Collectible Card Game Week: Netrunner

Many of the CCGs that came out after Magic were very much in its style. If they weren’t straight-up copying-and-pasting its mechanics they were at least still using the cards as units that were placed on the table, enhanced in some way, and sent into battle against each other. This is not necessarily a slam against designers; the format easily lent itself to it.

Netrunner, which came out in 1996, significantly changed this. In fact, it was revolutionary in a lot of ways. Most significantly, it is asymmetrical. That is, the two players are not using the same cards, nor do they have the same goals. One player is the Corporation, whose goal is to achieve agendas, and the other is the Runner, whose goal is to steal those agendas. (They can also win by effectively eliminating the other player.) The Runner outfits himself with hardware, programs, and resources and then makes “runs” against the Corporation’s data forts, which will be protected by ICE (programs designed to keep out and possibly harm intruders). Interestingly, the Runner can also run against the Corp’s deck, hand, or discard pile, so those have to be protected as well. The Corporation can also do things such as “tag” a Runner (trace his location) which then allows them to send hired goons over to explain DRM (Direct, Repeated Mauling). Many, many people on usenet argued that the game was unbalanced in favor of the Corporation, while many, many people argued that it was unbalanced in favor of the Runner.

Brady and I got into Netrunner with gusto. We were both fans of cyberpunkery in general and were intrigued by the game. We also didn’t completely get it. (The rulebook is partly to blame for this, as it’s written in-character and doesn’t really lay things out ideally.) It’s not an easy game to wrap your head around, and it’s tough to know how to build a deck well. It’s also very subtle in some of its mechanics. Magic, which we were used to, has a lot of subtleties as well, but the core of the game is pretty straightforward. It’s much less so with Netrunner.

We eventually got frustrated with the game. Either we were missing something or it was missing something. Remember, this was back when the best you could hope for if you had a question about a game was that either some magazine would have an article that addressed the issue or someone on usenet would be able to answer the question. The game kind of fizzled, I’m pretty sure because it wasn’t the same old thing everyone was now used to, and we quit. Only one expansion was ever released, and I eventually sold all my cards.

Today, the game has a huge cult following. Now that people can get past the “it’s not Magic” thing and pool knowledge resources they’ve recognized it for the fantastic design. Cards go for pretty good sums on eBay and there are ways to play online. Much as CCGs helped game and comics stores stay afloat in the 90s, the boardgame revival has helped “dead” CCGs find new life.

Part of what got me thinking about CCGs for this week was Netrunner. My pal Dan has had some cards for some time and never played it. He brought them over on Sunday and, armed with my hazy recollection of the game and a nice, concise rules layout, we gave it a shot. We took turns — I played as the Corp first and then the Runner. I won both games, but I think it was mostly due to the fact that we were playing with untuned starter decks. As the Runner, Dan hit me right off the bat with a virus that normally would have been a pain in my ass (it forced me to draw extra cards on my turn), but in this case was an absolute boon to me, allowing me to burn through chaff and get to what I needed quickly. When we swapped sides, I didn’t return the favor, and he had to take the slow path through his deck. I also got lucky with a couple of early runs against his deck.

We both were pretty impressed with the game design, and want to play more of it. The good news is, we won’t have to depend on the kindness of eBay for cards, because Fantasy Flight Games is reprinting it.

Releasing in August, Android: Netrunner will take the game and set it in their Android universe. It won’t be a CCG anymore but an LCG — living card game. (A Living Card Game is one in which there are regular expansions, but nothing is bought blindly. When an expansion comes out, you buy all the new cards in one set to add to your supply.) This is excellent news for a number of reasons. Not only does it give the game a new shot at life in an era that can appreciate it for what it is, it also can “update” the design of it. The original Netrunner has a busy, overdesigned feel to it (“Cyberpunk” in the 90s meant garish colors, clunky digital art, and unreadable fonts, usually all at the same time.) FFG has a chance to either modernize the design into something more current which will be mocked and reviled in ten years, or revert it to a more “vintage” design that pokes knowing fun at the concept. I’m already on board for the re-release, and I can’t wait.

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