Let’s spoil 868-HACK’s secret level, and talk about good secrets vs. bad secrets

Note: I’m mostly summarizing what JackMule taught me over a series of PMs. He figured out nearly all of this on his own.

868-HACK is an unapologetically opaque game. For some this is a charm, but for me, I’d rather just look everything up and start playing the “real game” straight away. Annoyingly, there currently isn’t a place I could find online that explained much. I had to dig around and ask. As a result, I’ll be explaining the biggest unexplained rule: the secret level. Then, I’ll discuss some basic strategy implications. At the end, I’ll talk briefly about why I consider Imbroglio’s secrets good, and 868-HACK’s secrets bad.

If you don’t want to go “full spoilage”, I’d recommend watching this maddeningly inscrutable YouTube video as a hint. Otherwise, this is your last chance if you don’t want to be spoiled.

YOU

 

HAVE

 

BEEN

 

WARNED.

 

 

 

Ahem.

1. Explaining the Secret Level

The secret level can be accessed multiple times per game, but only once per sector. In practice, you might visit 3-4 times. It is accessed by entering a CHEAT CODE of 868-565-27, where the numbers correspond to your Prog slots, like so:

2017-07-19 16.21.23

In the above screenshot, I used:

8. Ice -> 6. Pull -> 8. Ice -> 5. Reduc -> 6. Pull -> 5. Reduc -> 2. Undo -> 7. Wait

This takes you to the secret level, where you’ll see something like this:

2017-07-19 16.21.49

Holy cow!

Some things to note:

  • You don’t have to enter everything in one turn. You can input the first part of the code, then move around some, then enter the rest if you’d like.
  • At the beginning, it spawns the same number of baddies as the level you just left. For instance, I just left level 6, and I have 6 incoming baddies when I enter the level.
  • The level always has 2 score tiles on each edge, and one Prog tile in the middle.
  • Floor tiles always have at least 2 resources, making the level very resource rich.
  • Although you can’t see it in the screenshot, there are 3 siphons that spawn instead of the usual 2.
  • As usual, you exit through a portal (in this case, it’s in the lower left corner). When you do, you’ll be taken to the next level. Since I left from level 6, I’d go to level 7 once I exited. From there, you can enter the secret level again.

2. Some notes on strategy

The secret level is a very strong source of resources and points, and should be entered as often as you can get away with. As a result, knowing about the secret level should change your valuation of progs considerably.

A. Undo is the best prog in the game

With the secret level, Undo goes from being decent to easily the best in the game. It’s currently featured in the top 3 scores in both classic and plan B, and would probably be featured in all of the top scores if everyone knew about the secret level.

The key to Undo is that if you input the entire code in one turn, it counts as an input for entering the Secret Level and refunds all other previous prog costs. The ideal places to put it are 7, 2 and 5. In slot 7, you’re refunded everything besides the final dollar you spend on Undo. In slot 2, you have to pay for your Undo and whatever you’ve placed in slot 7. In slot 5, you lose two dollars from each Undo you cast, plus whatever you placed in 2 and 7.

In short, you save a lot of resources. It’s borderline mandatory to consider visiting the secret level.

B. Calm is super great

Baddies in hack spawn more often the more siphons you use. Since each secret level visit gives you more 3 more siphons than you’d otherwise get, by the time you hit level 8, it’s not uncommon for a monster to spawn nearly every turn. Calm is a great (and perhaps obvious) solution to this issue.

C. Progs that can’t be cast twice are worse

Some progs, while powerful, can’t easily be cast twice in the same turn, for whatever reason. Here’s an attempt at a full list:

  • ATK+ (if you already have used it this sector)
  • Calm
  • Crash
  • Cull
  • Debug
  • Delay
  • Fire
  • Hack
  • Quit (XD)
  • Reset
  • Show
  • X

Even though many of these are quite strong, you generally want to avoid putting them in the slots that need to be used twice: 5, 6 and 8. As a side note, this is yet another reason why Undo is good. Placing Undo in your 5th slot lets you put most of these in your 6th slot, and placing Undo in the 6th slot lets you put most of these in your 8th slot.

Going a step further, Calm really needs to be in a “free” 3rd or 4th slot to be very useful. Even if it’s placed in the 2nd or 7th slot, you can’t use it at the start of the level if you want to go to the secret level. Sad times!

D. Cheap, spammable progs are great as “filler”

If you want to get to the secret level, it’s good to have flexible, cheap progs, especially for filling your 5, 6 and 8 slots. These aren’t necessarily the strongest progs in a vacuum, but their low cost and flexibility makes them staple “filler” for your eventual combo. You’ll want to give extra weight to picking up these:

  • Poly
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Exch
  • Ice
  • Reduc
  • Undo (XD)
  • Wait (careful, this messes with Undo and may make you take a hit)

 

3. Good secrets and bad secrets

To conclude, I’d like to close with a small amount of game design discussion. As if spoiling Hack wasn’t enough, I’m also going to spoil Imbroglio now. If you’ve read many Imbroglio pieces from here, you won’t be seeing anything new. But if you were just linked here from somewhere and haven’t experienced Imbroglio yet, I’d strongly recommend checking it out. Great game!

Players like secrets. They enjoy being surprised by new, cool stuff, so it makes sense to put them in when you can. That being said, there are good and bad ways to add secrets to your game, and I think (sadly) that 868-HACK has subpar secrets.

From my view, good secrets follow the following criteria:

  • They don’t punish players too hard if they don’t know about it.
  • They are discoverable with dedicated play.

In contrast, bad secrets are the opposite:

  • They confer huge advantages to players that know about it.
  • You pretty much need to look them up to find them.

Good secrets bring a community together in the joy of discovery. They incentivise paying attention and figuring out the game together. Bad secrets fragment your community into those that know about it, and those that don’t. They punish the ignorant that aren’t willing to look up the answer, and create groups that are playing two entirely different games.

Imbroglio had two major secrets – one pretty good, and one amazing. Comparing and contrasting these to 868 Hack’s secret level, I think there’s a large disparity.

A. Dragons and UnicornsCjIOZ-NWkAAwi9K

Dragons and unicorns are powerful monsters that come out after a ton of turns. They represent a pretty fun “Oh shit!” surprise when a player first sees them. Of course, if you didn’t know they existed beforehand (or what happens when they die), you’re probably at a disadvantage from someone that planned for them. But they are fairly easy to discover, and overall a nice secret.

B. Clearing the game

When Imbroglio first released, it was not known that there was a maximum score of 256. As such, discovering that was extremely exciting and fun. Even better, this secret does not confer a big advantage to the people who know about it. Both the knowers and the unknowers play pretty much the same and try to max points.CjgLkhLUUAEEmyr

In addition to subverting expectations, this is also just flat out good design. High score games tend to devolve into variance maximization, and setting a max score is a good way around that. For more on this topic, I wrote an article here.

C. 868 Hack’s secret level

And now, let’s return to 868 Hack’s secret level. 868 Hack’s secret level confers a large advantage to those that know about it – on good runs it can double or even triple your score. It is also impossible to ever figure out through “good play”. The only way to find it is to use outside information (the prequel to 868-HACK was called “86856527”). (edit 8/1/2017: not completely impossible. There is actually a subtle UI indicator in the bottom right that may help clue people in)

As a result, the leaderboard is firmly separated into people that know and abuse it, and people that wonder how the heck players are scoring 150 in a single game. This strikes me as profoundly distasteful – a small minority of knowers gets to occupy the top of the leaderboard while everyone else just scratches their head.

I’d argue 868-HACK’s secret level makes the game worse even for players that know about it! There’s a considerable luck factor in whether you get Undo or not. Games become much longer. There’s more pressure to restart a streak, hoping to get two or three very high scores while the powerups are still easy.

Overall, if I could change one thing about 868-Hack, it would be the secret level. There are a number of possible ways to improve the situation:

  • Separate leaderboards for secret level players and non-secret level players (thanks BrickRoad!)
  • A tutorial to how you get to the secret level after you score enough points the fair way.
  • A more straightforward way to access the secret level.
  • Just deleting the secret level altogether.

That’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the secret level. Thanks for reading.

 

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4 thoughts on “Let’s spoil 868-HACK’s secret level, and talk about good secrets vs. bad secrets

  1. I’ve been fairly open about the secret level. Once it was discovered to be relevant for scoring, I started mentioning it in patch notes (which did inspire several people to find it independently – showing this is definitely possible given the clue that it’s there at all). And I’ve already made several balance changes to it to try to get it to a level where the reward is worth the challenge to get there but it doesn’t completely overshadow other approaches. The game has been maintained in active conversation with expert players (and your post is a valued contribution to that).

    I worry a bit with posts like this that people who see less of that conversation will read it as an endpoint rather than a midpoint. James Lantz wrote a post a while back titled something like “why streak scoring is fundamentally broken” which, contrary to the hyperbolic title, addressed specific concerns with the balance of streaks which I then dealt with in a patch, but months later I saw forum posts saying “oh James says don’t bother with streaks” and now people are posting about this in the toucharcade thread I fear a similar pattern here. I don’t usually believe in “spoilers” and I am quite happy to have this secret out there but putting such a negative slant on it maybe does spoil it! I know you fairly well like the game overall but it is not very well-known so it is not taken as assumed that it’s any good; someone reading this post while on the fence about the game will just take the message that it has “the worst kind of secret” and be put off – off the secret level and possibly off the game itself. We’re not talking about Zelda or something where it’s assumed that a million people will buy the game whether it’s any good or not and a few posts about how it’s the worst are just a drop in the bucket.

    Discovering the secret does not strictly require outside information; the name “86856527” is mentioned in the tutorial intro which runs the first time you play and there’s a visible indication counting through the title of the game in the UI as you execute the sequence (which will give you “868” and then it’s simple elimination from there). I’m sorry you didn’t find it for yourself, and certainly the outside information would make it easier, but it’s simply inaccurate to say it’s impossible (or is “impossible” gamer speak for “I didn’t do it”?).

    As Jake mentioned on twitter, the secret level did bring a community together in the joy of discovery. Again I’m sorry you missed out on that, it was well before you were playing, but it was totally a thing!

    The leaderboard separation between secret-users and not is not so clear as you make it out to be. Again it’s not Zelda: there simply aren’t many players overall so the strategy space hasn’t been fully explored, there’s only a handful of players at a competitive level. The main distinction I see is between people playing high-risk scoring strats (Jackmule, Moabbe) vs. low-risk survival strats (Nobodyweknow, Yakfox); these both seem viable. I believe there’s also a midpoint between them that’s underexplored. Jackmule and Moabbe both use the secret level at every opportunity. Nobodyweknow and Yakfox don’t use the secret level at all but also pass up a lot of conventional scoring opportunities because they’re primarily playing for streak length; I expect someone playing at this level but taking a few more risks could achieve a score in the 2000s without the secret level.
    Looking at the Classic board on iOS, the top scores are Jackmule, Moabbe, Nobodyweknow, Yakfox. And on Plan.B, which weakens the secret level but is pretty new so shouldn’t have too much read into it, it’s Jackmule, me, Yakfox, Moabbe, Nobodyweknow. This is not a big separation?

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    1. Thanks for the reply. I agree that finding the secret level on your own is not impossible. I didn’t know about the subtle UI hint when I wrote this, and I’ll make the edit. I also agree that avoiding the secret level is “viable” in the sense that there are scores on both classic and Plan B leaderboards that do not use the secret level.

      Even with these concessions, though, my larger point remains mostly the same. It’s still distasteful that people are playing two extremely different games but competing on the same leaderboard. While some are doing this by choice, most are doing it because they just don’t know. Most people don’t read blogs and will just never find out on their own.

      At this point we can quibble over the definition of “viable”, but I’d rather not. There have been numerous discussions about whether MTG budget decks are “viable”, and those never tend to go anywhere. Ultimately what is important is that the secret level confers important options to the player, that they really should know about. Options which, factually, top players are using to get double the score of other top players who are not using them. If I want to defeat JackMule’s score, I am certainly not going to handicap myself when I try, even if that is theoretically possible. In my opinion I’d be giving up too much value on the early, easier levels.

      But in choosing to use the secret level, it feels like I’m cheating, since I’m using rules that are not known by the majority of the player base. This is in part why I burned out on 868-HACK pretty quickly compared to Imbroglio. With Imbroglio, I could compete at the same playing field as everyone else. When I won, I knew it was because I’d played the best. Not so with 868-HACK.

      I acknowledge your point about the article possibly hurting you financially, and I hope it doesn’t. If it does, I hope that my previous (100% positive) articles on Imbroglio help balance it out to some extent. I considered both posting the spoiler without the moralizing and with, and ultimately was convinced by some friends to post it with. Still not entirely sure which was the better decision, but the hope that it might influence you and others’ future games won out. If 868-HACK changes in a way that changes my opinion, I will make sure the article gets edited.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the reply!

        I definitely agree that it would be odd to handicap yourself by not using the secret level when it’s there; you could do a “no-secret” score as a special challenge but the default game allows it. The question for me is whether it enriches the game. For me it makes an interesting decision each run whether to risk trying for a secret-level build. And I know Moabbe considers the game to be greatly deepened by it. It seems like you might not agree, well, I don’t mind.

        The thing is, knowing the secret in itself doesn’t confer mastery, plenty of players have known about it for years (either discovering it themselves or from following the search on twitter) without achieving notable scores, it takes extremely good play to exploit it profitably. There’s not a horde of would-be great players out there who I’ve been keeping down by refusing to share the secret, so don’t worry that you’re cheating against them!

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