Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Who's Annette, and why is she Running?

A friend sends me an invite on Facebook for an event: Official Net Runner Tournament.   The catch was that it was at a card shop near me called Anime Imports, and it was a Friday night.  That means that Magic the Gathering events would be going on at the same time.  What the hell - I need to write an article, so I plan to show up.  Nathan tells me that I should play in it.  He'll teach me how to play on the day before.  That sounds like a recipe for success, right? (No. -Ed)

The game is simple enough.  I watched for about 2 hours and between knowing how to play a card game in the first place, listening to what people said, and having the game explained to me once before at another event, I think I got the hang of it.  The aspect that is most unique about Netrunner is the asymmetric nature of the game.  Fundamentally, most games have two sides that have the same resources, the same goals, and the same actions to get there.  Sure, they might go about it in different ways, but on the most basic level, they do the same thing.  This is where Netrunner stands out.  Here, you have two different sides that are working to achieve different goals.  One player plays as the Corporation, a giant technology company that is trying to put agendas in place and execute them.  The other player plays as the 'Runner, a hacker trying to dismantle the corporation and steal their information.  One thing that you notice pretty quickly is that the 'Runner cannot survive without the Corp, but the opposite is not true.  It kinda makes you wonder if the social commentary was intentional or not.

This version, "Android: Netrunner," is the second iteration of the game designed by Richard Garfield (of Magic the Gathering) and has been licensed to Fantasy Flight Games in 2012 for publication in their new Living Card Game format.  Initially in 1996, Netrunner was a collectable card game, meaning that players purchased individual packs loaded with randomized cards, some more rare than others.  The Living Card Game format removes the random element, selling packs of 60 pre-determined cards to players.  You know exactly what you are getting each time you make a purchase.  The packs have 3 copies of each card, which is also the maximum number that you have have in your deck, so you can quickly build up a playset of the entire series.  Finally, they re-print runs of cards when they sell out, so you don't have to go to a secondary market for cards that you need.

This Friday night was as expected, space wise.  Squished into a corner at the end of one of the tables, out numbered seven to one by Magic players, four Netrunner players played out their event.  Each match consists of two games.  In the first game, one of the players is the 'Runner and the other is the Corp', and then they switch places.  This means that you need to have two decks, one for each role, and know how to play both of them.  Unlike other two list formats, such as those found in Warmachine or Hordes, there are no cards that belong in both decks, so you don't have to worry about balancing your strengths.  You play two games and then report your results to the organizer (who is also a player).  This can result in a lot of tie scores, especially since there was a lot of talk that sounded like "I haven't really got the hang of playing as a Corporation yet."

As a game, Netrunner can be really compelling.  The asymmetric nature of game adds a novelty and an additional layer of meta game complexity.  You are now responsible for two distinct sets of cards, and you need to know how to build to take advantage of what other people are playing.  The setting of the world is that of a somewhat dystopian future which both sides blame on the other, and that playful animosity can be fun.  The hacking mechanic is really cool, as is the setting up of security layers and trap servers by the Corps'.  You can set up two players with one starter set, and be ready to play out of the box.  However, the lack of multiplayer capability (though there is a jury-rigged format) is a problem for casual play, and the fact that you need to buy $300 worth of cards to be ready for competitive play is a problem in that setting.  Once you have all the cards, the upkeep cost drops to a much lower $15 or so every month when a new data pack comes out.  I'm not sure how a living card game works in the digital age, when you can just go online and look at tournament results for the best decks, but I guess a game about hacking servers would be really different without it, so that's not really a legitimate road of speculation to go down.

Seth Oakley is an educator and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who lives in Daly City, CA. He loves costuming, analog gaming and role playing games. He got this job in a bar after making poor life choices and has to work through 89 more articles before Mike will give him his soul back.  If you want Seth to cover an event in particular, leave a comment to let him know.

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