Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Android: Netrunner

Back from the dead...

As has been said, I am currently playing one really long game (Agarest) which means no video game analyses for a while. Especially since on top of that I started another - very likely even longer - game, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Agarest is actually on a break now, so... Not to worry, there's more to gaming than digital games. Analog games have not received any mention in this blog since ancient times; now it is time for them to make a comeback. The game I want to talk about is Android: Netrunner, a game I have been getting into lately.

1. A quick introduction

This game right here would be a perfect topic for an entire article or two of its own. It's basically a rerun of an old collectible card game by Richard Garfield, resurrected by Fantasy Flight Games as a living card game. We already know that LCG is one clever concept, and Netrunner is perhaps the most clever of them all. Being strictly a two player game, it pits one lonely hacker against a massive mega corporation. The setting may sound a bit asymmetrical and this is no coincidence, because that is exactly what the game is. The corporation is building servers to advance its agendas while the hacker is constantly trying to breach through security and grab those agendas for themselves. The first player to score seven points from agendas is the winner. The corporation can also win by killing the hacker either through net damage or by more direct means of physical damage while the hacker wins if the corporation runs out of cards to draw.

The asymmetrical setting alone makes Netrunner stand out, but it's just icing on the cake. The cake is a lie - or rather a massive web of deceit. The corporation plays all its cards face-down and only has to pay for them when they are revealed (or rezzed as the game's hacker lingo likes to call it). Cards installed on servers can be rezzed at any time if their conditions are met but protective cards (ICE) can only be rezzed when they are encountered by the hacker. Most of the time the only way for the hacker to find out what's what is to run head first into it. What is the corporation hiding behind three pieces of ICE - and what kind of ICE are those anyway? In short, the corporation's job is to deceive the hacker into wasting resources on wild goose chases while tha hacker tries to figure out what risks are worth taking. Running into really aggravating ICE can literally end the hacker's life and even if all ICE is breached, there might be a trap waiting on the server. It really doesn't help that traps look a lot like agendas. 

There are two factors that drive the game forward: the corporation must draw one card every turn, and in addition to servers, agendas can be stolen from the corporate player's hand, top of their deck and from their discard pile. It is impossible to protect everything, and once agendas start piling up on the corporate player's hand, they have to do something with them - but the means to get those agendas scored are up to the player and their deck's design. Some players may favor stacking ICE after ICE to create the ultimate server to guard their agendas while others may choose to play agendas on unprotected servers - only these "agendas" are as often traps as they are the real thing. What looks like an agenda? Cards that can be advanced while face-down. Advancing costs time and money, both of which are limited, and it is mostly impossible to fully advance an agenda on the same turn it is played. Once advancement tokens start to pile up on it, the hacker knows something is up. 

2. Tricks and deceit

All in all, the game is far more dependent on player skill and turn-to-turn decision making than other popular deck construction games. This is especially true when playing against a deck you have never played against - for instance in a tournament. Although there are some hard counters in the game, most solid decks should be okay against the majority of decks and games are often pretty close. The corp-plays-hidden nature of the game makes it so that cards can have surprising uses and the winner is more often the player who makes the best use of their cards rather than the player who has the better deck. Some cards still feel like garbage but that just happens with every game. Sometimes it matters more what the card looks like than what it actually is. Let's take a quick example.

Most of the traps in game do nothing if they have not been advanced. This means that it is usually more safe for the runner to go for cards that have not been advanced if they feel like they could be facing traps. I do this a lot, especially if it is not too costly to check out a card before it has been advanced. One game I was having some issues and could not afford to play and advance a card on the same turn. I had traps that would win me the game if the runner hit them while they were advanced, but I simply did not have the resources to do that. Instead, I just put one out on a somewhat protected server with no advancement. Against my deck, it is 100% safe to check cards that have not been advanced, so the runner went for it, burning some resources (time and money) on my ICE. Effectively I just bought a lot of time with a useless card. The runner had to check it because if it had been an agenda, I could have very probably scored it on my next turn.

I actually repeated the trick a few turns later and bought more time, and I eventually won the game - on a play with a card I was unable to use properly. All kinds of plays can be made, and the game affords huge swings and comebacks. This basically happens because of the resource system: there are very few resource cards that provide constant benefit (like lands in MtG). Most economy cards are good for limited time, or require the player to spend precious time to get credits. Time can always be exchanged for credits (it's an action) but the economy cards make the ratio more efficient. This makes it much harder to snowball because a few misplays can quickly even the economic scales. If a player is able to buy enough time, they can recover from pretty dire situations.  

3. Factions

The game has factions on each side: three runner types and four corporations, each with their own characteristics. Criminal runners are basically massive dicks who have pretty straightforward gameplay. They can go with early aggression and lay a lot of waste on the corporation's resources. Shapers on the other hand rely more on finesse and table development, eventually coming up with cards to cover every situation and then just go from there. Anarchists are my current favorite - they go for less orthodox tactics, trying to disrupt the game with viruses and other cards that really mess things up. Playing with and against each of these runner factions is a pretty different experience. It sets the premise for the matchup and gives away a bit about what can be expected.

On the corporation side there are two that rely more on having a heavy economy and two that rely more on being crafty. Haas-Bioroid is ideal for players who just want to build an impregnable fortress and eventually win from within its walls. Wayland has brutally efficient economy, but it often comes at the cost of bad publicity which makes it generally easier to run against them - they also have a lot of means to outright kill the runner with meat damage. Jinteki decks often go poor, but they specialize in traps and other sorts of mind games - and often win games through massive net damage from their traps, ICE and other cards. NBN is another corporation that doesn't swim in money, but they have means to score agendas rapidly and control the game by tagging the runner (if the runner is tagged, the corporation can obliterate their resources pretty easily and do other nasty things).

The factions alone give twelve different matchups but on top of that each faction has multiple identities to choose from. Each identity has a special power, and the identity also defines the minimum deck size for the player. It also defines how many influence points the player gets to spend - these points are used in deck-building to include cards from other factions. The influence system means that although you know the identity and faction of your opponent, there will always be cards that are atypical to their faction in the mix. This can cause a ton of nasty surprises which can turn the game around. Of course the effect is gone after playing against the same deck a couple of times but even then you still have to deal with everything.

All in all, there's plenty to choose from, and factions don't have just one playstyle. It is entirely possible to play a more conservative Jinteki deck for instance, protecting cards with ICE like normal people - or you can just go loose and play with a deck that's based on gambit after gambit. It just really depends on what's your cup of tea. I like NBN and Jinteki because they give more room to crafty plays - perhaps with higher risk, but also higher reward. Both factions can easily win in a single turn if the runner makes a mistake - and naturally they have the means to bait out that mistake. Most of the time it leads to wildly unpredictable games which I think is always fun. Sure games of Netrunner are by average pretty unpredictable already, but with these two corporations it just gets way more so.

4. Dynamics and stuff

When all the pieces come together, the design is simply brilliant. The fact that one side plays with hidden information is what truly defines the game for what it is, and it is supplemented by the nature of economy. The basic resource everything comes down to is time, because time can be converted into anything but players can influence the ratio. Cards and credits are pretty straightforward derivatives, but one resource in the game is much harder to evaluate: information. This sits very well with the game's theme: ultimately it's about information being taken from the corporation by the runner. Sometimes risks must be taken simply in order to reveal a few cards. The more knowledge the runner has, the better they can plan the use of their resources.

On the corporation side, the player has to worry about different vectors of attack. It is usually important to protect your R&D (draw deck) because that's the most unpredictable element in the game for the corporation. A lucky runner can win in one turn if they get free access to R&D. Then there's HQ (hand of cards) to worry about, especially if it contains agendas. The corporation should also be able to protect at least one remote server to have at least one place to play agendas. It doesn't help that some runner decks are insanely harrowing to play against because they seem to have ways to deal with everything - these ways will exhaust eventually, but surviving that long can be quite a challenge. In a way the corporation has somewhat more control over the game. It is much easier for corporations to only take risks they can afford while at the same time being able to force the runner to take huge risks.

A lot of times optimal plays also depend on the opponent. Corporations can play pretty balls-y moves against risk-averse runners, like dropping agendas on servers with little or no protection. A card with no protection and no advancement tokens pretty much reeks of waste of time or even a trap. However if it is just left there and it's an agenda that requires three advancement, the corporation can outright score it on their next turn. On the other hand if you are playing against a less timid or downright aggressive runner (that would be me), there's just no way you're getting away with plays like this. As the runner you have to evaluate how huge balls the corp player really has. Misjudgements to either direction can be pretty damn costly.

With all this going on, the game is just really dynamic. Although decks are typically built around one strategy, players should always be prepared to adapt their play style on a game-to-game basis. Both sides can make it impossible for their opponent to play their strategy, but this usually opens up other opportunities. Recognizing and capitalizing these opportunities is an important skill.


Android: Netrunner is not your typical deck construction game. Its asymmetrical nature, reliance on hidden information and resource system keep the game interesting to play - as opposed to some other games where the real game is deck-building and actually playing the game is just a formality (a bit polarized view admittedly, but the difference between e.g. MtG and Netrunner is just huge honestly). As a game it simply allows way more opportunities for the player to shine. All the mind games and unpredictability mean that games are almost never over before the end conditions have been met. It can literally take just one mistake to make or break a game - and not taking risks can be a mistake in itself.  

I have not yet played enough to really tell how balanced the game is. There are some runner cards that do feel pretty overpowered and playing against them is really frustrating. They are still manageable but do put quite a strain on corporation deck-building. A definite con is the price. Although I guess it is possible to not buy every single expansion, I'd still say it's not the cheapest game to play. I think at the moment it's my second or third most expensive game, but I do have all or most of the expansions (the leader is by far Lord of the Rings living card game).

So, play it if you get the chance. 

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