|Interaction||Components & Design|
In a near but sinister future, technological progress has made it possible to create hybrid beings, half human and half computer. These so-called PEERS wield a vast amount of power by virtue of thinking faster than your Average Joe, being better connected, having instant access to all information that is saved anywhere – you see what I’m getting at. And as we all know, power corrupts, and so it doesn’t take longer than 50 CPU cycles – which is not much at all, in case you’re wondering – before the PEERS start competing for world domination. But as we also know, nigh-absolute power is wicked fun and so up to four players take the role of PEERS and take over the world. Or, one of them does, while the rest gets a healthy does of the good old format C: or rm -rf /, depending on your religions preferences.
Machine Mind is the second game we review from print on demand company The Game Crafter (this link goes directly to the game page), and there really isn’t much to complain about the quality of the components. The box is a bit more flimsy than it would be in a mass-produced game by a big publisher, but everything inside is up to par: wooden cubes, hex tiles, cards, all good quality. The only thing I have to complain about in the components is the design of the score track: whoever came up with the idea to make it in three rows where the first is straight and the other two zig-zag should be brained with a bag of micro-chips, just to stay with the theme of the game.
To take over the world, you will want to control as many of the six facilities as you can. Machine Mind is an area control game where you score points for holding facilities at the end of the four scoring rounds. But since you’re pretty much a brain in a jar, you can’t do it yourself, you have to control regular, 100% organic humans to do so. You start the game with none of those at your service, just a pool of potential recruits of to one side. Before you can use them you have to subjugate them. Make up your own mind how that is done in the setting of the game, but none of the ways I can think of seems very pleasant. How many humans you may subjugate on any given turn is one of the things determined by the action card you choose. Each player gets an identical set of ten of those, one for each round of the game. First thing on every round, all players simultaneously pick their action card. Next to the number of humans you may subjugate, those also decide player order for the round – highest number goes first – and how many of your subjugated humans you may deploy. Picking the best card is quite the dilemma.
To deploy your wooden, cubish followers – I really would have liked meeples here, but can’t have everything I guess – you put them on one of the six facility tiles. If there are enough of your mind-controlled minions there now, and more than of any other players minions, you take control of that facility. That’s awesome if it’s a scoring round, because each facility is worth points. But it’s also awesome on any other round because each facility has an ability, please excuse the rhyme. Each facility offers its controller a way to manipulate humans: move them, swap them, subjugate them, kill them, release (unsubjugate) them and even revive them. Sometimes, you may even move the elusive John van Patten, the one human who is immune to your machinations and, through his presence alone, protects all other humans on his tile from being manipulated. I probably don’t have to mention he’s not too popular with the PEERS. Every round, you also get another chance to manipulate humans by picking one of the available Opportunity Cards, one time manipulations that may also score extra points in combination with the right facility tile.
With three or four players manipulating humanity, the game board at the end of a round may not have much resemblance to the beginning of the same round. That’s a bit of a problem, note the understatement there, if you went first on a scoring round, because points are only awarded at the end of it. You can be pretty certain that most of your efforts will be in vain. You will obviously want to play lower cards on scoring rounds so you get the last move, but so will everyone else. And you still want to subjugate and deploy your flesh-brained followers, too. Especially the scoring rounds can be quite tense.
Keeping the right cards for the right time, keeping track what cards are still in the game, manipulating humans to the best effect, that’s a lot for you to do, many decisions to make per round. That’s all good things. But not everything is sunshine in the land of machine minds. Actually, I imagine that sunshine would be mostly a thing of the past there, anyway, but I’m talking about the game. For one thing, there is some serious leader bashing going on. So much so, in fact, that the only way to win in a game with more than two players seems to be staying in last place until the last scoring round. I enjoy the very direct interaction Machine Mind has from manipulating the other players drones, but when the other players gang up on you because you’re in the lead, there is literally no chance to defend yourself. For another, each of the four PEERS has a powerful special ability that he or she can only use in Round Four. Come on, that is kind of arbitrary. And with all players using their special ability at once, round four is usually complete and utter chaos, giving you the feeling that your awesome special was wasted.
Another thing about the four different PEERS is that they all score extra points for different facility tiles, and you don’t usually get a balanced mix of them. That is, however, a minor issue because your dear opponents won’t let you get those tiles anyway. And on the upside of it, the different facilities each game come with different special actions, giving you more replayability. While it has some rough edges, Machine Mind is a fun majority game with a theme that is very rarely used in boardgames, and proof to me that there are interesting games to be found in print-on-demand.