Many years ago, a fellow named Richard Garfield created a card game that found its way into the homes of millions of people and has since continued to grow and expand and thrive. It is the game that keeps many a game store afloat, it has tournaments worldwide, and it has kept a huge following of players since its inception.
Netrunner is not that game. But, shortly after Magic: the Gathering, Mr. Garfield went on to create a number of other games, and one of those games was most definitely Netrunner. Alas, it did not achieve the popularity of Magic.
Fast forward a few decades later. Fantasy Flight Games, seeking to expand its complex and incredibly geek-friendly Android universe, acquired the rights to Netrunner and published it as a revamped, re-themed “LCG” called Android: Netrunner.
Here is my review.
How It Plays
Android: Netrunner is unique in that it is fully asymmetrical. I don’t mean that players have asymmetrical powers; I mean the gameplay itself is different for either player, although the goal is the same: score 7 Agenda points.
There are two sides: the Corporation and the Runner.
The Corporation scores Agenda points by ‘installing,’ protecting, advancing, and finally revealing and scoring an agenda. Agendas are installed on “remote servers,” and protected by “Ice” which has various effects that anyone attempting to hack into those remote servers must ‘break’ or suffer the consequences. (‘Installing’ just means playing, although the Corporation installs cards face down and then must pay a cost to “rez” the card, or flip it face up, in order to use its effect). The Corporation also has the ability to install Assets into its servers, which can provide income, or serve as a trap for a Runner trying to hack in and steal agendas.
The corporation has 3 actions during his or her turn, in addition to a mandatory card draw action, with which to install agendas, ice, and upgrades, gain credits, or run “operations.” Some of the effects of cards include dealing damage to the Runner (forcing them to discard cards), trashing the Runner’s resources, advancing Agendas more quickly, Tagging the runner for even more deadly effects, and protecting against a Runner’s hacking attempts (or “runs”).
The Runner, on the other hand, scores Agenda points simply by hacking into the Corporations servers and stealing Agenda cards. A Runner has 4 actions, which he or she can use to install cards that provide various bonuses such as Icebreakers which, as they sound, can “break” the ice protecting servers, as well as other programs that can strengthen the runner, increase income, or weaken the corporation’s servers.
A Runner can make a ‘run’ against any remote server where Agendas might be installed, but they can also ‘run’ against 3 “central servers” – also known as the Corporation’s hand (“HQ”), draw deck (“R&D”), or discard/trash pile (“Archives”) – meaning they have a chance to steal Agendas before the Corporation even has a chance to play them!
Thus commences a game of cat-and-mouse, in which the Corporation must install and advance Agendas, all while protecting ALL of their servers and attempting to bluff the runner into targeting assets instead of agendas, while the Runner must target the Corporations to steal agendas and keep the Corp’s resources low to slow them down.
The game ends when one player scores 7 points; or, if the Runner must discard/trash a card from their hand (“grip”) and does not have any to discard (the hand represents their hit points, essentially), or the Corporation must draw from their R&D and has no cards to draw (because they… ran out of ideas… or something…).
Continue the Run or Jack Out?
Let me start off by saying, I love the Android universe that was created in the original 2008 Android board game. Sure, it was a wild mishmash of references to other sci-fi franchises, but it was fun, and it was cool (in the completely geeky sense of the word cool). I enjoyed the game (you can see my review here), but I ultimately traded it away because it was too slow of a game (you could spend around 40 minutes waiting for your turn to come with nothing to do except eat some snacks in the meantime. Always play Android with snacks). The game had a lot of great mechanisms and the world was just fun to play in, and I missed it. So, I was very excited when I heard about the new Android universe games – first Infiltration, which I rather enjoyed, and now Netrunner (which, admittedly, has been out for quite a while now).
Fortunately, the theme does not disappoint. Everything in this game, from the design of the tokens, to the art on the cards, to the game’s extensive vocabulary, just oozes the evocative, futuristic cyberpunk world that is Android. Playing as the Corporation really feels like you’re controlling some sort of nefarious, dystopian corporation trying to advance your agendas on the world. Playing as a Runner feels like you’re an underground hacker trying to stay just one step ahead of your target.
The vocabulary for the game is rather extensive, but honestly I love it. It certainly makes the game more difficult to introduce to a new player – they’ve got a whole lot of words to associate with various elements of the game – but it makes the thematic experience that much better. You don’t “play cards,” you Install programs and hardware. You’ll make Runs, you’ll break ICE, you’ll defend your R&D and your HQ. You’ll get brain damage and net damage and meat damage. You’ll trace and tag the cowardly Runner; you’ll stick the Corporation with bad publicity. When you get used to the game terminology it is just that much more fun to play. It certainly helps that for the most part, the terminology makes sense.
Yes, the theme brilliantly layers the Android story onto the already-existing hacker-versus-corporation premise. But how does the gameplay stack up?
I think the surprising thing for me was how streamlined the whole experience is. Every time I’d read about the game or glanced over cards before actually playing it, it sounded immensely complex with a lot to worry about on either side of the table. But, as it turns out, once you get the concepts down it is actually pretty simple. Not as non-gamer-friendly as, say, Ticket to Ride, but nothing as complex as the original Android game. This is an excellent game; one of the best I’ve ever played.
Wrapped up inside this tightly bound package is a cleverly built system that uses almost no luck. The only “luck” involved is in which cards you draw, but this is easily mitigated by 1. becoming familiar with what is in your deck and/or 2. building your own deck.
While it seems like this game should be rife with luck, with so much interaction between players, instead it is all about planning, resource management, and timing. Almost everything you do costs you credits – installing a card, “rezzing” ICE, breaking that ICE. If you have the credits, you can accomplish what you need to. But credits aren’t exactly in abundance, so you may have to make a risky run that you might not be able to afford to finish, or install a piece of ICE you can’t afford to “rez” in hopes of scaring the runner away. I’ve heard complaints that a bad card draw can swing the game one way or another; for one, in what card game does this kind of luck NOT exist, and for another, the actions available in the game allow you to draw more cards when you need to. If you know your deck well, you know when to dig in and wait, and you can start planning your attack (or defense) before you draw the cards. You don’t have to be blind. My first few plays, I was obviously ignorant of the deck, but after I played through, I had a sense of what was coming and I never felt out of control of what was happening on my side of the table.
Far more important than the luck of the draw that will mess up your game is whatever your opponent is planning. You will go head-to-head, toe-to-toe, mano-a-mano. Every move counts.
I love the wide variety of approaches you can take to score points. As the Corporation, you can focus on building rock-solid ICE walls that are impenetrable, to allow your Assets to be advanced over time. Or you can focus on playing and advancing Assets as quickly as possible to score points. You can target the Runner aggressively to keep them weak. You can even just try to kill the Runner by forcing them to get rid of all the cards in their hand, and then some.
Runners can beef up their attacks in various ways, from strong and dynamic ICEbreakers, to virus programs, to other hardware and resources that provide credits or other boosts. They can build up a deadly offense to crush through whatever ICE they face, or carefully plan, spy out the Corp’s cards and make the most efficient moves. They can target “remote servers” to catch Agendas the Corp is trying to score, target HQ (the Corp’s hand of cards) to keep options limited for the corporation. They can even target R&D (the Corp’s draw deck) to capture Agendas before they even get started, or just run the Corp into the ground (if a Corp has no cards left to draw, they lose). Not even the Archives – the trash/discard pile – is safe!
The point is, there are so many viable strategies and so many approaches to those strategies, and this is even beyond the 7 different factions (4 Corp and 3 Runner) that each have different strengths. It’s exciting, it’s very interesting, and it makes for a tense, exciting experience.
This is an LCG – a “Living Card Game” – a cousin of the “Collectible Card Game.” The difference is that in an LCG, there are no randomized packs, which means you won’t need to constantly buy small booster packs to keep your deck viable. Instead, there are small expansion packs, non-randomized, that you can buy to add to your options. The core set is definitely playable – you get 4 Corp identities and 3 Runners, each of which has a small deck that can be mixed with an included set of “neutral” cards to create a completely usable deck. You can even do some deckbuilding by choosing your favorite faction and mixing in cards from other factions (within limits). But to really get the most out of this game, you’re going to want to buy those expansion packs.
Fortunately, building your deck is a big part of the fun. You may not be able to play Netrunner 5 times a week with another player, but you can get a lot of enjoyment out of crafting and refining your own deck for either side.
Components, by the way, are stellar. I think I use that word a lot when describing Fantasy Flight games, but this is no exception. The art is top notch, and definitely evokes the futuristic, cyberpunk feel. Each card has its own illustration. The card layouts are pretty darn good; there’s some minor confusion when explaining the important numbers on each card, as some cards are oriented differently. But in practice, this orientation difference is useful because they are different types of cards used in different ways, and orienting them properly on the table keeps the play area organized. Tokens are great cardboard stock as well, and the vibrant design carries through to these as well. That’s really all you have, the cards and tokens, and they are great.
Netrunner may be one of the best designed games I have ever played. It’s exciting, tense, and thematic, and rewards good planning and resource management. It does an amazing job of putting two players with completely asymmetrical goals and abilities face to face without using heavy luck-based elements. The art is great, the components are great, and the LCG model, while promising to be a constant drain on my wallet, is certainly better for me than the CCG model. The steep vocabulary curve may keep some away, but if you’re looking for a great LCG, look hard at this one. It’s a winner.