Game Report: Access Denied


Access Denied was another one of many games sent to us when finding games for Contagious Dreams. We enjoyed this game when we first got it, but later play-tests suggested that some changes would be helpful. In this case, it was too late: the first version of the game had been published. We hope later versions may be modified.


Each player is the root administrator on a big computer system and is trying to get root accounts on two other systems, owned by other players or owned by nobody. To get access, you present a card to the administrator, who compares it to the root password, and if the letter on the card is found in the three-letter root password, you get user access. If not, the administrator keeps the card. If you have user access, you can give the administrator two cards to get operator access, which is granted if the letters on the cards are two of the letters found in the root password. To gain root access, you must present three cards with the exact letters of the root password. Cards are also played to get other privileges, such as free access, additional actions, extra defenses, revoking access, and so on.

The cards all have a letter, with code A being the least common all the way down to code F, which is the most common. Each card also has a power, letting a player get free access, additional cards, additional turns, and other privileges. Code A cards have the most power, down to code F cards which are the weakest.


The password mechanism is central to the game and works quite well. The card actions involve a wide variety of actions, and fit the theme well. It is fundamentally a card management game, and has some interesting decisions and Clue-like deduction.


Access Denied is a rich-get-richer game. As you gain access to systems, you get more cards, more actions, and more special powers. When you have root access somewhere, you get a bonus power, and if someone else gets root access to that same system, neither has that power. So if you get an edge early in the game, you are likely to dominate the rest of the game. Such games tend to suffer from having one player who is losing throughout much of the game, and that is not fun for the losing player and reduces the tension for all the players. We also found that winning players tended to have long turns, which makes losing even less fun.

The root privileges are not well balanced. The University has the power to get a free user account on any system each turn, which gives it a quick advantage of a large hand limit. Many cards require access to some system before they can be used, and the University often can get that access easily. TeleComm, on the other hand, has the defense that it can avoid losing an action by another player’s card. Making someone lose actions is an uncommon attack, and so TeleComm has a terrible bonus. A few cards require root or operator access to TeleComm to work, but not enough to make up for the TeleComm bonus. We would recommend reconsidering all the root bonuses and finding a mathematical way to prove that they are balanced, taking into account cards that require access to systems. As a suggestion, change University to “may ignore one user access requirement on a card,” mitigating it’s great power. Change TeleComm to something active, like “May make three access attempt instead of normal turn.”

We would not take away the sector power once someone else has root access. The advantage of root is sufficient without also punishing someone who is probably not winning. There seems no good reason to add this additional rule.

Some card actions are simply too good, such as “scramble passcodes.” This card lets you change your root password. That’s an interesting action to take, but it either needs to be more common, like several cards that let you change one part of you passcode, or not to have it at all. We would flatten the card powers, making the most powerful cards weaker. We would also include far more sector requirements, often two sectors. For example, “bank error in your favor” might require that the player have some sort of access to Banking and TeleComm. A really good card might require access to three sectors, or operator access to two sectors. This would be the encouragement to have user access in many places, and many cards would just need user or operator access. We would hesitate to have any cards that require root access somewhere, because those cards would be useless to most players and would just be a big boast to the player who owns that sector. However, such cards may be required to balance the sector powers.

Because of the scarcity of some cards, the ideal root password uses codes close to the beginning of the alphabet. We could prefer an even mix of letters, and although six letters seems to be the right number, experimenting with more would be worthwhile.

There are a few cards that are “bugs” that have negative effects. But they are too easy to miss in your hand, and we might eliminate them or make them into cards that you play on other people which stay face up in front of them until the can get rid of it.

We would change the turn order to look like this:

  1. Take two of card actions, either playing them, attempting access, or one of each action in either order.
  2. Discard down to your hand limit, lower if you want. Your hand limit is the number of operator clearances you have plus double the number of root clearances you have.
  3. Draw one card for every root clearance you have.

This would shorten turns and prevent a run-away win. It also simplifies the game significantly, which is usually a good idea.

We would also make trading cards a free and legal move at any time during the game. With cards having more requirements (a mechanic which we like) a player would often have a card that cannot be used but another player can, and would try to trade. If we can do this while a third player takes his turn, the game is not slowed down, and trades are encouraged. This seems very interesting to us.


Although we have lots of complaints about this game, we think that the core mechanism is a good one and we want this game to succeed. We recommend reworking this game around these changes, including good mathematical modeling to ensure that the sectors are balanced, and that the resulting game should be both enjoyable and challenging.