The deck-building card game genre is an interesting one. Designers have to make sure that players have a motivation to keep playing. This can be done in many ways. Some players get hooked because of anticipation—waiting for that next expansion which will make their game “better.” Others enjoy the idea of collecting. However, I submit that one of the most effective ways of designing a lasting experience for players (and one of the most underestimated) is creating an engaging narrative and fictive aspect. Android: Netrunner is a prime example of using this design attribute effectively. Through various elements that comprise a narrative or fictive world as a whole, players feel a stronger connection to the game. Instead of functioning as simply mechanics, these elements bring players into a special world. I would like to focus on four aspects of Netrunner, which immerse players in a unique world. They are 1) Language, 2) Aesthetic/Art, 3) Economy, and 4) Balance. By using effective design within these four categories, Netrunner accomplishes one of its goals—immersing the player in a dangerous world of hackers and shady corporations.
One of the first things I noticed as I aimed to learn this game (besides the sheer density/difficulty) was the language. As I read through the rules booklet and later played my first game, I immediately felt connected to this world of cyber crime and advanced technology. Why? The specific language printed on the pages of this booklet and the cards gave me no choice but to jump into a world I hadn’t been to before. Sure, this terminology is sometimes used in everyday life (remote servers, hacking, etc.). But the fact that this game lets you live it through gameplay makes these words come to life. For example, take a term like the “runner.” When I read about this side of the game and the roles entailed, I immediately felt excited. What could runner mean? Adventure? Crime? Close calls? All of the above? Simple terms like this create excitement for the player, or at least engagement. When I played as the corporation, I felt empowered by the terms used to describe my tools. “Ice” now meant a specific defense system I could use to protect my vital information contained in my servers. “Research and Development” now meant a pool of untapped resources I could use to crush my nemesis, rather than a simple deck of cards. Heck, even my trash pile got me engaged in the world with a name like “Archives.” The designers could have chosen different language—language that would not accurately describe this cyber-punk world of desperation. But by using these specific words, they conditioned players to think as if they were actually hackers or technologically advanced corporations. The words on the cards have more effect on the minds of players than one might realize or acknowledge.
So if words have this kind of effect, is there anything else that seemingly subtle that could also have a similar level of influence on players? I argue that in games like Netrunner, the artwork and overall visual aesthetic plays a vital role in pulling the player into these fictive worlds. When a player picks up a card that depicts a certain action, the artwork on that card should immediately capture the vision of what that action might do. This can be interpreted in different ways, however. Rather than showing exactly what an action might look like, many cards in Netrunner give the player a visual idea to work with. I noticed that when I drew the card “Crypsis,” I felt a sense of power and authority from that card. This is effective design, because the player can go off of visual cues to get an idea of what cards might be good for, or how good the card actually is. Even the parts of the game that may seem insignificant can be influential. For example, the backs of the cards are either red or blue, but they have a design and aesthetic that suggests an extremely technological atmosphere. This art helps players become a part of the fictional world. The art gets in a player’s mind.
In addition to textual and artistic mediums of communication, there are various gameplay aspects which help the player capture a vision of the Netrunner world. One of these is the implementation of an economy within the game. Some games are all about monetary gain. Netrunner isn’t about the money. Or is it? Although the goal of the game is to gain “agenda” cards as both the runner and the corporation, money plays a vital role to get to that point. One aspect about the economy of Netrunner that surprised me when I played is the fact that the gameplay encourages frugality. If players are heavy spenders, they suffer immediately, and they feel that effect for multiple turns sometimes. Through this aspect of the game, players learn that they must be cautious with how their money is spent within the cyber-punk world. Money is used to purchase and use important offensive and defensive tools, but players have to wisely choose how and when they spend money.
Players are constantly eyeballing each other’s resources to try and anticipate where to attack and where to defend. In addition to a monetary level of competition, there are other elements of balance within this game that contribute to its fictive world. At first glance, these balance issues may seem like just that—issues, or unfair elements of the game. However, when one looks deeper at these imbalances in gameplay, further immersion into this fictional world is apparent. The biggest example to me is the corporation. When a person thinks of a corporation in today’s world, they might think of power, influence, competition, etc. This becomes apparent in Netrunner through the gameplay. The corporation always gets to go first in any given game. This indicates that the power lies in the hands of that particular organization, and the runner has to work around it. The runner, on the other hand, is fairly fragile if players are not careful or do not foresee what could happen. In addition to playing second in the game, runners can be “flat-lined” when corporations (through various means) eliminate the cards in their hand. This imbalance of power vs. fragility makes for exciting gameplay, especially when the runner can turn fragility into power. But in addition to engaging gameplay, this aspect of the game helps players put themselves in the world. They feel more connected to the conflicts being portrayed within the game, and thus more motivated to succeed.
As I think about the various games I’ve played, both similar and different than Netrunner, I consider how these elements might illuminate other fictive worlds. Some games do not succeed at doing this, to be clear. Others may do it better than Netrunner. I think the point of this discussion is that effective game design can be more than gameplay and mechanics. It can point players in a direction that gets them connected to the game (and potentially a culture), which increases the longevity of a game and makes it more fun to play generally. Netrunner uses specific language, carefully styled art and aesthetics, and economical and balance aspects to enrich its gameplay and invite players to jump into a different world. There are also many other games that hopefully use this pattern, suggesting there is much more to discover about how games support their fictive worlds and contexts through good design.
When I first heard the term “living card game,” I understood surprisingly well what that could mean. As I’ve learned more, I found that I wasn’t far off. In a way, this is an example of good game design—being able to use concise titles and language to describe an effect something has or a trait it possesses. This is what Fantasy Flight Games has done with games such as Android: Netrunner, and their business model with this genre of card game is extremely interesting. So the first question is: what exactly is a living card game? Well, FFG has done something interesting with card games like Netrunner. Rather than forcing customers to do blind purchases to try and strengthen their arsenal of cards, games like Netrunner have regular expansions that are released, allowing players to expand their decks if they wish. The difference between this and other genres, such as the “collectible card game” is that the living aspect puts less pressure on consumers, allowing them to collect, but at their own pace and without affecting the fun of the game. For example, players are able to play a fully functional game of Netrunner with the core set of cards, and it’s still entertaining. They don’t have to go out and purchase cards to make the game fun. And that’s the beauty of making a card game alive.
There are other games out there that are very similar to this game, in terms of business models. For example, Dominion is an extremely engaging deck-building game. There are, however, multiple expansions for the game that immerse players even further in the world and add more options for the gameplay. Dominion can be played with two to four people on the core set, and it’s incredibly fun. It demonstrates all the aspects of the game effectively, and doesn’t blatantly ask the players to make additional add-on purchases to achieve a complete game.
Other games, such as Magic: The Gathering, are different because they basically ask players to blindly purchase more cards in the hope that they get high caliber collectibles. This also applies to the wildly popular Pokemon. Although these games have huge followings, they differ from living card games because of what they demand of the customer for a full experience. In addition to collectible and trading card games, the living card game genre differs from themed and regular card games. For example, the game Love Letter contains engaging gameplay, all packaged into a single purchase. There are different versions of these types of games (Love Letter: Batman, Fluxx: Monty Python, etc.), but they are all standalone games that don’t really ask anything else of the consumer past the initial purchase. Regular card games, such as War, Egyptian Rat Screw, and Poker are the most basic card game genre, and are unique because they require a generic deck of face cards that can be used for countless games. So, if we looked at these genres in terms of how demanding they are of the consumer, the ranking would most likely be (1-5, greatest to least): 1) CCG, 2) LCG, 3) Deck Building, 4) Themed, and 5) Regular.
I would argue that most games’ gameplay reflect their business model. This applies to video games as well as card games. Video games filled with micro-transactions differ greatly from games that rely very little on micro-transactions. Netrunner is the same way. This game reflects the living aspect of the business model within the gameplay. For instance, the fact that there are certain corporations and certain hackers one can play as shows that there is room for the game to grow. Perhaps one of the regularly released expansions will be a new corporation and runner class. This does not take away from the fun if a person only has the core, but they have design the core in a way that it can be easily expanded to offer more options. Additionally, Netrunner’s multiple win/lose states offer room for new life to come in to the game through expansions. Because there are multiple ways to win and lose the game, new cards can expand on that aspect of fun by presenting different obstacles and abilities for the corporation and the runner to encounter and use. These nuances of gameplay are brilliantly incorporated, because they feel complete in their core, but are easily combined with new material as the game continues to live and grow.
This choice was on purpose, and I believe it was a wise move when in terms of considering consumer needs. FFG say on their own website: living card games “…do away with the deterrent of the blind-buy purchase model that has burned out so many players.” They recognize that consistently purchasing new products with the hope that good cards will be acquired becomes exhausting. Since Netrunner is so rich in it’s gameplay, this would especially be detrimental if the business model were structured this way. Therefore, I believe they chose the LCG model for Netrunner because it increases the shelf life of the game dramatically. Players can move at their own pace as they play the game—whether that be putting it on the shelf for a few weeks at a time, or immediately buying the next new thing to expand their gameplay options. In short, they wanted this game to get the most mileage possible, and that will be achieved through the LCG model.
The various genres brought up in this discussion each have perks and downsides. And that’s the beauty of playing games—there is a genre for everyone, and you don’t have to be a slave in any way. Living card games bring an interesting flavor to the table, because to me, there is a lack of intrusiveness. So much of what we see in the world of entertainment asks for the customer to turn out their pockets, and I feel like a living card game seems strangely respectful in that regard. FFG’s goal is obviously to make and increase revenue, but by using the LCG model, I feel they increase consumer loyalty, thus boosting the reputation of their games and extending their relevancy over longer periods of time.
My Review of Android: Netrunner
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.
I'm a games lover, designer, and producer; Beatles freak; fishing enthusiast; and music researcher. It's tough to have so many good things in life!