UW Computer Security Researchers Release Tabletop Card Game: Control-Alt-Hack

UW Professor Yoshi Kohno and PhD student Tamara Denning had a goal: to raise the public’s awareness of the vulnerability of computer systems and to create a new generation of programmers and managers who are on the alert for security holes. To accomplish this, they created an entertaining, high-quality game that will expose players to the world of computer security.

“We designed Control-Alt-Hack to be a fun introduction to computer security concepts,” said Denning. “We focused on making it fun to play so that people would come back and play again and, in doing so, absorb some of the educational material that we embedded within the game.”

Kohno is an associate professor of computer science and engineering and Denning is a PhD student working with Kohno in the UW Computer Science & Engineering (CSE) Security and Privacy Research Lab. The game was developed in collaboration with Adam Shostack, an honorary member of the Lab.

Creating the Game
Kohno, Denning, and Shostack decided they wanted a game with tangible playing objects to encourage interaction and spark conversations, rather than a computer-based game that focuses players on a screen. They smartly leveraged the mechanics of the highly popular Ninja Burger from Steve Jackson Games, and then designed a game centered around white hat hacking scenarios.

Players of Control-Alt-Hack work for Hackers, Inc., an elite computer security company of ethical (a.k.a., white hat) hackers who perform security audits and provide consultation services. (All player personas are based on people in Kohno’s research lab.) Their motto? “You Pay Us to Hack You.”

Control-Alt-Hack requires players to apply their character’s hacker skills (and a bit of luck) to accomplish “Missions.” Players will use their Hacker’s Social Engineering and Network Ninja skills to break the Pacific Northwest’s power grid, or apply a bit of Hardware Hacking and Software Wizardry to convert a robotic vacuum cleaner into an interactive pet toy. No two jobs are the same.

Designed for players age 14 and up, the game appeals to a broad audience with interests in tabletop gaming or science and technology, and to computer security experts interested in a bit of fun.

Getting to Market
After they created the game, Kohno and Denning faced the challenge of getting it to the marketplace. Working with Deborah Alterman, technology manager at the UW Center for Commercialization, they considered various distribution options. In the end, they chose to create a start-up company, RGB Hats, to give them the latitude they wanted to distribute the product.

“One thing that impresses me about the game is the care and attention Yoshi and Tammy paid to making sure it has the right look and feel,” said Alterman. “Their vision and commitment to getting their game out there to the right people in the right way is admirable.”

Alterman also worked with the team to secure licensing of game mechanics from Steve Jackson Games, and to obtain rights and trademarks for design elements and naming.

“Deborah has been an incredibly valuable resource throughout the whole process,” said Kohno. “It was through her efforts that our vision became a reality.”

Control-Alt-Hack is available now for purchase at Amazon.com and retails for $34.99 (currently on sale for $25).