Hacker A Review of Steve Jackson Games' HACKER

by Deluge – Published in PHRACK 39

They had to get around to it eventually. While I was scanning the game section at the not-so-well-stocked game and comic store where I shop on occasion, I saw something that caught my eye: A game called "Hacker" by Steve Jackson Games.

What you see on the cover gives you a clue that this game is a bit more than the typical trash we see about hackers: Here we have a guy with a leather jacket with a dinosaur pin, John Lennon shades, a Metallica shirt, and a really spiffy spiked hairdo. This guy has an expression with a most wicked grin, and his face is bathed in the green glow of a monitor. Various decorations in the room include a model rocket, a skateboard, a pizza box, and a couple of Jolt Cola cans. Behind him, hanging on his wall, are a couple of posters, one which says, "Legion of Doom Internet World Tour," and another which says, "Free the Atlanta Three." On his bookshelf, we see a copy of Neuromancer, Illuminati BBS, and The Phoenix– (I assume "Project" follows, and don't ask me why this guy has BBSes in his bookshelf). Finally, there's a note tacked to the LOD poster that says "PHRACK SummerCon CyberView, St. Louis, MO" which appears to be an autograph of some kind.

This struck me as quite interesting.

Twenty bucks interesting, as it turns out, and I think it was twenty well spent. Now don't tell me Steve Jackson Games has no significance for you (sigh). Ok, here's how Steve tells it (in the intro to the game).

"In 1990, Steve Jackson Games was raided by the U.S. Secret Service during a 'hacker hunt' that went disastrously out of control. We lost several computers, modems, and other equipment. Worse, we lost the manuscripts to several uncompleted games, most notably GURPS Cyberpunk, which a Secret Service agent the next day called 'a handbook for computer crime.' The company had to lay off half its staff, and narrowly avoided bankruptcy.

"Eventually we got most of our property back (though some of it was damaged or destroyed). The Secret Service admitted that we'd never been a target of their investigation. We have a lawsuit pending against the officials and agencies responsible.

"But since the day of the raid, gamers have been asking us, 'When are you going to make a game about it?' Okay. We give up. Here it is. Have fun."

Weeeell . . . everybody naturally wants to look as good as they can, right? For the real lowdown on the whole situation, a scan through some old CUDs would be in order, where you could find a copy of the warrant which authorized this raid. I can tell you that Loyd Blankenship is the author of SJG's GURPS Cyberpunk, so draw your own conclusions.

Hacker is played with cards. This does NOT, in my view, make it a card game, though it is advertised that way. It's pretty similar to Illuminati, requiring a lot of diplomacy, but it has a totally different flavor.

The goal here is to become the mondo superhacker king of the net by getting access on twelve systems. You build the net as you go along, upgrading your system, hacking systems, and looking for ways to screw your fellow hackers so they can't be king of the net before you can get around to it. While the hacking aspect is necessarily resolved by a dice roll, the other aspects of this game ring true. They distinguish between regular and root access on systems, have specific OSes, specific net types, NetHubs, secret indials, back doors, and, of course, the feds, which range from local police to combined raids from the FBI and other government authorities.

This is a good game all on its own. It's fun, it has a fair amount of strategy, lots of dirty dealing, and a touch of luck to spice things up. And if things get too hairy and blood is about to flow, they inevitably cool down when someone uses a special card: Quite a few of these are funny as hell. Some examples:

Trashing: Somebody threw away an old backup disk. Bad idea. You can leave them e-mail about it . . . from their own account.

Get A Life: A new computer game ate your brain. 100 hours later, you beat it, and you're ready to get back to hacking, but you get only one hack this turn. There is another one of these about meeting a member of the opposite sex and briefly entertaining the notion that there is more to life than hacking.

Original Manuals: The official system manuals explain many possible security holes. This is good. Some system administrators ignore them. This is bad. They usually get away with it because most people don't have the manuals. This is good. But YOU have a set of manuals. This is very interesting.

Social Engineering: "This is Joe Jones. My password didn't work. Can you reset it to JOE for me?" There is another one of these that says something about being the phone company checking the modem line, what's your root password please.

And my favorite, a card designed to be played to save yourself from a raid:

Dummy Equipment: The investigators took your TV and your old Banana II, but they overlooked the real stuff! No evidence, no bust – and you keep your system.

As you can see, this game goes pretty far toward catching the flavor of the real scene, though some of it is necessarily stereotypical. Well, enough praise. Here are a couple of gripes.

The game is LONG: A really nasty group of players can keep this going for hours. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but be forewarned. A few modifications to shorten it up are offered, but the short game is a little like masturbating: Just not as good as the real thing . . .

There was too much work to get the game ready to play. I've gotten used to some amount of setting up SJGs, and believe me, I would not have bought more unless they were good, and they always are, but the setup has not usually been such a pain. Hacker has a lot of pieces, and a lot of them come on a single page, requiring you to hack them out with scissors and hope you don't do something retarded like cut the wrong thing off. Once I got done with this, everything was cool, but this was a real pain.

So, overall, what do I think? Four stars. If you play games, or if you're just massively hip to anything about hacking, get this game. You're gonna need at least three players, preferably four or five (up to six can play), so if you only know one person, don't bother unless you have some hope of getting someone else to game with you.

And when Dr. Death or the K-Rad Kodez Kid calls you up and wonders where you've been lately, just tell him you're busy dodging feds, covering your tracks, and hacking for root in every system you find in your quest to call yourself king of the net, and if he doesn't support you . . . well, you know what to do with posers who refuse to believe you're God, don't you?


A comment from a hacker, passed on by Knight Lightning . . .

Frosty :::

Got the Steve Jackson game, hacker, recently. I got together with a few of the GCMS'ers and we played a few rounds of it. It's not bad, but to be really good you need a few dickheads to play to try to crash some systems and do housecleaning. Another way it might be good is if you play in teams. Then you can orchestrate hits and shit like that against each other. It really makes you wonder if you really want the hacking community acting the way it takes to play the game though. But, it does show that those with the most bucks tend to be the most glorified hacks. They can not only afford to be, but they have the best equipment for getting the job done.

To: knight@eff.org
Subject: Re: SJG Hacker

Good comments. Naah, we don't want the hacking community acting like hackers do in the game. But then, we don't want the real estate developers acting like they do in MONOPOLY, or the generals acting like they do in RISK. Since we're not (quite) all bankrupt or dead, it's just possible there are still some people out there who can tell the difference between games and real life :-) Hope so.

Steve Jackson Games * Hacker