Why I love and hate Netrunner, and why it matters

In Cards, Netrunner by JoeLeave a Comment

This article was originally posted on Def Exclusive, which is a very good website about games.

Time is money. And time.

Time is money. And time.

For the last two years I’ve been doing something a significant number of people also do. I’ve been playing the Android: Netrunner Living Card Game. Like those people, I’ve invested a lot of money in the cards, and an even more significant amount of my time playing it.

When I first started playing Netrunner, I dabbled in the core set with a friend once in a while. It was fine. Enjoyable, even. Netrunner’s concept (neo-noir cyberpunk) seemed well-implemented, its asymmetrical gameplay (hacker versus evil corporation) was unique, and it had some cool and interesting game mechanics (hidden information, bluffing, bidding, smashing stuff up).

But I could take it or leave it. There were many other things I could waste my time and money on. Then other stuff happened, and there were less things I was wasting my time and money on. I suddenly had a bit more time and a little bit more money.

So I bought my own Netrunner core set and some data packs, and started going to the weekly practice sessions at my local tabletop gaming shop. I met people. Nice people, who had interesting jobs and families, and who shared some of my other interests. They knew Netrunner’s cards better than me, they showed me how to play properly, and they wiped the floor with me in the process.

I didn’t lose heart. I turned up every Wednesday, took part in the monthly tournaments at the shop, and I started listening to podcasts about Netrunner.

Time passed. I bought another core set, more data packs… sleeves… more packs… a third core set.

Time. And money.

I was in deep, there was no doubt. I was committed. But I’d started to realise something truly awful: I was bad at Netrunner. Really bad. Want to know how bad? I’ve come bottom of the table in two monthly tournaments, and I placed ninth out of 15 in the regionals at the local shop last year. I’m officially Sheffield’s ninth best Netrunner player.

I’m mediocre at best.

Ma-ma-ma poker face.

Ma-ma-ma poker face.

Naturally, in the face of such consistent defeat, my initial enthusiasm waned. The theme, mechanics, and asymmetrical gameplay weren’t enough to stimulate my Netrunner-tuned pleasure synapses. Neither were the wild and crazy card combos, or the ever-present promise of new things.

So I played other things, saw other people, indulged interests I’d neglected. And I kept an eye on Netrunner.

Then I realised what was wrong with me and my relationship with this game. Here’s the problem: Netrunner is, at its heart, a game about maths, probabilities, planning ahead, and seemingly ineffectual card synergies that have cumulative power. And those are things that require focus and a clear-mind to process in a competitive environment. Netrunner has taught me that, mostly, I have neither.

Mostly. Sometimes I can think clearly, and I can engage my maths-brain to work out where the Corporation’s agendas are most likely to be, how punishing their ICE probably is, and whether I have enough time and money to break into their servers. But I’ve had to learn to focus my mind.

Being a customisable card game, Netrunner is a game played on two tables: the gaming table, when you’re sitting across from your opponent with your pair of decks, and the kitchen table, when you’re sitting alone, constructing your decks, planning your strategies. Winning the game is dependent on your performance at both tables. It’s a hard game to play because of this. Of course, you can ‘netdeck’, but turning up to a casual play session with the latest Worlds-winning decks can be quite a silly thing to do, and piloting good decks requires a lot of player skill, along with an encyclopedic knowledge of the card pool.

If in doubt, hit it with a very large hammer.

If in doubt, hit it with a very large hammer.

If it sounds like I’m down on the game, I’m not. At the time of writing, I’m preparing for a charity Netrunner tournament, for which all participants have donated money to play with cards they already own, using decks they probably wouldn’t usually run. It’s a great example of how these games can bring people together to form a community, and effect a little bit of a change in the world.

But there’s one problem the community is not actively addressing, and it’s a big one: Netrunner is a sausage-fest. I’ve seen one woman play in one tournament. And I can’t honestly say I’ve ever seen a black person play Netrunner. I’m prepared to believe that this could be an anomaly to my local card-game scene, but at best it’s weird, and we need a conversation in the community about how to make the game interesting and appealing to a wider audience. It’s a great game, and it’s on the cusp of being ‘a thing’. If you look at FFG’s portrayal of the Android: Netrunner universe, it’s obvious that there’s a disparity between the colourful cast of thrill-seeking Runners and high-flying execs, and the people who play the game.

There are lots of positives. I love that, every time I play this game in a pub or a cafe, someone will walk by, then stop and ask what the blazes we’re doing. And I love that, when we tell them it’s a card game about hacking into evil corporations’ servers, and it’s got bluffing and bidding mechanics, they become even more interested, and sometimes stop to watch a couple of turns.

The mechanics are always changing in Netrunner. There’s always some new thing that gets released, and it makes everyone stop running some other thing in their decks they were running before the new thing came out. Then the new thing becomes the thing that everyone plays in every deck, so you start to look for answers to that, and the developers release a new new thing that makes everyone scratch their heads. This is what they call the constantly-changing meta, and it’s fun to be a part of.

Right now, there are a number of new things. Here’s one: Apex. The first Runner that is an enigmatic, amorphous entity, rather than a human, human clone or humanoid robot. The theme of Apex works perfectly with its mechanics: no-one knows what Apex is, or what it wants, because it installs cards face-down. Usually, it wants to blow everything up, then start morphing and growing again, building back up to another cataclysmic board-wipe.

Here’s another: tags. Tagging the Runner is the Corporation’s main method of reaching the Runner (usually in order to blow their house up or destroy their resources), and it’s been around since the core set. But, with the release of the last big box expansion, tagging received a huge shot in the arm. All of a sudden, winning by flatlining the Runner is a very solid strategy.

Here’s one more: flippable IDs. Jinteki, the Corporation who makes clones and throws the Runner’s cards in the bin, got the first of these. It boils down to more hidden information: you don’t know whether they’re planning to score an agenda out of the blue, recycle their archives or just straight up try and murder you. NBN, the Corporation who control all of your data, just got their own flippable ID. Runners are getting something similar in the form of Rebirth, a card which lets you dig around in your binder or deck-box for another ID of the same faction and throw it on the table, replacing your existing ID. Haha, fooled you.

This isn't actually a bonsai tree. Caprice Nisei is really a titan, and likes to eat people on her day off.

That isn’t actually a bonsai tree. Caprice Nisei is really a monstrous titan, and likes to eat people on her day off, after she’s chopped them up with her enormous scissors.

Fun times. New stuff is always nice. But, deep down, what I like most about Netrunner is also what I hate about it: time and money. They’re the backbone of the game. Everything you do is measured by the clicks and credits you acquire and spend. There are ways of getting more of both but, like all the stuff you need to win the game, they’re in your deck somewhere, and you need clicks to find them. Then you need the credits to play them.

It’s exactly like real life. You want the new stuff, but you need the money to buy it, then you need the time to work out what it does, and whether it goes in your deck. Bloody Netrunner.

What you might be thinking, if you made it this far, is ‘Should I get into Netrunner?’ The answer, really, is ‘Maybe.’ If the theme and gameplay appeal to you, then it’s one of the best tabletop experiences you can buy into. But there are a few things to consider. Firstly, do you have the time and money to invest? The card pool is now at an intimidating size, and, even with set rotation keeping things in check, jumping into this game will cost you a lot of money.

It will also take you time to learn the game. Even the basics can be tricky, and then you’ve got the intricacies of timing windows, and all those weird and wonderful card interactions. It takes a lot of games of Netrunner before things really fall into place for new players.

But that’s mainly at a competitive level. If you’re not thinking about tournaments and leagues, you could do no worse than pick up a core set. Find a friend who’s also Netrunner-curious and spend a weekend exploring the basic game. It’s what I did.

And after that – after seeing Noise faceplant into a spiky piece of Jinteki ICE only to steal the winning agenda – you’ll have your own Netrunner stories to tell. You’ll want to share those stories with others who live and breathe the game and its sprawling, visionary, dystopian setting. So you’ll venture out into the world – our world – in search of your new Netrunner family. And, when you find them, they will listen to your stories with half-smiles, and they will reminisce about the old core set days.

Then they will wipe the floor with you and teach you the game properly. And you? You will buy all the cards, my friend.

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