Android: Netrunner: The Card Game (card game review).

‘Android: Netrunner’ is a two-player ‘living card game’ (LCG) pitting a futuristic megacorporation against the wily hacker who wants to break into its servers and steal its secrets. It’s also very good.


The original ‘Netrunner Collectible Card Game’ (CCG) first materialised in 1996. Designed by Richard Garfield of ‘Magic: The Gathering’ fame and based in the ‘Cyberpunk 2020’ universe, ‘Netrunner’ was critically acclaimed but never attained the popularity of ‘Magic’ and manufacturer Wizards Of The Coast eventually shut it down.

Fantasy Flight Games’ re-imagining of the original updates the setting to their own Android universe and tweaks some of the terminology and mechanics, but the core of the game remains the same and that original vision was critically acclaimed for a reason.

The most obvious and interesting aspect of the game is that play is asynchronous or unbalanced. Most card and board games begin on a level playing field, with all the players created equal, but in ‘Android: Netrunner’ the corporation and ‘runner’ players have very different objectives and very different styles of play.

The corporation player’s objective is to advance its ‘agendas’, carrying out secret projects and whatnot, while the runner’s objective is to break through the ICE (Intrusion Countermeasures – Electronic), defending the corporation’s servers and make off with the data stored within. The corporation spends most of its time setting up servers and layering ICE to keep the hackers out, while the runner builds up resources and readies his programs for a run at the corporation’s digital storehouses.

The game is complex and there’s a lot for a beginner to get to grips with, but unlike some of Fantasy Flight’s other LCGs (‘Game Of Thrones’, I’m looking at you), the rules have an intuitive logic which makes them relatively easy to grasp. The first game ran slow as we figured out how to play, but by the second I was comfortable and understood the rules and we only had to refer to the rulebook once. By the standards of card games, this is pretty exceptional.

The game progresses in the traditional ‘I go, you go’ turn progression, with both the runner and the corporation having a number of actions or ‘clicks’ to spend in their turn. The corporation has fewer clicks, but must draw a card for free at the beginning of their turn. You can use your clicks for various actions, from drawing a card or raising credits (money) to ‘installing’ cards in front of you.

The runner installs programs, hardware and resources, while the corporation installs agendas, assets, upgrades or ICE. But while the runner’s installed cards are played face up and have an up-front credit cost, the corporation’s cards are played face down for free. These ‘unrezzed’ cards can’t be used until their cost is paid and they’re turned face up (‘rezzed’), but until that happens, the runner has no idea what he’s facing.

It’s this hidden aspect to the corporation’s playing area which defines the core of the game and makes it as much about bluffing your opponent as about the cards you hold. A server with little or no ICE defending it might be an easy target or might be a trap which will fry the runner’s brain with neural damage or trace his ‘real-life’ location so the corp can send police or hitmen to find him.

Taking damage is how the runner loses. Every point of damage forces him to discard a card from his hand and if he’s forced to discard from an empty hand, he’s flatlined – toast! The corporation, meanwhile, loses if they try to draw from an empty deck. So, as well as winning by advancing or stealing agendas, each player will be trying to make their opponent lose by damaging the runner’s hand or burning the corporation’s desk, respectively. Having more than one way to win the game gives ‘Android: Netrunner’ another layer of depth and seems likely to increase its re-playabilty.

The fact that it’s effectively two games in one also adds longevity. Playing as the runner is very different from playing as the corporation, turning a patient game of bluff and misdirection into one of resource management and careful risk. Even within each side of the game, there are multiple ‘identities’ which give you a different set of cards and a different play style.

The runner can choose from anarch, tinkerer or criminal, while the corporation has four organisations to pick from: Haas-Bioroid, NBN, Weyland Consortium or Jinteki. Each of these seven identities has different strengths and weaknesses and the way they interact with various different opponent identities adds yet more variety to the game.

I’ve played several games in various different combinations and rarely felt like I’ve played the same game twice. That said, over a much longer term, I can see the relatively small number of cards in a deck possibly breeding over-familiarity and the potential for building decks tailored to your own play style seems fairly limited within each faction/identity.

That’s not much of a flaw, however, and it’s one Fantasy Flight are already addressing. ‘Android: Netrunner’ is a pretty new game, but already has several expansion packs available to build on the starter set I’m reviewing here and I think it speaks volumes about how much I enjoyed the game that I’ve already gone out and bought one.

About the only real flaw in the actual gameplay is that there’s very little action during your opponent’s turn, particularly if you’re the runner. The corporation does at least get to act during the runner’s actual runs, but in the corporation’s turn the runner player is basically just an observer. Again, though, that’s a pretty minor flaw. The flow of the game is very quick once you’ve got used to the rules and even the most indecisive corporation player will be finished in a handful of minutes. The runner’s unlikely to spend that time examining their fingernails, neither. If they’re savvy, they’ll be trying to figure out which server to hit next…

The runner’s turns tend to last a little longer, because that’s where the action lies. The runner spends a click to make a run, announcing his target server and then has to bypass the ICE defending it. Each piece of ICE, once rezzed, has a strength value and a number of defensive sub-routines which will take effect unless the runner breaks them. The runner has ICEbreakers and viruses to do just that, but they have to match the strength of the ICE before they can start breaking subroutines. The tinkerer tends to do this by boosting the strength of their ICEbreakers and the anarch by reducing the strength of the ICE with viruses.

The basic subroutine is ‘End the run’, stopping the runner from reaching the server’s precious data, but it’s by no means the only one and plenty of ICE doesn’t have it at all, meaning the runner can choose to push through the ICE without breaking the subroutines, taking their punishment in exchange for accessing the server data and that punishment can get pretty innovative, ranging from neural damage or more-severe ‘brain damage’ (which permanently reduces the runner’s hand size) through trace & tag programs and other, weirder things. My favourite sub-routine was one which sent the runner back to the start of the run, to try their luck at all that ICE again, albeit this time beaten and resource-starved.

There’s a lot of pleasure to be had here and the game seems designed to encourage you into the mindset of the roles you’re playing. As the corporation, it’s hard not to mwahaha out loud when the runner commits to a run on your well-laid booby trap, while the runner’s sense of hard-earned satisfaction on emerging unscathed and victorious from a difficult run makes it easy to see why hackers do what they do.

So in conclusion, ‘Android: Netrunner’ is an excellent game. It’s superbly playable straight out of the box, relatively quick to learn and well designed to maximise replay value. While the deck-building aspect is relatively limited, this early in the life of the game, the regular schedule of expansion sets Fantasy Flight has laid out is already taking care of that problem. It’s a bit of a shame that the game is limited to two players, but perhaps we’ll see multi-player rules further down the line. Even without them, though, I’d recommend ‘Android: Netrunner’ to any gamer.

Martin Jenner

February 2013

(pub: Fantasy Flight Games. Price: £28.82 (UK), $39.95 (US). 
Info: Players: 2. Playing time: 45 minutes and up. Age: 14+
check out website: www.amazon.co.uk/Android-Netrunner-Living-Card-Game/dp/1616614609/ref=sr_1_cc_2?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1361961662&sr=1-2-catcorr

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