Review: Android: Netrunner

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There’s a sense of ownership that comes with customizable games like Netrunner. Sure, you can play with the prepared decks that come in the box, but most of the fun comes in designing your own kit to bring to the table and play against your friends.

And, hopefully, absolutely destroying them.

Netrunner is a card game set in a cyberpunk future where giant corporations have amassed near total power over human interests, and hacker run against their computer systems for diverse (if generally shady) reasons. One player plays as one of these megacorps, trying to advance their secret (and generally shady) agendas, while the other plays a runner, trying to steal those agendas—if they don’t die trying.

Each side has tools available to help them. The corporations, for instance, have Ice—short for Intrusion Contermeasures Electronics, they’re security programs that try to slow down, stop, or punish the runner for daring to approach their servers. The runners, meanwhile, has a selection of handy icebreakers, which do just what they say on the box. And that’s just the start—the corporation also has assets, upgrades, and operations, while the runner has hardware, resources, and events.

All of them cleverly designed to beat your friends and have fun doing it.

Oddly enough, it’s hard to tell who the underdog is in Netrunner. It ought to be the runner, but the runner has the fantastic ability to run on anything. The corporation will set up remote servers to host assets, upgrades, and agendas, but the corporation’s hand, deck, and discard pile also count as servers that can be accessed by the runner, if only small portions at a time. Nowhere is safe—but the Corporation can sure try and make it a fight.

Yes, running gamut from paramilitary forces to ad campaigns.
Yes, running gamut from paramilitary forces to ad campaigns.

Knowledge is key to Netrunner. As you play, each side develops their side of the board. The corporation will set up remote servers and can protect servers with Ice. The runner will set up programs, hardware, and resources to help them make successful and damaging runs. There’s one key difference—the corporation can play cards face down. Most cards on their side can be played face down for free, then paid for whenever the corporation is willing and able to “rez” them. That’s where things get tricky—the runner can see where cards are played, but may not know what they are.

Never go in against a runner when death is on the line. (Seriously, though, it's not as bad as it looks.)
Never go in against a runner when death is on the line. (Seriously, though, it’s not as bad as it looks.)

Now the runner has to make some decisions. Is that unrezzed ice something they can deal with? Did they put an agenda in the well protected server and some distraction or trap in another, or are they bluffing and it’s the other way around? Maybe they expected you to think that. Maybe they put iocaine powder in both the cups.

Naturally, you want to go into this with as much of an advantage as possible. That’s the brutal nature of these games—you don’t start with a balanced setup and try to get leverage over your opponent. No, you want to prepare, and take the high ground before you even start shuffling.

To those ends, you will pick a faction for your corporation and your runner. You might go with NBN—a news corporation excellent at tracing and putting tags on the runner—and a Criminal runner, who, naturally, have plenty of ways to line their pockets. Your deck will mainly be composed of cards from your faction (and neutral cards), though you can splash in some others to cover your blind spots and get the jump on your opponent. Each faction has a few more specific identities available, each with their own little tweak to the game and how you can build your deck.

Deck building does have a learning curve, but, luckily, the core set makes getting into the game a breeze. Assembling the starting decks is straightforward—you just take one faction’s cards and all the neutral ones, and that’s it. It’s a neat way of easing players into the game.

But it does have a small drawback. You can usually have up to three copies of most cards in your deck, but to make it easy to piece together decks in the base box, you’ll only have one or two copies of certain cards. There’s no way to complete a set but to buy another box or two. All but the most dedicated players will be happy with one, maybe two, but it’s a shame the publisher, Fantasy Flight, hasn’t made any effort to make this any easier—or cheaper.

Apart from that, the expansions to the game are much more generous. “Data Packs” come out once a month, and include three copies of every new card. It’s a rapid pace, but for about the cost of one Magic draft a month, you can keep up with every new release.

Magic: the Gathering is the obvious comparison. It’s by the same designer, and back in the far-off year of 1996, Netrunner was a card game by Wizards of the Coast, likewise sold in booster packs. At least now, if you by a data pack, you’re getting full sets of useful stuff, and even if you won’t use all of it, you’re not going to end up with a pile of junk and maybe a few cards that are useful.

There's a notable absence of useless junk.
There’s a notable absence of useless junk.

Granted, some people like collecting and trading Magic cards. I did, too. There just isn’t a secondary market for Netrunner. So, if you view your collection as an investment to be bought and sold like stocks, Netrunner isn’t for you. For those of you who like playing games, Netrunner absolutely is.

Let me put it this way—for less than the cost of a competitive Magic deck, you can buy full sets of most, maybe even all, Netrunner cards. You most likely won’t even have to do that to build the deck you want. It creates a much more level playing field. I know I said deckbuilding is about going into a fight with an advantage, but wouldn’t you rather it be because you were clever rather than the one who threw more money at their hobby?

Anyway, back to the game itself.

To be honest, I wasn’t sold on the asymmetrical aspect of the game. I thought it was a bit messy, and that I’d rather just have one deck that I can bring into a game that encapsulates my approach to the game as a whole, not just one side of it.

android-netrunner-core-rules1I was wrong.

Besides being a brilliant design and enabling all sorts of fun stuff, there’s also a fantastic side effect. Take a look at what a single Netrunner player will have on hand—a runner deck, a corporation deck, and a set of tokens. It’s a complete game. If you want to teach a friend how to play the game, or they just don’t have a deck of their own on hand, you can hand them one of yours and start playing.

It’s like the game was discreetly designed to be as accessible as possible. One player has all the stuff to play a two-player game. If you want to get started, there’s a convenient starter kit. If you want the expansions, they’re as cheap and convenient as card games get.

It is, fittingly, kind of like a virus. I heard all the attention the game was getting, and checked it out. I played a few games with friends of mine. Within a week they bought the core set and some expansions.

If you like collectible card games, want to try one out, enjoy a great cyberpunk theme, or just like clever game design, you really ought to check out Netrunner.

Now go run some nets.

 

If you would like to support Groom Porter, please consider purchasing the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Rune Lords Base Set through our Amazon Affiliate link
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