Dave Finally Plays: Android

Android is a boardgame from 2008. It’s set in a Blade-Runnerian cyberpunk future of flying cars, moon colonies, androids, synthetic humans, rampant corporatism, space elevators, and murder. Yep, someone’s dead, and it’s up to the players to find out whodunit. To do so they must travel throughout New Angeles and the Moon searching for evidence and following up on leads. They also have their own personal issues that may get in the way — these are not the adventures of Sunny McHappyFun we’re dealing with here. And if that weren’t enough, there’s a vast conspiracy at the center of it all that must be uncovered as well. So in two weeks (of in-game time, fourteen turns) they have to solve the mystery, expose the conspiracy, and address their own personal issue and plots.

It sounds pretty cool, but it also sounds like a bit of a convoluted mess. In addition, it sounds like a loooooong game. What it mostly sounds like is a role-playing game. Because it sounded like a lot of those things, I avoided it for four years. But my friend Al got a copy of it and he and Matt and James played and enjoyed it. They wanted to play again and invited me for this second game, which we finished last night. I can now report that the game is a varying levels of all of those things, and also a game unlike any other I’ve played.

(click to enhance 224 to 176, enhance, stop, move in, stop)

That’s the board. Up top is the moon, down below is New Angeles. Betwixt the two is “The Beanstalk”, a space elevator that connects the two (though there are also rocket ships that can shuttle you back and forth). The maze-like thing in the upper right is the Conspiracy. In play this board will be covered with cardboard chits and player figures. There will also be an area off to the side with the murder suspects, who will also be covered with cardboard chits. And each player will have their character card, where they store their cardboard chits. I guess what I’m saying here is, there are a lot of cardboard chits. Yet, the game is not as fiddly as one might think.

The best way to talk about it is to talk about the different parts of the game, of which there are four.

THE MURDER – This is the heart of the game, yet like any other part you can easily ignore it and still win. There are a number of suspects and throughout the game evidence will be placed on them which will eventually make one of them the guilty party. (They can also be killed by having “hits” placed on them.) The mystery isn’t really a mystery; you’re not trying to discover who is guilty so much as determine who is guilty by stacking evidence against him or her or it. You’re also dealt “hunch” cards at the start of the game with suspects you want guilty or innocent. Making your guilty hunch suspect guilty is worth a bunch of points, and your innocent hunch paying off is worth less. IF you get the same suspect for both, you’re obsessed with that person, and want to make them REALLY guilty.

THE CHARACTERS – Each character has a storyline developing around them involving their personal issues. To further the storyline they will want to do certain things (what those things are depends on the character and the plot) to gain “good baggage” and avoid “bad baggage”. This often has to do with card play. There are two types of cards for each character, light and dark, and they mean what you might expect. Light cards will help you, dark cards will harm you. So why would you play dark cards? First, you don’t play your own dark cards — you play the other players’ dark cards to screw them over (and, of course, they play yours.) Second, there’s a light/dark “meter” on your card. Playing light cards moves you to dark and playing dark cards moves you to light. Play too many light cards and you’ll be stuck, unable to play more until you play a few dark cards. Other players can also give you “bad baggage” (how again depends on the plot). Get too much of that and your plot heads in directions you don’t want it to go in.

THE CONSPIRACY – The Conspiracy is represented by puzzle pieces with glowing blue trails on them, which means it also sort of plays the role of the “cyberspace” portion of the proceedings. You can take a piece of evidence and “explore it further”, meaning you discard it as evidence and instead draw a conspiracy tile and place it in the puzzle. What you’re doing here is making other things worth more. There are targets outside of the conspiracy area that pretty much just make other things worth more at the end of the game, such as guilty/innocent hunches, sad/happy endings, and favor tokens (more on those in a moment). Connecting each of those to the central tile adjusts how much those things are worth, so if you’re feeling good about resolving your plot successfully, you can try to up the value of the points you’ll get from it. The upshot of this is, just as you the player, is determining who the guilty party is in the murder, you the player is also determining what the Big Conspiracy is.

THE BOARD – Scattered through the various locations on the board are bits of evidence that can be used to implicate or exonerate suspects, or be used to uncover the conspiracy. There are also “ritzy” locations where you get to draw your own light cards and “seedy” locations where you draw other players’ dark cards. You can also pick up four types of “favors” which can be used to accomplish certain things or may be worth big points depending on how the conspiracy unfolds. There are even a couple of locations that give you straight up victory points. You can get and give baggage, hire a rocket, put a hit on a suspect, get rid of “trauma”, or get tips on who might be guilty of murder from a snitch or a TV reporter.

Yes, there’s a lot going on. But the meat of the game isn’t a ton of obscure rules, it’s how the players use a lot of actually pretty straightforward rules to further their individual goals. And it’s a unique gaming experience.

I’ve become tired of RPGs, and I don’t like many “storytelling” games (I hated Tales of the Arabian Nights, for example). But Android only looks like those things on the surface. Honestly, without too much trouble, this could be rethemed as a more typical “spice-on-a-boat” game. The RPG and story aspects are largely just chrome, but they tie all the parts together and elevate the whole. It’s an “experience” game, but one in which the players create the experience, not one where they just passively follow along with what the game tells them is happening.

Our game took three sessions, but before you think that’s a really long time, let me clarify. The first session they taught me the rules and we got through about 5 of 14 rounds (I went in cold, not knowing any of the rules in advance.) We then discovered that one of us who will remain Jamesless — I mean nameless — was playing one of his cards very much wrong, so we had to scrap everything and start over. The second attempt then took two sessions of about two hours each, maybe a little less. So we got the whole thing done in between three and four hours. That’s not crazy long (someone had said they played for six hours and only got halfway through, which is nuts.)

In our game I played the above Troubled P.I. I admit, I don’t know much about what was actually happening in my character plot, as I was more focused on learning the game. It turns out that I was very much like Rick Deckard in Blade Runner: pretty inept in general and terrible at my job. I completed my character plot successfully and avoided getting hit by my tragic memories (cards other folks could play on me) but I was useless at figuring out the murder, didn’t do much regarding the conspiracy, and didn’t pick up too many favors. I came in third, a long distance behind the first- and second-place players.

The best thing I can say about Android is that I really want to play it again. Now that I know how things are connected and how they unfold, I am eager to take another stab at it. Also, I naturally want to try both another character to see what that one is like and the same character to see if I can do any better. It’s not a flawless game, but it’s an extraordinary one, and I’m glad to have finally given it a chance!

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