What’s So Keen About Android: Netrunner?
UPDATE 25 FEB 2013: Check out my interview with the lead designer for Android: Netrunner, Lukas Litzsinger!
Fantasy Flight Games are not only a huge threat to my wallet, but they’re also building themselves a pretty good record for bringing things back from the dead.
Take, for example, Deathwatch. I did.
Originally, Deathwatch was (probably) going to be published by Games Workshop, the company that owns the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. It had set up a publishing arm called Black Industries, dedicated to producing roleplaying games. However, after re-releasing the classic Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and publishing the first game in the Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay series, Dark Heresy, Games Workshop decided to close Black Industries down.
Enter Fantasy Flight, who licensed the roleplaying game rights to the Warhammer franchises from Games Workshop and saved the Warhammer roleplaying games from extinction. Which, of course, led to me buying Deathwatch.
But getting Deathwatch led me back to the Forums of RPGnet, possibly the biggest RPG hobby discussion site on the Web – and the first day I logged in and checked the forum’s font page, my eye was caught not by the Tabletop Roleplaying forum headings, but the latest posting in the Other Games forum:
NETRUNNER IS BACK!
Netrunner first came out in 1996. It was a collectable card game in the same vein as Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh; you’d buy a starter deck of cards, customise it with “booster packs” and then challenge your friends to duels.
It was different from virtually every other CCG before or since, though, in that it had two explicit “sides,” each with its own deck (which is why the Netrunner starter box at right actually came with two sixty-card decks).
One side was the Corporation, who strove to win the game by installing Agendas in computer fortresses protected by lethal digital security and advancing them to completion.
The other side was the Runner, a hacker who strove to win by breaking into the Corporation’s data fortresses and stealing the Agendas before the Corporation can finish advancing them.
The game was designed by Richard Garfield, the very man who created arguably the first and certainly the most popular CCG ever, Magic: The Gathering, which still sells strongly today.
Its design earned Netrunner hepas of critical acclaim, but not only did its uniqueness make it perhaps too off-putting for people to get into (I remember friends lamenting that the different sides made it impossible for you to play a three- or four-player game, as you could with Magic), it was also released around when a glut of CCGs from companies hoping to cash in on the craze hit the market.
Netrunner’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, ceased producing it around the turn of the millennium after publishing one expansion set.
Which was a shame. Because I loved the pants off it.
I can’t tell you precisely why. Until around 2001, I spent almost every waking second stressing with the odd burst of keen, which left me little head-space to be honestly curious. I know that I got into it because it was based on Cyberpunk 220.127.116.11., a roleplaying game I bought most of the line of but very rarely actually played, and I definitely loved the card art and sense of humour in the quotes.
But there was always something about the element of bluffing involved in the game.
See, in most CCGs you and your opponent have a deck of around sixty cards. While you might not know what’s in your opponent’s deck or hand, you know what he’s played – many cards in CCGs work like miniatures in a wargame, each one having an attacking and defending ability. You can guess what he’s probably going to do next.
Also, it means unless you build your deck in a certain way, you can pretty much guarantee that you’ll spend the game both attacking and defending.
In Netrunner, though, the Corporation player plays his cards face down, creating servers that in theory house agendas protected by the aforementioned layers of security (each layer and agenda being a card).
But the Corporation plays all these cards face down, which means the Runner must attack each “server” to find out not only what the Corp is up to behind that security, but also just what that security is.
On top of that, there’s the possibility that the card that the Corportion is paying to advance in one of those servers isn’t an Agenda; it could be a trap that will injure the Runner by causing him to discard one of his own cards or causing him damage.
So the Corp always has this tactic of bluff: Does he heavily fortify the server with the Agenda in it, or only secure it lightly and place all his heavy security around something unimportant (or lethal)?
And as the Runner, it’s just as much fun testing the Corporation player’s bluff by running one of his servers as it is to sit back behind layers of security and tell the Runner, “Come at me, bro.”
Netrunner was the only card game that I entered a tournament for. And won. I still have the Full Body Conversion card that was first prize, a rare card in the game actually signed by Richard Garfield himself.
So when I found out that Fantasy Flight Games were resurrecting Netrunner for a third-quarter 2012 release, I was squeeing like a fangirl.
They’re making some changes. For starters, this new version is situated within Fantasy Flight’s own cyberpunk franchise, Android, instead of R. Talsorian Games’ Cyberpunk 18.104.22.168.
For seconds, they’ve made some interesting changes to the base gameplay, like tweaking the rules by which a Corp can trace a Runner once the latter has made a run.
But the third and most interesting change is the fact that instead of being a collectable card game, Android: Netrunner is a Living Card Game.
I don’t know whether Fantasy Flight pioneered this idea, but I love it. See, the off-putting thing about Magic: The Gathering and its ilk was collecting.
There are two reasons I got put off. The collecting aspect engages my inner hoarder, the giddy thing that wants to get one of every singe card ever put out, just so I can have a complete set! (Any wonder that Magic spawned Pokemon?)
The other is the arms race mentality that sets in. The rarer cards tend to be extremely powerful, so it’s easy to want to keep buying those fifteen-card booster packs (around the cost of a coffee each) so that you can have one for yourself or an effective counter to it.
As a Living Card Game, the starter set of Android: Netrunner will include all the cards for that particular collection (unlike a CCG starter set, which includes enough cards to play, but a small, randomised sample of the overall total). Each expansion set will also include all of the cards available in that expansion.
The downside here, of course, is that Android: Netrunner is expensive. Where a starter set for most CCGs nowadays costs around twenty-five Aussie dollars, Android: Netrunner will probably cost around the seventy dollar mark (if the pricing for other Living Card Games over on MilSims Games is any indication). Admittedly, this gives enough for two players plus a heap of counters and guides, but it’s still a little steep.
The expansions will also come in at around twenty-five dollars. If other LCGs are any indication, individual packs will come out monthly and cost around $25 each. While I don’t have to buy them, that damnable collector’s itch can be a hard one to ignore…
Nonetheless, I’m glad to see an awesome game given a new lease on life and am definitely keen to get together with a fellow player, build a Net-spanning corporate empire, then sit back behind my intrusion coutermeasure electronics and tell that pesky hacker on the other side of the table:
COME AT ME BRO
[UPDATE 18 FEB '13:] Yep, I bought it!
How keen are you?
What did you enjoy about playing Netrunner back in the day?
Which games of the ‘nineties CCG glut were you into? Battletech? Shadowrun?
What other resurrections of old games have you been glad to see?
Netrunner Online, a resource for the original Netrunner
Hadrian’s Wall card image sourced from Fantasy Flight Games.