Two things have to be clarified before we start our journey into cyberspace. Firstly, I was sent a review copy of Renegade by Victory Point Games. Secondly, I have to confess that I have a soft spot for cyberpunk.
When I first read about Renegade I came across the description “abstract-euro thematic deck-building game.” Frankly, that sounded rather ridiculous to me. After having explored the game for the past several weeks that description has started to make sense, though. In gaming terminology abstract usually means the opposite of thematic. But it’s easy to forget that any game mechanism is an abstraction. Even in the most thematically rich game, every mechanism, no matter how well it’s tied to the story, is a simplified, stylized representation of something more complex. The nature of games is abstract, really. Incidentally, so is the nature of data. And data – that’s what Renegade is about.
The World and the Job
In Renegade you take on the role of a hacker and freedom fighter called a renegade. You’re fighting the Super-Massive Computers (SMCs) that are gradually taking over Japan by enslaving the citizens through a neural net.
The world of Renegade is a gritty, old-school cyberpunk world that will resonate with readers of William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, Bruce Sterling and the other writers that started the movement in the 80s.
Each game of Renegade has you pitted against one of four different SMCs. Your goal is to hack into the network, get through the defenses and establish control. This is done by moving, manipulating, adding, deleting, linking and corrupting data. To do these things you move an avatar, a representation of you and your current point of influence on the network, around on the board.
Renegade can be played as a solitaire game or cooperatively with up to five players. As usual I only look at solitaire play, and as usual I’m not teaching the rules but trying to convey a sense of what learning and playing the game is like.
Renegade comes in a compact box that belies the weight and depth of the game inside. It consists of 140 cards, the aforementioned modular board, standees and character sheets representing the different renegades, a lot of counters and some custom dice. The rule book is 32 pages and richly illustrated.
The components are of good quality and the cards have just the right kind of semi-abstract, neon-colored illustrations to go with the theme.
My only nitpick with the components is the size of the rule book. It’s almost too big to fit inside the box and I feel guilty every time I squeeze it in there.
Becoming a Renegade
Getting to know Renegade isn’t particularly easy, but this cyberpunk fanatic found it rewarding in the end. The rules are not super complex – they make sense in and of themselves for the most part – but there are many rules. The rounds and turns have several steps, and some of these steps are sometimes skipped, sometimes not. The game has it’s own terminology and symbology. The rule book is pretty good, though, and it has an introductory scenario that I highly recommend. The designer of the game, Richard Wilkins, known in the boardgaming community as Ricky Royal of Box of Delights, has made several instructional videos. They are a great help. Be prepared, also, to look for answers to some rules questions online.
Another reason that it’s a little challenging to start playing Renegade is that it is an unusual game. Things are not the way you’d expect. The deck-building mechanism, the goals, the seemingly simple win condition – neither can be understood by just using your gamer’s common sense. You have to read. You might have to read again. But once you’ve gotten the basics down you can start exploring instead.
Despite the steep learning curve, getting to know the world of Renegade has been interesting rather than frustrating, and playing the game has been a very immersive and intense experience. You might want to know, though, that this is from the point of view of a gamer who finds the terminology in Netrunner stimulating and thematic rather than confusing, and the use of symbols in Race for the Galaxy helpful rather than challenging.
The terminology might be annoying to some, but things are consistently color coded, and unless you’re color blind you don’t need to learn the terminology. The parallel use of color coding, symbols and unique terms can be confusing, though, and although I find the terminology thematically captivating, to some people it will be a nuisance.
Being a Renegade
Each SMC has it’s own unique way of fighting the renegade intrusion, and each renegade has it’s own specialties. The game has a modular board representing the five servers on the SMC network. The board will be set up differently from game to game and the difficulty can be varied.
The game is played over three rounds each consisting of three turns. The challenge of each round is dictated by a countermeasure card. Three of these cards are chosen semi-randomly during set-up. These cards give the player objectives, and, together with the card representing the SMC you’re currently up against, they control the behavior of the computer and the resistance you’re facing.
Besides the modular board representing the network and the cards representing the SMC and its behavior, there’s your command deck and the Hack Shack, a display of cards that can be acquired to improve your deck.
To win a game of Renegade you simply have to survive through the three waves of countermeasures the SMC sends against you. If you survive you’ve established control over the SMC and furthered the renegade cause. The countermeasures are called sparks, flares, guardians and firewalls. They are represented by tokens and they make the servers very inhospitable to intruders. They can spread like a plague over the servers unless you keep them in check. Your primary tools are contaminants, snippets of data that can be used to counteract the countermeasures, move information around efficiently and slowly establish influence over the servers. Just like the countermeasures, the contaminants you spread are represented by tokens. Whatever you do, be it moving your avatar or uploading contaminants or moving data around, you have to do it by playing command cards.
During the course of the game you steadily improve your deck of command cards on a card-for-card basis. Unlike most other games with a deck-building mechanism, in Renegade a new card goes straight to your hand. The commands allow you to upload contaminants, move them around, move your avatar around, delete sparks and so on. The cards in your hand put a limit on the number of actions available to you and also on the kinds of actions you’re able to do at any given time.
On each round you play through your entire deck of command cards, five per turn. Often several of the cards are exchanged for better ones each turn. Besides the randomization during set-up, shuffling your deck between rounds is one of the sources of randomness in the game. Another is the dice. These are used to decide where on the board some of the countermeasures show up. Dice are also used when combating sparks and other countermeasures, although the results of those rolls can be mitigated.
The objectives specified on the countermeasure cards give you rewards if they are met and punishment if they aren’t, but the objectives are as much a distraction as they are a source of direction. Remember: to win the game you just have to survive the onslaught of countermeasures through three rounds. You don’t need to fulfill a single objective. One of the main challenges of Renegade is to discern threats from distractions. There’s usually a lot going on on the server boards, and you have to know where to focus to use the limited means you’ve got as efficiently as possible.
Every turn plays like a logical puzzle and an exercise in efficiency. There are many decisions to be made and most situations can be handled in many different ways. Each card can be used in several ways, each countermeasure token can be dealt with in several ways, and there are usually several ways of fulfilling the goals specified on the countermeasure card.
This game is very immersive. The mental leap from moving tokens around on a hex grid to messing around with data on a server isn’t an impossible one – the connection between mechanisms and theme is strong. The fact that every little thing I do requires serious decision-making helps keeping me very engaged.
Even though Renegade is unusual, it wasn’t created in a vacuum. The way the sparks and other countermeasures work is reminiscent of virus propagation and outbreaks in Pandemic. The sense of impending doom when chain reactions have the countermeasures spread beyond your control is similar to the sense of desperation that Pandemic can bring.
The hand management, avatar movement and how player actions are limited by the number of cards in your hand seems to draw upon Mage Knight. Actually, the entire optimization and efficiency challenge reminds me a little of Mage Knight.
Another game that comes to mind when playing Renegade is the wonderful co-operative fantasy game Legends of Andor. In a similar way to Andor, Renegade has you trying to solve problems of logistics, timing and movement simultaneously, while under the strain of a system that efficiently limits the number of actions you can take. Figuring out how to manage to place a virus contaminant on a certain partition on a server while also deleting a spark from an adjacent partition without using up the command cards I need to install a propagator on my access point is a kind of challenge that has me so excited I can barely sit still, and that’s more or less how I feel trying to save the castle and delivering a parchment to a house in the woods on the other side of the board while also fulfilling my personal quest while playing Andor. Good grief, what a sentence!
These similarities are are just similarities, though. Renegade feels very much like its own game.
The kind of indecisiveness, deep thinking and zoned-out focus that can be problematic when playing multiplayer games is something you can dive into headfirst, cherish and nurture when playing Renegade solo. This is not a game to play while watching a movie or talking on the phone, that’s for sure.
I mentioned above how you can start exploring the game once you’ve gotten the basics down. Renegade is an open-ended game. That’s probably why learning the game, once you’re beyond the fundamentals, feels more like exploring than studying. Playing Renegade is a creative experience. Things can be done in so many different ways. There’s a downside to this – there’s no way that the rule book of such an open-ended game could answer all potential rules-questions. If you start playing this game regularly you will occasionally end up in situations where rules seem to be clashing and you have to look online for advice. So far I’ve been able to find answers to all my questions on the BoardGameGeek forums.
So Renegade is a game of many and hard choices, it requires deep thinking and it’s an immersive experience. When playing against the three easiest SMCs with the normal newbie rules, however, it’s usually not particularly difficult to win if you’re just patient, patient, patient and thorough. Luckily for us who enjoy losing once in a while there are several ways of increasing the difficulty, so the game will definitely give you a tough fight if you ask for it.
Before I wrap it up one more thing has to be addressed: there is an element of chance in Renegade that varies the difficulty from game to game in an unpredictable way. I’m not referring to the rolling of dice to fight sparks or the occasional shuffling of the deck, here, but to the randomization of countermeasure cards during set-up. The combination of countermeasure cards has a strong impact on the game as a whole. As a big fan of unpredictability and chance in solitaire games I don’t have a problem with this, but I know for sure that this is something that might be a turn-off for some gamers, so let’s have a closer look.
Each countermeasure card dictates the behavior of the the SMC’s resistance, but it also has a goal that the player will be rewarded for fulfilling and punished for not fulfilling. You usually have to deal with three goals in a game. Since the countermeasure cards are randomized, the goals can sometimes be aligned and thus worked towards simultaneously, but sometimes achieving one goal makes it harder to achieve another. For example, if two goals by chance have to do with uploading lots of virus contaminants, working towards achieving one makes it easier to achieve the other and you’re in for a pretty smooth hacking run. If the goals happen to be completely unrelated or even contradictory in some way, you’ll have a harder run. Whether you play the variant where only the current goal is visible, or the variant where you may look at all three from the get-go, how the goals are inter-related will have an impact on the game. This is both a source of variation and of fluctuating difficulty levels. I prefer playing the variant where all goals are disclosed right away. This makes the challenge feel a little more strategical than tactical and it gives a sense of purpose and direction.
If you survive the three rounds and the three countermeasure cards without letting the countermeasures grow rampant on the board you win the game. You’ve secured the servers of the Super-Massive Computer and furthered the renegade cause. If, on the other hand, the countermeasures grow out of control and you run out of countermeasure tokens to place on the board, you lose.
The solo game takes about an hour to play and a few minutes to set up and take down.
I am completely taken with Renegade and since I’ve already put my fascination with cyberpunk on display I have to stress that this is not just about the theme being capturing. The way this game has my mind working, gears grinding and logic circuits flip-flopping is what makes it such a great experience. Another important reason that I like this game is how the open-ended structure allows for very creative problem-solving. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the theme and the mechanisms work well together, that the game looks great and that it’s easy to set up and tear down once you know what you’re doing.
Apart from the modular board and randomized set-up, the many different countermeasure cards and the nine different renegades to choose from, there are also a few expansions with more command cards and another SMC, so I don’t think I’ll tire of this game anytime soon.
Some people will find the terminology, symbology, 32-page rule book and abundance of choices distracting, annoying or paralyzing. It’s not an easy game to wrap your head around, at first. But once past the initial confusion it’s a lot of mind-melting fun. Anybody who likes reading a rule book before bed, or anybody looking for a deep, immersive, abstract-thematic solitaire game should definitely check out Renegade. I have the feeling that it will become one of my solitaire gaming staples.
Other People’s Opinions
I always round off by offering the reader some conflicting and/or complementary opinions in the form of other reviews that I find particularly interesting.
A reviewer who had major issues with the things I found to be minor ones has made this video review. He also disagrees with me about the game being thematic. I don’t think he likes anything about the game, actually, so watching his review after reading mine makes for a sobering experience.
If you’re interested in how the game plays cooperatively, this review by One Stop Co-Op Shop compares the solitaire and co-op experiences.
I hope you found this review useful. Thanks for reading!