In it, you are gung ho space troopers, dropping onto planets and killing every last horrible alien monster there. Think Starship Troopers with a more aggressive agenda and you pretty much have the idea.
You are a part of the sixteenth brigade of the third army, hence 3:16. You are taking part in the great commission of the Terran Expeditionary Forces: to wipe out every alien race that can possibly be found in order to keep the human race safe. It's a big job but you're going to do it, one bug-eyed monster at a time.
3:16 is a dead simple game, mechanically. Characters have a whopping two stars. Fighting ability for when you want to put the hurt on something or someone and non-fighting ability for everything else.
The actual missions are practically a small-scale, stripped down war game. You play out the fight on a very simple board that basically just defines how close the aliens are to you so you know what weapons you're able to use. You roll a ten-sided die to determine successes or failures (rolling under your abilities)
The game master gets a set number of threat tokens that they can use in each planet. Threat tokens are used to keep track of the waves of aliens as they attack as well as activate alien powers. They also serve as a way of pacing the game, creating an economy of danger and action.
If that's all there was to 3:16, it wouldn't be that much of a game. Heck, I have seen board games that pretty much fit the way combat works and that's what you'll be doing most of the time.
However, there are flashbacks.
Flashbacks are when a player pulls out a cut scene that will help them get out of a jam. The player narrates a scene from their past and explain that experience is going to make the key difference. Strengths let a player win on their own terms, wiping out all the threat tokens in a scene. Weakness lets a player lose on their own terms, taking a one threat token out of the scene and removing that character from the scene too.
In other words, flashbacks let you get in some serious role playing and character development and even let you get a mechanical benefit from it too.
So far, 3:16 sounds like a straight forward, space military action adventure game. So what's so subversive about it?
Well, as you read through the book, it becomes increasingly clear that the Terran Empire is not the paradise it proclaims it to be. Forced sterilization, suicide booths, and cultural stagnation, we are talking dystopia here. And what about your ultimate mission? To wipe out all life in the cosmos? That's the crazy end of xenophobia.
Seriously, 3:16 is just a couple chaos gods and an eldar away from being Warhammer 40K
And it gets better. As you rise up in the ranks (and if your currents character doesn't survive, it's easy to make a replacement and keep on going), someone will eventually become the Brigadier, who has nothing to do with Nicholas Courtney. By then, you'll have the weakness Hatred From Home. You will learn that no one in the Expeditionary Force is ever allowed to go back to Terra. And you'll have access to The Device, which destroys 1d10 PARSECS and automatically ends the game.
So, without ever explicitly stating it, the end goal of a 3:16 campaign is for someone to go insane and wipe out the human race.
3:16 is a anti-war game that uses nothing but war to get the point across. No, it's not a coincidence that the title is a blatant reference to John 3:16
Would I ever play 3:16, knowing the likely endpoint? Yeah. It looks like an interesting journey.