13 September 2018
Catan, meet cyberpunk
In the middle of my first playthrough of Dark.net, while hacking networks, boosting signals and infecting rivals’ systems with viruses, I got a strong feeling of déjà vu: I was playing a cyberpunk Catan.
Players gain resources when rolling a number corresponding to a particular area. These resources, in turn, can be used to purchase and place tokens that generate points. Rolling a seven will trigger an attack on every player in the game. Sounds familiar?
The comparison to Catan is not to the detriment of Dark.net, especially since the latter makes some significant upgrades to improve on the classic formula. Catan, for all its praise, is a game that is overly reliant on luck. Except for the choices at the beginning of the game, where players decide which locations to occupy on the map, the rest of game is beholden to the fate of each roll. Dark.net’s designer, Richard Yaner, was clearly aware of the frustration that can cause, and most of the game’s differing mechanics attempt to address it.
The first one of note is the board. While all players begin with a similar tile, throughout the game they can purchase extensions of their choice and position them in the configuration they see fit. Tiles with numbers that are statistically more likely to be rolled are more expensive to buy than tiles with a number less likely to come up. This is an early opportunity for the player to consider the economy of the game by trying to balance the number of tiles with the worth of resources they are likely to generate.
While in Catan players can trade with each other, Dark.net creates a constantly shifting market through its fences, the four big bosses. Players can buy and sell resources from fences, and through this action alter the price of goods. The more resources a fence has, the cheaper they are to buy and the less valuable they are to sell. With fewer resources, the inverse is true. There are also other events during the game, such as retaliation and response cards, that can affect the exchange value but, importantly, all these actions are player-triggered.
For example, a player may want to purchase a green extension for their network, but in doing so they are also likely to trigger the retaliation phase for the corresponding green ‘mother’ boss. This in turn will completely wipe that fence’s resources – if the next player has a good supply of green tokens, they can sell them for an exuberant price, gaining a lot of credits.
Most actions throughout the game have a similar cascading effect on the overall economy, making some decisions deliciously tough. As most actions have a push-your-luck element to them, there is an encouragement by the game to go for the most desirable gain and potentially suffer the consequences – or not.
Unfortunately, the downside of this system is that it is slow to start. While there are eight actions available, at the beginning of the game players will primarily be using only two of them – selling resources and buying extensions – until they get their economy engine going. As resource gain is still luck-dependent, for some players the engine might develop much slower than for others. Those who do get ahead become almost impossible to catch up with, especially in a two-player game. Dark.net provides some aid to mitigate this issue through its virus infection mechanic, but this is only most effective in a full game of four players.
A technology-laden future and hacking make up the thick coat of paint over the clever economy building game that is Dark.net. This game makes some intelligent choices about adapting and reworking the existing formula of Catan, making it more strategic and celebrating player choices through an evolving game economy. While Dark.net does not succeed at everything it tries to achieve, I, for one, will now always choose it ahead of Catan.
Dark.net’s thematically complex virtual network of hackers and informants has translated into an equally layered and adaptable game of building an economy engine, where all player decisions produce a ripple effect on the gameplay.
Designer: Richard Yaner
Artist: Aaron Boyd, Scott Hartman
Time: 45 minutes
This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.