtle alterations as you try to picture the best move to make and you’re never short of choices for partition paths or even for overall strategies. For example you could only plant 2 or 3 access points on the board and hope to score big with them or you can litter the area with your personal nodes to get in everyone’s way or steal some cheap and cheerful zones.
Abort, Retry Fail
Android Mainframe plays out very differently depending on the player count. Head to head, it’s a pure battle of wits with a small amount of luck from the program deck. With 4 players however the chaos factor is increased somewhat, but not to an extent that it spoils the game. It does however lend itself to a bit of Analysis Paralysis (AP) at times with more players as everyone considers their options. It’s not an extensive amount of downtime, but given that you’ll want to wrap up a game of Android Mainframe in less than 30 minutes you may have to wait patiently in a 4 player game and if it takes longer than 30 minutes it’s overstayed its welcome.
Generally though, for those 15-30 minutes it will engage you throughout, but I find that I prefer other examples of abstract games when it comes to a head to head duel. Take examples like Hive, Onitama and the recently released Tatsu. They’re all very good abstract games, all are very quick to finish and all are dirt simple to play. But they have the staying power to make me want to play multiple games one after the other whereas Android Mainframe feels more like a good single play and then I’m ready to move on to other games that same night. That being said, there aren’t many good abstract games that cater for multiple players so it does fill that niche for me currently.
Android Mainframe – Verdict
The theme in Android Mainframe is very light, but even if you were to take that out entirely, this is still a decent little abstract game. The cards give you a variety of tactical choices and the signature programs give you a little bit of differentiation from other players without upsetting the balance. And of course, ripping off the original source artwork is not a big deal as it’s one of the best sets of imagery out there.
It feels like a different experience with each additional player and AP not withstanding, can be wrapped up in 30 minutes without a problem, any longer and it overstays its welcome. Unlike most abstract games there is a small element of luck in drawing useful generic programs, but not enough to make any kind of a claim that Android Mainframe is random, though it can feel a little chaotic with 4 players and you should probably avoid this if you don’t like being cutthroat.
Android Mainframe does a decent job of what it sets out to do, but it’s by no means the best abstract game out there. It’s good, easy to learn and plays well, but doesn’t set itself apart from the competition enough to have long term staying power. It’s still a good game though and worth checking out if like me, abstracts are your cup of tea.
YOU WILL LIKE ANDROID MAINFRAME IF:
You like having your own set of cards to use to differentiate you from other players.
You need a semi-quick game that is more accessible to those not used to deep, strategic abstracts.
You want a little bit of luck to influence the game, but not too much.
YOU WILL NOT LIKE ANDROID MAINFRAME IF:
You were hoping for a rich Netrunner-like experience. The theme could be removed entirely.
You think it will be too chaotic with 4 players and don’t simply want another two player game.
You want a super quick abstract game, 15 minutes max. This takes a little longer than most out there.
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I'm known as The Broken Meeple, a blog, podcast and YouTube channel devoted to board and card games. I live in Portsmouth, UK, working as a Chartered Tax Advisor and I enjoy playing games of many genres and varieties with as many people as possible.