Netrunner: my view.
I’ve succumbed to a number of collectable card games over the years. They’ve given me lots of enjoyment, at least a little frustration, and a much lighter wallet. I don’t succumb to them any more because even the ones that I like best don’t get to the gaming table enough. I bought Netrunner many years ago, largely because I was playing a lot of Shadowrun and Cyberpunk RPGs at the time. I picked up just the basic set, and never added any boosters to it. A few years ago I acquired a second basic set, and I did a little deck optimisation.
The starter set comprises two 60 card decks (one purple-backed corporate deck and one green-backed runner deck) and a decent sized rulebook. The cards are edged in silver, which gives them a good cyberpunk feel. The artwork is good, and certainly evokes the theme of a netrunner hacking into a corporate computer system. Different types of card are differentiated by the main tagline in the information box on the bottom half of the card.
The rulebook is a little tricky to get into at first. It uses black text for the corporation and green for the runner and there is a tendency for storytelling and for explaining one side at a time, rather than work through how the game plays. However, there is some repetition, which allows ideas to be reinforced. It is one of those rulebooks that needs a second read before everything becomes clear.
The corporation cards are slit into: agendas (basically the secret data that the runner is trying to find); ice (protection that the runner must defeat in order to get to the agenda cards etc; nodes (data cards that give the corporation some kind of advantage);upgrades (added to areas called data forts that contain agendas, nodes etc, and allow the corporation certain advantages); operations (one off cards that the corporation uses to gain certain advantages, and then trashes).
The runner cards are split into: programs (software cards that the runner installs to gain special advantages such as extra stealth or specific ice-breakers to defeat certain ice cards); hardware (chips and other cybergear that help the runner); resources (helpful cards that prevent the corporation detecting you etc, often trashed after use); prep cards (cards that are played to gain some advantage, then trashed).
Gameplay for Netrunner is not straightforward to describe. This is one of those games that you need to play a few times before you get the hang of it. It is crucial to visualise the roles of the two players. The corporation player has cards set out to represent a sophisticated computer network that the runner is trying to infiltrate. The aim of the corporation player is to tag, trap and damage/kill the runner, often setting up decoys or other forms of bluff, whilst trying to advance certain agendas. The aim of the runner is to get into the corporation computer system undetected in order to find key data (agenda cards), often disabling sections of the system on the way.
At the start of the game, each player takes some tokens to use as a ‘bit bank’. We have used both 1p coins and glass beads to good effect. Each player takes 5 bits from the bank to serve as their ‘bit pool’ (essentially computing power they can use). Each player shuffles their deck and draws five cards. The corporation takes the first turn. The runner gets 4 MU (memory units) worth of space for installing programs.
The corporation’s turn consists of drawing a card from their stack (‘R&D’) and then taking three actions from:
• Draw another card from R&D
• Take a bit from the bank and add to the corporation bit pool
• Install an agenda, ice, node or upgrade card
• Play an operations card
• Advance a card
• Pay 2 bits from the corporation pool to destroy one of the runners resource cards if the runner is tagged.
The runner’s turn consists of taking four actions from:
• Draw a card from the stack
• Take a bit from the bank and add to the runner bit pool
• Install a hardware, resource or program card
• Play a prep card
• Make a run on a data fort
• Pay 2 bits to lose a tag.
At the end of their turn, each player discards down to their maximum hand size (initially 5 cards).
The corporation player has various ‘data forts’ that he/she must protect. These consist of the stack of unused cards (‘R&D’), their hand (‘HQ’) and their discard pile (‘archives’), as well as any agendas, nodes or upgrades played face down on the table. All of these data forts need to be protected by placing ice cards horizontally (and face down) in front of them (ice protecting HQ is played in front of the bit pool since the actual cards are in the player’s hand). Several pieces of ice can be played but for each piece of ice already on a data fort, placing the ice costs 1 bit. The agenda, node and upgrade cards are placed vertically and face down. There can only be one agenda or node card per data fort, but they can be replaced by new ones. There can be multiple upgrades per data fort. The corporation player therefore builds up a series of data forts, each protected by ice. He/she also protects his/her hand, deck and discard pile with further ice. These cards are all hidden so the runner has to guess where to attack in order to find agendas. When a face down card is approached by a runner, it is flipped over (‘rezzed’) and the ‘rez cost’ in bits is paid from the corporation pool
Runners install cards by paying their installation cost from the runner’s ‘bit pool’ and then placing them face up on the table. A runner can have programs installed up to a total of 4MU cost. The runner lays out their program cards in one row, then their hardware cards in a second row and their resource cards in a third row.
Operations and prep cards are played as immediate effect cards by the Corporation and runner respectively.
Cards contain various easily deciphered symbols telling players their cost to play and their effects (e.g. draw or discard cards).
The main aim for the runner player is to make runs on the corporation data forts. He/she announces which data fort they will run on. If that data fort is unprotected, the runner simply flips over the card and it is dealt with. However, if there is ice protecting the data fort, the runner must deal with it. Firstly, the corporation player decides whether to rez (turn over) the ice or not (paying bits accordingly). If it is rezzed, the ice will have one or more ‘subroutines’ that the runner must break in order to get passed, otherwise taking the consequences. Breaking subroutines requires the runner to have a particular ‘icebreaker’ program. Ice comes in three types: walls, code gates and sentries, and different icebreakers will deal with different types of ice. The runner won’t know what ice is there until it is rezzed. An icebreaker only breaks a subroutine if it has the same strength or higher than the ice card. Most ice contains several subroutines that the icebreaker cards must break, each costing bits from the runner’s bit pool. If successful, the runner can then proceed to the next card (either more ice or data), or stop and ‘jack out’. If unsuccessful, the runner is subjected to the effects of the ice. If the runner gets to the data fort, the corporation player can decide to rez any nodes or upgrades that are there (often harming the runner). The runner then gets access to the data fort, which means either drawing the top card from the stack (if he/she ‘ran’ on R&D), or a random card from the corporation player’s hand (run on HQ), or look at all the discards (‘archives’) or access the nodes/agendas (other data forts). If a runner accesses an agenda, he/she scores the agenda points on it. If a runner accesses a node or upgrade, he/she may pay bits to ‘trash it’.
Whilst the runner is trying to get at secret agendas, the corporation player is trying to stop him/her, whilst trying to reach certain goals (‘score agendas’). The corporation player may ‘advance’ an installed agenda or node by paying 1 bit from their pool and placing and advancement counter on it (it is fine to use the same tokens as the bits). Actions can then be used to advance these cards further until they are ‘scored’, at which point they are removed from the data fort and set aside, with the corporation receiving a bonus or special affect as shown on the card. Thus, the corporation player will have several data forts, protected by ice cards, and some of the data forts will have cards that are being advanced by placing bits on them. The runner will not know which cards are real agendas and which are traps.
The corporation can use certain cards to ‘trace’ a runner (opposed with cards that provide ‘links’). Successful traces can result in the runner being ‘tagged’ (more vulnerable to later attacks), the runner’s hardware cards being trashed, or various types of damage being dealt on the runner (which might be prevented by certain cards). Each point of damage results in the loss of a random card from the runner’s hand. ‘Brain damage’ results in permanent reduction in hand size. If a runner is forced to lose more cards than they have in their hand, or if they have a max hand size of zero at the end of their turn, they are flatlined and the corporation wins. Otherwise, the corporation wins by scoring agenda cards worth a total of 7 agenda points. The runner wins by liberating agenda cards worth 7 agenda points or by forcing the corporation to draw from its deck when this deck is exhausted (hence it is a good idea for the corporation to have lots of ice protecting R&D).
So What Do I Think?
I like Netrunner a lot, and it is a CCG that doesn’t need to cost you the Earth. None of the people I’ve played it with have bought more than two basic sets, and none of them have bought any boosters. The fact that the game still works fine is testament to how well balanced starting decks are. This is a genuine example of a CCG that doesn’t require stacks of boosters or special rare cards. I played for years with just my basic starter set, but adding a second set allowed me to do a bit of deck optimisation. So, this game doesn’t need much in the way of ‘deck building’, but you could do this if it is ‘your thing’ (and you can afford it!).
Netrunner plays quite quickly (typically about an hour, though games can sometimes be much quicker or a little longer). There is a delicious element of bluffing and creating traps (corporation) and making probing recon runs (runner) before the major confrontations that occur during a run. For the corporation, there is nothing better than advancing a node card that is basically a trap and luring the runner into attacking it. For the runner, there is nothing better than working out where a weakly protected agenda might be, and making a successful run on it (perhaps with a decoy run first to get the corporation to use up most of its bit pool).
Netrunner is a very good card game but ultimately it works best if players can really get into the theme. If you are interested in cyberpunk, shadowrun and futuristic/fantastical computer systems, then you’ll love it. Otherwise, you might find the rules a little baffling. I give it a very commendable 7 out of 10.
I've been trying to get my hands on a starter set and to learn how to play this game but so far most explanations I've read are obscure and unclear. You review has shed some light on several questions I had.
I was a huge Netrunner fan when it came out. It was, and still is, a revolutionary game. In fact, I fell in love with its style of play so much that I just couldn't get back into Magic afterwards.
I loved Netrunner because I actually felt like I was playing the game while playing. In Magic, most the strategy is in putting together a deck. That was a fun aspect, and I enjoyed it. But afterwards, it was mostly just relying on your deck to beat the other person's deck. Smart playing helped, of course, but usually you won or lost based on how effective your deck versus your opponent's deck (with some luck involved).
When I played Netrunner, whether I won or lost, I always felt like it turned on decisions made during the game. Rarely, if ever, did I lose or win because of a lucky draw. The limited actions really forced you to rely on planning and strategy while you were playing.
I also liked that there were two distinct sides to a Netrunner game. It was cool to be the corporation, playing in a completely different way than a runner. It was almost like two games in one.
I think a lot of people were turned off by the art and by the concept. I personally am not into cyberpunk at all and still enjoyed the game. But I play for the game, not for the theme or artwork. Not that great theme and art don't help.
Still, a great game that should've done better.