Kemuel's Place

A diary of sorts, wherein I moonlight as a games writer. Under haphazard construction.

Android: Netrunner

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So this is like, my third or fourth attempt to sit down and write about Netrunner since I posted about getting back into writing here sometime in July. Something’s been wrong each time, and I think it’s because I keep wanting to taking a running jump headfirst into ranting about just how awesome my favourite parts of the game are, rather than writing with anything resembling an a structure.

So, new approach. I’ll force myself to slow down a bit and start from the beginning. I’ll take a run-up.

Android: Netrunner is perhaps my favourite card game ever.  Granted, I’ve not really played that many, but even at the height of my Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon phases I don’t remember have quite this much fun on such a consistent basis. I was perhaps similarly enamoured with Pokemon’s theme at the time, or Magic’s mechanical design, or Yu-Gi-Oh’s face-down-card mind games.. but Netrunner kinda brings all of them together with a flair and flourish of it’s own that really has got me a bit obsessed.

Netrunner’s a completely asymmetrical game, with one player taking on the role of a hacking Runner and the other a big evil mega-corp. The Corp hides scoring cards (which it needs to spend time and money to convert into actual game-winning points) face-down on the field in data servers, protected by face-down virtual defenses. The hacker tries to bypass the defences and steal their cards to score the points for themselves, using a variety of different programs and resources along the way. The only other conditions are that if the Corp can’t draw a card from their deck, they lose the game, and if the Runner is forced to discard a card from their hand when it is already empty, then they lose the game.

Time is quantified in “Clicks” which are the number of actions you can take per turn, whilst money takes the form of Credits, which can be acquired either by directly expending clicks (quick and reliable, but inefficient) or using other cards to build up a recurring economy (slower, vulnerable to tampering, but better value).

The Corporation can put their hidden defences on the field for next to no money, but doing so takes time, and then they need to spend large sums upfront to actually activate them. Once they’re active they generally cannot be upgraded or moved, but they can be entirely impassable if the Runner doesn’t have the right tools, and it is also rare for them to be destroyed outright. The Runner has the cost of hacking programs, hardware, events and more to worry about, including recurring costs for whenever they use their tools, but whilst the Corp’s defences remain mostly static, their bag of tricks is fluid and constantly evolving. If you find out that it’ll cost you five credits to bypass a defence once, you can guarantee it’ll cost the same amount to get in again, unless the Corp invests in fortifying it further. If they do, you’ll probably be able to adapt and get in still, but the new cards’ll be face down, forcing you to reassess what you’re up against. And if you don’t have those five credits to begin with, well, then they’ve built themself a safe spot to score some points. At least, until you draw some more cards.

It’s really, really smart. Both players use completely different decks, with completely different cards, completely different mechanics and completely different win conditions, but are made to face common challenges in dealing with one another. You’ll always have to build and manage your economy, never have enough credits to do all the things you want, constantly be attempting to lure their opponent into wasting their money, and seldom ever feel like you’re really winning. I mean, you might well be. You might be absolutely flatting them. But if they’re smart, they won’t be letting you know that. Maybe the Corp’s not actually got a single viable trap amongst his scary looking fortress of cards, and simply can’t afford to defend himself. Maybe the Runner’s threateningly well-stocked toolbox cost them all their money, and they can’t actually afford to use it now. Maybe they’re bluffing. Maybe they’re not. Maybe you’ve managed to see through them anyway.

At first this might sound like there’s a lot of unpredictable variables involved, but because you’re playing a Living Card Game with a pre-defined selection of cards in every box, rather than random boosters full of commons, uncommons and rares, you’re often able to work out more than you’d expect. If they have only three credits to spend activating their defences, what’s the worst they can do to me if I attack now? How much will it likely cost them to break this barrier? How soon will they be able to raise that amount of money? Why did he let me past that defence? Can he not afford to activate it yet? What could possibly be that expensive..?

Unless I’m playing someone who’s bought a later expansion which I’m not yet familiar with, I’ll probably have a pretty good idea of the risks and odds. I might guess wrong and get hosed, or might have miscalculated or something, but it’s immensely satisfying to sit and try and puzzle out your best course of action based on what information is available to you. Reaching this level of play doesn’t take long either, because, again, every starter box has the same cards, so even in a single afternoon’s play you’ll start to recognise and anticipate them. If someone has got stuff you don’t know in their deck, you’ll probably remember it for next time.

I love these game mechanics and the intense, thoughtful gameplay they produce, but what really grabbed me about Netrunner, what makes me really want to sing its praises to anyone who’ll listen, is how deftly and neatly they produce a story.

All card games provide some sort of context to the actions you perform through the course of the game: mages casting spells and summoning minions at one another, warriors fighting to the death, ships trying to travel so many thousand nautical miles to deliver cargo.. but somehow they always feel a little strained. Like they require just a little too much imagination to make sense. In Netrunner, this seldom feels the case. Every element of gameplay contributes to the cyberpunk tale of a lone hacker taking on an evil megacorp absolutely effortlessly.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so enamoured with a game over something as simple as the names it gives to your card zones on the table. For example, the deck of cards the Corporation draws from is it’s R&D. New plots, prototypes, inventions are being developed all the time, and if the Corp runs out of them, then it is game over. The Corporation’s hand of cards is the HQ, where of course all the plotting goes on, where plans are kept until they’re ready to be executed, and defences are prepared before they’re ready to be deployed. And the place where the Corporation’s cards go when they’re removed from the game, either because they’re taking up space or have been maliciously trashed by a hacker? The Archives.

These are the Corporation’s home servers which the Runner can attempt to access. If they manage to access your hand, they’re breaking into HQ, where they can discover, trash or even steal information before the Corporation can make use of it. If they look at the top card of your deck, they’re hacking your R&D, disrupting research before it is finished. If they run the discard pile (which is also mostly kept face-down), then they’re looking through the Archived data banks at unused or discarded ideas.

The score cards which both players vie for control of are the Corporations various evil plots and schemes. Agendas, in the game’s terms. The Corporation has to store these in remote servers, sinking time and money into completing them. They’re projects that will increase their strength and tighten their control over the world, but the Runner is attempting to discover and disrupt their plans before they come to fruition. If the Corporation scores an agenda it will normally offer them some kind of long-term benefit for the rest of the game. Perhaps they’ve established a private security force which can be sent to attack the runner, or completed a lucrative hostile takeover of another company, or developed a new and scary kind of AI. When the Runner ruins these schemes they don’t get anything, but they’re hindering the Corporation’s business and slowly driving them out of the evil plotting game altogether.

The Corporation’s server defenses are ICE barriers, antivirus programs, systems administrators, artficial intelligences and traps which will either try to kill you through your screen or destroy your computer. Some server upgrade cards allow you to give a server a location, allowing it to benefit from being physically deep undersea, in the middle of a heavy industrial zone, or in the latest expansion, even on the freaking moon. The Corp’s economy is comprised of mobile phone campaigns, hedge funds, the aforementioned hostile takeovers.. the theme and the flavour just goes on and on and on. Mobile phone sales aren’t very lucrative, only pulling in a credit per turn, but trashing such a large public enterprise is costly for the Runner. Hedge funds require some money to begin with to seed them, but offer a sudden, large payout which the Runner can’t interrupt. Hostile takeovers result in bad publicity, which the Runner can use to their advantage when on the attack. The theme is just beautiful, and pervasive throughout the entirety of the game. I haven’t even mentioned the four different Corporations yet, with their piles unique cards giving each their own flavour. One of them’s a news corp that focuses on tracing the runner’s location when they jack in and harassing them through the media. Another produces biological androids, which protect their servers violently like virtual sentries.

On the Runner side, besides their suite of hacking programmes they rely on cyberpunky hardware like spinal modems and neural plugs, and even more mundane stuff like memory upgrades which will allow them to install more programs on their rig. They bribe contacts inside the corporations to bypass defenses, drink powerdrinks to fuel their creativity, and hold part-time code-breaking jobs, trading time which could be spent running for the money they need to fund their operations. They can hack the Corp’s accounts to steal their cash if they don’t feel like earning it, or use the Corp’s remote servers to proxy their way into a bank. The Criminals faction can gain money by selling scam virus protection software to students. My favourite, the Anarchs, have a card that is just a nightclub. You go to Wyldeside, and you’re forced to lose a click of time every turn, but draw two cards thanks to all the people and information and ideas swirling around there. Maybe you’ll find some narcotic stims, which you’ll then use to fuel a crazy drug-enhanced run on the Corp’s HQ, which while successful at trashing some plans for a private security force leaves you with lasting brain damage. That’s a thing that can actually happen! Or maybe you’ll be less lucky and faceplant a deathtrap which causes you to flatline as you’re forced to discard all your cards and your brain is just wiped entirely.

If you weren’t actually playing a game, you could just draw cards off each deck and use them to tell a story. It all flows so perfectly.

So yeah. Find someone to play Netrunner with and give it a go. You get all four Corporations and all three Runner factions in the starter box with enough cards to get plenty of mileage out of the starter decks before you even start poking around with the deckbuilding. There’s a reason why so many people are buzzing about it.

I should probably go back and put some pictures in this..

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