On the running of nets

Since the summer of 2013, I've been playing a little card game called Android: Netrunner. In those few years, I've played over 900 games in person, and countless more online. Last year, I and a few other Ottawa players went to the 2015 World Championships where I placed 21st. It'd be fair to say that I'm pretty far down this particular rabbit hole.

Between the Ottawa Netrunner scene's weekly pub nights and day-long tournaments every month or so, I sink a fair bit of time into Netrunner. And that's just playing the game, nevermind building decks or poring over the enormous amount of community content available online.

So naturally a lot of people have asked me what this Netrunner game is all about and why I play it, and I think the answers I come up with are often pretty lackluster. It's difficult to convey what makes Netrunner so compelling without launching into a long explanation that causes peoples' eyes to glaze over, and although when people ask me about the game their curiosity is usually genuine, every so often it comes with a hint (intentional or not) of derision. And I totally get that. A few years ago, if you told me I'd be playing a card game competitively, I would probably have laughed at the idea. I'd been big into the new wave of hobby board games for a few years before taking up Netrunner, but collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering had never appealed to me. There are a couple reasons for that; I'm not really interested in the typical fantasy / anime themes those games usually have, and the "gambling" aspect of hunting for rares in randomized booster packs just seems like a total waste of money to me.

But if we're being honest, the biggest reason was probably the stigma often attached to playing those sorts of games. I was already a pretty nerdy guy back in high school when I first heard of Magic, so adding nerdy card games to my repertoire always seemed...unwise for my social prospects. That attitude persisted through college, even after I'd gotten heavily into other tabletop games, due in no small part to the locker room smell and obnoxious discussions that always filled the lobby where the Magic players hung out. I say that not to be a dick to people I really know nothing about, but because I know it's a very real image a lot of people have of the entire hobby (my past self included). Unfortunately, the stereotypes aren't entirely unfounded, but with Netrunner at least, I know that people like that are definitely the exception rather than the rule.

All that to say, I understand some peoples' skepticism towards the hobby, and I certainly wasn't on the hunt for a game like Netrunner myself. But as I mentioned, I was getting seriously into board games around that time, and after seeing Netrunner at the top of the charts for months on BoardGameGeek (think IMDB for tabletop games, if you're unfamiliar), I allowed myself to be persuaded by a co-worker to give it a try (surprise, a game about hacking is popular with high-tech workers!). Pretty soon I was hooked.

Within a few weeks, I'd bought up all the card packs that had been released. A few months later, in November of 2013, I attended my first tournament at a small local gaming convention. I was nervous; I didn't know any of the other players and it was the first time I'd really participated in anything competitive since I was a kid. The whole day was oddly thrilling. There's something sort of ridiculous about getting an adrenaline rush sitting at a table playing cards, but Netrunner is a game filled with bluffing and tense decision-making. When you sit down across from a stranger, you have no idea what kind of game you're in for. By the end of it, you're swapping stories about the surprises you faced, the bluffs they missed, and possible improvements for each others' decks. You shake hands, wish each other luck in the next rounds, and then you sit down with someone new to do it all again. Every match is a learning experience. After all was said and done, I placed third in that tournament, and it was very much a "Hey, maybe I could be good at this!" moment for me.

My fifteen minutes of nerd-fame on FFG's livestream at Worlds 2015. Damon Stone, now the lead designer of the game, looks on.

Fast-forward a few years and I find myself up 8-2 after the first five rounds at Worlds 2015, and I'm being called over to play my next game on camera. Now, I'll let you in on a little secret: I think I'm occasionally good at Netrunner, but I'm definitely not that good. Finely tuned decks that the four of us from Ottawa had built together (along with really lucky matchups they were well-suited for) carried me through the day. I remember being called over to the table for the livestream, sitting down, and telling my opponent "I have no idea what I'm doing here." He laughed and said he felt the same.

In the years since I started playing, I've gained a bit of a reputation as Ottawa's "swingiest" Netrunner player. I often find myself in either the top 4 or the bottom 4 of any given tournament, but rarely in the middle. Whether I'm on top or getting crushed, I always have a blast playing. The overwhelming majority of people I've met playing Netrunner, from the local players at our pub night, to our friends slash rivals in the neighbouring cities of Montreal and Toronto, to the international crews at Worlds, have been incredibly friendly. The Netrunner community is just full of awesome people, and as great as the game is, I think the people are the reason I've stuck with it for so long.

So what is Netrunner?

The official intro video gives you the gist of what Netrunner is all about.

Android: Netrunner is a two-player asymmetric living card game about futuristic hackers taking down shadowy megacorporations. Let's break that down a bit:

A Living Card Game (LCG) is a format created by the company behind Netrunner, Fantasy Flight Games. They also make a number of other LCGs, based on licensed properties like Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Warhammer, and Star Wars (interestingly, Netrunner is the only one set in their own in-house universe). The key difference between an LCG and a traditional Collectible Card Game (CCG) like Magic or Pokemon is that LCGs have no randomization. They regularly release new expansions, but you know exactly what cards you're buying in each pack, so there's no rarity, and that leads to a much more level playing field.

The Weyland Consortium's methods aren't exactly family-friendly.

The asymmetric bit means that both sides – the Runner (hacker) and the Corp – play totally differently. A match of Netrunner is actually two games: your Corp against their Runner and then your Runner against their Corp. Generally speaking, the Corp is on defense, trying to build up firewalled servers in which they can advance their agendas, while the Runner is on offense, trying to build up a suite of programs to hack through those defenses and steal the Corp's agendas. Each agenda is worth a certain number of points, and the first player to score or steal seven points wins. The Corp can also win by "flatlining" the Runner, by (for example) finding out where they live and blowing up their apartment block, or laying virtual traps that fry their brains and leave them drooling at their terminal. As you might imagine, this game gets pretty dark thematically.

On that note, the theme is a huge part of what interested me in the game. Like I mentioned earlier, I'm not a big fan of the high fantasy settings so commonly found in this sort of game, but this one is right up my alley. It's set in the not-so-distant future, where humans have built a massive space elevator on Earth, paving the way for the colonization of the moon and Mars (if you're a fan of the recent show The Expanse, it's got a lot of similarities). Human clones and advanced androids are rapidly replacing human labour, causing widespread unemployment and dissent. The all-encompassing Network is tied to every facet of daily life, and peoples' activities are monitored, logged, and used to predict their future behaviours and serve up targeted content (does that even qualify as science fiction anymore?).

Netrunner's depiction of cyberspace is filled with weird, beautifully illustrated creatures.

While it occasionally goes a little over-the-top, for the most part the setting is pretty believable and actually tackles some interesting issues. The latest series of packs to come out centers around a civil rights movement for human clones in India, which is not the sort of thing you're used to seeing from games like this, and I for one find it really refreshing.

And the art – man, the art. While most of Netrunner's cards feature hackers with cords plugged into their spines and the neon cityscapes of cyberpunk you might expect, a good portion of them depict the virtual world and that stuff gets weird. Programs and server defenses are represented by digital avatars ranging from mythological creatures to stunning abstract art.

What makes Netrunner's gameplay so good?

Once you've gotten a solid grip on the rules of Netrunner (and admittedly, the learning curve is a bit steeper than most games), it becomes apparent that the game is all about reading your opponent and knowing what they're capable of at any given moment. As the Corp, I might see that the Runner has the necessary programs and enough money to get through my server's defenses – but only once. I can throw down a hidden trap, bluffing that it's an agenda, hoping that they'll bankrupt themselves trying to steal it, all so that next turn I can install the real agenda, this time knowing that it will be safe there for a turn until I can score it. It's a great plan – but one the Runner might see right through and decide to make a run on my headquarters instead, stealing the agenda from my hand and rendering my trap worthless. Decisions like this on both sides can make for some extremely tense matches.

Every decision you make in Netrunner is a calculated risk that could determine the outcome of the game.

What it really comes down to is that Netrunner is filled with important choices. You have several actions to take on each of your turns, and unlike other card games, they aren't limited to playing cards from your hand. You're always able to gain money, draw more cards, use the abilities of cards you've played on previous turns, or make runs against the corporate servers. There are very rarely situations in Netrunner you can't somehow claw your way back from given the right mix of luck and ingenuity, and that's a huge part of what makes it great. I suppose it's fitting that in a game about corporations being taken down by individuals, the underdog always has a pretty good shot at winning.

Where can I learn more?

Netrunner is a phenomenal game with a great community that I'd love to see expand even more. Since you're still reading, I'm going to assume there's something in the paragaphs above that piqued your interest and there's a chance you're interested in learning to play.

The best way to learn Netrunner, as with most games, is to have someone who knows the rules inside out teach you. If that's not possible, don't get discouraged by FFG's notoriously not-so-great manuals. They do have a really good video tutorial series that covers the basics.

Most major cities have regular meetup groups where you can meet other players – search on Facebook or Meetup to find one near you. If you're an Ottawa local, come out and learn the game at one of our pub nights! All the info is on our Facebook group. We're always happy to teach new players, just let us know you're coming so we can prep some extra decks for you!

A few years back, Quinns and Leigh over at Shut Up and Sit Down wrote what's still one of the best Netrunner articles out there, all about her struggle to learn the game. I highly recommend reading it if you're new to the game and having trouble wrapping your head around it (incidentally, two years later she's writing official fiction for the universe).

After you've learned the basics, a card database and online deckbuilder can help you plan out what sets you want to buy, or figure out what you can build with the cards you have. There are a few options out there, but the best is NetrunnerDB.

Netrunner also has several very active online communities, most notably the Netrunner subreddit and Stimhack. If you're interested in what decks are popular at any given time, Acoo and Know the Meta are great resources.

Images used in this article are the property of Fantasy Flight Games.

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