February 27

A CyberPunk Tabletop

In case you missed this post’s predecessor, you might want to take a quick look here, before reading this, which is the second in a multi-part post.

For those that – entirely understandably – can’t be bothered, a quick recap: 1) I gave up booze some years back, meaning I wanted something new to do with my time 2) the non-mainstream tabletop game industry is alive and growing like crazy 3) in particular, card games are thriving 4) Living Card games (LCG) are more my cup of tea than collectible card games (CCG) because you know what you’re getting with an LCG product 5) Arkham Horror is based on the works of HP Lovecraft, is competitive and is a very good LCG indeed.

Which gets us back to where I left off: Netrunner, another LCG which I discovered about six months ago.

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Netrunner was originally designed by Richard Garfield, the guy behind Magic, the Gathering, which has been around for 20 years and is currently the dominant organised adult trading card game in much of the world. Magic is based on a fantasy combat theme and has thousands of organised play nights each week around the world based on a number of different play formats. As an aside, there’s a lot of snobbery about Magic amongst older players of other games – but I don’t mind Magic at all and play with my kids. However, it is undeniable that Magic tends to be favoured by a younger audience and, as covered previously, the randomised nature of Magic products means that the game is weighted towards rare/expensive cards being overpowered, rather than the ‘level playing field’ format of the LCG.

So, Netrunner switched publishers and was then re-launched about five years back by FFG, the same company that recently introduced the Arkham LCG. However, that’s where the similarities end, as Netrunner is a very, very different experience to its Lovecraftian stablemate.

Rather than being cooperative, Netrunner is centred around two opposing players, each trying to win by outmanoeuvring their counterpart in one of a number of ways. So, it’s competitive. And, the more you play, the more competitive it gets. More on that later.

One of the things that anyone watching a game of Netrunner will first notice is that it’s asymmetric. Each side sets up differently before setting out to do something specific which is unique to their side of the table. Once the game is won/lost, then the players typically switch sides and go again – so each match represents two different games, with two very different approaches. Each side has a largely unique cardpool, different lines of attack/defence and, moreover, each character within each type has further differentiation, before you even get into the nuances of player style and preference. Consequently, Netrunner’s biggest downfall is that it’s really not an easy game to learn. At all.

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Thematically, the game is set in an imagined future, where the world is controlled by four different global corporations, each pursuing their own corporate and commercial agendas – some ethically dubious, some downright naughty. Keeping these ‘Corps’ in check, there are numerous hackers – known as ‘Runners’ – who take it upon themselves to continually attempt to keep big business honest by poking around in the Corps’ technology as a means of uncovering their plans.

So, the game is won by either side scoring a total of seven agenda points. The Corp advances by progressing agenda cards worth, usually, 1, 2 or 3 points at a time, behind protective defences that have been creatively deployed to keep runners out. Runners advance by finding innovative ways around those defences as a means of laying hands on agenda cards and stealing them to claim the points. There are other ways for each side to win or lose (the corp being ‘out of ideas’ is one, whereas the corp can kill the runner either mentally or physically through starving them of cards).

Although the Gibson-esque theme and tactility of the cards are fun, it’s really a game about bluffing and efficiency of activity, so it’s the interpersonal, social aspect that makes this game extraordinary. One side is always trying to hide something from the other, resulting in guesswork, double bluffing and frequent head-scratching. Better players give themselves additional options, thereby getting the most out of each turn, in terms of actions and money.

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As with the best games of any format or genre, playing Netrunner is highly likely to result in ‘just one more go’, irrespective of whether you win or lose. The game has been relaunched again in recent months, with a new base set available, having ditched some content in the previous version and added some additional cards, so a fair amount of new people are currently getting into the game. I will shortly knock together another piece on my first experiences in playing Netrunner competitively, at tournaments – but suffice to say that it’s one of those games where a newbie can, through lucky draw and a simplistic approach, actually beat someone far more experienced and better at the game. It’s also fair to say that a newbie can quickly be crushed by those who are highly efficient and far more effective. I’ve already experienced both.

Having been hooked by the possibilities, I scratched around the web and found a group of fellow local players and have since introduced a couple of other friends. Consequently, I now enjoy regular weekly local meet ups, games with mates in a quiet hour and have already been to two Store Championship tournaments – with varying degrees of success.

Because the game lives in a niche, there is a relatively small, active global community. Consequently, many of the most prominent players in the world are readily accessible and happy to share advice. Indeed, the vast majority of people that I’ve met or spoken with have been incredibly patient and pleasant, which of course helps a great deal when you’re starting out. Perhaps my favourite aspect of this social side so far has been meeting people that I’m sure I would not otherwise meet, to excitedly talk about a shared passion. It’s so rare that you can leave behind any and every other aspect of the rest of your life and break things down to simplistic, fun-oriented social interaction.

I was self-taught, which was an uphill struggle lasting many months. However, there are some terrific resources that can help, if you’re willing to devote the time or energy and don’t have access to someone that can teach you (nb – whilst I’m still learning myself, I guess I could now teach someone enough to at least try the game for themselves in 15-30 minutes). Team Covenant is a small US based gaming company which has built its business around the gaming community and now has a physical store plus a large digital offering, based mostly around subscriptions to these games and some gaming peripherals. More than anything, these guys are passionate enthusiasts and they have created some superb content, ranging from an intro to Netrunner, to basic and advanced deckbuilding guides. There are also several example matches based on various characters and then decklists that you can use to get started.

A couple of other resources to mention. I’ve learned that it’s hard to keep track of what you are playing at any given point in time. So, although it sounds fiddly, NetrunnerDB is extremely easy to use (it’s a two minute job to change things around in digital format, before settling on something that I then translate to the actual physical cards). And, as a browser-based Netrunner simulator, Jinteki.net is an absolute godsend for people learning and wanting to play more, as there are almost always people on there, from around the world, looking for a quick game. Graham Carlson’s great Shipment from ChiLo podcast, the Stimhack blog, AlwaysBeRunning tournament tables and (ahem) StimSlack are all good, alternative points of reference.

So, as you might tell, I have fallen for this game in a big way. However, for me, I think it’s always going to be about fun rather than victory, so I sense I’m never going to take it beyond a certain point. Whilst it’s undeniably a great feeling to score out or steal the winning agenda, I’m simply not a ‘win at all costs’ kinda guy – and at the competitive tiers (around Store Championships, Regional, National, Euro and even World events) people are, of course, in it to win it. Perhaps that’s naiveté talking and it’s just because those wins seem too remote and distant to contemplate right now.

If you’ve come this far then please stick around – as, at some point in the coming weeks I’ll tell you about my first experiences in a competitive tournament, which for someone that has quite enough stress in his life already, was really something I should probably not have done, in hindsight…