Base Game Review
Playtime (Box): 30-60mins
Playtime (Goof): 30-60mins
Producer: Fantasy Flight Games
Designer/s: Richard Garfield & Lukas Litzsinger
If you’ve ever followed the TGR Instagram feed, you know this one’s been coming for awhile. I think it’s safe to say that Android: Netrunner is currently my favourite game. But the real question isn’t whether the game is good (it is. It’s so damn good) but why? With tens of thousands of games which could have taken my number one spot, what is it about Android: Netrunner that has my attention?
My main focus today will be on the Core box. It’ll be the most likely starting point if you’re interesting in testing this out.
Android: Netrunner is a Living Card Game that’s been around since 2012. For those of you unfamiliar with LCGs, they’re a form of game which releases extra packs and expansions to be used in competition which remain legal for quite some time (the game is about to experience its first rotation in five years). But the other factor which differs from Collectable Cards Games (and probably my favourite thing about them) is when you get a pack or a box, you know exactly what’s in it. There’s no random luck. You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars chasing your perfect deck, or spend equally as much buying that one card online (I don’t even want to guess at how much I’ve spent on MtG in my life). You can decide what deck you want to build and then just go out there and get it.
But not everyone is interested in tournament play, and this game caters to a casual audience too. A friend and I started with just a single core box and spent days playing with those cards before we decided we wanted to go pick up another couple of packs. Which may not sound like a lot of time, but when you consider we play an abnormally large amount of games and I’m used to playing competitive card games, it really does speak volumes.
So what you need to play the game really depends on you. But it’s easy to see players would be satisfied with the core set. There’s enough in there to do a bit of deckbuilding if you want, or you just can mash the easy to build suggested card lists together and play.
I do want to say I’m not just going to be giving this game all the points for being my favorite. There are some issues we’ll get into. But there are some clear reasons I love it so much too.
Previously I’ve not been the hugest fan of asymmetrical games (Star Wars: The Card Game for example). I think the concept is cool, but often they’re incredibly hard to balance. Android: Netrunner isn’t perfectly balanced, sure. But thematically it works. And it’s about as close as what I can feasibly see occurring in an asymmetrical game.
The hidden information mechanic is one which opens a lot of strategies. I’ve won a ton of games as the corporation forcing the runner to break into servers which were meant as a distraction, or depleted their resources so I can score my agendas elsewhere. The corporation has almost full knowledge of what the runner is doing. They can see what’s installed, and can plan accordingly. With the only surprises coming from what’s up the Runner’s sleeve. Conversely, the Corporation plays most of their cards facedown, keeping things hidden until they see fit to expose their workings to the public. It’s a mechanic I think can be employed in a lot of other games, but works wonderfully here.
If you look back through my reviews, you’ll often see me mention the complexity of the rules. And how simple rules with the options for complex strategies are better, because they encourage people to want to strive to get better. Android: Netrunner walks a different path.
When I first picked up this game, I had an incredibly difficult time learning it. There’s different names for every single thing. And both sides call their similar cards/decks/piles different things. For example, the discard pile on the Corporation side is called ‘Archives’ while on the Runner’s side it’s called the ‘Heap’. Before you think they did this simply to be annoying, know that there are gameplay reasons for this too. Cards interact with various piles, so they need to be very clear about what the intention of the card is.
Not only are each of the piles different, but it can take a few moments to realise everything (as a corporation) is a target. Your deck, your discard pile. Heck, even your hand can be targeted. You’ve got to get those security measures up quick, meanwhile the Runner is setting up to take down those same defences. It’s not a race per se, but you have to out-think and out-maneuver your opponent.
To say Android: Netrunner is played on multiple levels would be accurate. It’s like a complicated, thematic version of chess. You’ve got a plan, so does your opponent. And you’re attempting to think several moves ahead in order to get yours to work and theirs to fail. There’s a psychological component to this game I get completely absorbed in.
Here’s a video from Fantasy Flight to help understand the rules (its okay to feel lost. I know I did). It seems complex. But there’s this moment every player goes through where things just click. And suddenly the game seems less intimidating, and more intriguing.
Inevitably in card games, you end up with the “Hail Mary”, the one card which when you see it you know you’re on track to win. In Netrunner, I think the cards are balanced incredibly well. Each card does something small which fits into the larger machine which is your deck. I love this. It means I have to really think cards through before I return them to the box. What combination is this card going to provide me, and how many variations on that combo can I do?
Each faction and corporation plays differently. Sure there’s similarities, you need ICE to protect your servers to stop the Runner from accessing your precious assets and agendas. But the way those elements work feels incredibly different. Sometimes you’re going after the runner through Tags, attempting to locate and punish if you find them. Sometimes you’re wanting to set up impenetrable walls to try and keep the runner out. And sometimes you’re laying traps and directing the runner into them. With the Runners, sometimes you’re looking to build your money and influence in the real world, maybe bypassing the security all together (Criminals). Other times you’re looking to use your skills to rearrange the corporations’ cards to provide yourself an advantage (Shapers). Alternatively you can just destroy everything (Anarch).
The influence system in a deck builder is one I’m a fan of, although I feel it may have been poorly implemented. Each card has a value that if used by a different faction, contributes to the influence cost. What I like about this is it doesn’t directly influence gameplay. You can use the cards as normal in game. But in deckbuilding you have to be careful about which tools to bring into other factions. What I think was done poorly is the influence amounts you’re allowed seem too high. Basically certain factions have a bunch of cards they can import into their decks which make them incredibly powerful. Now admittedly, this is more of an issue in competitive play, and wasn’t as much of an issue in the core box. But the issues started there, and you can see them even if you are just playing with the starter set.
I want to end this section on a high note, so let me talk about the best bit in Android: Netrunner’s gameplay. The “Click” system. When I used to play MtG, it was always a “draw one, play as many as you can with your mana” type of system. Which early on was usually a “draw one, play one” game. A lot of card games are similar. But Android: Netrunner gives you actions points which it calls “Clicks”. This means you have a chance to set yourself up during your turn, to take advantage of an opponent’s weakness. It also means while the cards are the tools you’re using, you can also play outside them. Maybe you decide you need to draw extra cards, you can click to do so. If you’re economy isn’t working the way it’s supposed to, click for credits. Want to spend a turn running multiple servers? Do it. It gives you more control of your game state.
Pros: ++Gameplay ties into mechanics, ++Strategic and Out-thinking, +Hidden information, +Card combinations and interesting deckbuilding, +Unique feeling IDs and factions, +Click system
Cons: –Influence not balanced enough, -Complexity may turn people off
I’ve been taking a real good look at myself lately (a geeky internal reflection if you will) to see what it is about the Android: Netrunner theme I like so much. I’ve looked at the other intellectual properties I’ve enjoyed enough to call them favourites. Firefly, Stargate, Star Trek. A common thread started to emerge. I adore SciFi. And for me it’s even better if you toss a few fantasy elements in there too. Even my Dungeons and Dragons campaigns usually end up in more of a “fantasy meets science” setting, with my favourite being a short-lived dystopian city where magic was used to fuel technology. But since I found Android: Netrunner, there’s another contender. Cyberpunk.
In Android: Netrunner, the asymmetry plays into how you feel as you go along. I’ve played few other games which give me the same level of immersion. As the Runner, you feel like you’re actually breaking into servers and trying to beat the corporation at their own game. As the Corporation you know nowhere is safe, so you’re protecting yourself. You’re laying traps. And you’re using the hidden information you have into forcing the Runner to make a mistake.
In the Core Set, you’re limited to one ID per faction. But they’re each so unique it doesn’t feel like you’re limited at all. And the ID you choose makes you feel like playing the game different ways, while still leaving you options. The factions themselves are so incredibly unique, and this game more than any other I’ve played encourages you to play your personal favourite over one you think is more competitive.
Earlier I talked about the complicated names for each deck or cards in certain positions. Thematically, they work beautifully. When you’re running R&D, you’re running at thepart of the company still working towards things and don’t know exactly what they’ve got. When you’re running at Archives, you know the company has filed these things away for one reason or another. It’s tied so well thematically you can’t help but feel like you’re breaking into your opponent’s company, or trying to keep them out. Also, showing my nerd side a bit here, a friend of mine who’s learning programming informed me the “heap” (your discard) and “stack” (your deck) are actually programming terms. I love this level of attention to detail.
The idea the Corporation is the one with the agendas, and the Runner is trying to steal them is made all the more thematic by the fact the Runner literally takes the card from the opponent. You keep their card in your score area. It’s a subtle but powerful element of the game I feel might get overlooked. But I love it.
Mechanics such as brain damage and tagging also feel very immersive. When you get tagged, you’re looking to shake the Corporation off your tail. There’s a real feeling of franticness as you try to race to clear it before they can use it to damage your resources, or worse, send a security team in to kill you. Brain damage is one of those things where the more you take, the more you feel it effect you over time. Maybe they only do a small amount of brain damage, lowering your maximum hand size slightly and slowing you down. But if they land two or three, you really feel the sting. Especially since it makes killing you that much easier.
If you’re looking for extended lore, there’s at least four board games and half a dozen novels to look at. While this isn’t a point in favour of the game (it’s really a separate topic), it does allow you to delve into this rich world and gain so much more enjoyment from it.
Pros: ++Gameplay ties into theme, ++Immersive, +Mulitple levels of immersion and themeing with attention to detail
Card backs don’t get much clearer than this. Blue for Corporation, Red for Runners. In fact they’re so appealing it makes a strong argument for clear back card sleeves. They have a real Cyberpunk feel to them.
The artwork is amazing. It’s one of those games where you can look at a card and fall in love with it so much you build decks around it. All of the artwork (in the core box anyway) feels like it fits, and it tells a story. You can easily see how each piece connects in the greater Android Universe. I’m super excited for an Android tabletop RPG in the future.
The card quality is good, and when you compare it to the cards they print for Draft play (where it is understandably not as high quality) you can see how much cheaper they could have gone. And I’m glad they didn’t. Fantasy Flight do well with their components and card stock (as a general rule) and it certainly applies here.
Android: Netrunner comes with a bunch of tokens. And arguably the tokens they left out aren’t necessary (such as link and memory units) because you can simply look at the board. I do feel the inclusion would have made some of the nuances of the game easier for people to learn, and in a game as complicated as this, you need to take every advantage to teach people and get them interested.
Can I get a hallelujah for reference cards? I know the game pretty well by now, but even I find myself checking them to remember how much it is to remove a tag for a click (it’s 2 credits, in case I kept you in suspense). And even though I don’t use them much now, it’s a nice place to store my credits on, rather than all the fancy playmats or tablecloths confusing me.
Pros: ++Amazing artwork, +Card backs, +Component quality, +Reference cards, +Artwork ties into a larger world
Cons: -Not tokens for everything
I can’t recommend Android: Netrunner enough. It’s fun. It’s intense. I’ve had so many moments where I’m fretting about what my opponent is going to do. The amount of times I’ve won by a single turn or two is higher than I can count (what? I didn’t study math). Would I suggest new people get into the game now? Sure, but don’t expect to get competitive straight out the gate. When rotation hits later this year, the game is going to lose a massive chunk of cards. But to learn how to play and get familiar with the game? To play casually? Pick up a copy. Come to beginner events. Get a Core Box with a friend to test the waters.
I give Android: Netrunner:
I love this game, so try it out. Let me know what you think. And good luck running.
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