My family loves board games—especially my brothers. And since they love games so much, they have expectations. I relearned this very quickly a few weeks ago when I wanted to start learning Android Netrunner. I asked my brother in passing if he wanted to unpack it and play it with me. He asked if I had played it, to which I responded “not yet!” Then came the humbling response: “Oh Spencer, you’re breaking the cardinal rule of games. Don’t you know you can’t bring a game you haven’t learned to play with someone else?” These words were prophetic, and I quickly saw why they especially applied to Netrunner. My wife and I later spent roughly two hours trying to understand the rules, and reading through other supplemental information included in the game handbook. This task was frustrating by itself, and I was immediately discouraged.
A few days later, I had learned the basics of the game, thanks to a handful of like-minded friends who were also interested in learning it. What I gleaned was this: I immediately wanted to master this game, because I saw the enjoyment potential. Sure, I lost the first few times. Sure, I barely understood what I was doing. The thing that piqued my interest initially was feeling like I was part of this cyber-punk society full of hacking and other criminal activity. Netrunner is the most frustrating and confusing game I’ve ever attempted to learn, but for some reason, it had me hooked.
The basic gameplay consists of two sides: the corporation and the runner. The corporation is trying to advance its plans, or agendas. The runner is trying to hack into the corporation servers to steal the agendas before they can be advanced. This is the basic idea. Easy enough, right? Wrong. The unique thing about Netrunner that I have struggled with and loved at the same time is how many aspects of the game you need to constantly be aware of.
Let’s say you’re playing as the corporation. You install a server, which could be an agenda (a scoring card) or an asset (a card with another function, like a trap). It’s not as simple as it sounds, which enriches the game. If the corporation wants their servers to have a chance of being protected from hackers (the runner), they must install ice (basically a firewall). So the game has already added multiple layers to the overarching goal. You try to advance a card, but you have to be aware of what’s protecting it. Not only that—you have to be able to afford the cards that can protect it.
The runner, on the other side of things, is all about building a robust rig, or active cards that make the player more capable of hacking, and then completing a successful run. In its rig, the runner can install programs, hardware, and resources. These three classifications of cards make it possible for the runner to do a number of things, but the goal is to steal seven agenda points from the corporation, triggering a win-state for the runner. This is much harder than it seems, and this constant struggle of running/protecting is what makes the game so exciting.
A key feature of Netrunner is that each side has their unique set of rules, in addition to the big picture rules that both players adhere to. For example, each player has a turn consisting of clicks, or actions. The runner has four clicks within a turn, while the corporation only has three. Although seemingly imbalanced, this is extremely effective, since the corporation has the power of setting the pace of the game. Another “imbalance” is the fact that the corporation draws a card for free every turn, while the runner lacks this privilege. Nuances in the game such as these drive players to try both sides and observe potential strategies. So really, this game is multiple games contained in one. The rules aren’t always universal.
The most important part of this game is the run. A runner hopes to use his/her installed programs, etc. to get through their opponent’s defenses. The corporation hopes to buff their ice to protect scoring cards while they advance them, but they can also install trap cards disguised as agendas to lure the runner in and ruin their life. This aspect of risk-taking and anticipation creates a sense of excitement I’ve rarely experienced in card games.
Additionally, the game offers multiple win-state options. For the runner to win, they must either steal seven agenda points from the corporation (each agenda has a point value, and not all are created equal), or wear the corporation’s R&D (the deck they draw from) down to zero. Alternatively, the corporation can win by either advancing enough agenda cards to score them, or flat-lining the runner. The flat-line win-state is probably my favorite thing in the game so far. This means that the corporation deals some sort of damage to the runner, potentially leaving them with no cards in their hand. Since the runner’s hand acts as their health, they lose the game. It’s a delicious feeling to shut down a hacker trying to steal your stuff this way, but it’s even sweeter to successfully get through ice and steal agendas from the corporation.
All in all, Netrunner is one of the best games I’ve ever played in my life. I’m primarily a video gamer, but I’ve laid in bed at night thinking about this game, and how I can win next time I play. It’s that good. It may upset and frustrate you beyond reason as you’re learning it, but it is such a rewarding experience when you finally get it—when you play to win, not to learn.