Designed by Richard Garfield
Published by Wizards of the Coast
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
Whatever I may have said about the relative merits of Dalmuti, Robo Rally, Jyhad and the collecting aspects of Magic, I have still been waiting to see if Richard Garfield is a talented game designer rather than being a fortunate one hit wonder. While Magic has clearly grown way beyond its calibre as a game, riding those four apocalyptic horses (collectibility, competitive deck building, infinite card combinations and mass hysteria), it is evidently a cleverly constructed and well tested system. This has to be the case, if only to have survived the massive structural demands asked of it over the last three years.
With his second decent game, Netrunner, I believe Mr Garfield has now verified his credentials as a designer, and simultaneously proved he is not just a flash in the pan (albeit drawing on the huge testing and research resources provided by Wizards and Talsorian in the process). As far as the games hobby is concerned, I think this is an entirely good thing, and no little relief for me. I did have nightmare visions of one or two poor Garfield designed games a year being published simply because they could be, and also achieving success because of the name. I'm sure we'll still see duffers, which is only human, but at least I now know he can produce the goods at the top end. So, assuming he remains interested in pushing out the design envelope, with what must be substantial financial backing, we should be the winners. I can only hope, when the spectre of collectibility has long gone, Mr Garfield continues to design more card and board games of this quality and to encourage others to do the same.
Netrunner is the latest CCG from Wizards of the Coast and concerns the battle in cyberspace between a corporate aiming to protect its computer data, and a hacker trying to steal it. A highly technical, and jargon ridden, science fiction theme that will not appeal to everyone, as much as I'd like it to. It is, according to the blurb, the first asymmetrical CCG design, meaning that as well as playing different roles with different cards (as we have in Star Wars and Dixie), each of the two players also uses different rules. In fairness these are not that dissimilar, and there is a core mechanism that really applies to both players. But nevertheless the two sides of the design are intentionally distinct - they feel different and you have disparate aims and means. Hardly a recipe for an easy life then, but this design feat has been executed with skill by Richard Garfield - something I for one thought would be extremely difficult.
I am doubly impressed that it has been pulled off since when youc consider the number of CCGs (Wyvern, Sim City, Guardians, Superdeck, Wing Commander etc etc) that offer no original systems to speak of, despite being completely symmetric. In taking the tougher asymmetric route, I imagine there must have been an awful lot more work, playtesting, balancing and, importantly, vision required. I had kind of hoped this would be the case since reading the designer's articles in The Duelist, one is at least aware of his love of games and systems, and his ability to think, quite widely, around the subject. The result is a game that really flies in the face of CCG wisdom - fitting perhaps that the genre's creator should do this - and draws on completely new mechanics to make its mark. The most notable change is the core of the system, which I shall return to in detail later. Gone are the clumsy, sometimes over-complex slugfests we have seen so much of recently, and in comes a clean, elegant, fast decision/resource structure. This is a great development as it makes the game easy to learn but tough to play well, keeps you on your toes on the decision front and most importantly, it feels like a proper game, not a contrived card-based fudge.
Design considerations aside, we have played a lot of Netrunner recently and I have to say it is a very good game - atmospheric, true to its theme, challenging, excellent graphics and interface, always different and with a number of clever sub-systems that owe much to boardgame techniques. It also plays quickly in a reasonable time. To play you will need only the double starter pack, which comes with cards for each side, and if you choose to buy a few booster packs, you'll ensure a greater variety of cards and guarantee a reasonable stab at balanced hands. It will also be very helpful to get hold of the play sheets from the recent Duelist magazine, or free from retailers.
The game itself is based around the idea of 'agendas'. The corporate is trying to achieve them to further its aims, and the hacker is out to stop them, being a mad anarchist living on the edge. Or something similar. The first one to achieve, or steal, seven agenda points wins the game. While the ultimate aim is similar, their methods are very different. Both sides have access to the usual wide range of event and interrupt cards, but the heart of the game is the defensive software, or ICE, that tries to stop the hacker's various suites of attacking programs in the arena of the global computer web. Each player spends much of the first few turns setting up this attack and defence scenario, drawing cards from their decks and playing them into position.
The corporate arrays levels of ICE to defend his four main lines of vulnerability - the HQ (his hand), R&D (his deck), the Archives (discard pile) and the data forts, which hold the agendas. He can also place nodes, which are small subsidiary businesses, propaganda or even traps. ICE can be as tame as simple password protection, through patrolling sentries and data walls, right up to programs that will not only protect the data, but also give any hacker a nasty surprise in the shape of mental, hardware or even physical damage. And if that fails, it is always possible to trace the hacker's location and send the boys round. The key game element is that these rows of defensive software are placed face down. The hacker, or 'runner', doesn't know what they are until he 'jacks in' and tries 'a run'. As he comes up against each piece of ICE in turn, it is the corporates decision whether to activate it or call in other defences. If he does, the hacker must either have the required software to overcome it, or be thrown off the system. There are in fact many other outcomes, some quite painful, and the hacker may instead try for different areas of data, even unprotected ones, or cards can be played that weaken or strengthen program and so on. But that is the basic idea.
The hacker meanwhile sets up programs that will hopefully get him past the defences, buys in new, expensive hardware upgrades to boost his chances and tries to improve his income streams, since he always short of cash. These so called resource cards allow the hacker to have a fighting chance against the might of the corporation. Some of them are quite powerful, many are subtle in use and effect. Add in the usual card combination strategy and little gems like computer viruses, misleading attack routes and stealth programs, and you start to see how many ways there are of skinning the corporate cat. He may live in a wrecked Winnebago, but the hacker is not to be underestimated. Again, with a nod to the designer, the game is very well balanced in this respect.
The core system, repeated turn after turn, is based on 'bits'. These are effectively action points or cash that you spend to achieve almost everything. The corporate needs a good reserve so he can always activate his face down cards and feed his expensive agendas, the hacker needs them just to stay in hardware and software race and thus the game. Each turn the players are faced with a range of options. The hacker can perform any combination of four actions: draw a card, gain a bit, install a card, pay to avoid a trace or make a run on the corporate data. So, if short of cash, he could just pick up four bits comprising the whole turn, or he could make three runs and play one card, or any other combination. The corporate gets but three actions, reflecting his red taped, besuited languor, but does get to draw a card every turn, representing R&D benefits. He may also take extra cards, collect a bit, play cards, advance an agenda towards completion or, if you have traced a runner, take out some of his resources.
In structure then, the game is quite straightforward. The options have been pared down to close to minimum, so you rattle through the turns, trying to decide what to do first while knowing what your strategy is. It is up to you and your equipment and personnel (and fate, in the shape of the card draw sequence) to make the best of the job. It is in the multiplicity of card combinations and the interaction between the ICE/attack software and the various other elements of the design that make the whole thing a pleasure to play. And, as you'd expect, it is different each time creating variety and reactive strategies. Do I go in early with a risky run? Shall I wait until there is an agenda on the go? Is he coming after me this turn or will he just build up his equipment/cash/ICE? Yes, you can easily get into deck building and try perfect plans, but at the moment we are happy playing the game out of the box and experiencing the different combinations.
Sadly, it is here we find probably the only mechanical drawback with this game, which reminds me a little of Siedler. Basically, if you haven't drawn the right cards to get by the defences, or to set them up in the first place, you don't have much of a game. If you are foiled as the hacker, the corporate is likely to put up the shutters and proceed to victory. If the hacker gains the initiative, it can be tough for the business player to recover - but it is always possible.The game often has the feel of a fluid field sport, with fortunes swinging back and forth, but sometimes it is one way traffic. The only consolation, as with Siedler, is that this happens quickly and you can soon get on with another matchup. And unlike in Siedler, it is more often your fault than old Senõr Fate's when this happens.
As for feel, and I appreciate this will mean little to many of you, I can best describe it as finally bringing William Gibson's and later cyberpunk books to life. However much the fanboys drone on about Neuromancer, with hindsight it was a pretty poor book, perplexing in the main but saved by a remarkably original theme. Netrunner is Neuromancer sorted out, tidied up and made flesh. And, within reason, you get to decide the plot. The point I'd make here is that while there are a number of games that cover the same general subject (a couple of old computer games, several RPGs including Talsorian's Cyberpunk, Fanfor's Hacker and Steve Jackson's, er, Hacker), none of them have come close to Netrunner for recreating the feel of approaching a heavily defended, possibly dangerous, computer system and hacking it. And at the same time it provides the equally challenging defensive corporate role.
That said, I actually prefer the corporate position since it lets me balance passive and active tactics, deploying traps and interlocking defences in depth, while calculating whether to try for the riskier agendas or to play it safe. Again, there is a nice balance here, with the corporate always waiting for the hacker's moves, but unless he plays out the agendas, little happens so the hacker too must bide his time. Pacing your strategy is important, bluff always plays a part and the risk/reward decisions are constantly interesting. The pivotal timing rule, indeed a pivotal rule overall, is that if the corporate draws his last card and hasn't won, the hacker claims victory on points.
Looking wider, and again hoping to commend the game to you, there are mechanisms in Netrunner that remind me of an Alan Moon game design - lots of small decisions forcing tough choices, constant monitoring of positions and ever scarce resources. Most actions have to be financed with limited action points and there are cards to generate new sources, or provide them faster, or even to set up loan facilities. And this is just one element of the game. Another is that, very much like Dune, you are always in mortal danger of losing. If the hacker breaks in and gets the measure of your ICE, you can lose valuable agendas and a lot of data in no time at all. The bigger, and thus more risky, the agenda you are working on, the more danger you are in. Conversely, the hacker lives in fear of being traced, beaten up or whacked so badly that he won't recover in time to stop the corporate claiming victory. This is tough, edge of the seat gaming that fits the background perfectly. I know it won't appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed it.
As you can tell, I am impressed with the ingenuity of the game and the variety of cards on offer. What could have been a tired old rendition, of a by now hackneyed theme, has been handled deftly with a lot of fresh ideas - the systems mesh well with the novel cards and the crucial aspect is the range of decisions to be made while implementing your plan. The game has bluff and counter bluff, limited information in the shape of the face down cards, plenty of unusual tactics waiting to be discovered and no little pressure on both sides. I would say the whole game is well constructed, with few evident flaws, and very quick to learn as a result. In fact, if you read the playsheets, the rules are largely set out in front of you and you can get straight into the action. The game takes around 45 minutes or a little less to play, but we have finished after as little as twenty minutes, so we (as recommended) normally play a set of back to back challenges, changing sides. This also allows you to (build and) use two distinct decks, adding spice and maintaining interest.
The rule book is quite an unusual departure from the norm, both for CCGs and traditional games. Firstly, it is larger than the usual CCG microprint, which is a welcome change, but it is also written in the first person plural, as in "Sometimes a card will allow us to perform a trace on a runner" and second person for the hacker/runner. I think this is a first. There is a joint volume of rules and then each side gets its own special section, and to be honest I found it a little offputting. It is all there, but it's disconcerting to read all the way through. Production standards are uniformly superb. Wizards can't exactly be strapped for cash and this shows in their choice of artists and, for once, consistent, homogenous graphic design. There is a lot of computer graphics, as you'd imagine, which has been well done and some of the paintings are unbelievably good. This is obviously good to see, though the other CCG companies who are scraping the artistic barrel (Mythos and Dr Who for starters) must be feeling the squeeze. In fact, things are getting so bad I'm expecting a call up anytime to render some stick men and big yellow suns for the forthcoming booster, Playgroup: The Mothering.
The really good news, as with many of the more recent CCGs, is that this one almost definitely plays from the double starter packs and, as such, you can safely ignore the CCG tag in this instance - you can get the best out of it almost immediately. Whatever, I have become aware over recent months that many gamers just won't touch these games because of what they are (and what they represent?). I understand this completely, since I often feel the same, but with METW and Netrunner, you are now, in my opinion, officially missing out on decent games. Whether the companies know about this recalcitrant market, or care about it, I really don't know. But while they continue to stick 'collectible' on the box, they are excluding a number of gamers. Hardly a problem when you are shifting zillions of cards anyway, but well worth considering, I'd have thought, for the longer term business strategy. Anyway, far be it from me to champion the CCG cause, but when a game does work and comes in at normal game pricing with effectively no more liability to buy cards, I think it is worth a look. And when a game has also been designed as well as this one, and plays as well, then I personally believe you should abandon your (correctly held) prejudices and at least try it. If you can handle the science fiction subject matter, highly recommended.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell