Review: Android – Netrunner
I have been playing around with doing a formal review of Android: Netrunner, one of Fantasy Flight’s newest Living Card Games, for quite some time. Each time I have sat down in the past, I keep thinking that I need to play more of the game, that there are more avenues I have yet to explore fully, etc., but after playing the game regularly with a number of people since its launch at the end of last year, I have come to understand that one of Netrunner’s greatest strengths is the fact that it always leaves me feeling like there is more to learn, strategies to learn and more to play. That said, it is a complex game, and I am not completely sure I will be able to do it justice in writing. Here goes.
Originally published in 1996 by Wizards of the Coast, Netrunner was a collectible card game from well known game designer Richard Garfield, the creator of Magic: The Gathering. Based on the Cyberpunk roleplaying game by R. Talsorian Games, Netrunner put one player in the role of a massive multi-national corporation tasked with completing a number of agendas. The other player was put in the role of a lone hacker or Runner that was attempting to hack the Corp’s servers, accessing their agendas and foiling their plans. In Fantasy Flight’s re-imagining of Netrunner keeps this central conflict, along with the vast majority of the game, as it was before with a few simplifications here or there.
Going through all of the mechanics in this review would be extremely difficult for a complex game like Netrunner. There is a reason the game includes a 36 page rulebook and Fantasy Flight put together a 20-minute tutorial video. While I will dig into a few of the mechanics, I am hoping to give more of my impressions and experiences with the game, rather than provide a complete summary of the rules so check out either of the resources above for specifics.
The two sides, Corp and Runner, play quite differently from one another. As the Corp, the primary goal is to score 7 points worth of “agendas” or kill the Runner. Agendas are cards that must be installed on remote servers and “advanced.” Agendas, as with almost all of the other cards that the Corp plays, are played face down on the table with their identity unknown to the Runner. Conversely. all of the Runner’s cards are almost always known to the Corp (because they are a massive corporation and whatnot). Once the cards have been advanced to their required value, they are then scored by the Corp. If they are accessed by the Runner beforehand, then they are scored by the Runner. The Corp always starts the game first (because they are a huge corporation, I suppose) and draw a card every turn (for free). Beyond that, the Corp is allowed three actions or “clicks” per turn. Clicks range from installing a card to a central (your hand, your deck or your discard) or remote servers (where you play agenda cards, resources, etc.) to generating credits or purging some of the Runner’s counters.
The Corp installs agendas (as well as other cards) face down on servers to the side of their deck and identity card. The Corp then protects these servers from hacking with a number of antivirus programs called “Ice” that vary wildly from faction to faction.
Both the Corp and Runner sides each have three separate factions that look, feel and play differently from one another. Runners use programs called “Icebreakers” to get through Ice protecting servers while making a run, something that they can do several times on any turn.
The Runner is tasked primarily with building up their rig, avoid being killed by the Corp and successfully access and steal up to 7 points worth of agendas before the Corp can win. All of the Runner’s card types are different than that of the Corp and the Runner is given a total of 4 clicks per turn, as opposed to the Corp’s 3 clicks per turn.
Little details like this are some of the things that I really have enjoyed most about Netrunner. Everything really seems to make sense within the context of the game and the universe. Runners are able to do more each turn because they are much more nimble than the massive corporations which are bogged down by bureaucracy and requirements. This attention to the game’s universe can be found throughout the game and is something that should be applauded since many games seem to forget their source material and setting after creating the card or board art.
The Runner has a number of unique actions that can spend their clicks on including installing new components of their rig, drawing cards, earning credits, removing tags and more. The fact that both sides have so many options with how they may spend their clicks, something that is only compounded even further with the addition of cards onto the play area, is one of the reasons each and every game of Netrunner that I have played has been vastly different from those before it. It’s one of the reasons that the game remains so appealing. In each and every game, the player has a wealth of options available at any one moment in time, so many that you’ll find yourself going back and examining your actions, thinking about what you could have done better given the situation. It is the fact that the game is as complex (while making sense) as it is that I find it lodging itself in my mind time and time again. I want to tweak my deck after each game, play again and even just discuss a match with friends.
A massive component of the game is player knowledge and understanding not only the breadth of your own knowledge of the cards at work, but also of the cards at work across the table. In most cases, it is advantageous for the Corp to be as secretive as possible, guarding its cards from exposure while also being aware how putting up too many defenses or too little may be perceived by the Runner. In this way, the game has a very strong human element that not many other competitive card games (outside of games like Poker) actively embrace. As a Runner, you need to be aware that the Corp knows what you have in your rig at nearly any given time and that you only know a few certain pieces of the Corp’s total layout. Perception is as much of the battle here as any Icebreaker.
This game of information and perception is extremely enthralling. While it has left me feeling totally stupid for missing something that afterwards begins to seem obvious and extremely smart for pulling one over on my enemy, it has always left me wanting to play more. It works especially well in a small gaming group as you begin to learn each others go to fake-outs or tells and then, knowing that your opponent is aware of them, must take action to change the way you normally play.
If you’ve listened to the podcast, you have most likely heard us praise Fantasy Flight’s LCG model for their card games. While that term itself may be little more than a bit of creative branding, the structure of releasing new cards for a game after the core release without randomizing any aspects of the packs or expansions allows for the focus to be placed squarely on deckbuilding, rather than hoping to get that lucky card. The additional benefit, especially for those of us who have aged beyond the luxury of being able to spend some of our parent’s money, is that it is typically far cheaper. Spend $15 a month to get three copies of each new card released, rather than buying $45 worth of booster packs and still not getting the card or two you were really looking for out of the new set. It’s a bit of a no-brainer for me, although I understand that there are many people out there that are into games like these mostly for the collectible aspect. Those people will be disappointed.
From a presentation standpoint, Netrunner is absolutely top notch. The overall style and design of the cards is some of the best I have ever seen. The card art is wildly varied while always having a common visual style that fits well within the universe. The fonts and card layouts are sleekly designed. Flavor text tends to be well-written, filled to the brim with references to other pieces of science fiction (Weyland is a corporation, for Pete’s sake) and is even quite funny at times. The card artists have really gone wild with some of the art on the more software-focused cards. Since they are essentially visualized an entirely abstract creation, the art and designs of Ice and Icebreakers are really great and range from the photo-realistic to the abstract.
The only thing that really left me wanting more was the game’s cardboard tokens. Without any official higher-end tokens available, I would be forced to go to third-party creators for something nicer. That said, the game just looks and feels cool above everything else, and I think that is really key to anything that wants to call itself “cyberpunk.”
One of the last things, I would be foolish to leave out of this (already quite long) review is the game’s deckbuilding. While I have found myself a bit let down with other LCGs deckbuilding in the past (most recently in Star Wars: The Card Game), Netrunner strikes a good balance between relatively open-ended deckbuilding (as seen in something like Magic: The Gathering) and something much more restrictive and modular. Essentially, you chose one of the three identities for your side. From there, the identity card gives you a minimum deck size and a maximum point value of cards from other factions you may include (this value is listed on each faction card). From here, you are free to use any/all of your faction’s cards, any of the neutrals cards and any of the other cards for your side as you’d like without going over the non-faction point value.
This fairly open system can lead to some nasty surprises in any deck and really help build on the game’s central mechanic of learning and understanding what your opponent has in play, in their hand and in their deck. With a modular system that only allowed for basic deckbuilding, it would be much easier to establish standard, strong strategies to use against each of the enemy faction’s given the construct of your deck. Because a Weyland Corp deck could have nasty snare cards from Jinteki or any combination thereof, it keeps both players on their toes.
Android: Netrunner is everything that I, as a huge fan of both competitive card games and science-fiction (specifically cyberpunk), could have hoped for. The game operates far outside of the standard Magic: The Gathering-esque mechanics that so many card games attempt to replicate that it feels extremely fresh. Mechanically, the game itself is extremely deep, so much so that I still find myself learning new ways to use certain cards or abilities in certain situations after playing regularly since buying that game at its retail launch. Stylistically, Netrunner is the most visually impressive game I have played in some time. The art is great with the real-world subjects of certain cards all having a strong visual style and the more abstract software based cards like Ice and Icebreakers really giving artists some crazy concepts to work with.
Most of my initial problems with the game have come and gone as I become more experienced at the game itself. While Runners can feel extremely fragile when up against a damage-focused Corp deck at first, I was forced to tweak my decks in order to reach a better balance between offense and defense, something that I may not have done had the game not smacked me in the face from time to time. Beyond this, a few of the game’s mechanics like “trace” seem to be lacking a bit of the oomph of other mechanics, but I imagine this will be fleshed out and addressed as more cards (data packs) are released over the coming months.
Netrunner has become my new go-to game. It is the game that I think about most while not playing it, the game that I troll the internet for new strategies and discussions for constantly, the game that I keep coming away from with a new understanding of and ultimately, the best competitive card game I have played since first being introduced to Magic: The Gathering. Now I cannot say that it will have the longevity of Magic, only time can tell, but with Fantasy Flight already having released two great data packs and a seemingly strong community both for myself locally and online, Netrunner’s future looks bright. If you are a card game fan, a tabletop gaming fan, a sci-fi fan or any combination thereof, you need to check out Android: Netrunner.