Dots & Boxes: The Next Generation
Dots & Boxes is one of those games that doesn’t seem like it bears any improvement. Largely because it’s hardly a game. It’s a time-waster. It’s a way to pass the seconds when you’re in a long church meeting, or sitting through someone else’s graduation ceremony, or… well, those are my examples. No matter where it appears, Dots & Boxes was always more of a testament to that place’s boringness level than a pinnacle of design.
Sounds like it’s time for an update? Somebody thought so.
Okay, so let’s say you’ve been entrusted with updating Dots and Boxes. The first thing you might do is rename it Dots & Boxes, because an ampersand makes a title feel cozier, more intimate. That ought to keep it relevant for another decade or so.
After that, it’s time to really put the old gray matter to work. Maybe you make it so that it’s a game about boxing in enclosed spaces, but rather than just being one square they can be any quantity. “What about a ten-square container?” one of the Dots & Boxes trust-holders says, one of the descendants of the French mathematician who invented the game over a century ago and who’s been suckling at the royalties ever since. His voice is a sneer. Yes, you reply, you can make a ten-square box. Hold onto your butts.
What if you could mark off more than one line at a time, maybe by picking from a shared pool of options? And what if you could score that same ten-square box more than once, if you were clever about it? And what if some players basically had magic spells, because you like the idea of magic spells being in every game?
What if, you say, pausing for effect — what if you could persuade the people at Fantasy Flight Games to give it the same theme as that popular card game Netrunner?
The thing about Mainframe is it’s about as familiar as a game gets. Just like Dots & Boxes, you’re trying to enclose as much of the play space as possible, blocking it off line by line. Why? Well, hacking, I guess. Something about partitions. But really, the reason is because there’s something delightful about claiming things for yourself and leaving your sister out in the cold. And Mainframe is a much healthier way to accomplish that than locking her outside on Christmas morning.
Unlike Dots & Boxes, each turn sees you picking a card. Most of these draw new connections on the sort-of motherboard that everyone is competing over. Others let you move previously-placed walls, or set up new access points, or maybe even swap access points with another player.
What are access points? Good question. Also unlike Dots & Boxes, you don’t immediately score an area if you’re the one who boxes it off. Instead, whoever has an access point within that region gets the points. The trick is that a region isn’t “locked down” until only one person controls access points in it, so skipping turns to put friendly access points in areas your opponents are trying to lock down is a worthwhile strategy — though you run the risk of them taking one of those aforementioned swap cards, which might suddenly mean they have two access points there. Which, you guessed it, will double their points.
The beauty of this system — and by the way I’m talking you might be able to deduce how I feel about Mainframe — is that there are plenty of ways to forward your goals, but very few of them will leave you secure. Opening a new access point in a potentially high-scoring area might force an opponent to carve it in half to claim their own portion, or they might dredge up one of those swapper cards. Slowly blocking off a big open area might score you a bunch of points, or everyone might move your walls away. Or worse, jump in and claim your hard work for their own.
The proceedings get even more uncertain once people start deploying their personal abilities, little bits of computer magic that let them further bend the rules. This is where you’ll see programs like Paintbrush, which lets you pick from a bunch of unseen cards when nothing in the offer holds much appeal. Or Leviathan, the perfect option for a turn when nothing seems like the right move, letting you bide your time and take two actions next time. Then there’s Tinker, the ultimate of Mainframe’s dick moves. This baby lets you pick what an opponent will be doing on their turn. Say hello to another boring zig-zag; so much for that horrible plan they were hoping to spring on you.
There’s a small element of frustration involved with these special programs, specifically that you aren’t ever guaranteed to start out with the ones you want. As the green player (the theme is sufficiently pasted on that I’m not interested in learning these people’s names), you might be hoping for showstoppers like Indexing and Snowball, then end up with wimps like DaVinci and IQ instead. Then again, that’s just part of the game, rolling with your punches. If you don’t like it, just wait twenty minutes and you can have another chance. This game is brisk like that, perfect for best-of-three matches.
Here’s the thing about Mainframe: I feel like I’m not supposed to like it. As though the whole world would be happier if I didn’t. It’s not as though I’ve witnessed anyone saying anything to that effect, but it’s such a slight game coming from a venerated company like Fantasy Flight, with such a flimsy setting glued over the top, and with such a dorky time-waster serving as its foundation. It also doesn’t help that it grows more chaotic as more players are added.
And yet, Mainframe is a rather good abstract game. Like most rather good abstract games, it presents a constant tension between taking the smart action for now and the smart action for later. It offers just enough control that a clever player can win nearly every time, but just enough randomness that you can’t ever bank on a particular card appearing at the right time. And the chunky motherboard itself, right down to the computer-blue walls, is such a cinch to play with, every single piece of relevant detail laid bare from moment to moment.
For fans of light abstract games that can be explained in two minutes while providing plenty to think about, Mainframe is one of the best surprises of the year.