I’ve long been of the opinion that the highest authorities in the land, the dudes who carry matching sets of nuclear launch keys with grave determination and a too-wide gait that hints at unbroken years of constipation, really ought to hire some regular guy off the street. Just to sit in on their super-secret meetings. To sip coffee in the corner and look bewildered while they talk about foreign policy. That way, when someone gets the bright idea to transfer control of the nation’s nuclear arsenal to a digital mind with genocidal tendencies, that guy can twiddle his thumbs for a bit before clearing his throat, leaning forward, and putting them straight.
“Hey, that idea? About the murder-bot and all our nukes? It’s, ah… I don’t know how to say this nicely, Mr. President, but it’s shit.”
And that’s how we’re going to prevent RESISTOR from happening.
Right from the get-go, RESISTOR is deliciously grim. Two supercomputers have been given control of the world’s two largest stockpiles of nuclear weaponry and are now tasked with eradicating the opposing populace in a rush of radioactive fire. Unfortunately, both nations have already raised their alert level to DEFCON 1. The pistol is cocked, the rockets are primed, and nuclear holocaust looms mere hours away.
Fortunately, someone on your side had the foresight to design your supercomputer to hack the enemy’s defenses, forcibly deescalating their DEFCON rating and rendering any arsenal but your own completely useless. What this hapless coder couldn’t have realized was that their opponent had done the exact same thing. Which means you’ve now got two computers on the brink of a planet-cracking launch, both hacking the bejeezus out of each other, witnessed by a whole control room of people crapping their pants.
And boy, does the game ever deliver the tension.
For nuclear war, it doesn’t immediately look the part. The cards look like flabby sticks of RAM that got tattoos inspired by their recent viewing of Tron. The draw pile is stored in a cutesy upright container. Even the game box has a silly blue/red mirroring scheme going on, perhaps representing the tortured duality of these supercomputers with no will of their own but a desperate desire to both kill the enemy and save their countrymen. That’s some heavy stuff, WOPR.
But bit by bit everything slides into place. With a line of circuit boards laid out between two opposing mainframes, your goal is to trace a complete line of your color to the enemy’s front door. Manage that and you’ve just degraded the opposing force’s DEFCON readiness, bringing them one step closer to total annihilation. You can swap cards from your hand with the circuitry on the table, flip circuits over to reveal new configurations, and tinker with what you’re holding.
This is where those weird bits start to make sense. Rather than just looking a little goofy, the upright container keeps the double-sided cards out of sight until it’s time to draw. This is crucial, because when you’re sitting there with your cards fanned out, you’re only allowed to look at the side that’s turned your direction. The other half is for your opponent’s eyes only. Similarly, you can see the reverse side of what she’s holding, and you’re both free to use whichever cards you want — though almost any action leaves you operating half-blind and gives your nemesis an idea of what’s hidden beneath all those face-up circuit cards.
As a game about the perils of incomplete information, RESISTOR shines like neon lights in the rain. A well-played circuit might seem like it could connect two complete lines to the enemy mainframe, bringing the promise of double damage, only for a single flip — to the side your opponent could see right up until you played the card — to send a jolt back at you. Even an action as seemingly simple as trashing a circuit because it’s too favorable to your opponent is a calculated risk, since it’s always possible you’ll reveal a dreaded resistor.
Okay, let’s talk about resistors, because they’re nuts. Represented by glowing diamond intersections, these are the most powerful and dreaded cards in the game, heralding profound, strategy-crushing consequences. At their weakest (when trashed), they give your opponent a free move. Played onto the board, they can alter… well, everything.
Connect a resistor to your mainframe and its DEFCON is repaired. Land yourself in trouble, taking a beating turn after turn, and a resistor will flip every single circuit on the table, tossing your opponent’s plans out the window. Then again, it could be the enemy who’s healing his computer, who’s throwing your plans into disarray.
In either case, the last thing a resistor does is perhaps the most deadly. After messing everything else up, it disappears entirely. And the board shrinks to fill the gap, making it that much easier for connections to be drawn between supercomputers. Where at first it seems impossible to draw a seven-circuit line between mainframes, by the end of the game it’s become a gut-wrenching certainty.
The best part is, shrewd players can totally use resistors to their advantage, just as surely as they can make advantageous card flips or yank out circuits they don’t like. It’s tough — mindbogglingly tough — but a well-played resistor can turn a losing game into a desperate situation for the other guy.
In case you couldn’t tell, I really dig RESISTOR.
However, it isn’t going to appeal to all people, or even particularly many people. It’s burdened with a reliance on remembering the hidden side of the board that might perturb those whose idea of play doesn’t include committing a bunch of neon lines to memory each game. Setting down a resistor at what felt like a good moment only to discover that your mainframe just overheated because apparently you didn’t account for everything is exceptionally deflating, and quite a few of RESISTOR’s options can feel self-defeating until you finally figure out its nontraditional stratagems. For the faint of heart, this is a no-go.
But for the uncommonly clever, those endowed with stout memories and a head for long-form abstract thinking, I do recommend it. It’s fiendishly smart, and ought to make your brain ache in all the right ways. Every move is a silicon wire’s breadth away from potential brilliance, and successfully attacking your opponent’s mainframe feels like cyber-Mozart composing his opus.