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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.


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