Running the Future Part 2
I like Netrunner.
If you haven’t read Part 1 of this unnecessarily lengthy review, I suggest you do that now before continuing. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Netrunner is everything that Magic isn’t. Magic is swords, dragons and planar expanding, epic fantasy. Netrunner is hacking, code gates and futuristic, dystopic cyberpunk. Magic focuses on the exploits of ridiculous wizards in an overly elaborate arm wrestle with roaring dragons and magical faeries as wrist proxies. Netrunner features two asymmetrical sides attempting to win the game on their own terms. Magic forces the players to keep up with an ever increasing pool of cards that focuses on building decks to best utilize very specific combinations. Netrunner has an incredibly small pool of cards with an emphasis on creating more options for the factions that allow them different methods to achieve the same victories.
Most importantly, Netrunner adjusts the emphasis of its strategy on the moment of the game than the construction of the deck. It’s a hard thing to explain. It’s even harder to understand.
My introduction to Netrunner has been spread over many weeks as Derek has slowly taught me the rules of the game and its goals. Supplementing this, I have spent uncounted hours perusing the web to understand its base mechanics. I want to repeat that. I’ve spent hours reading up on the basics of the game. This game isn’t built around surprising your enemy with never before seen tricks that they’ll be unable to counter. On the contrary, Netrunner runs best when its participants are intimately familiar with the full capabilities of each other. And that’s because Netrunner incorporates one of my favourite mechanics – mind games.
My absolute favourite boardgame is Diplomacy and that’s because it is solely based on strategy and… well… diplomacy. There are no dice. There are no components that have to be bought with yearly releases. There is just you and six other players and you have to read your enemy and get inside their head. Through either silver tongue, precognition or open threats you have to force your opponents into doing what you want in order to win.
In Netrunner, you take the role of either a Mega-corporation or a Runner. There are four corporations to choose from, each of them specializing in a different market. You have NBN the news agency with global control of almost every aspect of information and entertainment; Haas-Bioroid develops artificial intelligence and cybernetics; Weyland Consortium specializing in resource redistribution and corporate hegemony while creating futuristic expansions into oceans and space; Finally, there’s mysterious Jinteki who dominate cloning technologies. Pulling on cyberpunk themes and motifs, all four corporations are irredeemably evil. NBN channels the attitudes and feelings of Big Brother from 1984 with the grace and aplomb of Fox News. Haas-Bioroid pulls upon themes of slavery and the nature of personhood with the mechanical coldness of an uncaring master lording over sentient AI as well as mandatory implementation of cybernetics into their work force. Weyland Consortium have almost a mythical Illuminati vibe with their integration and manipulation of government bureaucracies couple with Exxon’s love and devotion for protecting the environment. And Jinteki has clones: clones which they fuse into their computers in order to murder anyone without authorization to access their servers. They also use clone fetuses to… I don’t know – be more incredibly evil?
Arrayed against them we have the intrepid Runners. But not every hacker is created equal. First among them are the Shapers. These individuals are more artistically inclined. They run the servers of the Megacorps as a test of their abilities, to prove that they are capable of it or just to look around at what is going on behind the scenes. Next, are the Criminals. These people have more tangible reasons. They’re in the game for the money. Lastly are the Anarchs. These Runners despise the control and moral bankruptcy of the Megacorps and are there to bring their whole system crashing down around them.
A game of Netrunner represents a skirmish between these two sides. One player is the Corporation. His goals are to advance hidden agendas and further the questionable aims of his organization. He sets the playing field by creating the servers that the Runner runs. In order to protect his investments, the Corporation utilizes programs called Ice which act as barriers and programs designed to discourage, disrupt or destroy the Runner’s attempts to breach his systems. All the while, the Corporation is hiding his agendas, hoping to advance them long enough for them to come to fruition before they can be exposed.
The other player is the Runner. Her goals are to undermine the Corporation’s defences and bring to light their secrets. She builds up a suite of tools to crack the Corporation’s base: codebreakers for breaking through Ice, viruses for weakening the system’s effectiveness and modified hardware designed to strengthen her programs into unstoppable battering rams. But the Runner has to always be on her toes for the Corporation is always trying to track her down. If the Corporation can get a strong trace then the Runner may be looking at having all her funds drained, her programs destroyed or even her life forfeited to the bullets of hired mercenaries and security squads.
It’s a game of cat and mouse with predator and prey changing from turn to turn. As I mentioned, the Corporation sets the battlefield, building up servers and installing assets or agendas behind impenetrable walls of Ice. But these cards are placed hidden. The runner can’t know if the Corporation has set down an asset that will help them draw through their deck (referred to as Research and Development), generate money (referred to as credits), trap the Runner and deal damage or if it’s one of the required agendas. There are only two ways for the Runner to win. Either she scores seven points worth of agendas first, or she “mills R&D” which requires destroying the Corporation’s deck until he has no more cards to draw. The Corporation’s win conditions are to advance seven points of his own agendas first or to “flatline” the Runner by forcing her to discard more cards than she holds through traps and covert operations.
At first the game is incredibly impenetrable. Between the asymmetrical gameplay, four Corporations, three runner factions and a whole score of different ice, hardware and programs it’s easy for the beginner to feel completely overwhelmed. Thus, my weeks of training. I am nowhere near fully understanding the game but I stand at a pivotal moment in my learning. I am at the point of deck creation.
In my first part, I mentioned how Magic: The Gathering is dominated by its deck building. Games are won or lost almost solely on the creation of the deck before hand. The actual playing of the game is nearly a formality. But Netrunner is almost the opposite. I’ve been playing, and beating, Derek with decks that I did not construct. Victories are won and games are lost on the turn by turn plays more than the cards held in the deck. Almost every game I can think back and go “Oh, if only I had done this I could have won” or “I’m fortunate that Derek didn’t do that or I would have been screwed.” This isn’t to say that building the deck is irrelevant but the emphasis is more on how well you can predict your opponent’s actions. I may not have a Hadrian’s wall protecting my HQ which contains the last agenda needed for either of us to win, but I could play a Chum over an unrevealed Shadow. The Shadow on its own won’t stop Derek from doing the run, but if I reveal the Chum he may suspect there’s something worse waiting for him and “jack out” before snatching my winning agenda.
This requirement to understand your opponent is why it’s so important to bring your adversary to your own level. As any poker player will tell you, it’s almost impossible to play against beginners. New poker players not only are awful at bluffing but they’re terrible at being bluffed since they don’t know what they should be paying attention to. They are unpredictable because they don’t understand how the game is naturally won and lost. Any attempt to obfuscate the information you have is in vain because they aren’t even looking at you to get that information. The same is with Netrunner. You can’t fake playing an Adonis Campaign to mask an agenda on an unprotected remote server if the Runner doesn’t even know that agendas should be protected. They’ll just run it because they don’t know what else to do. Certainly, you can trounce them because they have no idea what they should be doing with their turn but that’s no better than sitting down a bunch of preschoolers at the poker table and winning their lunch money because they’d rather build a house with their cards.
And that’s perhaps what excites me most about Netrunner. While you have your deck that you’re constantly tweaking and playing with, you’ll never develop something that’s unstoppable. Even the best combinations can be undone by an unprepared Runner because you two are playing separate yet simultaneous games. If you have a fast advancing NBN deck, I could still end up milling your R&D before you get all your Psychographics fuelled to instant score your winning agendas and scoop up victory from your unprotected Archives. You’re forced to generalize to a point and to react to your opponent’s play if you ever hope to win.
Netrunner brings strategy back to the game. And I will always pick ‘play to win’ over ‘pay to win’ design any click of the week.
Now I just need to finish the final touches on this Haas-Bioroid deck so I can crush Derek next time we play.