Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Android Netrunner: The Review

As a fan of cyberpunk science-fiction, the theme and the implementation of it in mechanical terms of Android Netrunner appealed greatly to me. A game using asymmetrical mechanics to represent a series of attacks on a company's computer servers, challenging unknown defensive protocols and avoiding traps has the potential to explore a wide design space and add a vast library of mechanics. This combines with the faction mechanic, and the limitations placed on cross-faction decks, to create a game where multiple win conditions and game states are supported both across standard card game archetypes and within them. That this is all managed in a game which currently only has two viable game-winning conditions (scoring 7 points or dealing sufficient damage to “kill” the Runner player) shows the potential within the system.

At its core, Netrunner stands apart from most card games by its combat mechanic; rather than representing a battle between opposed lines of creatures or minions (as, for example, Magic The Gathering does with its focus on Creature-type cards and their interactions with the game) its conflict is based around use of resources to pay for card abilities; the Runner, or attacking player, pays credits to activate their Program cards and bypass their opponent's Ice cards. Similarly the Ice cards require an initial payment to activate, although are played inactive until they are attacked. It is very much a game about resource management; the same resource (credits) is required to play cards but also to use them, unlike a game where once a creature is played it may attack often without an additional cost. Indeed, the core mechanic for the Corporation (defending) player is “rezzing” cards at the opportune moment; turning them from face-down in play cards to face-up cards which can be used. The Corporation can play cards without paying and defer payment until the card is needed, keeping the card's abilities secret from their opponent, while the Runner must play all their cards face-up, and pay all associated costs to do so. What this permits for the Corporation is a degree of subterfuge and bluff; if a trap is laid and protected with Ice cards, the player may choose only to activate those cards which will not deter the Runner too much (so they fall into the trap) – or, if they cannot afford to capitalise on the trap (because it itself has a higher Rez cost than they can pay) they can use cheaper Ice cards to make the Runner either burn through their own resources using Programs or even abandon their attack.

The ultimate aim of the game is for one side to win; both sides are seeking to claim 7 points worth of Agenda cards (representing a figurative evil company's resources and plans either exposed to the public or implemented), or for the Corporation to kill off the hackers attacking it either with cyber-attacks or assassination (represented by card-discard; if the Runner ever has to discard a card and cannot, they lose the game immediately). To complicate the situation, many Agendas have other abilities once they are scored (by sufficient actions and credits being spent on them) such as earning money for the corporation, adding new potential actions on a turn or handicapping the Runner in some way. In this way a level of strategy in deck-building is added; low-point-cost or hard-to-complete Agendas might have powerful abilities but add more targets to a deck for a Runner to capitalise on. On the other hand, focusing on cheap Agendas that can be scored in one or two turns can allow a Corporation to outpace the Runner but has less benefit in-game. The Runner has fewer options to win, only being able to capture Agenda points save for one card which rewards three successful attacks on different targets in one turn. This allows the Corporation to focus their defence, but also means the Runner has to juggle fewer options. In practice, Corporation decks tend to either heavily emphasise assassination, using cards which deal massive amounts of damage in one turn, or scoring 7 points as efficiently as possible.

What makes Netrunner have the capacity to be replayed and last is the differentiation between its factions; there are three “styles” of Runner and four of Corporation, each with different “Identity” cards which provide a global bonus. These are strongly thematic, reflecting the general ethos of the faction as follows.

The Shaper runners are depicted as technical geniuses more interested in experimentation than anything else, and so their cards are focused on establishing libraries of utility programs to cover every eventuality – solid Icebreakers (attack cards), programs to earn money and avoid traps. These are supplemented by a large number of utility cards intended to draw the correct programs and make those programs more efficient – abilities to search decks, draw a new hand and reduce the cost of expensive cards. Their two current Identities subdivide this into the “playing expensive cards” long-game with Kate, whose ability is to reduce the cost of programs and hardware cards, or the quick establishment of a powerful library of programs with Chaos Theory, whose ability is to have a smaller deck size and thus reduce the amount of chaff cards.

Anarch runners represent Anonymous-style activists, focused on disobedience and destruction rather than methodical bypassing of countermeasures. This is represented in-game by the Virus card mechanic, cards which gain or lose tokens under certain conditions and have abilities based on the accumulated tokens. Their Icebreaker cards tend to be cheap to use but unable to be upgraded in the way Shaper ones can, relying on trickery and use of Viruses to make the Ice fit the countermeasure rather than vice versa. In cross-faction play, Anarch Icebreakers fit well in Shaper decks since the Shaper capacity to upgrade them can be cost-efficient. Anarch supporting cards generally focus on increasing the reward on successful attacks (allowing the player to view more cards from the opponent's hand or deck) or removing Corporation cards from play. Their two identies are Noise, who forces the Corporation to discard cards from their deck whenever he installs a Virus and thus fills their discard pile with potentially valuable Agendas, and Whizzard, who gains bonus credits to be spent on destroying Corporation cards.

Criminal runners are a kind of mid-point, focused on avoiding combat and outpacing the Corporation. Their Icebreakers are generally inefficient, but supplemented by cards allowing them to sabotage Ice cards or avoid them entirely (such as Inside Job, which allows a player to ignore an Ice card). Criminals are perhaps the most reliant on out-of-faction cards to capitalise on their bonuses, which rely on increasing action efficiency (cards which destroy Ice, give them bonus attacks in a turn, or steal money from the Corporation). These are supplemented by cards which trigger off successful attacks and change the result – allowing an attack on an undefended target to be redirected to a more well-guarded location, or to forfeit the chance to score a card to gain money. Their identies are Gabriel, who gains bonus credits for attacking the Corporation player's hand, and Andromeda whose ability is more situational; she begins the game with nine cards instead of five, increasing the odds of having the right card for an early attack.

On the Corporation side the most archetypal is Weyland, a finance and property empire most strongly focused on brute force. Their Agendas are designed around taking long-term penalties for short-term profit via the “Bad Publicity” mechanic (giving the Runner a steady income in exchange for some benefit to the Corporation) or simply strengthening their position (Project Atlas allows the Corporation to search for a card unconditionally, while Government Contracts gives vast amounts of money) while their library of utility cards is heavily economy-focused. They have strong money-generating cards keying off the strength of their Ice cards, upgradeable Ice which gains abilities or defence via investment, and the strongest attacking card in the game in the form of Scorched Earth – a cheap card which forces the Runner to discard four cards and which is generally a game-winning move. Many of their Ice cards, however, are not particularly effective, relying on long-term investment to become usable. Their Identities are Building a Better World, which still further increases the value of their economic cards, and Because We Built It, which provides free upgrades to upgradeable Ice cards.

Similar in intent to Weyland is NBN, a Google-esque social media and news source who have both the ability to burden the Runner with Tag tokens (costly-to-remove penalties which allow the Corporation to attack the Runner more easily) and rush through cheap Agendas with powerful abilities. Their Agendas are mostly short-termist, giving bonus actions to upgrade subsequent Agendas or giving a Runner temporary Tags, and their utility cards give and capitalise on those tags. Cards like SEA Source and Midseason Replacements force the Runner to expend credits or take mountains of tags, and cards like Psychographics then turn those tags into Agenda upgrades. Their Ice cards rarely attack the Runner particularly strongly, but have other utility, often creating Catch-22 situations – Pop-up Window has an unavoidable cost of 1 credit that cannot be bypassed by Icebreakers, while Data Raven offers a choice of being tagged or aborting the attack. However, in keeping with their cheap Agendas, NBN Ice cards are entirely focused on bringing victory closer rather than punishing the Runner. As a result they synergise well with out-of-faction cards from Weyland, being able to grab Scorched Earth and quickly use it. Their identities are Making News, which generates free credits to spend in Traces (a bidding war mechanic where if the Runner loses they take a penalty) and The World Is Yours, which is a counterpart to Chaos Theory in how it allows a small deck – albeit one combined with a six-card hand.

Jinteki are a difficult-to-play Corporation themed around artificial intelligence research, focused on winning via assassination (much like Weyland) but without the rapid economic growth and brute-force attack cards. Instead, they use vast amounts of weak Ice cards which interact in strange ways to force the Runner into making mistakes – disposable Ice which has strong abilities but is discarded after use, Ice which requires the Runner to pay more to bypass later pieces of Ice and Ice which can make the Runner end up attacking a completely different target to the one they aimed at. This is supplemented by the two most powerful traps in the game – Snare is a brute-force hit of damage like Scorched Earth that looks like a resource while face-down, while Project Junebug can be upgraded like an Agenda and deals damage based on the money poured into it. Their supporting cards further confuse the Runner; Trick of Light allows tokens to be moved from Agendas to other locations, while Midori swaps a piece of Ice for a completely different one. Without cross-faction cards Jinteki are comparatively weak and difficult to use effectively, but they are rewarding and can lead to entertaining games of bluff. Their Identities are Personal Evolution,which deals damage to the Runner whenever any player scores points, and Replicating Perfection, which locks the Runner out of certain targets for attack until others are successfully approached.

If NBN were the Corporation based around quickly scoring points, Haas-Bioroid are the less subtle variation; they are a cloning company entirely built around action efficiency. Their agendas and support cards give the player longer turns, multiple actions for one card and allow multiple cards to be played simultaneously. Rather than using multiple “Servers” to make the Runner split their resources, Haas cards are based around making a small number of incredibly well-defended targets that are punishing to the Runner. Their Ice cards, themed around combat cyborgs and AIs, have powerful abilities but can be reasoned with; the Runner may spend actions to be ignored by them. Thus Haas servers must have enough Ice to force the Runner to both use all their remaining actions and then also spend all their money – and this is then followed by punishing traps like Ash, which forces one final trace otherwise the Runner can only attack it before being ejected, and Aggressive Secretary which destroys Program cards. Their Identities make these strengths even better; Engineering the Future gives a 1-credit rebate on the first card played in a turn, while Stronger Together powers up Haas Ice. 

It is this thematic integration in Netrunner – the combination of card imagery and card design – that makes it so rewarding. Board games use their aesthetics more as themes than narrative devices, and so a game like this which builds on the theme to shape the mechanics (in its asymmetrical play, and division of cards among the factions) is very interesting. Furthermore, for a card game, it is non-random; rather than buying packs of random cards, players can buy a single expansion each month which contains three copies (the maximum) of twenty new cards divided among the seven factions. Often, the contents of these expansions are previewed in advance, and so the player can choose whether or not to purchase them depending on if they strengthen the faction they favour.

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