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Android: Netrunner

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Whether playing as a scion of regimented order or of creative anarchy, the dichotomy proposed by Android Netrunner offers intriguing possibilities.

Android Netrunner is a two-player asymmetrical attack-defense game. Like many asymmetrical games, the learning curve is steep, and feels somewhat isolating, because there is little to no visual feedback occurring while watching the other player in action. Your success and learning process, unless aided by someone who already knows how to play, will be determined entirely by your own ability to read, synthesize, and utilize the rulebook.

Speaking of the rulebook, it is relatively lengthy and fairly detailed. I got the feeling the designers organized it as best they could, but was still left frustrated at times as I tried to figure out what the heck was going on.

And this really leads to the primary criticism of the game—it is pretty brutally difficult to learn. If at all possible, I highly recommend having someone who knows how to play give some instruction the first couple times you play. However, once you conquer the initial, treacherous ascent, you are greeted by a surprisingly intricate, balanced, and fun game.

In other words, it’s worth the challenge.

Because the game is asymmetrical, I think it’s worth it to discuss the separate player roles in to establish the gameplay foundation. The two roles are that of the Corporation, controlled by one player, and that of the Runner, controlled by their opponent.

The Corporation: The player chooses a single corporation from among four options. Each of the corporations has a distinct tactical ability and advantage, which in turn lead to distinct play styles and strategies. The Corporation may win in one of two ways: first, they may utilize agenda cards, which must be placed in the playing field, and “advanced” (a game term meaning that money and actions must be spent building up the card until it matures) the designated number of times in order for the card to activate, thereby giving the Corporate player points. Alternatively, the tricky Corporation (some are better at this than others) can actually damage the Runner, and if sufficient damage is dealt, the Runner is defeated and the Corporation wins.

The Runners: The running player chooses a faction from among three available running styles—the anarchist, the criminal, or the shaper. Runners win the game by stealing agenda cards that have not yet been fully activated. Alternatively, the Runner wins if they outlast the Corporation—meaning that if the corporation’s draw pile runs out of cards, the Runner wins.

In order for Corporations to keep Runners from stealing everything, Corporations use cards called “Ice”, which protect corporate assets, such as agendas. In turn, Runners build up gear, programs to break through ice, and stockpile assets to help them get through the Corporation’s defenses and steal the assets.

The game is entirely asymmetrical—the player’s have very different strategies, roles, and cards. Key to understanding how this works together is the idea of hidden information because at its heart, Netrunner is at least as much about reading the other player as it is about the cards in your hand.

Corporations are not required to play their cards face up when placing them on the board—in fact if they were to do so, they’d probably lose every game. Instead, many of the Corporations cards, such as Agenda and Ice cards, are played face down.

(Sample of the Corporation play: The three Ice cards are protecting two asset cards. Each Ice card only protects the column to which it is attached, so in this case, the Discard and Draw Pile are unprotected, the first asset card is protected by two Ice cards, and the second asset card is protected by one Ice)

Now Ice cards are always positioned perpendicular to the cards they are protecting, so the Runner knows it is an Ice card, and that some sort of (hopefully) asset is behind it, but the Runner does not know: how strong the Ice card is, what is required to pass it, or what will happen if they fail. Only when the Runner makes the run are the Ice cards revealed as they are encountered (assuming the Corporation doesn’t just let the Runner through). Similarly, the cards protected by Ice may be Agendas or other Assets, but some Corporations also have Ambush cards, so the Runner attempts to steal it, breaks through all the Ice, and then has the Ambush card blow up in his or her face instead.

Reading the other player is therefore just as critical as knowing the cards. For instance, if you know the player chose a Corporation full of ambush cards, then you need to be more careful. Similarly, if you, as the Corporate player have many ambush cards, its best to spread them widely, protecting each of them (and your Agenda cards) with minimal Ice. The game then becomes a shell-game of each player trying to game the other.
It’s both challenging and engaging.

There are many other rules we could spend time talking about, but honestly I think they are more peripheral issues than essential ones.
At its core, this game is worth the time and the investment. The initial learning curve is steep, but once you’ve conquered it, the game mellows a fair bit. Lest you think that the magic is then gone, however, it is important to note that this is a deck-builder, and that once you’ve gotten a feel for the game, you may find yourself editing your decks a bit to polish the razor edge of your play style.

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