Disclaimer: I backed Headspace on KS and received my copy through that.
Headspace is a Powered by the Apocalypse game in the cyberpunk genre. If you are unfamiliar with PbtA games like Dungeon World, Apocalypse World, tremulus, Uncharted Worlds, Sagas of the Icelanders, or Monsterhearts, know that the basic mechanism at the heart of this game are to roll 2d6, sum them, and add a stat. If you roll a 6 or less, things are going to get wild -- if you roll a 7 thru 9, you'll accomplish what you set out to do and there will be a twist -- and if you roll a 10 or greater, then you accomplish exactly what you wanted. When do you do this? Whenever you trigger one of the game's three "Moves" -- specific situations that matter and come up often in the game. In Headspace, these three moves are "Make a Professional Move," which you do whenever you use a Skill your character possesses -- "Make an Improvised Move," when no one in your Cell possesses the Skill that you need in an important situation -- and "Make a Headspace Move,"when you don't have the Skill needed in an important situaion, but you can dive into the Headspace and borrow it from a Cellmate.
Asking what the heck a Headspace is, what a Cell is, and what makes this game different from the plethora of other PbtA cyberpunk games out there? The answers to all three are intertwined and make up the brilliant meat of this game. Players take on the role of Operators -- incredibly badass cyberpunk heroes in the fucked up, corporate-controlled future -- who work in a Cell to undermine the powers-that-be and return the city to its people. Think: the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar from The Matrix, all of them, minus the machine overlords. Your Cell is made up of anti-authority action heroes, running missions to fix the future.
Your biggest advantage is the Headspace, a cybernetic modification that connects all of your minds and senses and makes you operate in perfect synchronocity -- trading Skills, sharing thoughts, and motivating one another no matter the physical distance between any of you. Think: the cast of Sense8, sharing their MMA-training, their knowledge of police procedures, and their driving skills. Think: the Rat Patrol Team from Metal Gear Solid 5, linked up to one another at all times.
The biggest catch to the Headspace is that now your cell shares everything. Every thought, every emotion and that's where things get super cool. Your stats in this game are Despair, Rage, Ego, Fear, and Need -- you rate them based on how well your character can control that emotion (high number) down to which emotions control them (low number). Once you have your numbers, players go around and give their Skills "Baggage" by saying what emotion they associate with the Skill (maybe you associate Rage with Piloting because you couldn't get someone you loved to the hospital in time and you're torn up by it, etc). From then on, whenever you use that Skill in the game, there is a chance that your Rage will enter the Headspace and affect everyone else's mind! Make a Professional Move, and the Stress Track that everyone shares will accumulate emotional static. Make a Headspace Move, and you'll keep your Stress out of everyone's head, but maybe you'll screw up and your emotions will get the better of you! If emotions run too wild in the Headspace, though, and fill up the Stress Track? They'll spill over, and your problems will become everyone's problems. Your Rage will make someone else screw up, your Fear will make someone else run away, your Despair will make someone else shut down, your Ego will make someone else do something stupid. This is handled with the usual Powered by the Apocalypse flare of choosing complications from specially constructed lists that suit the emotion at hand. It works very well!
Now, each member of the Cell is as dangerous as every member of the Cell -- and that terrifies the corporations, because you know all of their dirty secrets and you're fighting back.
That is the biggest difference between this and other cyberpunk games out there: you are all ex-employees of the bastards who broke the world, and you're done putting up with their shit. You're geared up, kitted out, and you're out to destroy every Project they're working on. While the settings (this book comes with TWO potential settings, one in Vancouver following a flood and plague, and one in destabilized Israel) are definitely places of darkness, where a lot of shit has gone wrong and people are suffering, Players are specifically the heroes of the setting. This isn't a game of shadowrunners raiding corproate vaults for cash and expunged criminal records and brownie points. You're fighting for the people.
How do you fight for the people in Headspace? The GM runs the corporations, exactly like you'd expect, and sets up Project Clocks. Every Project (and multiple Corporations will run their Projects at the same time, leading to a lot of chaos as the Cell tries to keep up) has three Milestones: Timing, Cost, and Quality. Each of these is also represented by a Clock (a pie chart of six pieces, half labeled for the Operators and half labeled for the Corporation). The GM details what each of these represent, so they know exactly what their Corporations are up to.
For example, a GM might give a Security Company the Project Clock "Secure the Mayor's personal security contract." The GM might then decide the proper Timing to secure the contract is "Before our rivals unveil their new unmanned defense drones," the proper Cost to secure the contract is "Kidnapping the son of our rival's CEO to keep him from lowballing the bid," and the way to maintain the Quality of the project and get exactly what they want is "Blackmail the Mayor's advisors so our name is on the top of his desk."
The Operators try to derail these plans by deciding whether they're going after the Time, Cost, or Quality milestone of a Corporate Project -- and then creating three Objectives that can undermine it. So the Operators might decide they need to rescue the rival CEO's kidnapped son, and break down their Objectives into: "Discover where they've taken him," "Get him back safely," and "Get him home so the rival exec will sabotage the bid."
THIS is how play is generated in Headspace. The GM knows what his Corporations are doing to make a worse world, and knows how they're doing it, and then the players lean in with "well how about we do this and this and this?" It is the perfect set-up for low-prep GMs!
Once players have their Objectives, they go after them! They use their Skills, tackle problems, and try to make steps towards completing their Objectives and the GM runs the Corproation's agents and assets as they try to stop them. While all this is going on -- full of gunfights, kung fu fights, high speed chases, explosions, and everything you could want -- you fill in sections of the Objective Clocks as the Cell (or the Corporation!) wins. Once three slices are filled in, you stop and take stock of the outcome, and see who has the majority of the slices. They get their way, maybe with caveats.
What is really interesting about this system is that the final results from these Clocks "roll up" to the next level. Its a very neat way of focusing on character accomplishments, and tracking how small incremental steps build up to larger, greater outcomes. One way or another, after a ton of exciting action scenes, the Corporate Project Clock will be filled in either in the players' favor, or in the Corporation's favor. At this point, the folks who won get to write out a new fact for the setting: you add details to the game, suggesting how the world has been transformed by what has happened. An ever-evolving cyberpunk world, baked right into the game from the start!
If you ruin enough of a Corporation's projects, it's knocked out of the game... do this enough times and its possible that your Cell could save the city. And all the while that you're battling the Corps, the oppressed masses are pushing back too! This is one of the greatest parts of the game; the really punk thing about this cyberpunk game. As you play, the people of whatever setting you're using will put together social movements or create safe communities in response to whether your efforts succeed or fail. That is as DIY, counter-culture as it gets, and there are mechanics in place to back up what these NPCs are doing. That launches this little detail to the forefront of the mind, as the PCs know they can rely on the people for a place to lay low or for resources to help continue the fight.
These are the big selling points of the game: the super cool, super unique concept of linking the brains of all the PCs so they can swap and trade skills and banter no matter how they get split up -- the very cool, very simple player-generated game content that just needs the GM to know what his corporations are after -- the sick as hell focus on the people rising up out from under corporate tyranny. All of this is backed up by the sleek, lightweight mechanics of PbtA's 2d6 system plus the usual emphasis on Fiction First, and Headspace's unique Emotional Stress track for measuring how out of control the Cell's emotions are running. Add on top of this simple cybernetics, gear, vehicles, and guidelines for Operator dying and leaving a haunting psychic impression on the Headspace and you've got a very complete, very badass game that begs to be played.
Look out in the future for a supplemental book that has a ton of extra locations to set your dystopia!
[5 of 5 Stars!]