Board Game Review: Android Netrunner—Bluffing, Strategy, and Excitement

Many moons ago, I was an avid Magic fan. I loved building decks and I especially loved the depth and strategy inherent in the game. But what eventually burned me out was the constant search for new cards. I spent far too much on packs of cards, and even more buying those last few rares I needed for the perfect deck. And, eventually, it just wasn’t worth it to me anymore.

Despite that, I’ve always been on the lookout for a game that satisfies the same “itch” as Magic. Nothing really came close – at least, not until Android: Netrunner. Netrunner is a fantastic implementation of a cat-and-mouse game, complete with bluffing, deception, educated guesses, and risky operations.

The Basics. Netrunner provides a cyberpunk setting where huge megacorps control most of society. Deep within their servers, they work on their nefarious agendas. Outside of the corps, however, are the netrunners. Netrunners are hackers that can jack their consciousness into a system and try to expose the agendas of the corps for fun or profit.

In each game, one player acts as the Corp, the other as the runner. They cyberpunk theme is infused throughout the game. Instead of a hand, deck, and discard, the Corp has an HQ, R&D, and Archives. Each also represents a central server for the Corp. On its turn, the Corp draws a card and then gets three “clicks” worth of actions. The Corp can place Intrusion Countermeasures (or ICE) in front of the central servers to protect them. They are placed face down and will only be flipped up if a runner tries to get into the server. The Corp can also put projects or agendas into remote servers. Like the central servers, remotes can also be protected with ice. Those agendas or projects (called “assets” or “upgrades”) are also played face down.

What the corp side of the table might look like

Meanwhile, the Runner gets no automatic draw, but does get four clicks worth of actions (drawing takes one click). The Runners job is to get into the servers and expose the agendas of the Corp. To do so, a runner can make a “run” on a server of their choice. If they encounter ICE, the runner can use an “icebreaker” to get through our go around the ice. Typically, this is done by spending enough credits to bring the breaker to an appropriate strength, then spending credits to break through the ICE’s subroutines. Once into the server, the runner can access all cards in a remote or in the Archives, or one card in HQ or R&D. If it is an agenda, the runner immediately exposes it. Otherwise, the runner may trash the asset and force the Corp to discard it by paying a specified cost.

The runner’s rig

But, agendas and assets aren’t the only things that exist inside servers. There are also Ambushes. Sometimes a corp will put a card down hoping the runner tries to access it. Some of them can even be advanced like agendas to fool the runner. Once encountered, they trigger and can damage the runner, destroy his equipment, or otherwise cause harm.

Each player is trying to get the precious agenda cards. Corps win if they can advance and score 7 points worth of agendas. The runner succeeds where he can steal and expose 7 points worth of agendas.

Get these two and you already have five points of agendas in your pocket

The Feel. The game is dramatic and suspenseful, and despite the completely asymmetric gameplay, both sides feel extreme tension throughout the game. Good play is key, but so is bluffing and misdirection.

When playing the runner, you will be presented with a growing sea of face down cards. Which of those cards are killer ICE that will destroy you, and which are the kind you can easily get through? Does the Corp even have enough credits to rez that ICE? Then, assuming you can get through it, what is that facedown card? Is it an agenda that will lead to your victory? If so, then you better run it now before the Corp can score it. But what if it’s an ambush that will do enough net damage to destroy you?

As an FFG game, you also get a bazillion little counters

Meanwhile, the Corp is also playing a dangerous game. The only way to score agendas is to put them down on the table and start advancing them. The majority of agendas also cannot be scored on a single turn, so they have to be put down and advanced next turn. Some even require the corp to advance them over two turns. An advanced card (noted with tokens) is a signal to a runner that this is something important. So a Corp has to time his agendas right, or deceive the runner. And, a Corp can’t just horde them in his hand. Otherwise, a successful HQ run will likely net the runner an agenda anyway.

Runners, then, are hoping to make the right decision and build a sufficient rig of icebreakers. Meanwhile Corps have full knowledge of the board and are hoping the Runner makes the wrong decisions – or that their ICE is strong enough to repel the runner.

Android Netrunner makes several improvements over its former implementation – most notably by including factions. The game comes with three runner factions (Shaper, Anarch, and Criminal) and four Corps (Haas-Bioroid, Jinteki, NBN, and Weyland). Each one focuses on different play styles. The Shaper tries to create a strong rig of icebreakers that can get through tough servers. The Anarch uses viruses to make the most out of their runs and to degrade the Corp’s effectiveness. The Criminal, meanwhile, focuses more on avoiding ICE than breaking its subroutines.

Noise, Gabriel, and Kate are the first representatives of Anarchs, Criminals, and Shapers

Meanwhile, Haas-Bioroid focuses on doing more with the limited amount of clicks. Jinteki includes all manner of traps and ambushes to kill a runner with net damage – including the very scary Project Junebug. NBN is all about tracing the runner, tagging him, and advancing agendas so fast that the runner has very little opportunity to steal them. Finally, Weyland has some of the most powerful ICE in the game as well as a stellar economy to keep the ICE a constant threat.

Jinteki is the only Corp who chose a picture, rather than letters, for its logo

The Core Set comes with a set of neutral cards as well that can be added to any faction. So, it is easy enough to play a Jinteki deck simply by grabbing the Jinteki cards, throwing the neutrals in, and you’re good to go. The same is true on the runner side.

The game also provides all of the deck building rules. Only three copies of a card allowed in any deck, along with minimum deck sides and maximum out-of-faction cards. The out-of-faction cards all have “influence” on them, and each deck may have a certain maximum. In the core set, that maximum is always 15 influence.

While the Core Set allows for some minimal deck building, the truth is that there simply aren’t enough cards to really get into the construction aspect of the game. Of course, Netrunner is an LCG and more cards are available for purchase separately. But while the game is fantastic out of the box, your experience will really be stunted until you start acquiring the separate “data packs” filled with new cards. Unlike random boosters, though, data packs are not random and include three copies of every card. If you buy each data pack, you’ll end up with every card in the game.

Shapers start with the most versatile icebreakers

Components: 4 of 5. Top quality is expected from Fantasy Flight and Netrunner does not disappoint. The cards are on excellent stock. Plus, they are a standard size and so most sleeves should fit them easily. In addition, as I’ve come to expect from the publisher, the game includes more tokens than you will ever realistically need. Tons of credits, virus counters, brain damage markers, and bad publicity and tags.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. As a card game, there will be those moments when what you need just doesn’t seem to come up. However, that is also part of the strategy of constructing the decks in advance. The player can set his deck to the consistency he hopes for. Putting in three identical cards means that one fifteenth of the deck will be that card. So, this “bad draw” is also part of the strategy. Plus, the game itself is highly strategic. There are times to rez cards, times to let the runner through, and times to rez cards in the hope the runner breaks them and makes it through to your ambush.

Mechanics: 5 of 5. Netrunner is mechanically pristine. There is no possibility of not drawing the lands you need – which cripples your whole deck. Instead, the economy comes not from cards, but from credits. Of course, you can use cards to get credits, or you can use clicks. Meanwhile, the face down playing field allows for bluffing choices by the Corp, or risky runs by the Runner. It presents an absolutely wonderful exchange based on unknowns and body language.

Replayability: 3.5 (or 5) of 5. Looking at just the base set, this game will have some great prospects for replay value. With 7 factions, you have 12 potential pairings that will all play completely differently. Plus, there are (limited) opportunities to mix and match and create your own deck. The game will be exciting each time and the cat and mouse aspect never gets old. Still, without the data packs, there is only so much tweaking that can be done and you’ll be missing a large portion of what the game is meant to be.

With data packs, Replayability skyrockets. Every time I play this game, I get more excited for the next one. This is one of the few games I’ll play not only physically, but also online. After each success, I smile and want to pit my deck against a new faction or a new opponent. After each defeat, I want to rush home and tweak it so that it can answer the challenge it failed in that game. Netrunner is consuming not just because it is wildly entertaining, but because the additional cards bring whole new ways of approaching the same system.

Spite: 0.5 of 5. As a two player game, every success for one is a failure for another. So there isn’t really a feeling of “spite” or targeted hate. Additionally, there just aren’t that many cards that can actively target the runner’s rig for destruction or the Corp’s hand.

Weyland has Scorched Earth – perhaps the most feared card from the Core Set

Overall: 4.5 of 5. I got hooked on Netrunner after my first play. It completely satisfies that long standing itch for a Magic-like game. The game is filled with tough and tense choices throughout the play. Even in constructing the decks, the rules there provide a number of intriguing choices which result in different decks and play styles. Netrunner is a fabulous game. The only (exceedingly minor) negative is that the base set could greatly benefit from the infusion of additional cards. But, that’s why FFG invented data packs.

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