Sunday, December 14, 2014

Breaking the Ice on Netrunner

A genetically modified teen girl who has tricked out her computer - that looks like a lovable little toy dinosaur - with her own personal hacking code has broken into a remote computer server of a massive corporation that has a station on the moon called Heinlein. But it turns out that they were expecting her and the trap waiting for her scrambles a massive chunk of data on her computer and she's barely able to unplug her neural connection before her brain is entirely fried.

That's a sample turn in the game called Android: Netrunner. I'm going to make this post brief, but I really need to explain to you all why this game has changed my life.

First, I've been playing games since I was a wee one. I learned chess at six. I moved on quickly to Dungeons & Dragons, Axis & Allies and plenty of others. I got in early on the Collectible Card Game (CCG) movement. As the years rolled on, I hopped on board the euro train with games like Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne and Ticket To Ride. But it wasn't until May of this year that I began working at a Friendly Local Gaming Store (or FLGS for those of you not in the know), and a customer introduced me to Android: Netrunner. It was love at first play.

Android: Netrunner, by Fantasy Flight Games is the re-imagining of the Richard Garfield designed, late 90s CCG, called Netrunner. Garfield created Magic the Gathering and after he'd moved on, he wanted to create something that was a little deeper, a little heavier, a little brainier. His vision of Netrunner never quite caught on and the game stalled more than a decade ago. Fantasy Flight licensed the game and, took many of the core mechanics, put it into the universe they'd created for a board game called Android, and created a masterpiece.

But enough history. I said this would be a short post and I'm already getting long winded. The skinny! The game is a two player only card game that lasts ~30-45 minutes. The game isn't difficult *but* it is complex. It really helps if your first go through you have someone who knows how to play who can guide you.

So, what is the game? One player plays one of multiple ruthless mega corporations while the other player plays a 'runner', a hacker attempting to break into the corporation and steal information. It's a card game, but it's not a collectible one. There are no 'rares' or 'booster packs'. There are expansions, to be sure, but everyone gets the same cards. No guessing involved.

The game is asymmetrical, meaning each side plays differently. This isn't like chess where the only thing differentiating the players are the color of the pieces. Each side can only play cards that are designed for their side. Each side has it's own format, rules, card titles and more. The core concept is that there are cards in the corporate deck called 'Agendas'. These are the corporation's plans. Scoring seven points worth of these will win the game for either side. But the runner has none of them in his deck. Which means the hacker player has to break in or 'make runs' on the corporate player's computers. This leads to a great mix of bluffing, resource management and brinkmanship that I haven't seen the likes of in any other game.

I'll end the description there because quite frankly, it's like an alien asking what Christmas is about and trying to sum it up by saying, "Well, people get together once a year and give each other presents." It just doesn't really give you the flavor at all.

But this isn't just a game review here. This is a post about how much this game has had an effect on my thinking and on my life. I currently administrate the league here in West Seattle. I play twice a week outside of the house and I play my girlfriend as often as she'll indulge me. It's gone from being a game to a hobby.

That's not all though. I wanted to share a few links to other articles that for me, really put into focus why the game has had such a profound impact on me.

First is an article called 'Why Netrunner Matters':   This great piece dives into this history of hacking, back to Allen Turing and others and explains why hacking is an important cultural touchstone for us.

Second is an article titled, 'Breaking Gender and Racial Barriers in Netrunner'.  You can guess what this one covers. It's really gratifying to see so few 'average white guys' portrayed in this game.

Third is one called 'The politics of Netrunner'.  This one nails the intelligent humor and insight that Netrunner slips into the game. It's rare that a game in our modern era can make smart commentary without sounding like it's preaching.

So yeah, it's not just that I love the game. It's that it is a great game. It's smart, well thought out, fun to play, constantly changing and evolving.

If you've read through this and I've piqued your interest, Fantasy Flight put together a very slick video on how to play the game. It's made for folks who have already purchased the 'core set' (which runs about $40). Feel free to take a look though:
The game isn't easy to pick up if you've never played anything beyond Monopoly. Nevertheless, I truly believe that this game elevates the tabletop experience on every level. It's setting a new standard. And I'm having a hell of a lot of fun.

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