TABLE GAME REVIEW: Android Netrunner

Android_Netrunner_Core_Set_BoxWe go Sci Fi this week on GS Table Games as we step into the world of Android: Netrunner by Fantasy Flight Games.

The back of the box says: “Netrunner is an asymmetrical Living Card Game for two players. Set in the cyberpunk future of Android and Infiltration, the game pits a Megacorporation and its massive resources against the subversive talents of lone Runners.”

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.” -William Gibson, Neuromancer.

 

 

 

 

If you’re imagining that sky as the calming deep blue offered by today’s digital TV providers, chances are you aren’t old enough to remember Netrunner from the first time around. The original version of the game was released in 1996, designed by Richard Garfield of Magic: The Gathering fame. It had something of a cult following at the time among players of the Cyberpunk 2020 RPG, but it eventually drowned in a oversaturated marketplace as games companies rushed to cash in on the success of Magic. This new Fantasy Flight release is an updated version in “Living Card Game” format, with a number of changes designed to improve the core rules and game play. So what is it about?

First and foremost, Netrunner is a game about control: of information, of pace, of resources and opportunities, of your opponent’s psychology and even the physical table space. The twist is that the conflict is truly asymmetric. One player, the Corporation, has lots of information available to them and uses the weapons of secrecy and resources. The other, the Runner, must rely more on instinct, second-guessing and probing, trying to provoke the Corporation into revealing their plans, while under constant threat of death.

The game is tense, strategic and can be brutally punishing. The whole balance can shift in the course of a single turn. Let your concentration or control slip for an instant and you’re flat-lined, brain-fried, or your Corporation ruined. Netrunner perfectly evokes the neon-lit cyberpunk world of conflict, paranoia and tension with its bluffing, mind-games, gambles and guts. The risks and rewards are always high.

 

Android-Netrunner-Banner

It is possible, with cunning and guile, to snatch a sudden victory from what looks like the jaws of certain defeat, or be brought crashing down to a loss in a game that seemed yours for the taking. Tides can turn on the timing of a single card. It is a game that rewards the quick thinker, the schemer – those who can hold their nerve and make split-second tough decisions out on the edge.

The box contains 252 cards, including seven unique Identity cards, 1 Action Summary for each side, 1 Action tracker for each side and numerous counters to represent money and in-game effects.

Most cards have three copies (the maximum permitted of any single card in a deck), but others have only one or two copies included. The cards are extremely well designed. The quality of the artwork is high, which is always nice, but the amount of information on the cards and the usable way it is presented are particularly impressive. As you sometimes need to read your opponent’s cards upside-down across the table, this instant readability is crucial. Cards often feature nice flavour text, adding to the atmosphere with some in-jokes for cyberpunk and sci-fi fans. The cards, tokens and counters are all manufactured to very high standards, using chunky linen-finished card, while the game mechanics are as slick as the rain-soaked streets of the Combat Zone.

In the simplest terms, the two players battle for control of corporate “Agenda” cards. If you score 7 Agenda points, you win. The Corporation scores Agendas by advancing them inside “remote servers” – built from Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics (ICE) cards that impede or damage the Runner in various ways. ICE can be “broken” by the Runner’s programs, and Agendas stolen by hacking into remote servers, the Corporation’s R&D (draw pile), HQ (hand) or Archives (discards). On achieving an Agenda, the Corporation usually gains some sort of bonus, like additional actions or abilities. This means that the more Agendas the Corporation scores, the more powerful it becomes. Certain cards give the scorer the option to sacrifice scored Agendas in order to gain other effects and abilities. This is a good example of the kind of difficult decisions that need to be made, and the results will vary depending on the state of play. Do you risk temporarily losing your lead in order to potentially kill the Runner, or hinder them enough that you can recoup that lead and more? Are you far enough behind that the new ability is worth more in the longer term? Will your play pay off before the Runner can steal another Agenda and pull even further ahead?

Agendas can be stolen via a number of means, from smashing your way in head-on and defeating the ICE with your “breaker” programmes, or in more subtle ways such as the installation of virus counters which grant various abilities that build up over the longer term, card combinations that allow you to find backdoor routes or compromised employees or different kinds of hardware that boost or protect you.

There are some other ways to win that are specific to each side as well. The Corporation can kill or “flatline” the Netrunner either in the real or virtual world, while the Runner can win by making the Corporation burn through their deck and exhaust all their cards. It should be said that we have never had a game won by the Corporation running out of cards.

 

ANR Cards

 

As with most card games, Netrunner progresses by alternating player turns, but each side has its own rule-set, turn sequence and mechanisms for victory and will see not just different types of cards, but different play styles and layouts. To fully experience the scope of the game, you really need to try both sides. A very nice touch which adds to the psychological side of the game is the way the cards are laid out on the table. The Corporation builds its foreboding-yet-tempting data fortresses right there in front of the Runner, and provides immediate visual feedback on the shape the game is taking.

Netrunner is all about secrets and bluffing. While the Runner plays all their cards face-up, in full view of the Corporation, the Corporation plays most card types face-down, attempting to mislead the Runner into costly mistakes. What appears to be an impregnable data fortress could actually be built of low-strength cards, while that simple-looking run could lead to a deadly trap. All the Runner can see is “advancement counters” placed on the back of the face-down installed cards. Is that a game-winning Agenda, worth burning all your resources to access, or is it a disastrous snare? For this reason, cards that force the Corporation to reveal its secrets can be among the most powerful in the Runner’s arsenal.

Resource management is a key part of this game. This includes managing your actions (Corporation gets 3 actions per turn and the Runner gets 4), credits (money) and, in the case of the Netrunner, MU (memory units that determine how many programs can be installed).

Without credits, both Corporation and Runner are utterly crippled, so both players must make sure they are generating the revenue needed to complete their actions. It would be a mistake to think you can concentrate only on your own income, too. You don’t want your opponent to be stockpiling resources, so your considerations also include keeping them starved of cash as much as possible.

Playing the Corporation is like conducting a gigantic shell game. The stakes are high and the bluffing is deadly. Can you convince the Runner that the Agenda you want to score is instead a minor Asset just by your style of play? Can you lure them into a tempting trap despite their better judgement? Even if the Runner isn’t killed outright, an effective trap can waste Runner turns as they scramble to rebuild their hand (if you lose all cards in your hand to damage, you die), rebuild resources or replace trashed programmes from their deck. Every turn they can’t run grants the Corporation time to advance their Agendas.

Playing the Runner means that you are always playing the odds. Even if you do make it into a server, what you find there may inflict massive brain damage, erase your intrusion programmes and drain all your resources, or trace you in the real world leaving you vulnerable to physical attack. Sometimes, the best you can do is destroy whatever the Corporation was developing, wasting their precious money and time.

 

ANR Cards 2

Deck building forms as a large a part of the game as you wish. As with many card games, there is massive scope for building custom decks, but the basic set also comes with a number of pre-built decks to get you started.

This new version of Netrunner has introduced the idea of “Identities.” You play as one of 4 Corporations, each with a different focus (genetic engineering, cybertech, media and construction) or 3 Runners, each with a unique ability. Each Runner is also a member of a “faction” (Shaper, Anarch, Criminal) which informs their motives, as expressed through the types of card available to that faction. These identities are very helpful for beginners to deck building, as they provide a number of easy concepts to build custom decks around and help to guide you toward identifying powerful combos and support cards.

There are cards tied to each Corporation and each Runner “faction” which, along with faction-neutral cards, will form the core of your deck. You may also take a number of cards belonging to other Corporations or factions, up to a set Influence limit. Every card has its cost listed on it. The Corporation deck must contain a set number of Agenda points, based on the total card count in the deck, but how you distribute these will depend on how you like to play. For example, you could include a small number of high-value Agendas that take longer to score, or opt for more chances to score at a lower cost per card. You have to think not only about what will give you the best advantage, but about what this will mean for your opponent and how it will affect their likely style of play.

These deck building mechanics ensure that no two games will play out in the same way. It also seems to minimise the odds of losing a game before you start on deck construction alone. The game is very much about adaptability, responsiveness and interaction, so it tends to avoid the issue found in some games of two people sitting opposite each other and working through the mechanics of their decks without really interacting with each other.

 

Android Netrunner

Our game set up

 

The cards are remarkably varied for both Runner and Corporation, allowing players to choose combinations that meet with their own style and surprise their opponent. For those new to deck building, there are good online resources that will help ensure you have calculated your costs and card totals correctly. There are also many sites, podcasts and YouTube channels where different deck builds are reviewed for effectiveness and games can be watched.

As with many Fantasy Flight games, while the production quality of the rulebook is high, the organisation of the content is not always ideal – although this book is a marked improvement on some of their older games. If you have played the original Netrunner you’ll be able to get started with a flick through the book and a note of what has changed. If this is your first exposure then it might be worth looking at some online guides and demo games as well. A FAQ has been released to clarify some apparent clashes between card abilities and can be found on the FFG site.

The complexity of the game means it is probably more suitable for experienced gamers than as a first test of the LCG waters, but it is a game that shows its depths the more you play. An issue that we found is that you really need to buy 2 box sets once you start to get a feel for deck building, as you will want the maximum 3 copies of some your preferred “worker” cards.
We’ll cover the expansions in detail at a later date, but it is worth mentioning that this is a “Living Card Game” rather than a “Collectible Card Game” so that when you buy an expansion you immediately get the maximum 3 copies of every card in that release. There is no randomness in what you get and no tracking down rare cards on eBay. The release model for expansions sees monthly “data pack” releases of 60 cards, grouped in 6-release “cycles” with a particular theme. There has also been a deluxe expansion of 165 cards that focuses on the battle between one Netrunner Faction and one Corporation.

A great thing about Android: Netrunner is that it is a game of skill. Your level of investment does not by necessity dictate your level of success, and there are players competing at high levels still predominantly using cards from the basic set. It is about how creative you can be with the resources at your command and the control you can exert over the game and your opponent.

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Playing Netrunner is an emotional rollercoaster ride as you feel the pressure building, your control ebbing and flowing, and the ground shifting beneath your feet. There are very few card games where you can feel your heartbeat start to race as you draw close to scoring an Agenda, see viruses open up huge vulnerabilities or realise that the Runner has some way to bypass all of your security. How many games can draw you in such that you start to panic as you feel your brain burning from the last ICE attack and wonder if that is another trap in that server, or if you can lose that trace before you are caught in a Scorched Earth physical assault? The atmosphere is reinforced with every card played.

In the end, this game is all about exerting control over the flow of information, which is an extremely cyberpunk conceit. It’s not just about what cards you play and when, it’s about the psychology you bring to the table, and how you pace the game itself.

 

GS RATING: 5/5
Reviewers: Nic Wilkinson and Cy Dethan

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