I gazed into my opponent’s eyes for a split second and glanced at the hand of cards before me.

My pulse quickened and begun to pound in my ears as an inescapable truth dawned on me.

I am dead next turn.

My opponent had already tagged me twice; more than enough to ensure that they could send a hit squad to my house and end my meddling for good. With a click left, I had one final action before it was time to meet my maker.

It was time to throw caution to the wind. It was time to make a run on the dagger’s edge and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

I extended my arm and tapped just before my opponent’s deck, “I run R&D” I try to say with a voice of confidence, over the feeling of impending danger pressing deep into my chest. I lean forward, my guts in knots as I wait to see what final trap my opponent had in store for me.

In the end, the whole game had led to this one moment.

Kinda like this…

To those who do not follow the mainstream board/card game scene, It might have been easy to miss out on Android:Netrunner (ANR)’s release two years ago. Between the surprising news coming out of MtG recently, to the exciting stream of triple A and Indy titles coming out for your console of choice, ANR might not have been on your radar at all.

Those of us who are old enough and have had our finger on the pulse of card games however have probably heard the name “Netrunner” uttered at a game store before, talked about fondly as a great idea of days past. A majestic, but complicated beast that has disappeared and gone the way of the techno-tyrannosaur.

Long ago, Netrunner was the little brother to Magic and the second release in the holy trinity of “deckmaster” card games.

Cool story, bro!

After MtG’s initial success, creator Richard Garfield set out to create a card game that emphasized player’s choice more, in response to the problems he perceived in MtG at the time. His vision was a game where the player truly had to play the person opposite them and not just the cardboard engine of destruction you bring with you. In the end, he arrived at the Cyberpunk game Netrunner, a beautiful game of hacking, bluffing, hidden information and deduction.

The game enjoyed a small, but devoted fan base in the 90’s but was ultimately overshadowed by the dearth of card games released at the time and a few small flaws in its initial ruleset. After only two full cycles, Wizards decided to terminate the product line.

It wasn’t until 2013 that the game rose from the grave, re-balanced and re-imagined by the new company at the helm.

If you like board games, you may have heard of us…

Since the start of its second run, Netrunner has grown to become perhaps the most celebrated contemporary non-collectible card game. Go to nearly any game store and you will likely find at least one Netrunner meet-up on its roster. Furthermore, many of your favorite game developers (analog and digital) are playing this game right now, causing some to call it the “game designer’s golf.” Netrunner fever is catching, and with good reason: it is unlike any game you have ever played before.

But what really is ANR and why should you care about it? After all, you probably already have a huge investment in MtG or a collection of video games (or both).

Netrunner is a brutal game of bluffing and deduction, set against the backdrop of a dystopian future where corporations “control the vast majority of human interests.” The game pits two players against one another, casting one in the role of the Corporation, an entity with immense resources and hidden knowledge against a singular hacker (or Runner) who is trying to steal hidden agendas or projects that the Corporation is attempting to complete. The Runner can only win the game by finding and stealing these cards, which is where the game really starts to get interesting…

The typical interplay between the Runner and the Corp, is fast and furious, with the Corporation setting devious traps and the Runner desperately blundering across a no man’s land of pitfalls and crossfire in their quest to steal information.

The game is all about pushing your luck, on both sides of the table, but don’t dawdle for too long or you might find yourself backpedaling to keep an aggressive Runner out of your servers, or a Corporation from just killing you outright.

That sounds complicated!

At first glance, it is. There is a LOT of depth to this game. Let me break down two of the main mechanics of the game, beginning with clicks.

Each turn the Runner player gets 4 “clicks” or actions (that’s what the clock icon is). These actions are broken down into the following. I also took the liberty of trying to break it down in MtG jargon.

 

Basically you can “click” to draw a card, gain a credit (which is how you pay for stuff in the game), install something (play a permanent), play a event (play a sorcery), remove a tag (no MtG analog) and make a run. This flexibility is pretty much unheard of in card games. Typically the player is restrained to “what do I have in my hand”. In Netrunner you ALWAYS have these options in addition to whatever is in your hand.

To make matters harder for the Runner. Their life total is not an abstract total. Instead, their flowing life blood is how many cards are currently in their hand (typically 5 cards). Go below 0 and you are “flatlined” which means your Runner just wound up at the Morgue. Probably cause the corps did this…

Some people just want to watch the world burn…

Yep, they just blew up a city block to get to you.

Clicks probably don’t sound so complicated. It gives the player a lot of agency that most card games don’t, which is really refreshing. You suddenly gain a great deal of control over the game. Digging for that one icebreaker or event? Click up to do it!

With that under your belt lets briefly look at a “run”, which is the most common way the corp and the runner interact with one another in the game.

If that freedom doesn’t quite peak your interest, the idea of making a run certainly will. Lets look at a typical “run”.

The Runner has four different types of servers they can choose from when “initiating a run”. They can run on Archives (Discard Pile/Graveyward), R&D (Deck), HQ (Hand) or a remote server, which are cards that the corporation player has played down. These might be game winning agendas, or crafty traps designed to appear as agendas. In this example above, its a card that gets you money for a few turns (very handy!).

The other cards that are all face down are ICE (Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics), which are essentially future fire walls put in place to slow or prevent a hackers entry into your servers. The runner has little information before making a run as to what the ICE on a server could be. But sometimes this changes. Each time the runner makes a successful run on R&D (Deck) and HQ (Hand), the runner gets to see one of the corporations cards. If its ICE, you now know one of the tools in the corporations arsenal! If its an Agenda, you score it!

More information about the structure and timing of a run can be found here. The video does a great job of explaining and visualizing a run.

Runs are the meat and potatoes of this game. Much as most games of M:tG are won or lost in combat phase, games of Netrunner are typically won or lost in runs.

Which is really beautiful when you think about it. Each run is like a mini game of bluffing, inside a larger economic struggle between the two players. Did you call the other players bluff and catch them unprepared? Or did the corp bait you into a trap, and now you are reeling from the consequences.

Ultimately Netrunner is a game of risk assessment and management. How far will you push your luck before you access a trap and find yourself flatlined? Its rarely a game of absolutes. Games of Netrunner can be won or lost due to the consequences of a few runs. Games can turn on a dime and a Corporations “perfect defenses” can suddenly fall victim to a devastating combination of runs, performed by a prepared or care free runner.

Netrunner is also pretty much one of a kind game. It may share a common heritage with M:tG, but it is a gaming experience like none other.

To be blunt, Netrunner is perhaps one of the most captivating, complex and interesting games available. It’s not a game that everyone can necessarily play, much as climbing a mountain is not something every single person can do. It has an intimidating jargon, it has sometimes a daunting amount of mental math, and it is utterly challenging. But once you have climbed to the top of the peak and you have seen the view, you will want to do it all over again.