By Robert Florence on September 23rd, 2012 at 1:58 pm.
Before this past couple of weeks, I had never played Netrunner. I had heard about it. Usually you’d hear about it whenever people were getting excited about some new card game. Someone would slide into the conversation and drop a little “Mmm. Netrunner was the best, though…” and slide away again. In truth, there was never much more discussion than that. “Netrunner was better than Magic, to be honest.” But that was it. It remained, to most, a mystery.
I think there was a little bit of “gamer guilt” attached to it. When you spoke to card gamers, you could tell that they felt bad that things didn’t work out for Netrunner. Magic is great and all (and let’s not let that go without being reinforced – Magic: The Gathering is an incredible design) but you could see in these card gamers’ eyes, these gamers who had been around at the time Netrunner briefly flashed across tables, that there was a sadness there. Something great had landed, but with all that tapping going on not enough people had noticed.
But now it’s back. It’s here. It’s now.
Every time there is an Android themed game, I always promise that I will get to talking about Android itself on these pages. I promise to do that within the month. It’s a game that really needs properly discussed.
But yeah, this time round Netrunner has been brought into the Android fold, and it’s a perfect fit. The artwork is beautiful. Let’s get that out of the way first. This is a gorgeous looking card game.
But the game itself… talk about beauty? Man.
HOW IT PLAYS
See, there are a lot of great card games out there. But in most of them you can feel Magic: The Gathering’s influence. (Of course, in Magic itself you can feel the influence of things like Cosmic Encounter.) Even in something like Warhammer: Invasion, which is a great game, you can feel the hand of Magic. I think Warhammer: Invasion improves on Magic, to be honest, but you can definitely sense the same blood pumping through both games’ veins.
Despite being designed by the same fucking GENIUS, Netrunner is nothing like Magic. It’s nothing like anything I’ve ever played. It feels like a card game from an alternate universe where Magic: The Gathering never happened. And that makes it a real shock to the system. When you’re learning it, you feel like you’re properly having to learn stuff, because you just have no frame of reference for some of the shit that’s going down.
Okay – in Netrunner one player takes control of a powerful Corporation, and works to advance its agendas. The other player plays a Runner, a hacker, who is trying to disrupt the Corporation’s operations. The Corporation protects itself with computer programs called ICE. The Runner has to Break that ICE to get inside the Corporation.
To advance agendas, the Corporation has to first play an agenda. When played, these are placed face down. Then they have to be protected. ICE cards come in various types and strengths, and are placed out in front of the agenda card. Of course, there’s no need for the agenda card to actually BE an agenda card. It can also be an asset of some kind or a trap card, to trap the Runner, or to at least bluff them into making a run into a server that doesn’t house an agenda.
The Corporation player’s game is reasonably simple. Information is pretty open to him. It’s a game of bluff and deception, establishing multiple “servers” (which are basically lines of cards) that might or might not contain agendas, and trying to keep the Runner out or sucker him in. It’s also key to play cards that generate funds, so that agenda advancement can keep ticking over, and so that Traces can be paid for.
Wait, what? Traces?
Okay, let’s talk about the Runner player. The Runner plays out cards that give him the tools to make runs. The Runner builds power. And then, the Runner runs. When making a run, the Runner chooses a server to attack. Here’s the cool part. The Runner can make runs on servers that might or might not hold agendas, but can also make runs on the Corporation’s hand, deck and discard pile. That’s fucking amazing, right? The Runner can run straight into your HAND.
The Runner can run straight into your HAND.
It’s a moment in the game that makes new players sit up straight. If the Corporation player doesn’t protect himself properly with sufficient ICE, the Runner player can just come straight into all his shit and start looking at it and stealing it. If the Runner does it, and happens to find an agenda, he can score it.
The game can end pretty quickly if you don’t protect your shit.
Okay, so let’s look at a run.
When a Runner runs, he has to bypass ICE. When he encounters ICE, it starts face down, and the Corporation player has to decide whether or not he wants to Rez it (turn it face up, making it active) by paying the card’s cost. Now, the Corporation player might choose not to Rez it. He might know that the Runner has the right cards to break the ICE. Or, he might just not want to spend the money. Or he might be wanting to let the Runner in, so he can spring a trap. Or, he might want the Runner to THINK he wants to let him in, to spring a trap, but there’s actually no trap.
Did you see how many times I wrote “OR” there? Incredible.
So, let’s say the Corp player turns up the ICE. The Runner needs to have an ICEbreaker card of the right strength to access it, and of the right type to start breaking its subroutines. Now, ICE subroutines are great. Many ICE cards have multiple subroutines, and the Runner can choose which ones to break – it all costs credits. Subroutines can end runs, do damage, trash Runner programs, the LOT. So these runs cost money. And they can hurt too. But as the Runner knocks each bit of ICE down, he gets closer to the card at the end of the server. If its an agenda, he can steal it and score it. If it’s a trap? Well, he could even die.
Traces. Yeah. Traces and Tags. And Bad Publicity. These are things that happen too. Traces can be initiated by the Corporation, and it initiates a potentially expensive bidding war. Runners can get tagged by the Corporation if plans go awry, and that allows the Corporation to start hitting back at the Runner. Cards can generate Bad Publicity for the Corporation, which means that Runners get cash bonuses when making runs, as if the Runners are being financially backed by someone keen to take down the bad corporation. The theme is solid. It’s everywhere.
There’s just so much going on. I will have missed a lot here, for sure.
But fuck me, this game is incredible. It’s all about control. The players just have an incredible amount of control. 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. And you can feel it too. You can feel when the Runner is in control, when everything is falling and the Corporation is just trying to get off its knees. And you can feel it when the Corporation has an iron grip. You can feel the Runner poking, probing, looking for an in. You can feel the Runner panic as he’s overwhelmed with traces and tags and starts being hunted. The whole thing is moving under your fingertips. And the theme is just perfect. The richness of the theme is reinforced with every card that gets played.
(Another clever thing – just the look of the table when the game is in play. All that ICE laid out in front of the Corporation – it’s a perfect physical representation of how well protected the Corp player is. It’s the ideal visual feedback for how the game is actually progressing.)
Netrunner is a game where one player has lots of information, and the other is having to play on instinct, probing and feeling their way through. It’s a game of total paranoia.
“I’m making a run on this server.”
As the Corporation player, you can be in a mess, in a MESS, and you can bluff your way out of it. You can sneak your way out of a hole. As the Runner, you can hammer so hard that the opponent can barely catch a breath. You can be in his hand, his deck, his everywhere, ruining everything.
I’m going to stop talking about it now. If you love games, and you admire great games design, Netrunner is a game that you need. We can all stop being cryptic and mysterious about it now. We can all stop feeling guilty. Pick it up and dig in. Learn it.
Netrunner is now. And it’s the best.