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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What Is League of Legends (LoL) ?

I have been spending... some non-specific amount of time and energy playing League of Legends by Riot Games.  It is a deep, strategic, tactical, and enjoyable game.  I plan on posting a series of articles about different aspects of the game.  Unfortunately, not everyone knows what the heck League of Legends even is, so this is the article I'm going to point them towards to get the basics.

MOBA, No Duh

LoL is classified as a MOBA, a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena.  There are quite a few such games these days--DoTA 2, Smite, Heroes of the Storm, etc.  You can look 'em up if you're interested, but they're CLEARLY inferior to League of Legends, otherwise I'd be writing the article about them.  MOBAs also have the moniker "action real-time strategy games," which is awesome not just because "ARTS games" are now thing (hah!), but because it's a pretty apt description.

MOBA games are team-based real-time action games--there's no waiting for your opponent's turn to finish.  The clock is always ticking, and if you're not accomplishing anything useful, the enemy team is likely gaining an advantage.  Each player controls a single character with a limited set of abilities.  Together, teammates must coordinate to destroy the enemy base before the enemy team destroys their base.

There are plenty of game modes within most MOBAs, but the basic game mode is 5v5 on a map like the one above.  The two blue corners represent the bases that need to be destroyed.  The yellow bars represent paths or "lanes."

Each base regularly spawns minions that march down the three lanes.  These minions (also known as "creep") do not respond to commands from any of the players; they just march down their lanes and automatically attack any enemies they see.  If they encounter an enemy structure, they will attack it until it is destroyed.

The blue dots on the map represent towers or turrets that defend the lanes.  Any enemies (including minions) that come in range will be attacked by these towers.  The towers also give vision of the map, which makes it very difficult to sneak into the enemy base without being noticed.

The green area is the jungle.  This has a lot of twisting paths through which players can travel from lane to lane.  There are also neutral monsters in the jungle that players can attack to gain extra gold and experience.

Since there are typically 5 players on a team and only 3 lanes, players will usually take up specific positions in the early game.  In League of Legends, one player will take the top lane, one in the mid lane, two in the bottom lane (one of which is usually a support character), and one in the jungle who roams between the lanes and helps alleviate pressure.

Build It Up, Tear It Down

League of Legends  steadily ramps up towards a very intense end game.  Players' characters or "champions" start with a small amount of gold and no experience points.  As they kill minions and enemies and destroy objectives, they acquire more gold (which they can use to purchase items at their base) and more experience (which allows them to level up their abilities or gain new abilities).

In the early game, players will jockey for gold by "farming" minions.  This means dealing the killing blow to a minion and gaining the gold for the kill.  Simply being nearby when a minion dies will gain a player experience, but gold is only won by the person who deals the final blow.  This is also called "creeping" and is an important skill to learn.

In the early game, farming is key.  Many players will practically ignore enemy champions during the first few minutes of the game in favor of farming.  (Of course, this can leave a player open to early ganks if they're not careful.  If you're taking damage in order to kill creep, the opponent could jump in and finish you off.  You can't farm when you're dead!)

Baron Nashor, an important objective in the jungle, halfway between the mid and top lanes.

As players gain more gold, buy more items, and level up their abilities, they will become more powerful.  Additionally, they will push the waves of minions up to the towers and take the towers down, breaking apart the enemy defenses.  During the mid game, players will start to roam into other lanes and apply targeted pressure.  They will take key objectives, such as: the dragon, which gives a global stat boost to every player on the team; Baron Nashor, who is a tough mofo, but gives a powerful temporary boost to every living player on the team; enemy towers; and inhibitors.  Inhibitors are defenseless structures in the enemy base that sit behind the third tier of towers.  When your team destroys an enemy inhibitor, your base begins spawning super minions, which are tougher and deal more damage.

This is an inhibitor, yo.
As a team takes objectives and gains power and momentum, they can push into the late game, where the teams group up and fight to destroy the final defenses and destroy the enemy nexus.

Blue side's nexus, guarded by two towers to ward off attacks by the filthy purple team.

First to destroy the nexus wins, every time.  Doesn't matter how many kills you get; if you don't level up, buy items, take objectives, and destroy the nexus, you lose.


League of Legends is completely free to play.  Seriously.  You don't have to spend any money to enjoy every aspect of the game.  You can acquire every champion and play every game mode without spending a dime.  Playing a match earns you IP, which can be used to purchase champions as well as "runes" which give you slight stat boosts during a game.  

There are more than 120 champions in League of Legends, each with their own unique abilities and advantages.  There are close-range tanks that soak up damage and do annoying things to draw enemy fire.  There are ranged marksmen that dish out a lot of damage, but have to avoid TAKING damage because they are mighty squishy.  There are spellcasters and healers and assassins and a Koopa turtle with a spin move that looks like Sonic the Hedgehog.  Also robots and ponies and pirates and cowboys and a scarecrow.  And tiny little people called yordles with adorable chubbly cheeks.

Really, no matter your tastes, you're going to find champions that connect with you.

There are always 10 champions available without having to purchase them.  Those free champions rotate each week, so you can always try new champions.  Riot Games does a good job of giving players a good variety within the free champs--there's always at least one good champion for each of the five major roles, with a diversity of play styles and themes.  If you jump into the game, just try a few of the free champs and see what you like!

Once you've found characters that you like, you can purchase them in the store using the IP you've gathered from playing the game!

IP lets you buy everything in the game, with one exception.  Skins.

Skins.  Why did it have to be skins?

I know what you're thinking.  "Psh, why would I want to pay real money so that my fake digital character can wear different clothes?"


Why would you want your champion to look like this:

This is your Blitzcrank

When you could look like this:

This is your Blitzcrank on AWESOME

Would you really prefer this:

Say hello to Teemo
Over this:
Say hello to Teemo... IN SPACE

As much as I love this champion:

Oh, Anivia.  How I love you
I have to admit she looks much better like this:

I guess I can kinda see why some people would have trouble choosing between this:

Miss Fortune
And this:


Here's the thing about champion skins:  They don't JUST change how the character looks, although frankly that alone is pretty awesome.  They also add new or different phrases the champion will say--entirely new voice work for your character!  AND the animations are different, which doesn't just look cool, but can actually have a minor effect on the game.  If your opponent is used to your attack looking a particular way, then changing the animation can actually throw off their ability to dodge.  Which means that skins aren't just awesome, they can actually help you win!

But you can only acquire them by purchasing RP, which costs real dollars.  And let me tell you, plenty of people are shelling out, because Riot Games makes approximately ALL THE MONEY each quarter.  The League of Legends World Championship took place recently and had a prize pool of $2 million.

Still, you can thoroughly enjoy the game without ever spending any money at all.  And I really do think you'll enjoy it.

Download the game here.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

J-AWE Dropping Design

Andreas Propst, famed designer of such indie board game hits as Elemental Clash, Space Clash, and Biomechanical Dino Battles, is at it again.

Andi has a strong track record of taking solid game ideas and evolving them into polished products that are easy to learn, but with plenty of depth and strategy, and most of all, fun.  Now he has launched a Kickstarter campaign for his latest creation:  AWE - Antediluvian Wars: Extermination!

Check out the Kickstarter campaign here!

AWE on KS fb

AWE is exactly the kind of game I always wanted to design--an expandable, compact, two-player competitive card game in which each card can be used in multiple ways.  The versatility of the cards gives players a lot of interesting tactical decisions throughout the game.

As you can see in the example card below, each card can be used in three main ways.  Played right-side up, it is a creature that will stay on the board and fight for your cause until it is killed or you win the game.  Played upside-down, it is a one-shot event that will have an effect and then be discarded.  Played sideways, the card acts as a resource, allowing you to play more cards to bring your opponent to his or her knees.

Hyperborean Heavy Cavalry Sample
And check out that stellar art!

There's even a handy diagram to explain the concept:

How to play a card
Simple mechanic, tons of depth.  Each card immediately presents the player with three different decisions, and the choice the player makes will lead to further decisions.  When do I attack?  What do I target?  How do I allocate my resources?

In AWE, each player takes on the role of a God of one of four unique factions:  Mu, Lemuria, Atlantis, and Hyperborea.  Each God has two unique abilities that will give players an edge throughout the game.  Each faction has a different flavor and unique emphases.

Will you play as the Lemurians, dark-skinned masters of long-lost technologies such as flying warships and Thunderrods?

Perhaps you are more drawn to Hyperboreans, stout northerners who ride woolly rhinos and mammoths into battle to destroy their enemies with gunpowder and steam-powered weaponry?

Maybe you feel a connection with the sea-faring Atlanteans and their well-organized and well-trained infantry and cavalry--not to mention their ability to summon mighty sea serpents to do battle alongside them.

Or do the shamanistic Muans appeal to you with their powerful and versatile magic and their deep connection with nature?

Whatever you choose, you won't be wrong!

AWE Warrior Concepts
Unless of course you choose the Atlanteans.  Those guys are chumps!

Want to make sure this is your kind of game?  You can read the full game rules here.

The Kickstarter has already broken $1100 and is on its way to making the game a reality.  If this game sounds AWEsome to you, please consider backing it!  I already have, and I'm excited to get the game into my hands and the hands of my friends and family.  

If you're strapped for funds, please feel free to help spread the word by sharing the project on Facebook, Twitter, or on your blog.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Dead Space Mobile: Lessons in Porting/Designing for Mobile Devices

I am currently on my second playthrough of Dead Space Mobile on my Motorola Photon Q.  (My wife and I treated ourselves to fancy new smartphones for Christmas.  I have to say, smartphones are amazing.)  The first two Dead Space games on PS3 were two of the best survival horror games I have ever played. Dead Space 3 was awful, and I will eventually write a post on why it was so bad, but for now, suffice to say that it's not even worth playing.

Dead Space Mobile does an exceptionally good job of translating the mechanics and feeling of the Dead Space franchise to a mobile platform.


Dead Space Mobile takes a break from Isaac Clark's story to give us a peek at another corner of the Dead Space universe.  You play as Vandal, a recent convert to Unitology tasked with sabotaging mining operation on Titan Station.  Within the first few minutes of the game, though, your efforts prove to be part of a Unitology plot to release Necromorphs on the station.  Unitologists, as has been established in other Dead Space works, are a crazy cult that believes that humanity must ascend to a higher form by dying and being reshaped into horrible clawed space zombies.  These Necromorphs don't die easy; rather than taking off their heads, as in most zombie lore, you must surgically severe their limbs.  Otherwise, they'll just keep coming at you.

Space zombies just want hugs.

Left for dead on the station, it is up to you to repair the damage and prevent a catastrophe from destroying the station and all survivors of the Necromorph attacks.  You proceed through a series of levels, often with a short tram ride in between, dismembering monsters, acquiring new weapons, and repairing vital systems on your way to a massive and intense boss fight in the final chapter.  Oh, and Vandal is gradually going insane the whole time, so there's that.

This isn't the final boss, but it is a big jerk that soaks up tons of your precious ammo.

The plot doesn't offer many twists or surprises, but the setting and characters are interesting, and the tension builds well to a satisfying climax.  I also enjoyed the nod to Metroid at the end of the game.  There are some great jump-scares, too.  The designers definitely know how to build suspense and terror, which is just what you want from a Dead Space game.


Smartphone games are a challenge to design.  The screen is small, and the user input is limited to the touchscreen interface and the phone's tilt controls.  I was subsequently nervous about how Visceral Games was going to map Playstation controls onto a phone.  It turns out that it works surprisingly well.

Left thumb to move, right thumb to look around, just like a Playstation controller.

As in the console Dead Space games, Dead Space Mobile gives the player an over-the-shoulder view of our armored protagonist.  Vandal is on the left side of the screen.  Placing your left thumb on Vandal allows you to move forward, backward, or side-to-side.  Placing your right thumb on the right side of the screen allows you to change the camera angle, turn to the right or left, and aim your weapons.  Movement and aiming are very smooth on my phone, as long as I keep the screen clean.  I did have to occasionally wipe the screen to allow for uninhibited aiming, particularly during really tense fights, when my hands would get a little sweaty.

Ready to kill

Tapping the right side of the screen once will ready your weapon.  Tapping again will fire the weapon.  As in the other Dead Space games, all weapons in Dead Space Mobile have two firing modes.  The basic Plasma Cutter, for example, can fire either horizontally or vertically, allowing for precise severing of Necromorph limbs.  The Line Gun either fires a broad and powerful horizontal shot, or dispatches a timed mine.  To switch between firing modes, just tilt the phone to one side briefly.  To reload, tap the ammo readout about the weapon.

If any enemy is standing close to Vandal, you can slash it with a new weapon, the Plasma Saw, which requires no ammo.  An arrow pointing upwards will appear on the left side of the screen whenever Vandal can use this attack.  Simple swipe your left thumb upwards along the arrow to perform the attack

Similarly, when standing over enemies or breakable boxes, an arrow pointing downwards will appear on the left side of the screen to indicate that Vandal can stomp on them.

As in the console games, you gain the ability to temporarily freeze enemies or objects with Stasis.  To do so, aim your weapon at the target and press the Stasis button on Vandal's back.

Vandal can also move heavy objects from a distance using Kinesis.  If an item can be manipulated with Kinesis, an icon will appear above it.  Simply tap the icon, and Vandal will grab it with Kinesis.  Tap the screen again to throw the item.

There are doors, lockers, and boxes that Vandal can open.  An icon appears on such objects; just tap the icon to open it.  The same icon will also indicate when you can interact with the store (where you can buy and sell useful items) or with a bench (where you can use Power Nodes to upgrade your weapons, armor, and Stasis module).

Useful items such as ammo and Power Nodes can be found throughout the game.  Simply approach them.  When you are standing close to them, an image of the item will float above the item itself.  Tap the image to collect the item.

There are a few zero-gravity areas in the game.  These are treated the same way as they are handled in the first Dead Space game; you are magnetically rooted to the floor, but can jump across the room to new locations.  To do so in Dead Space Mobile, aim at the location to which you would like to jump and shake the phone up and down.  Once usually does it.


The game manages to translate the movement, the frantic surgical shooting, and the desperate search for ammo found in the console games.  It even has the spectacular "Stasis-punch" combo, wherein you use Stasis to freeze an enemy, then run up to it and use your Plasma saw to shred it without using up your ammunition.  The game's action is tense as you scramble to get some distance between yourself and the Necromorphs so you can shoot off their limbs.  It is not uncommon to have to run around a room looking for ammo and hoping to heal while several enemies try to trap you in a corner and eat your face.  Despite a linear plot and some rather uninspired level design, the game manages to be exciting, engaging, and fun.

However, there are some interesting differences between the mobile and the console games.  In the console Dead Space games, the player must manage an inventory of items, occasionally dropping useful items to make room for necessary ones.  In the mobile game, there is no inventory; Vandal can carry a virtually unlimited amount of ammo.  This design choice was made to save on screen real estate.  An inventory button did not need to be mapped to the touch screen.

One of the reasons that the inventory was unnecessary was that Dead Space Mobile does away with health packs.  Instead of needing to collect items to heal damage, Vandal heals gradually over time.  This, again, was a deliberate design choice that was made to accommodate the restrictions of the mobile platform.  Changing the heal mechanic for the mobile game allowed the designers to remove the need for the player to have a button or series of button presses in order to heal.  I applaud this innovation, although this did allow me to occasionally "game the system" by completely ignoring slobbering monsters and just running around healing until I was ready to fight them.

None of this.

Dead Space Mobile acknowledges that it is likely to be played in shorter chunks than the console games by discarding the save point system.  Instead, it uses a series of checkpoints to save the game.  Whenever you accomplish something--move to a new location, complete a battle, gain a new weapon, even use a bench or the store--a save icon will briefly appear in the lower right corner of the screen.  Once it disappears, your game is safe, and you can close out the game without fear of losing your progress.  The checkpoints are spaced close enough to each other that gamers on the go can feel free to play for just a few minutes and still progress through the game.

The game includes several instances of zero-gravity, and a few areas without atmosphere, wherein you must rely on your O2 tank and maybe a refill station to get through.  However, those sections were few and far between, and did nothing to really play with the zero-G or oxygen mechanics.  They were just very basic "now you have to make a few space jumps to get to the next door" or "now you have to pay attention to your oxygen level on the way to the next door" type of levels.


I think that, in general, the level design of the game was rather lackluster.  There were few puzzles, none of which were tremendously brain-burning, and the levels were usually quite linear.  Stasis and Kinesis, two mechanics that are crucial for solving puzzles in the console games, are hardly ever used to progress through the levels, beyond freezing some malfunctioning doors or clearing away some large boxes to get through a corridor.  That's not to say the levels are uninteresting, merely unimaginative.

Astute readers may have noticed that many of the preceding paragraphs sound a little disparaging.  My apologies for this.  I don't want people to think that the game is BAD.  It's good.  Solid.  It just doesn't innovate upon the Dead Space formula.  It cuts out some of the console mechanics and doesn't add anything groundbreaking.  That being said, it's a fine Dead Space game which I thoroughly enjoyed.


So what can we learn from this console-to-mobile port?

1. Distill

Console games have several advantages over mobile games.  They have controllers with, just, a TON of buttons and thumbsticks.  They're played on nice big screen televisions, which are occasionally HD, I hear.  (Sigh.)  They have some absolutely KICK ASS games.  But for all their good points, they're also tied to the living room.  (Bedroom.  Basement.  Wherever you keep your game systems; I'm not here to judge.)

Gotta work with the space you have.  I get it.

If you want games on the go, you have to make some sacrifices.  That means trimming the fat.  Boil down the essence of your IP.  What is it that players most enjoy about your games?  Translate THOSE experiences and THOSE mechanics to the phone.  Leave out or simplify everything else.  This was something that Dead Space Mobile did well.

2. Utilize Your Mechanics

If it's in the game, make sure you put it to good use.  Say you have a sweet cover system for your shooter.  Make sure you place a good amount of cover in each area for the player to use!  Even better, give the player interesting ways to interact with cover throughout the game; break up the rhythm that the player will inevitably develop of ducking, popping up, shooting, and going back into cover.  Maybe some pieces of cover disintegrate quickly under fire, or certain types of enemies can shoot through certain types of cover, or certain enemies will rush at your cover, leap over it, and hack at you with machetes.  You know, mix things up.  Play with your game mechanics.

Nintendo games, for example, tend to play the HELL out of very basic yet fun mechanics, such as running and jumping in Mario games.

Dead Space Mobile doesn't do this QUITE as well.  Stasis is great for combat, so I don't fault them for not using it in very many puzzles.  On the other hand, the designers could have found more interesting things to do with Kinesis.  There are a couple of puzzles were you have to use Kinesis to carry powered batteries to open doors, and they managed to make some of those puzzles interesting--forcing you to juggle carrying something with fighting monsters, for example, or having to toss it through a set of malfunctioning doors that are slamming open and closed.  Still, the mechanic seems underused compared to the work the designers got out of it in the console games.

Much more egregious in my mind, though, was the game's use of zero-G.  Their uses are so bland and unimaginative it actually made me sad when I reached the final boss.  "Is that really all the zero-G jumping I get to do?" I though.  I love the zero-G areas in Dead Space.  They're so much fun!  I didn't get nearly enough of them in Dead Space Mobile.

As for O2, there is exactly one fight in an area without atmosphere.  And I'll admit, it was intense, balancing the need to move to a better position and shoot Necromorphs with the need to reach an O2 station to stave off asphyxiation.  But that was a single battle in what I would guess was a seven-hour game.  It was under-utilized, and that is highly unfortunate.  It's a good mechanic that can add a time element to any battle or puzzle that would normally be straightforward.  That's a great way to add tension.  It should have been used more.

3. Design for Mobile Gaming

I don't JUST mean that you have to design controls that work on a phone, although that certainly important.  You also have to design your game with mobile gaming habits in mind.  Most mobile gaming is done in short chunks of time.  Make sure your players can make progress and have fun every couple of minutes.  Keep your cutscenes short and sweet.  Make it very easy to save the game and quit.  Dead Space does this quite well.  It also had some surprisingly good controls for a phone game, which I applaud.


If you're a fan of the Dead Space franchise, you'll almost certainly appreciate this game.  If you like survival horror games, you'll probably like this game.  If you want a good sci fi shooter on your phone, give this a shot.

Dead Space Mobile is available for iOS for $6.99 and Android for the same price.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Running the Net for Fun and Profit

Now, I'm not going to claim that Android: Netrunner is the best tabletop game ever made.  (It might be.)  I'm not even going to explain why I think you, dear reader, should play it.  (You should.)  I just wanted to express my thoughts on the game, and what I think it does and does not do successfully.

But first, some background information.

What is Android: Netrunner?

Android: Netrunner is a Living Card Game from Fantasy Flight Games.  Like FFG's other Living Card Games, A:N has a core set of cards that new players can purchase to dive into the game, as well as regularly-released packs of new cards that can be added to a player's cardboard arsenal.  (Side note: "cardboard arsenal" is my new favorite phrase.)  These data packs are non-randomized.  If you buy the "Second Thoughts" data pack, you will get exactly the same cards as everyone else who bought that data pack.

This means there are no rare cards to chase, no money sink as you hit the secondary market for that killer $50 card.  If there's a card you want, you just buy the data pack that has it.  This leads to a much more wallet-friendly expandable card game than, say, Yu-Gi-Oh! or Magic: The Gathering.  Is it still a money sink?  Sure.  You'll probably spend $200+ to get all the available cards.  A:N is not designed to be a casual game, although you can just buy the core set for $25 and have a perfectly enjoyable game.  It's a hobby game, designed to keep your interest after dozens, hundreds, even thousands of plays.

The game is based on Richard Garfield's original Netrunner card game.  Doctor Garfield is the genius behind Magic: The Gathering and the collectible card game genre in general.  After creating M:TG, Richard sat down and made another card game that became a cult hit.  Drawing on the evolving cyberpunk genre, he created an asymmetric two-player game, wherein one player takes the role of the Corp, fighting to advance its agendas while keeping hackers out of its servers, while the other player was the Runner, a digital cowboy looking to expose the Corp's plans.  The Corp would lay traps and build defenses to dissuade the Runner from attacking, while the Runner would assemble a rig to slip past the defenses and steal agenda cards.

Netrunner imploded quickly, however, as so many other CCGs at the time.  While the gameplay was solid, many people felt that the cards were imbalanced towards particular playstyles that were non-interactive.  Players would sit back and assemble combinations of cards that would win the game outright.

Fantasy Flight Games has now resurrected the game, placing it in their Android universe.  While they kept the major mechanics and dynamics of the game, they've added in extra layers of theme.  Instead of just Runner and Corp, there are three Runner factions (Shapers, Criminals, and Anarchs) and four Corp factions (Haas-Bioroid, Weyland Industries, Jinteki, and NBN), each with its own flavor, strengths, weaknesses, and ideologies.  They've also tweaked many things to maintain a balanced and dynamic game.  No more sitting back and assembling the perfect set of cards--if you're not actively trying to disrupt your opponent's plans, then you're almost certain to lose.

How does one play?

I won't go into major detail about the game's mechanics.  FFG has created an exceptionally good tutorial video that you may watch at your leisure.  A quick rundown of the basics, though, may be useful:

--Each player selects an Identity card associated with a particular faction, and builds a deck for that ID.  Cards from other factions may be used, but each ID has a limited amount of Influence (usually 15) it can use on out-of-faction cards.  Once that limit is reached, it's in-faction or neutral cards, only.  Each ID also lists a minimum deck size (usually 45).  Players can build larger decks, of course.  There is a maximum of 3 copies of any one card.  Additionally, the Corp player must include a minimum amount of agenda points.  Agenda points are found on agenda cards, most of which are worth 1, 2, or 3 points.  The first player to 7 points wins.

--The Corp player goes first and has 3 actions or "clicks" to use each turn.  The Corp starts with 5 credits.  Clicks can be used to install cards, gain 1 credit, draw 1 card, play an Operation (a single-use card that leaves play after resolving), or advancing a card.  Advancing a card costs 1 credit and allows the Corp to place an advancement counter on that card.  Agenda cards have an advancement cost and cannot be scored until they have been advanced enough times.  Some defense cards (called ICE) and ambush cards (fake agendas that hurt the Runner) can also be advanced.

A game from the Corp's perspective.  Note all the face-down cards, including two cards with advancement counters on them.  What could they be?

Nearly all of the Corp's cards are played face-down, so the Runner does not know what they are until he or she accesses them.  The Corp can even discard cards into his or her discard pile face-down.  The Corp must draw a card at the beginning of each turn, and if he or she ever runs out of cards, he or she loses.

--The Runner goes second and has 4 actions or "clicks" to use each turn.  The Runner also starts with 5 credits.  Clicks can be used to install cards, gain 1 credit, draw 1 card, play an Event (a single-use card that leaves play after resolving), or make a run.  When the Runner makes a run, he or she chooses a "server" to attack.  He or she can run on the Corp's hand (HQ), deck (R&D), discard pile (Archives), or on any remote servers into which the Corp has installed cards.

When the Runner successfully attacks HQ, he or she randomly looks at 1 card.  When the Runner successfully attacks R&D, he or she looks at the top card of the deck.  When the Runner successfully attacks Archives or a remote server, he or she looks at all cards in that server.  If the Runner looks at an agenda card, he or she automatically steals it and gets that much closer to victory.

The Runner does not get to draw a card at the beginning of each turn.  If the Runner is ever required to discard a card from hand and cannot, he or she loses.

So what's the big deal?

There are several things that I really enjoy about Android: Netrunner.

1) Asymmetric Gameplay

The Corp and the Runner play extremely differently.  They don't even get to use any of the same cards!

Corp, being the good guys, get the blue card back.  The evil Runners, always trying to hack into places they don't belong and steal stuff that isn't theirs, get the red card back.

The Corp tries to build up defenses in front of his or her servers, laying down ICE cards that injure the Runner or stop them from running.  The Corp is trying to tax the Runner and make it too expensive to get in.  He or she must also bluff about what cards are where.  "Is that an agenda I just put into this remote server, or is it a trap?  Can you afford to get past my ICE to find out?"  Because all of the Corp's cards are played face-down, he or she can keep the Runner guessing.  It's all about draining the Runner's resources in order to open windows of opportunity for advancing and scoring agendas.

The Runner tries to attack the Corp and steal agendas.  His or her goal is to force the Corp to spread its defenses thin, or to keep the Corp too poor to defend itself and advance agendas.  He or she is always looking for weak points, and searching for information about what cards are where.  "Oh, I saw a piece of ICE when I ran R&D last turn, and now you've installed a face-down piece of ICE.  I'll bet it's the one I saw last turn, and I have just the card for it."  "Ah, you spent a turn gathering credits.  You must be gearing up to score an agenda.  I'd better run your HQ and try to grab it out of your hand before you can score it."

The asymmetry of the game is a barrier for new players, because they essentially have to learn two different games.  But in terms of replayability?  Come on, you're basically buying two different games!  And they're both enjoyable!

2) Game Balance

Despite the differences between the two sides, the game is quite well balanced.

For example, the Corp must pay to install and "rez" (turn face-up) defensive ICE cards, but must only pay those costs once.  The Runner must install ice breakers that neutralize the bad effects of ICE, but must pay to break each piece of ICE he or she encounters every time he or she makes a run.  So the Corp might rez a piece of ICE for 4 credits, while the Runner can pass through that piece of ICE for only 2 credits.  However, if the Runner must get through that ICE two, three, five, ten times?  Those costs add up.

On the other hand, the Corp must pay money and spend clicks (actions) to advance agendas.  The Runner immediately steals any agenda cards he or she accesses for free.  Most agendas require 3 or more advancements before they can be scored, and the Corp only has 3 clicks to spend per turn.  Since agendas must be installed in remote servers before they can be advanced, that means that nearly every agenda must sit in a remote server, potentially vulnerable, before the Corp can advance and score it.  This gives the Runner a chance to break in and steal it, or perform an action that will drain the Corp of the credits necessary to advance the agenda.

This leads to a dynamic back-and-forth battle.  The Runner makes runs to try to steal agendas and force the Corp to install and rez ICE, draining the Corp of the clicks and credits necessary to score agendas and win.  The Corp sets up defenses that drain the Runner economically.  Even if the Runner can get in once, can he or she get in a second time?  And was the first run worth the money?  It's an economic duel, a game of deception and cost-mitigation.

3) Expandable Card Game

I.  LOVE.  Building decks.  It's my favorite thing about Magic: The Gathering; I just loved assembling a deck, trying to balance early game essentials with late game goodies.  That's why I loved M:tG's draft format so much--every time I played, I would get to build a new deck from scratch!  (Of course, that's also why I stopped playing Magic.  Drafting gets expensive pretty quickly, purchasing brand new cards every time you play.)

Android: Netrunner allows me to scratch that deck-building itch.  I can sit down, boot up the cardgamedb.com deckbuilder, and decide, "Do I want to build a Corp or a Runner deck right now?  And on what should it focus?"  I can throw in everything but the kitchen sink and gradually cut and sculpt until I have a tight deck with the proper amount of out-of-faction Influence, or I can carefully construct a base of key cards and build it up with support cards until I have something fun and functional.

4) Every Card In the Deck Is Useful

A lot of card games borrow the idea from Magic of having resource cards of some kind that generate money/mana/power/whatever that allow you to use your other, more interesting cards.  This means that you have to shuffle a good amount of boring cards into your deck and hope to draw them at a steady rate in order to play your best spells/creatures/structures/whatever.  Now, there are good reasons for doing this.  There's usually a limit to the number of resource cards you can place each turn, so the game slowly ramps up, allowing players with weaker starting hands to have a fighting chance against players that start out with their best, most-powerful-yet-uber-expensive cards in hand.

In Magic (and many other games), you also need to match the type of resource you're using with the type of card you're playing.  Blue cards need blue resources, silver cards require silver resources, etc.  This is a way to force players into specialization.  If you pack too many different types of cards and resources into your deck, you risk drawing mismatched cards and being unable to play.

Hi!  I essentially do nothing, but you need at least 20 of me in your 60 card deck.  Aren't I pretty, though?

In Android: Netrunner, this is not the case.  Each card requires two resources: clicks (actions) and credits (money).  Each player only has a limited number of clicks per turn, but he or she can use those clicks to generate more credits, thus ensuring that he or she can always play the cards he or she wants--it's just a matter of time, of acquiring the necessary credits.  Thus, the game ramps up more naturally.  The Corp always goes first and tries to set up preliminary defenses while acquiring more money, while the Runner tries to force the Corp to spend money rezzing ICE while acquiring more money, while the Corp tries to drain the Runner's money by making them run through ICE, while the Runner attacks on multiple fronts and forces the Corp to spread ICE thinly....  It's a wonderful back-and-forth contest, and it doesn't require either play to put boring cards in their decks.

A:N doesn't use its resource system to encourage deck specialization, either.  Instead, it has an Influence system.  Each card costs a particular amount of Influence if used outside its own designated faction.  Weaker or more specialized cards may cost less Influence, while stronger or more versatile cards eat up more Influence.  Players must carefully choose how to spend their Influence as they build their decks, but once they start playing, it doesn't matter if they draw in-faction or out-of-faction cards--they just need to worry about their money situation.

5) Multiple Routes to Victory

Why so serious?

Sure, most decks focus on getting to 7 points and winning.  But that's not the only way to win!  The Corp can flatline the Runner by dealing damage to him or her.  Whenever the Runner takes damage, he or she must discard a card from his or her hand.  If he or she must discard a card and cannot, he or she loses.  Thus, the Corp can load up on damage-deal cards and try to strike when the Runner is low on cards for the win.

As for the Runner, he or she wins if the Corp cannot draw a card at the beginning of his or her turn.  There are not (currently) very many cards that allow the Runner to mill cards from the Corp's deck into his or her discard pile, but they do exist, and let me tell you, it's a very fun (if very risky) strategy.  Plus, if the Runner can just prolong the game enough, the Corp will naturally draw out.  Remember, the Runner doesn't have to draw cards every turn, and the Corp does.  If the Corp doesn't act, or if the Runner disrupts the Corp's actions enough, eventually the Corp will just run out of cards.

6)  The Community is Awesome

I'm sure this is the case with just about any hobby game, but I love the A:N online community.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people are working together to promote the game and discuss strategies and tips.  There are dozens of Excel spreadsheets available online that break down the best ICE or ice breakers and their overall efficiency.  There are more than half a dozen podcasts about the game and its tournament scene.  There are people who spend unfathomable amounts of time analyzing, discussing, writing about, and playing this game.

Are you really going to say no to that face?
The game earns that devotion.  It's very, very good, and I love being a part of the community around it.

Again, I'm not trying to convert you to the game.  I just wanted to explain why it has occupied much of my time and mental energy over the last 8 months or so.