Review: Android – Netrunner

netrunnerboxIn the mid 90s Richard Garfield put out a CCG than embraced the cyberpunk theme called Netrunner which petered out. Almost 15 years later Fantasy Flight picked up the rights and converted it to encompass their futuristic universe, hence the name, Android: Netrunner. It’s a dystopian future where megacorporations truly hold control over every aspect of human lives.

Colonization of the moon and Mars has begun, along with the development of sophisticated AI, androids, and human clones which serve as slave labor and are essentially products bought and sold. Beneath all of this are human beings that go about their daily lives, scraping by, and essentially are at most drones and corporate slaves to their employers just like the clones and androids they encounter regularly. A few choose to explore cyberspace instead fighting for either ideals or profit against the megacorporations as runners, hackers that steal data from corporate assets.

Android: Netrunner (or just Netrunner) is a two player, living card game. Fortunately FFG dumped the collectible aspect. Instead they opted to crank out expansions with fixed numbers of cards. Want to expand your card pool? No random booster packs. Just pick up a small set of cards and you’ve got everything in that expansion. The gotcha of course is through the constant roll out of expansions, you get that lure of the Pokemon gotta-catch-em-all urge to keep buying into the game. Combined with a healthy competitive tournament scene enticing players to keep up with their gaming opponent Joneses, there is definitely a draw to buy new sets as soon as they are released.

I avoided the siren’s call of Netrunner for a long time. But I was in the mood to pick up a new deck builder game and the theme and aspect of a LCG was attractive. I did Magic and was not keen trying to get back into that game. The collectible aspect of Magic just wasn’t something attractive to me any more. So I jumped into Netrunner feet first and now regret that decision immensely. It’s not that the game is bad. Far from it.

The basic rundown of Netrunner is that the corp player has agenda cards in their deck up to a specific total. Each card will commonly be worth between 1 and 3 points. To score them the corp player has to play them and spend actions (clicks) and money (credits) to advance them to a specific sum. Once they do so, they can immediately score it for points. The runner however just needs to access it. The runner isn’t limited to accessing agendas in play. They can also access agendas in the corp player’s hand, deck, and discard pile. To prevent that from happening, the corp player will lay out defensive ice cards to sap resources or stop the runner. The runner in turn slowly builds up a suite of equipment and resources to bypass ice and access those agenda cards. The first player to 7 points wins.

It’s actually a pretty easy game to learn. However once you begin to play, especially as the corp player, you begin to see the route of winning isn’t so easy. The corp player only has 3 actions per turn (or clicks). To play an agenda is one action and to advance it each time also takes an action. Most agendas take must be advanced 3 to 5 times to score. That means it will usually take at least 2 turns to score. All the while, you have to hope that your defensive ice is enough to ward off the runner trying to pick up that agenda. And to make matters worse, the runner has 4 actions during their turn. So they have plenty of opportunities to bolster up their resources and programs to make a successful run.

Now mind you, it’s not just agendas in play, but also agendas you have in your hand or possibly the top card lying in your draw deck. Forced to discard a lot of cards in your deck? Those juicy agendas might now be in your discard pile, just waiting for the runner to scoop them up. And that’s the kicker. While the corp player has to spend cash and actions, slowly and painfully advancing agendas for points, the runner just has to slip past that ice and steal them.

It’s not all roses for the runner though. Some ice is tough and can be one of four different kinds. If the runner doesn’t have an icebreaker program installed, actions on the ice card will execute if the runner bumps into them during a run. Most simply end the run action but some ice can destroy those icebreakers installed by the runner, or force them to discard cards from their hand. This leads into another way the corp player can win. If the runner player ever has to discard more cards than what they have in their hand, they lose immediately. Given each player can only have 5 cards in their hand at the end of their turn, the prospect of hitting horrible defensive ice or a trap card in the corp’s play area becomes a huge threat.

To add to this tension is a simple aspect of hidden information. The runner puts cards into play face up spending an action and paying cash up front. Pretty much everything they do is open to the corp player’s knowledge (save the cards they are holding in their hand). The corp player installs their cards face down simply by spending an action. They can rez (or activate) their cards later, spending the cash when they want to do so. Granted a runner might expect that card gathering up advance tokens is an agenda, but not always so. Sometimes it can be a trap to wipe out the runner’s installed cards (or even worse, force them to discard almost their entire hand). All those defensive ice are also installed face down. While the corp player still has to pay cash to activate them, the runner has no idea if that face down card protecting the corp’s draw pile is huge wall, effectively stopping them until they can install the right icebreaker, or something pretty easy they can bypass.

It’s the hidden information and aspects of bluffing that make the game enjoyable. Add to that the limited actions each player can take per turn, combined with constraints of available resources (credits), and you have a fun game with high player interaction. Layered onto this are the various factions for both the corp and runners. You end up with a game that has a lot of variety in gameplay which is engaging and entertaining.

The factions and aspects of deck building are also a huge draw. You are limited to 3 cards of one type and decks which must have a minimum number of cards affiliated with a particular runner or corp faction. Along with this are rules for influence when building your deck. Each card is worth between 0 to 5 influence points. If you want to dip into another faction you are welcome to do so, but that subtracts from your influence total. There are some powerful cards which can provide great combinations with other factions, but they dig into your influence pool meaning you can only tinker some with another faction. Fortunately there are also neutral cards for both the runner and corp that allow the player to freely add to their deck and don’t cost any influence points (save for a few exceptions)

I think one notable problem with Netrunner is that it can consume your free time so easily. It’s said people live Netrunner, and I can see that. I fear I might end up ditching time to play other games so I can explore Netrunner further. It’s made me keen to keep tinkering with decks and work up wicked combinations, with the added excitement of picking up another expansion, opening up more and varied card options.

The Good– Netrunner is an immensely enjoyable, engaging, with lots of variety in play, and plenty of cards to expand the game further. Thrown into this is the asymmetrical play experience and win conditions. It truly is a wonderful 2 player card game. Not to mention a game plays pretty quick (where a longish match might be 30 minutes at the most). Add to this a bevy of lovely card art and you’ve got a great game.

The Bad – There is an immense game knowledge curve. Learning the game is actually pretty easy. However gaining understanding of all the nuances of play is not, and Netrunner can be brutally unforgiving with mistakes. There is a huge divide between dabblers and folks that play a lot. It’s a combination of both knowledge and cards.

If you play a lot, you know the combinations of cards out there. You are better informed, more prepared, and in turn likely able to construct a deck that is fluid enough to tackle whatever your opponent throws at you. Netrunner has a lot of trump cards and hard counters for them. If you don’t read what your opponent is telegraphing with how (and what) they are playing, you will get smashed. Lastly, it’s a two player game and the core set can’t effectively create decks that more people can mine from if you wanted to do a four player dust up for an evening.

The Verdict – My opinions are in this odd juxtaposition for reviewing Netrunner. If you want to dabble, get a core set and a few choice expansions or data packs. You will find so much to explore and get a thoroughly engaging game that will last you a long time. Add to this a plethora of existing card expansions and you can squeeze years of gaming out of your purchase.

But to jump into the competitive scene it will take effort. So much so it might not be worth doing. You will end up seeing this game divide between casual players that have a lot of fun, and experienced players that go for the deep, engaging, play experience. And if constantly teaching new players, fans of Netrunner will always seem to be struggling to keep within these two camps.

Even as a relative casual player, eventually you’ll be armed with a wealth of knowledge of card types and set strategies. You’ll be able to quickly recognize if an opponent is potentially laying out an agenda to score, or setting up a devious trap. For a brand new player, it’ll take a substantial amount of time to get on a similar level of play, and they might not feel it worth the effort to do so.

It is a niche game. If you have 2 or 3 friends that are adept at CCGs you can get some mileage out of Netrunner. Spend another $30-50 to buy 2-3 select data pack expansions and you’ll have a robust pool of cards to make a variety of decks, more than enough to keep a few casual players occupied for a really long time. But throw a knowledgeable player into the mix and even hobbled with a handicap deck, those experienced players are going to tough to beat. That chasm with familiarity of the cards can be that deep.

To me that’s the problem with Netrunner and something that keeps me from recommending it to all but a few select gamers. To get the most out of it and willing to encompass the larger player base, you need to be committed. If you have the time and players, that might be worth it. Otherwise you will end up just playing once in a while casually. In the end that enjoyment might not go that far, as there are too many other games out there that offer immersive play with less of a learning commitment.

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