TGN’s Enrico Nardini is taking budget gaming into cyberspace! In this review he relays data on Cypher from AEG.
Smart packaging is a great way to get me to try your game, and AEG has released a series of budget-priced titles that happen to come in super hip embroidered bags. As a lover of all things accessory (in general) and gaming storage solutions (in specific), I had to pick one of these up. I imagined how well it would fit in the front pocket of my messenger-style gaming bag, and how I would use it to save the day during some boring downtime or lull in the action during my next game session. All I needed to figure out was whether the game was actually good…
Cypher consists of a rulebook, 19 Character cards, 4 Reference cards, and the aforementioned storage bag. Everything is designed to fit in the bag. The cards are standard playing card size, and the staple-bound rulebook copies those dimensions (though it is necessarily thicker).
The bag itself (you’ll remember how excited I was) was a lot less exciting out of the package. It feels a bit cheap, and when I removed it from the package it exuded a strong chemical smell, but it went away after the bag had aired out for a few hours. It’s serviceable – it will get your cards from one session to the next. The drawstring remains tightly shut when pulled (loose drawstrings being a pet peeve of mine concerning some dice bags), and the bag will transport your game in relative safety (the relative safety of a dice bag that is).
The cards were also deceptively fragile. Fresh out of the package, they looked similar to playing cards, but in my hands I noticed they felt thin and lacked the snap of a good playing card. Surface damage appeared on some of the cards after the first play-through! I sleeved them immediately and have not had trouble since.
The art fits the theme well. Fans of hi-tech but gritty science fiction settings will likely enjoy it. Imagine settings like those in Blade Runner, Johnny Mnemonic , or Shadowrun and you won’t go far wrong. Class is a mechanic in the game, and it is reflected in the artwork. Each class has a distinct style. Upper Class cards feature a heavy use of cream, purple, and gold. Middle Class cards make use of blue tones often emanating from monitors or holographic projections. Lower Class cards are suitably dark and shadowy, reflecting an urban environment’s underbelly.
Despite its small size and budget status, Cypher does have a story. Stop me if you have heard this before: In a dystopian science fiction future ruled by an oppressive corporate class, a group of scientists develop an artificial intelligence program. And, of course, the A.I. (codenamed Cypher) goes along with everything its creators want and lives in harmo… hahaha No. It evolves beyond the abilities of its programmers to control, waging war on them for control of cyberspace.
It is an incredibly formulaic story, but it is also a three paragraph blurb in a game that costs less than $10 and plays to completion in 10-15 minutes. Plus it contains this gem: “It gained sentience, went rogue, and became the ultimate hacker.” That line is so gloriously 90s. Radical!
The currency of Cypher is Influence. The player who accumulates the most influence by the end of the game is the winner. All cards are worth varying amounts of influence (0-9), and you gain influence by playing cards into your “play area” (an imaginary zone in front of you, limited to 3 cards).
The Turn Sequence:
- Play – Play a card from your hand and resolve its effect (if any)
- Draw – Draw a card from the deck or take and replace a card in the “display” (a face-up card next to the deck)
- Pass – Pass 1 card to the player on your left and 1 card to the player on your right
- Discard – Discard down to one card
Playing a card nets you its influence (displayed in the top right corner) and triggers any effects the card may have. The abilities vary in nature, can be defensive or offensive, and can change the board state in terms of influence points in dramatic ways.
Passing cards is the mechanic that defines the gameplay in Cypher. In fact, passing cards is so integral to the game that players begin with a staggered number of cards depending on their turn order (3, 2, or 1 respectively). Players also must always discard down to 1 card (in a 3-4 player game). This ensures that each player will end their turn with one card, but begin their turn with 3 due to cards accumulated through passing. Sound strange? It is, but it actually works quite well.
Cypher supports the tactical card passing by prominently displaying the number of any given type of card on its face. You can always see what’s in an opponents play area as well. This and the small number of total cards encourages card counting, which can affect where you pass your cards on any given turn. It’s a nice touch, and displaying the number of each type of card offers some support for those of us lacking the inclination to memorize them.
It should be noted that some rules differ in a two player game. You draw more cards and can hold onto more cards. With only one person to pass to, I found the gameplay to be significantly less interesting.
Endgame is triggered two ways: 1. Playing the Cypher Anomaly card, 2. Emptying the draw deck at the end of a player’s turn. The Cypher Anomaly card is a bit strange. Many games do not allow you another turn after triggering endgame, but Cypher Anomaly does. However, it is worth 0 influence and takes up a slot in your play area. Remember, however, it allows you to immediately draw and play a card (which can replace Cypher Anomaly in your play area). Some luck is always going to be mixed in when playing this card, and it’s almost always interesting.
Cypher is a solid time filling game. It is not perfect, but it is decent. It is important to stress the “time filling” aspect. You will not be getting your crew together to play a game of Cypher. That said, it is a good way to spend the first or last 15 minutes of your gaming group’s Shadowrun session. If you’re looking for that type of game at a budget price ($9.99 MSRP), Cypher may be a good choice for you.