Android: Netrunner (Game Review)

Android: Netrunner

Android: Netrunner

After creating Magic: The Gathering, Richard Garfield tried to reproduce his success with another collectable card game, Netrunner. It failed to survive long, but its cult following led Fantasy Flight Games to resurrect it two decades later. Despite all the advances in game design over that time, the new version (now branded Android: Netrunner) holds up remarkably well.

The biggest innovation of the game was the asynchronous roles for its two players. Set in a cyberpunk future, one person played a Corporation trying to protect their secrets from the Runner (hacker) played by the other. Each player uses different types of cards and has very different needs. Most of the rules flow smoothly from that concept, with the Corporation seeking to spend turns “advancing” Agenda cards before the Runner can break through the Ice protecting them. This is a big change from the direct attacks of Magic, and the resources used are different as well: Instead of recurring Mana to spend every turn, players gather up credits, potentially spending many turns’ worth in a single big move – and also potentially finding themselves strapped for cash just when the other strikes.

The Runner's play area, with a few rows for the different types of cards.

The Runner’s play area, with a few rows for the different types of cards.

Fundamentally, this is a bluffing game. The Corporation plays most of their cards face-down, so the Runner doesn’t know the types or strength of the Ice until they attack. They don’t even know if the card being protected is an Agenda or Trap. This makes for very tense games, as both sides try to build up their abilities, responding to the perceived or actual threats shown by the other. Often, the end result hinges on a single element that seems blown out of proportion, with one surprising success giving a player the card they need for victory. (Agendas are generally worth two or three points, and the first player to seven wins.) These game-ending chances (or lucky combos coming at just the right time) may seem a little disappointing to some people. They are the only potential problem with the gameplay that I see, though: My experiences have been consistently interesting, tense, and varied. Even if one player gets off to a better start, the other can still threaten to build up their abilities and take the lead later. (This is important to note, because I did play the original version of this, and I remember most games being very one-sided. Whether it was a problem with that version, or with my skills at the time, I can’t say.)

The Corporation's play area, full of face-up and face-down cards. Ice (horizontal cards) protects everything - even the draw and discard piles.

The Corporation’s play area, full of face-up and face-down cards. Ice (horizontal cards) protects everything – even the draw and discard piles.

Even the deck-building has elements of this guessing, as the game has too many aspects to account for every time. Will the Corporation be trying to run “Traces” against the Runner? Will the Runner use Viruses or straightforward Icebreakers? Will the Runner benefit from revealing their opponent’s cards, or is that a waste of resources that could be better put towards brute force? All those answers depend on what the opponent chooses before the game starts.

Fantasy Flight has left the gameplay fundamentally the same, but did make significant changes to the deck-building. For one thing, this is now a “Living Card Game” instead of a “collectible card game”. The LCG model means that instead of buying packs of random cards, people purchase a complete set at one time. Frequent updates are released, but those are also available in a single purchase. This new version also groups cards into “factions”, with decks needing to be built largely around a single one. (Cards from other factions can be added, but only up to a specific “influence” level.)

The LCG model is probably the right business decision for Netrunner. It always had a reputation for being a game based more on mixing in the right surprises than on tracking down rare cards. I appreciated that I didn’t need to spend lots of money to feel involved, but that may be why it didn’t survive as a CCG.

Psychologically, this makes it feel very different. For example, the game is easiest to play if both people have bought their own copies. That is true of both CCGs and LCGs, but since LCGs feel more like traditional board games, that seems like an extra expense. Also, you are allowed to include up to three copies of each card in your deck, and it’s usually best to do so. But it’s one thing to search through booster packs for extra copies of a card you like, and it’s another to realize that you’re paying for one large box full of duplicate cards. Worse, some cards in the base set only have one or two copies. To play with three of them, you’d need to buy multiple copies of the game! (Or make your own copies, of course.) That feels like an obnoxious limitation.

On the other hand, I now have three copies of most cards in the decks I made. I usually didn’t have extra copies available in the decks I made with the original game. I suspect that that might have added the randomness that made my old games so one-sided, while the modern ones are competitive. If so, I can’t argue with the results.

So far, the game is very fun, but also very limited. There are just enough cards to let you make a basic deck with each faction, and there aren’t a lot of changes you can make from the others. It seems that the base set is well-designed to keep you building within tight constraints that expansions will have to take away. There are too many strong combos that are limited now only by the cost of mixing cards from different factions. How long can that last as new cards are added? And what about the cards so powerful that the other side needs to treat them as a threat at all times? Bluffing games work when each side has a known set of threats to make. If new cards keep being added to the game, then the set of possible actions will be too diverse to create true bluffing tension. (The first expansion just came out. It looks very fun, but mainly skirts those issues by including very few cards.)

Judging this game by its base set only, it’s excellent. It provides a unique feel with a enough tweaks available to keep me playing for a while. I may not be sure what the future holds for Netrunner, but in the worst-case scenario, the initial cards are well worth buying on their own.

Grade: A-

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