Unplugged: Netrunner returns in FFG’s Android universe

September 7, 2012

I do my best to not bring my Magic: the Gathering experience to this space. For one thing, the barrier to entry is so immense that they have actually (eventually) designed an entirely separate (video) game just to introduce new players to how Magic works, the latest in several attempts to make this process easier over the game’s nearly twenty-year history. Then there’s the commitment factor, especially when it comes to acquiring chase rares to make your deck as competitive as it can be.

Even playing casually demands more of an investment (in both time and money) than I feel is appropriate for this column. That said, there is definitely an overlap between collectible card game (CCG) players and social boardgamers, and that overlap is where Fantasy Flight Games and their “Living Card Game” (LCG) model come in.

LCGs are, essentially, CCGs without the collectible aspect. When you buy an LCG product, you know exactly what you are getting. The packs are not randomized, and everything that is included in a release is there in one place. Fantasy Flight has several LCGs already, covering various themes like Lord of the Rings, A Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu. The latest LCG offering is actually a revival of an old CCG designed by Magic creator Richard Garfield, Netrunner.

Netrunner was based on the old Shadowrun cyberpunk RPG system, and featured some truly innovative game design with asynchronous play, no restrictively defined turn structure, and brilliant bluffing mechanics. All of this is still present in FFG’s version, which has been reskinned to fit in with the company’s expanding Android universe. The fact that Android already drew inspiration from the same type of sci-fi/noir fiction as Shadowrun just about makes this a match made in heaven, but more importantly it is bringing back what many consider to be the best-designed CCG of all time in a somewhat more accessible form.

In a game of Netrunner, one player plays as the Runner (hacker/cracker) and the other plays as the Corp. The main object for both players is to score seven Agenda points; the Corp tries to advance the Agenda cards in their deck to maturity, while the Runner tries to steal those same cards before that can happen. Right away, the fact that both players’ primary win condition is contained in a single player’s deck makes this game different.

Deckbuilding rules mandate a specific number of Agenda points (based on deck size) that must be included in the Corp’s deck to prevent Corps from making it almost impossible (or too easy!) for the Runner to win. The Corp can also win if the Runner is flatlined, and if the Corp ever runs out of cards in its deck the Runner wins, but it is much easier for the corp to flatline the runner (especially if they weren’t required to have Agendas in their deck) than it is for the Corp to run out of cards under most circumstances.

On a player’s turn, they receive a number of actions: four for the Runner, and three plus a mandatory start-of-turn draw for the Corp. These actions are the only demands the game makes on your turn. What you do with these actions each turn is up to you. Both players can use an action to draw a card, gain one credit, play a card from their hand, or use any ability on one of their active cards that requires one or more actions be spent.

Corp-specific actions include spending a credit to advance an Agenda (each Agenda needs a specific number of advances to be scored), spending two credits to trash one of the Runner’s Resources (if the Runner is tagged), or spending their entire turn (three actions) to purge all virus counters from all cards. The Runner, on the other hand, can spend an action and two credits to remove a tag… or they can use an action to make a run.

Making a run is how the Runner invades the Corp’s servers to try and uncover an Agenda, and is generally the only time the two players come into direct conflict. The Runner chooses to attack one of the Corp’s servers; this includes R&D (the Corp’s deck), HQ (hand), Archives (discard pile) or any remote server the Corp might have created to host an Agenda or Asset. If the server is undefended, the Runner gets free access to whatever might be stored there: the top card of the deck, one random card from the hand, all cards in the discard pile (including the ones that were discarded face-down), or whatever is installed in the remote server.

If the Runner accesses an Agenda, they take it and add it to their score pile. If they access an Asset and/or an Upgrade, they can spend credits to trash that card. Be careful, though, as some Assets are Traps that appear to be Agendas but will cause the Runner all kinds of trouble should they access it. Of course, no Corp worth their stock options would leave valuable servers (or even something they want to look like one) undefended, and that’s where Ice comes in.

Ice (which used to stand for “Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics” but now is simply “Ice”) are the defenses the Corp puts between the Runner and their servers. Like everything else the Corp does other than one-shot Operations, Ice is played face-down. When a Runner approaches a piece of Ice, the Corp may pay its cost to rez it (flip it face up and thus active). Most Ice have one or more subroutines that can damage the Runner (every point of damage causes the Runner to discard a card; if they cannot, they are flatlined and the Corp wins), trace the Runner (a successful trace will usually tag the Runner and open them up to any number of undesirable effects), or simply end the run.

In order to bypass the Ice, the Runner will have to have installed programs called Icebreakers, but it isn’t quite that simple. First of all, most Icebreakers are only effective against specific types of Ice (Killers vs. Sentries, Fracters vs. Barriers, and Decoders vs. Code Gates). Even if the Runner has the right type of Icebreaker, that Icebreaker must have a strength equal to or greater than the encountered Ice in order to break that Ice’s subroutines. Many Icebreakers can increase their strength through expenditure of credits (although almost all such cards reset their strength after every encounter), and breaking subroutines also usually costs credits, so Runners have to be sure that they are properly prepared before making a run.

If the Runner cannot, or chooses not to, break all of an Ice’s subroutines, they have to suffer the consequences of whatever is left active. Either way, that Ice stays there and will always be an issue on any run on that same server. If the run continues, they then encounter the next piece of Ice (if any) and the process repeats until the run either ends or is successful.

Fortunately for the Runner, every piece of Ice on a given server beyond the first will cost the Corp additional credits to even install so they’re not likely to encounter too much resistance unless the Corp is swimming in cash. The flip side of that is the fact that the Runner only has so many Memory Units (MU) available for installing programs like Icebreakers, so they have to choose their weapons carefully. As I mentioned, everything the Corp does is face-down until the Corp pays to rez it, so the Runner never knows what they are getting into until it is often too late, barring some ability to expose cards or knowing what is in the Corp’s hand or on top of their deck via successful runs on HQ and/or R&D.

Once rezzed, a card stays face-up, but the damage has probably already been done. It is also worth noting that rezzing does not require an action on the Corp’s behalf, only credits (although some cards have additional costs). The Runner also has to be aware of potential sources of damage and how much they can take before they get flatlined (i.e., how many cards are in their hand), but drawing cards usually costs actions and they may not have the luxury of giving the Corp that much time.

All of this (although with a slightly different trace mechanic) was present in Richard Garfield’s brilliant original design. In addition to the Android theme, however, FFG also introduced something new to Netrunner: factions. Both Runners and Corps have different factions, and each faction has access to a limited subset of cards (not unlike colors in Magic or any other similar system) which includes a specific Identity card. In this initial core set release, each Identity has the same restrictions: they must have at least forty-five cards in their deck (no more than three copies of any one card, which is also a departure from the original CCG’s unrestricted construction), and no more than fifteen “influence” points can be spent on out-of-faction cards.

Almost every non-neutral card has from one to five blue pips on it somewhere, and each pip costs one influence when including it in a deck that is not of its own faction. Corp Agendas have no pips and cannot be used outside of their faction’s deck, which at present is somewhat limiting but should eventually cease to be much of an issue as further expansions are released. Each identity also has its own special ability that helps to distinguish it from the others and promote its own unique style of play. The News Broadcast Network Corp, for example, is all about traces and its Identity card provides two credits that can only be spent on traces each turn, whereas the Anarch-faction Runner “Noise” likes viruses and causes the Corp to discard the top card of their deck whenever he installs one.

There are four Corp and three Runner factions included in this base set, the various combinations of which should ensure plenty of variety even if you have no interest in picking up future releases. Even without constructing customized decks, each of given faction’s cards can simply be shuffled in with all of the neutral cards to produce to complete decks that are ready to go right out of the box.

Which is not to say that Android: Netrunner is the type of game you can just pick up and play without prior experience. As you might have noticed, there is a lot of flavorful jargon that can be overwhelming for new players. While most of that can be avoided, as I have somewhat done here (the official term for “action” is “click,” for instance, but there’s no reason to actually use it thanks to the use of icons), there are many cards that use this jargon (“make a run on R&D”) and it will need explaining and understanding to fully appreciate the game. Should you be willing to make that effort, however, you will be rewarded with an elegant game of bluffing and risks that will keep you coming back for more if that’s your thing.

Android: Netrunner is not recommended for players under the age of fourteen due to a combination of advanced strategy, a ton of text, and (let’s be honest here) the fact that neither player has a very heroic role to play. Whether you’re the greedy Corp engaging in shady operations or a lawless Runner looking to skirt Corp security for whatever reason (and one of the Runner factions is even called “Criminals”), there are no white hats to be found in the world of Netrunner (or, indeed, the Android universe in which it now resides).

The core set of Android: Netrunner includes 252 cards divided between Runner and Corp (about 30 per faction plus neutrals), various tokens, and a box that should accommodate most future releases with ease… which is to say it’s somewhat excessive for what it currently contains, but in this case that’s fine. Part of the rule book includes an extensive Glossary, two timing charts that outline each player’s turn, and a nice flow-chart for runs on the back cover. Some cards are present in quantities of only one or two, so you will need to get more than one box if you really want to include the maximum number of copies of those cards, but that should only be a concern if you want to play competitively. However many you want to buy, you can pick it up now for about $40.