Sunday, 28 July 2013

Android: Netrunner

Plays: 2Px3.

Netrunner is a 1996 game by Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield. Fantasy Flight Games republished it in 2012 with some modifications, and gave it the same setting as the boardgame Android, thus the new name. I have heard good things about this game even before the re-release, but never quite got interested enough to try it. It was only after the March Madness tournament on BGG this year that I started considering this game seriously. I was surprised that this reprint won, and also that it had reached 5th place in game rankings.

The Game

Android: Netrunner is a two-player card game. One player is the corporation, the other the runner, i.e. a hacker. The corporation's objective is to complete agendas worth a total of 7pts, while the runner's objective is to hack into the corporation's servers to steal agendas worth a total of 7pts. The corporation sets up servers to advance its agendas, and protects them with ice (anti-intrusion software). The runner attempts to invade to steal agendas and to destroy the corporation's assets. If the corporation's deck of cards runs out, it loses. If the runner is forced to discard cards and doesn't have enough to do so, he is flatlined and loses.

The corporation's play area is made up of servers. The draw deck is a server. The discard pile is a server. Even the hand of cards, represented by the corporation's identity card, is a server. The corporation can create new servers (called remote servers) during the game. Agendas need to played as a server for the corporation to advance and then score them. Assets can be played as servers too. Assets usually give some benefit to the corporation, or act as a diversion or a trap to confuse the runner. When the corporation plays any card, it is played face-down. So the runner will not know what it is until it is activated (flipped over) by the corporation, or exposed by the runner. The same applies to ice which the corporation plays in front of servers to protect them. Only after the runner has encountered a piece of ice for the first time will he know what it is - how powerful it is, what is required to bypass or neutralise it. There is a cost for the corporation to activate any card, so it is important to have cash on hand. Non-activated cards have no effect.

I'm playing the corporation. The row at the bottom are my servers. The first three from the left are remote servers, i.e. servers played after the start of the game. The third server is an asset and has been activated. It is giving me $1 per turn now. The fourth server is my corporate identity card, which represents my hand of cards, called my HQ. The fifth server is my draw deck. The rightmost server is my discard pile.

Most servers have ice protecting them now (the horizontally played cards). However none are activated yet. Usually you need to pay money to activate a piece of ice, and you can do it when the runner is approaching it.

The runner's play area is much less structured. Only those cards in the top right corner need to be organised into three rows by type, and this is only for convenience.

On a player's turn he takes four actions. For the corporation player the first action must be to draw a card. Other actions include playing a card, collecting $1, removing a virus, and destroying a resource card of the runner (which can only happen if the corporation successfully traces the runner). The runner has some action types which are similar to those of the corporation. The most important action type of the runner, which is also the centre of the game, is making a run, i.e. attacking a server. The runner picks a server to attack, and tries to work past all the ice protecting it to access it. The runner has hardware cards and program cards to help him do this. Icebreakers are programs which are needed to penetrate the corporation's defenses. An icebreaker first needs to have sufficient strength to interact with a piece of ice, and then often it also needs to be able to disable subroutines that the ice will trigger. Subroutines do things like terminating the run, causing harm to the runner, and tracing the runner. If the runner can work past all active defenses, he accesses the server, and gets to reveal, or steal, or remove the card. This is how agendas are stolen.

For the corporation to complete an agenda, it needs to do an action called advancing the agenda. When this is done, $1 is placed onto the card. An agenda is completed only after a certain number of coins are placed on it. It usually takes more than a turn to complete an agenda, so there is always some time when it is vulnerable to attack. The corporation can't play and then complete an agenda within the same turn. What is tricky for the runner is guessing which remote servers are agendas and which are not. Often the corporation can set traps, or diversions. This game is very much about double-guessing.

The Play

I played twice against Allen, and once against my wife Michelle. In the first session I thought it would be more fun playing as the runner, so I let Allen play that side. It turned out it was tougher than expected. In the first game I caught him unprepared for my traps, and he was flatlined (required to discard card but he had run out of cards) and lost the game. He was more careful the next game, and this time I won by scoring 7pts on agendas. The most memorable moment was a run that he made against my hand of cards (which is called the HQ in the game). At that point I had four cards, and three of them were agendas! I had no decent ice protecting my HQ and was already trying hard to appear calm. He easily hacked through. He randomly picked a card from my hand, and picked one of the agenda cards. I pretended to be frustrated with his good luck. He decided he was lucky, and didn't bother to attack my HQ again, assuming that there wouldn't be such a coincidence of me holding more than one agenda card. Had he pressed his attack, he probably would have won that game. That was an almost-peed-in-my-pants moment.

Playing the corporation, I felt exposed and vulnerable. My hand and my draw deck were defenseless at the start of the game so I had to scramble to get some ice up. Agendas are a love-hate thing. I need them to win, but they make me nervous. I try to play them as casually as I can, pretending they are just regular assets. But of course when I start advancing them, the runner will be like a shark smelling blood. Thankfully the corporation has some traps which can be advanced too, which can be used to confuse the runner and lure him into traps. I don't have a good grasp yet of whether a wider defense is better, or a deeper one. A wider one means it's harder for the runner to guess which servers hold agendas, but less ice per server means weaker defenses. A deeper defense means it is more costly for the runner to attack, or even impossible if he doesn't have the appropriate icebreakers yet. I think different situations will warrant different approaches.

Allen feeling very at home. Well, we were playing at his home.

When I played the runner against Michelle's corporation, I felt the pain of poverty. I managed to get many hardware cards and program cards in play, but I was poor most of the time. I wonder whether I shouldn't have spent so much money so quickly on equipment. Michelle on the other hand maintained a decent treasury most of the time, anticipating my attacks. Having many programs was handy, and I managed to hack into many of Michelle's servers, destroying assets, exposing decoys and stealing some agendas. However being short on cash meant I was conservative about attacking heavily protected servers. Eventually Michelle managed to score 7pts of agenda before I could get organised enough to stop her.

It's not easy to beat an accountant at moneymaking.

The Thoughts

Android: Netrunner has a rare setting, and it's not window-dressing. I find it quite interesting. The mechanisms click with the setting. I like how you need to constantly try to read your opponent's intentions. It's psychology. Is he bluffing? Is he gambling? Is he making a feint or is this for real? Will he take the bait? How do you use your actions to lie, to lure, to distract, to terrorise? This is a very interactive game and you need to pay attention to what your opponent is doing, and adjust your strategy based on what you think he's trying to do.

The game is an LCG - Living Card Game. After the initial base game, many expansions have now been released. The base game already comes with enough cards to play four different corporations and three different runner factions. However there aren't enough cards to explore the deck-building aspect of the game. When you pick a corporation (or faction) to build a deck for, you can pick any number of cards belonging to that corporation and any number of neutral cards. You can add a limited number of cards from other corporations. With the base game, you have limited choices in cards, so there really isn't a lot of deck-building you can do. I have only played three games, and have only seen one corporation and one runner faction in action, so I'm nowhere near considering buying expansions. But I do see there is much to be explored. Nowadays I am less interested in trying many games and more interested in exploring fewer games but more deeply. Android: Netrunner is a good candidate. I look forward to play more.

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