I kneel on the floor, behind the coffee table, to prepare our gaming area. I lift the lid of the game’s box and take out the honeycomb-like server tiles. They are colored red, green, blue, yellow or purple, and the partitions are numbered from one to six. The tiles incorporate a neon motif that brings up faded memories of playing early 3D games on my Pentium computer.
Spike clomps closer, likely denting the hardwood with every step of his uneven hooves. His black, bulging eyes stare as though hypnotized by some treasure, maybe his long-awaited reward for proving himself a loyal servant to his creator. An odd hint of mustiness about his dewy mane of coarse hair, as well as about his fetid coat, reminds me of mildew and rot combined with some putrid essence of mold and fungi from an infested attic crawlspace.
“Here’s the plan for the next couple of hours,” I say. “You’ll play one of the available cyberpunk runners and help me defeat an evil supercomputer that I usually refer to as Shadowcluster.”
During my first playthrough of this board game, back when I bothered to open the games I bought, I named my opponent Shadowcluster because it allowed me to imagine myself facing an AI fiend who intended to shut down my ability to reconnoitre the cyberspace. To discover what nasty secrets this supercomputer harbored deep inside its digital heart, I had to avoid getting caught in the machine’s endless labyrinths filled with traps, including robots that kill with laser beams, acid spray and poison gas if they detect intruders. As a boss fight, I clashed with a pair of mutant cats that emitted radiation fields from their paws and that could spit acidic foam if cornered.
Spike’s eyeballs roll around, which reveals an offensive lack of enthusiasm for my proposal.
“Don’t ‘w-well, I’ me. Every time you intrude upon my life, I’m forced to inhale your fetid body odor, but you can’t do this little thing for me? I thought we were friends, Spike. If two pals can’t play a board game together, why would we even bother existing anymore?”
Spike sucks in air then releases it in a single breath of foul fumes. He lowers his gaze and shuffles his thick rump to the sofa, into which he awkwardly flumps down. I’m allowing this horse’s dirty haunches to rest on my cushions, but I suspect I’ll end up regretting it when I find myself washing skid marks.
My horse stalker remains silent as I arrange the server tiles into a configuration that provides an advantage to both players in the race against the supercomputer Shadowcluster. I assemble the circle and square tokens into distinct piles, then I build our starter decks. Five minutes later, the red avatar I chose, and the blue one I picked for Spike, are standing on the assigned partitions of our corresponding, multicolored server tiles, ready for action and looking dumb.
A red token accompanies my avatar, who specializes in overwhelming the server partitions with viruses to destroy their countermeasures. I forced Spike to choose a blue avatar, because their playstyle is centered around teleporting from partition to partition, which suits my stalker. Besides, this horse is too dumb to handle the sophisticated techniques of the green avatars, that shift tokens around, or the yellow ones, that turn server defenses into useful contaminants.
I shake Spike’s starter deck in front of his drooling muzzle.
“You’ll draw from this initial set of weak command cards, but don’t worry: this is a deckbuilding game. You like deckbuilders, right? You can spend these command points to buy stronger cards from the marketplace over here. And the new cards go directly to your hand!”
“This is one weird-ass game,” Spike mutters through his long lips.
“What, you don’t like it?! Top-notch board game design right here. A seven point eight on the BGG, high for that competitive ranking. Don’t tell me you are a Gloomhaven fanboy. Its exhaustion mechanic doesn’t make any sense!”
“M-maybe I’ll wrap my head around the rules as we play…”
Spike’s spaced out expression suggests he wouldn’t be qualified now to clomp across the living room without faceplanting, but I haven’t enjoyed a board game in ages. After I draw my five initial cards and I’m considering their combined strengths, I regain the fleeting feeling that I can affect something in the world through the power of my luck-based assets, as if I had been born into an affluent family. I look over the cards available in the marketplace, and I gasp.
“Holy shit! I can buy the Microbionix card with my starter hand! Check this out, Spike. This card offers either three leadership command points, which you can use in place of any regular command point, or else it lets you delete one spark in my partition and every adjacent one! That’s two sparks gone in one go, baby!” I hunch over to pick up the two spark tokens, then I drop them in the corresponding pile of white, round tokens. “Too bad I can’t upload a virus contaminant in this round, but this was a good start.”
After I replenish my hand of cards, I fill the empty slot in the marketplace. I reread the supercomputer’s countermeasures card to figure out if it reacts at the end of my turn, but I’m safe. I pick up both the server and the partition dice.
“Spike, pay attention. The rules order us to add an enemy defense token, called a spark, whenever each of us finishes his or her turn. That means we can’t fuck around, because before we know it we’ll face a losing battle!”
I roll the dice. I get a blue circle on the server die, meaning the blue server, and a two on the partition die, so I place a spark token on the second partition of Spike’s home server.
“Back luck,” I say. “That previous spark on the first partition of your server may slide towards the second one, and whenever you find yourself about to gather three sparks on the same partition, a guardian token gets generated!”
Spike’s thick tongue lolls out while his mouth gapes open, showing off his large, buttery teeth. He rocks forward as if he were about to collapse onto the board and its numerous tokens, but he catches himself and shuffles back into position. He slurps the thread of saliva that has been moistening the cushion between his hind legs. I thought that Spike was going to apologize for his apathy, but he remains quiet as he stares through the mosaic of server tiles into the distance.
“Hey, what’s the matter with you?” I complain. “Pay attention, damn it!”
The only answer from Spike is a wet gulp and a shudder of drool. If he fails to snap out of it, Shadowcluster may spawn a giant robotic horse that will charge at Spike’s flank, or even fire its deadly laser directly at my poor, doomed horseman’s chest, where the armor is merely skin stretched over an unimpressive muscle mass. A successful hit would cause my friend to disappear in a flash of flame.
I take a deep breath and consider how best to break through Spike’s fugue. The supercomputer must be getting impatient, and eventually will send drones into my apartment that will kill us both if they detect our presence in the living room.
“This is a cooperative game in which we must join forces against an evil AI, and I won’t let you drag me down. Shadowcluster is a serious threat to all servers connected to the network of my mind. I know that you lack enough of a brain to realize how many advantages are present during your turn, but I will patiently point out the obvious options. Along the way, you might even learn how to interact properly with human beings. So, your turn has begun! Draw five cards.”
Spike blinks, then tilts his long head to look down at his retracted forelegs. His hooves click together.
“Sorry, I forgot you are useless and might be developing dementia. I’ll draw the cards for you, since we are friends and everything. Alright, this isn’t a bad hand for the playstyle of the blue player. I think that your role should consist in easing movement for me as I solve problems across the board. You waddling all the way to my server would take too long and many cards, so let’s install a teleport token, shall we? Now for an exam question, how would you spawn the blue installation with your current hand? Spike!”
Silence reigns as I wait for an answer from an idiot horse who probably can’t count higher than three digits. The wiry muscles of his neck tremble as he swallows.
“I-I’m not sure…”
“I might as well be playing with a toddler.” I hold up two cards with blue command points near Spike’s right eye. “What would happen if you spent three blues at the same time?”
“You create a teleport thing…?”
I discard the two cards, then reach towards the jumble of square tokens to grab a blue one. I place it next to Spike’s avatar.
“Now you can jump from this partition to anywhere on the network just by spending an additional blue command point.” I discard the spent card, then I pick up his avatar and displace it to my server tile. As I straighten my back, the irritation makes me shake my head and grunt. “You know, this is suboptimal, in the same way you are subhuman. The best thing about playing board games with someone else should be the freedom of worrying solely about your own options, but instead I have to deal with a half-baked mule that gets distracted by his stinky self and useless appendages. This serves as a reminder of why horses are considered dumb animals rather than intelligent beings as some of us believe them to be.”
Spike mumbles and fidgets while he studies his front hooves as if they were foreign objects. His grotesque head keeps swaying while beads of sweat bedew his coarse coat.
“Are you alright, buddy?” I ask, softening my voice as if addressing an ill child.
“I… don’t feel good. It’s hard to focus.”
“Well, make an effort. You offered to play board games with me, remember?”
I order him to roll the server and partition dice by pinching them between his front hooves, but the thick keratin coverings slide and the dice fly off. One of them flicks me on the forehead, the other clatters on the hardwood floor. I can’t even complain; my forehead wouldn’t sting if I had thrown the dice myself.
I don’t bother commentating on how a new spark spawned on the fourth partition of the purple server. The gleaming surface of Spike’s black eyeballs is moistening, and his head remains tilted as if he can’t be bothered raising it anymore. The horse lets out a wet snort that echoes throughout the living room, that has become a sterile laboratory devoted entirely to research into insanity.
“Am I witnessing the start of a cycle of depression, my friend?” I ask with sympathy. “It’s okay. Horses are lovable idiots, and being gay is not a crime if one is an ungulate.”
Spike turns on his haunches towards me, likely smearing an arc of shit on the cushion under him. He’s nearly wheezing through the dilated black holes of his nostrils, and his vacant eyes, dull and glazed over like worn coins, could bore holes into mine and penetrate my soul.
“L-Leire, I shouldn’t spend so much time in this dimension at once, and I’ve already… C-could you please listen to what I’ve been trying to tell you all along?”
I rub my eyes. I’ve gone through the trouble of setting up the game only for our enthusiasm to fade this quickly. When I hold Spike’s teary gaze again, my tone hardens.
“Don’t you understand, my friend? We were blessed that the maddening complexity of our world had been condensed to the mechanics of this cyberpunk game. Whatever worries you would have waited until after we won the battle of wits against this digital entity that intended to trumpet its victory over us. You need to learn how to relax, make a dash for freedom from your horsehide prison. This society was made to wear us to the bone, and whoever gazes upon your grotesque visage can tell that you need as many wins as you can get. Besides, we are insignificant compared to the governments and corporations that make their billions off our misery. Even if horses could participate in the electoral system, do you truly believe that anyone’s vote determines who wins? You have no clue who has access to the computers where they process the results. The world will continue along on the road to ruin regardless of whether or not we defeat Shadowcluster today, or tomorrow, or in ten years. We could have sustained an illusion for the length of this playthrough, but the mirage has shattered. We have reunited with our fates as living machines that will keep grinding away in a never-ending cycle of debt slavery through wage theft. I know that you need to believe that just because you were born, the universe had special plans for you, but the only plan written in the genes of sentient beings is for them to fear how many days are left until they die.”
Spike has hung his head. His drool dribbles onto his chest and rolls down to his navel. Although I take a deep breath then pick up my hand of cards, the horse has already infected me with his gloominess.
“I’m going to play my next turn, Spike,” I mutter. “That’s what I’ve always told myself to get out of bed in the mornings. I’m strong enough to play through another fucking turn.”
I’ve just exchanged one of my cards with an advanced command card from the Hack Shack, but I realize that the miasma that had suffused the living room is dwindling fast. Before I turn my head, I already know that Spike has vanished without saying goodbye.
I force myself to finish the rest of my turn. I even replenish my hand with cards I won’t play. I lean back onto the cushions, and as I listen to the flow of nearby traffic, someone’s loud phone conversation in a foreign language, and the neighbor’s muffled and lazily dubbed TV show, I slide down the sofa so much that I fall off.