Game review: Why I love Android: Netrunner

NetrunnerI’ve just played my tensest game of Android: Netrunner so far.

I was building the mighty ICE towers of Haas-Bioroid, while Ben—my regular lunchtime opponent—was attacking with Andromeda, a Criminal runner. Ben’s got a knack for creating a strong economy, and his latest deck combined his usual surplus of credits with a strong Link score and plenty of tactical attacks on my remote servers. Meanwhile, I’d taken the precaution of bolstering my standard HB ICE—now with added Rototurrets—with NBN moneymakers such as Pop-Up Window and Tollbooth and a couple of Jinteki ambushes.

The game took a whole hour; our longest game yet. I scored my winning 7 points only a couple of turns before my R&D was completely depleted, which would have cost me the game. Ben, with a final score of 5, had gone through his entire stack, and was hanging on at the end with 2 cards in his Grip and a stunning, barely possible 5 points of Brain Damage. He’d slammed headlong into a trap that had trashed his big-hitter Icebreakers, and every run he made after that became an expensive risk.

There is a very good chance that what I’ve written above makes no sense to a lot of people, but I’ve fallen a little bit in love with Android: Netrunner.

The World Is Yours

StimhackThe game is daunting to learn: it’s full of terminology that makes little sense outside of a William Gibson novel (‘ICE’, ‘Rez’, ‘Click’, ‘Heap’, ‘Run’, and so on and on and on). It has a thick rulebook that, frankly, does a terrible job at explaining the rules to beginners. If you don’t have anyone available who can teach you, the best way to learn how to play Android: Netrunner is to watch a 20-minute video made by Fantasy Flight Games and then to watch a 45-minute video made by a couple of fans. Even then, you will make mistakes during your first couple of games. We did.

The effort is worthwhile, though, and the game is nowhere near as complicated as it first appears. Android: Netrunner is a 2-player asymmetrical game that takes between 30 minutes and an hour to play: one player plays the Corporation and advances agendas for points, while the other player is the Runner; a hacker who must steal those agendas.

The Corporation has a few central servers: the deck from which they draw cards (‘R&D’), their discard pile (‘Archives’) and their actual hand (‘HQ’). They can also have remote servers, in which can be installed agendas (for scoring), assets (such as moneymaking advertising campaigns) or traps. All of these servers must be protected by ICE: thematic firewalls that might do damage to the Runner or simply stop them in their tracks.

The Runner replaces the central servers with their Grip, Stack and Heap (their hand, draw pile and discard pile, respectively). They can’t usually be directly attacked by the Corporation (unless they’re tagged; a bit of jargon that the FFG video fails to talk about, hence the second tutorial video recommendation), but instead they must put together a collection of resources, hardware and programs and make runs at the Corporation’s servers.

If the Runner gets through, they steal an agenda or get to trash an asset. However, if they are waylaid by Corporation ICE with no way to break it or if they hit a trap, then bad things happen, such as the aforementioned Brain Damage. This is a game about bluffing and knowing when to take a risk. This is a game that will make you sweat.

Mandatory Upgrades

Posted BountyThe core Android: Netrunner set contains premade decks for each of the 3 Runner factions and 4 Corporations, plus all the counters and extra bits required for a game. Casual players will never need to buy anything else. This is a wise decision from FFG, because—unlike past Collectable Card Games (CCGs) such as Magic: The Gathering (or even the original Netrunner, published way back in the 1990s)—new players can literally pick it up and learn to play without spending a fortune on new cards.

That said, Android: Netrunner is at its very best when you play with a deck you’ve created yourself. There’s some leeway for improving the premade decks in the core set, but if you really want to fine-tune your faction or craft your Corporation, you’ll want to invest in some new cards.

Billed as an LCG (a ‘Living Card Game’, an evolution from the old CCGs), Android: Netrunner does not have ‘booster packs’ per se. It has regularly released ‘data packs’, which are like the old boosters in every way but one: they’re not random. Whereas in Magic: The Gathering, you might have to buy a bunch of boosters to find that one card you want, Android: Netrunner data pack card lists are available online, so would-be collectors are able to choose which to buy to create their dream decks.

Account Siphon

Heimdall 1.0That’s not to say Android: Netrunner is cheap, though; merely ‘cheaper’. Every data pack contains at least 1 or 2 killer cards, and at the time of writing the 11th data pack has just been released (Fear and Loathing). There is also a deluxe expansion, Creation and Control, which focusses exclusively on 1 runner faction and 1 Corporation (Shapers and Haas-Bioroid respectively), and another due out at the end of March (Honor and Profit, which contains cards for the Criminal faction and the Jinteki Corporation). Buying blindly into these, or simply trying for a full set, will be expensive.

It’s worth the money, though, because the game is so damn well put together. Every card—even the ones you’ll never put into a deck—is beautifully drawn and has lovely, on-theme flavour text. The mechanics of the game, once you finally learn them, slot together brilliantly. Best of all, though, the theme is linked inextricably to those mechanics: every run feels like you are actually attacking a monolithic, corrupt Corporation. This makes for a level of tension rarely seen in other card and board games.

It’s easy to recommend Android: Netrunner. Do drop me a line if you get into it and you’re in London. I’ve got this fantastic Anarchs deck that’s crying out for a test run.