Wednesday, April 29, 2020

[REVIEW] EXPLOIT ZERO (formerly Hardwired): Cyberpunk Espionage and Mayhem

[EDIT: This game is now titled EXPLOIT ZERO instead of Hardwired (for trademark reasons, apparently).]

Mauser-Qin Inc. is guarding a dirty secret - the kind of secret you store on an air-gapped hand terminal in a secure facility on the 147th floor of the corporate regional HQ tower in New Kowloon. Good thing no one can get to it there. 

Yeah, right. My agents are coming…




Last year, Patrick Todoroff (author of the Osprey title Zona Alfa) released the subject of this review -  Hardwired: Cyberpunk Espionage and Mayhem. Hardwired offers an elegant set of solo/cooperative skirmish rules that provide cyberpunk (or other science fiction) action that is easy to set up, easy to play, and well-suited to the precise niche targeted by the game (in .pdf form, the rules cost $5.99 on Wargamevault). 

[Disclosures: I received a free review copy of the base game and its expansion book (also discussed below) in exchange for a fair review. Weblinks will include affiliate links to WargameVault/DrivethruRPG, use of which supports me and this site without adding cost to you. Thanks for reading!] 

The game includes brief info on a suggested setting (New Kowloon, a 22nd-century South-east Asian megacity) but notes, of course, that you can play the game in any cyberpunk or sci-fi setting of your choice. If you really want to get into it, spice things up and pick up a pay-what-you-want .pdf of Augmented Reality: The Holistic City Kit for Cyberpunk Roleplaying Games, and then quickly design your own scenario, neighborhood, facility, or corporate mission. 

Below, I’ll cover:

+ Setting up
+ Running the game
+ Writing and organization
+ Figure count
+ Expansion book
+ Solo/coop play features
+ Niche, focus, suitability for hacking
+ a brief play report
+ overall recommendation 


SETTING UP 

Hardwired doesn’t boast the world’s longest rulebook; to avoid giving away the game in this review, I’ll aim to balance between presenting the core mechanics in some detail, while skipping a bit more lightly over some of the things that really breathe complexity into the game (how the various gear options and special abilities interface, for example). 

To get started, grab some minis (around 4-5 would be typical) and pick an agent type for each of your figures: Ronin (shooter), Razor (melee specialist), Splicer (hacker), Sawbones (powerful support role), or Shiver (psionic commando!). The game offers a manageable variety of special supplementary actions that any character can take, but which specialists will be more likely to pull off, as agents will roll a bonus die when acting in their primary skill areas. That means that even your Support agent, for example, is still a competent shooter, just not as competent as the Ronin. 

Fill 3 equipment slots for each of your characters, drawing from a mix of Cyber, Combat, and Support items. I like the equipment list. It’s basic, simple, and functional, and includes just enough color to distinguish different kits — and bring the genre to life. Some of these items will be no-brainers (smart ammo should be pretty much a default for your shooters). I quite like the small menu of “pharma-derm” patches that can be taken in inventory; applying these combat drugs can do a variety of things like heal wounds, soup up reflexes for bonus dice, etc. - but the more powerful ones also bring nasty side effects that must be reckoned with after use, imposing a nice cost-benefit decision balance. 

There are detailed rules for using or fighting drones (whether they’re flying drones, walking dog-robot gun carriers, etc.). 

The game simplifies inventory by assuming that all agents have a suitable firearm and melee weapon. Guns used on the mission are broadly comparable and therefore don’t require differentiation: submachine guns, pistols, shotguns, etc., all use a common 18” range limit (thrown weapons go out to 12”). The game justifies this by noting that it “focuses on Dark Ops and Close Quarter combat in confined areas — office buildings, built-up urban sprawl, secret research facilities, etc.” This limitation of weapon type and weapon ranges worked ok for me; nowadays I usually prefer close-up skirmish shooter games to eschew range limits entirely, but I’m comfortable with treating the 18” limit as the ‘effective snap fire range’ of small arms - and with designing boards where most of the sight-lines are limited to 18” anyway! (Note that the expansion supplement, which I talk about below, includes some additional weaponry options, including guns that have longer range). 


RUNNING THE GAME

For each character’s turn, you get one free movement, plus 3 actions, and you have 3 dice to try to perform them: 1d6, 1d8, and 1d10. You roll one of these per action, which uses up that die for the rest of your activation. Actions might include shooting at something, moving again, hacking a network or enemy drone, throwing a grenade, applying a med-patch to boost your reflexes, directing a team-mate to perform an action on your behalf, shifting into overwatch to interrupt the enemy turn, etc., etc., etc. You can take your actions in any order and you choose freely which die to roll with which action. 

A die result of 4+ = success (the die roll is sometimes modified by tactical factors). You could (for example) roll 1d6 to take a pot shot at a not-so-urgent target, make your free move around a corner, open up on a second guard with your 1d10, and then use your remaining 1d8 to try to hack the local facility’s network and unlock the secure door behind that guard’s body. Again, a relevant specialization will help here; Ronin would roll two dice for each shot fired, whereas the Splicer would gain an extra die when hacking. (With the exception of the Shiver’s psionic abilities, any agent can attempt any action or use any special ability in the game - the specialists are just more likely to succeed. This means that every character is fundamentally a competent operator, which makes a lot of sense in-genre).

Targets stabbed or shot at also get a dodge/defend roll (which, also, can be modified by factors like weapon/ammo type or tactical action choices). The players’ default defense roll is a 1d6, though your Ronin/Razor specialists get to roll this twice. Whew! 

All enemy figures are taken out by a single wound, but player agents drop on their fourth wound. Elegantly, each sequential wound can be tracked - and affects performance - without ‘complicated’ book-keeping - because the first wound takes away a player’s d10 from their pool of dice, the second removes their d8, the third takes away all their dice (the only thing you can do now is run with your free move!) and the fourth wound kills the agent dead. As the game notes, after four wounds it’s “time to check the Dark Net for a new recruit.” I like the way this allows meaningful wound accumulation without cluttering up the table with wound markers, though of course you can use those too (the game is simple enough to play without a ‘character sheet’ but if you’re running multiple agents yourself, it probably makes sense to have a little page of details off to the side anyway). The way wounds degrade performance also makes the medical patch a more tempting choice for inclusion in your limited gear slots…There is also a first aid action characters can attempt in play, though by the time the bullets are causing wounds, there may be plenty of other actions that feel pretty necessary instead…Indeed, the core of the game is about balancing competing tactical options during an escalating situation under real time pressure. 

Once the players/agents have all acted, the enemy figures have their go (IGOUGO). The game uses a simple but elegant procedure to make the enemies a serious and growing threat. The enemies have four different spawn points on the board. Each turn, on-board enemies will rush you and try to kill off your players; after that, reinforcements - each wave more dangerous than the one before - will appear at randomly-designated spawn points. This means you have a general idea of which direction foes might come from, but you never really know for sure where the next waves will hit. 

You start out facing grunts (who use a d6 for one acton), then move up to more grunts, then ‘graduate’ to stronger enemy guards (using d8s and more actions), then more numerous stronger enemy guards, and finally (if you haven’t won or died yet) the BBEG boss figures hit the board. These folks roll d10s and get 3 actions each - and then an even bigger group of bosses arrives on the final turn, to make sure you’re very sorry you tried to hack/infiltrate/blow up this facility. 

The game normally has only 6 turns. Instead of an open-ended, drawn-out affair, each game will instead be a dash to the scenario objective and extraction point as grinding pressure from the opposition escalates, making tension and risk mount with each passing turn. I really like this simple play structure: not knowing what exactly is going to happen or where the enemy will come from, but knowing that they’ll be mean and ugly, is important to me for solo/coop game design. 

So, that’s the game as seen through the overhead skylight. Let’s break down my impressions in more detail.


WRITING AND ORGANIZATION

Sometimes the rules organization feels a bit weird (sure, talking in detail about rules for drones makes sense next to equipment, but not when the next chapter discusses “turn sequence, movement, combat, terrain, hacking”). Once I’d studied the rules a bit more, this organization didn’t really matter too much. I ended up spending a few minutes to make my own QRS (the one in the back of the book is ok, but I preferred a different array of information at my fingertips) and then didn’t really need to lean on the rulebook by my second play-through. 

Sometimes, confusing phrasings in the rules gave me pause. Again, once you’ve grokked the system, this doesn’t really matter, but it can slow down that initial familiarization. These momentary confusions involved minor hiccups, but they’re worth noting. The rules refer to a specialist receiving a “Two Dice Bonus” and also to a “‘Two Dice’ bonus” (notice the subtle difference between those expressions?) when in each case this is referring to rolling two dice together total, because the agent received a bonus of one extra die. The rules for the Overwatch action and interrupting an enemy turn are not actually very complicated, but they’re phrased in such a way that I had to reread them a few times to wrap my head around the rules. 

In general, I found that careful reading paired with limited consultation of info out there on the Interwebs cleared this stuff up nicely, but ideally the game’s phrasing and organization would more effectively facilitate quick mastery of the game. 

Typos exist, but they are rare and occasional (for example, on p. 31: “Doge/Defend”). 

Ultimately, these issues were just little speed-bumps on the road to an enjoyable game that is worth learning. 


FIGURE COUNT

One potential drawback to note: although you only need a few player figures, you do need a lot of enemy miniatures to play a full game. Happily, you know exactly how many you will need at most for a normal game: 10 grunts, 10 veterans, and 10 elite enemy security figures. Of course, if you kill or disable enemy forces quickly enough, you can recycle figures from one wave to the next, though you can’t really count on that going into a game. For players with a small miniature collection, these rules will frankly stress that collection’s limits. For players who already have a few squads of enemies that can hit the table, this won’t be a problem. 

For my test games, I used sci-fi stand-up cardstock pawns from the Starfinder science-fantasy core pawn set. This is a simple, relatively quite cheap way to pick up a lot of standees that suit sci-fi or cyberpunk games (no, really; these things would be great for Shadowrun-themed skirmishes). New players could also look into 15mm sci-fi figures, which offer a much cheaper road into building up a force of minis. 


THE EXPANSION BOOK 

Hardwired: The Tsim Sha Tsui Expansion (TSTE) is a 46-page supplement that offers new options for your game ($4.99 USD for a .pdf on Wargamevault). Included are more dangerous and challenging opponents, optional rules, new weapons, and an enjoyable array of extra equipment choices for players (including a couple types of body armor, even one that would fit well in a certain sci-fi franchise practically synonymous with the phrase soldiers in power armor…). There is a five-scenario mini-campaign, followed by guidance on designing your own campaigns with player advancement, too. 


Yikes, that face! 

I would suggest getting the core rules first, but if you play them and like them, TSTE looks like a really great way to spice up the game. 


SUITABILITY FOR SOLO/COOP PLAY

Hardwired works well as a game built specifically for solo or cooperative play. The solo “AI” rules governing enemy behavior are not very detailed or robust, however. They work quite well, but they are the kind of “AI” rules that offer a few lines of basic principles, then rely on the player’s interpretation of what makes sense for the enemy each turn. There are other solo skirmish games (for example Five Parsecs from Home) that offer comparatively more detailed guidelines for different enemy tactics. 

I didn’t find this to be a problem, however, because Hardwired promotes real uncertainty and surprise for solo players outside of the AI rules. The random spawn points for enemy figures mean that you know pressure will increase, but you don’t know where it will come from. The core action rules for players are generous - you can try to do anything with any figure - but failure is enough of a possibility that the best-laid plans each turn might crumble. The core decision loop on a player’s turn, then, involves balancing the risk that the actions you want to take might not work, and so arranging things to mitigate this possibility. 


NICHE, FOCUS, AND SUITABILITY FOR HACKING

This is a game that came to do one thing, and does that one thing quite well. As written, it has no (and needs no) rules for stealthy infiltration; this is a game about what happens when the perimeter alarm goes off, the agents storm into the enemy facility, and everyone knows they have about five minutes to get in and out - or die. Although the rules are fairly straight-forward, they push toward difficult choices between equally compelling tactical options as the pressure gets higher and higher. This means that the game doesn’t encourage a relaxed beer-and-pretzels feel. To put that differently, it may be low in rules complexity, but it isn’t low in drama. 

Being an unreformable tinkerer, I like my rule-sets simple but open to further hacking, re-skinning, and tinkering. Although Hardwired works well for its intended purposes, it’s also the kind of thing one could easily build on. The simplest way to change it up is to reskin the game without really altering it. With some superficial flavor changes, the rules as written should already support a variety of sci-fi encounters. Next time these rules hit my table, I’ll probably be using Warhammer 40k figures. As dedicated solo rules for Inquisitorial teams planting a bomb inside a Genestealer cult compound, or Marine assaulters rescuing a prisoner from a boarded enemy flagship, Hardwired (plus the power armor rules from the TSTE expansion) should work fine - I mean, it already includes rules for Psykers built-in! 

The core action and combat mechanics are also simple enough that I imagine they would support more aggressive hacks too - perhaps adding-in Infinity-style reaction rules, or changing things up to include infiltration. Note that the core game and the TSTE (expansion) do suggest a variety of ways to change things up if you want to mess around under the hood. That being said, I plan to keep these rules as a simple way to play high-action, fast, intense missions that are always a few steps from going wrong. 


PLAY REPORT / POST MORTEM

I played the game twice while preparing this review. The stark differences between the two sessions are very telling about what this game has to offer.

Mauser-Qin Inc. is guarding a dirty secret - the kind of secret you store on an air-gapped hand terminal in a secure facility on the 147th floor of the corporate regional HQ tower in New Kowloon. Good thing no one can get to it there. 

Yeah, right. My agents are coming…


Not feeling like taking the time to set up my Battle Systems sci-fi walls/scenery, I grabbed some scatter terrain to spread across a hyper-simple game-board: masking-tape marking out a maze of office hallways atop my desk. :-) Pretty low-fi, to be sure, but that’s the kind of quick pick-up play these rules are well suited to support (to be clear, the game would work just fine with a truly lovely table, too). 

An unregistered aircraft skims above the New Kowloon skyline…Then, with a deafening roar, a rocket blows open the hardened outer wall of the 147th floor of the Mauser-Qin Tower. Moments later, a team of equally-hardened professionals swoop through the hole, deactivate their antigrav glider suits, and advance across the facility, weapons raised…

Their mission is to cross the 147th floor, get to (and into) a secured lab, pick up the air-gapped hand terminal on the desk there, and then make it back to the insertion/extraction point with the goods. Of course, it won’t be easy: Mauser-Qin security forces are already arriving through stairways and elevators. Better get moving. 

The first time I played through this scenario of my own devising, I got SPANKED. My agents made it to just outside the secure lab, surrounded by elite/boss security forces, as the game ended in crushing defeat. 

Now, let me point out that it is a good thing IMHO that a solo rules system is capable of destroying me if I don’t play well. I have played a fair number of different skirmish games, and I’m pretty accustomed to winning games handily. 

My goal that first time had been just to try a quick game without digging far into the game’s tactical options. In hindsight, I think this is why I got clobbered, which tells me something revealing about the game rules. The rules are simple, but they allow for emergent complexity, and success requires mindful attention to those expanded options. Simply moving your figures forward and shooting at anything in their way will probably get you all killed - for this first game, I only leaned on the ability to use overwatch and a special ability that lets agents take a combat bonus. Clearly, this was inadequate. 

Ok, now let’s talk about Game 2 in a bit more detail. 

Our team: three Ronin and a Splicer. Each agent has brought Smart Ammo, and a Monofilament blade, and wears special Active Mimetic Camouflage (from the TST expansion). 

This time, fearing that I’d run out of time again, I prioritized the tactical action that lets players boost their movement range with an adrenaline stimulant (thanks, genre-highlighting core rules!). Meanwhile, the team’s Splicer hung back and got to work on the local network, popping open the secure lab door before my agents even got there. 

But on came the security waves. The first waves involved security droids, so the Splicer was soon busy hijacking bots to force-shut down their control software, while the team blasted a way forward. 

Security bots everywhere! Red blocks are enemy spawn points.
Note that Mauser-Qin Inc. spares no expense on suitable art and sculpture
to promote employees' sense of corporate identity. Very classy. 


A pair of agents reached the lab - despite an initial fumble and a quick shoot-out at the lab door, the secured hand terminal was soon in our possession and it was time to bug out.


We've reached the objective, but trouble's coming in the form of a white security droid...


Unfortunately, however, a swarm of veteran security androids were now advancing to block our way back! In the midst of a desperate shootout that left a lot of security troops lying on the deck, two of the Ronin - including one with the stolen hand-terminal - made it to the extraction point, passed a Move roll, and jumped right out of the Mauser-Qin Tower’s 147th floor, trusting in their antigrav glider suits to get them safely back to the rendezvous point far below. Mission success! 

Standing at the edge of my crude masking tape floorplan extraction point,
an agent prepares to swoop away from the 147th floor



Alas, the Splicer and another Ronin weren’t so lucky…providing cover to get the hand-terminal out cost them their lives, too, as they were swarmed by a crowd of security forces in the hallway…





So. Mission success after only 4 turns, with a patron-acceptable 50% casualty rate…another successful corporate espionage run, and just another day in New Kowloon…

I think that having a better understanding of my various tactical options made the difference in that second game. It was quite fun, and quite tense, despite the win at the end. 


CAVEATS AND OVERALL RECOMMENDATION

Hardwired probably ISN’T a great fit for you IF you aren’t a cyberpunk/sci-fi fan (duh!); if you don’t have many miniatures and don’t expect that to change; if you find detailed AI guidelines for enemy moves essential during solo play; if the stealth/infltration phase is your favorite part of shooty skirmish games; or if you demand a crystal-clear rulebook from the get-go. 

Those points aside, Hardwired is an excellent ruleset if you want fast, elegant rules for cyberpunk (or other sci-fi) missions that don’t waste a lot of time getting to the action. The game will offer meaningful tactical decisions on just about every turn (and those decisions will get more tense as the turns roll by). The game is also flexible enough to support tinkering and hacking if that’s your jam. RECOMMENDED. 




5 comments:

  1. Thanks for this. I've followed Zona Alfa for a while and just became aware of this ruleset. I'm still a little on the fence about it but you've definitely provided food for thought and a lot more info than I had before - cheers!

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    1. Glad I could help, and thanks for reading!

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  2. you mention its not got a stealth step? is there a game you know of that does?

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    1. Yep! "Black Ops" from Osprey has quite extensive rules for stealth infiltration. "FiveCore Skirmish 3rd Edition" from Nordic Weasel does too. "Cutting Edge" stealth mechanics these days tend to involve 'noise tokens' that can attract sentries' attention, etc.

      Hardwired doesn't include that (though one certainly could hack in such rules) as the game seems to focus much more on the tense moments once the confrontation has already begun.

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  3. I got in my first game of the fantasy sibling Nightwatch today and it was a lot of fun.

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