Android: Netrunner embodies everything I imagined tabletop gaming could be. Intricate, arcane, hyper-stylized, for some these aspects are the worst traits a game could bring to the table. I was too busy enjoying my romp through cyberpunk heaven to notice. Go into this confession knowing I’m a sucker for all thinks high-tech and low-life, and that Jessie is very much not.
Technology can be overwhelming. Think about the three-thousand-pound deathtraps we strap ourselves into for our daily commute, or those glossy black mirrors that know all of our secrets. The last thirty years, hell the last hundred, have been a futuristic trust fall. We are conditioned to close our eyes, lean back, and let the trappings of modernity catch us if they can.
Jessie and I similarly threw ourselves at Netrunner, hoping its 34-page rulebook would make sense once we dug through it. There wasn’t much of a light at the end of the tunnel. We were left with a mess of tiny, cardboard punch-outs and an intimidating variety of cards. Instead of thinking twice about what we were getting ourselves into, the two of us picked our decks and went to work.
This was the first I had heard of an asymmetrical card game, where a player’s chosen side determines the instructions they must follow. Netrunner features two factions, corporations and runners. In typical cyberpunk fashion Corps are depicted as despotic overlords while runners represent those who resist corporate authority. Each group has four specific teams you can choose to play as, all of them offering their own unique emphasis on certain mechanics.
Ultimately the goal is to accumulate Agenda Points. Corps will ‘advance’ their agendas to fulfill this requirement, while runners try to steal them from said corporations. The entire experience is a bit reminiscent of a chase between Itchy and Scratchy. I decided to be a fat cat for our first match, opting to represent the Weyland Consortium. (Yes, mostly because of my appreciation for all things Ridley Scott.) Jessie found that the idealistic nature of the Shapers appealed to how she’d operate as a runner. Figuring out whom we wanted to represent proved to be the easy part.
Round one was ugly. We had a grasp of the basics: Corps place agendas and assets on the board, face down, and install ICE cards to protect them. Runners configure their rig by filling it with hardware, programs and resources intended to dismantle corporate ICE and grant access to the ‘root’ of a ‘server,’ where an agenda or an asset can be stolen. Figuratively, runners are computer hackers trying to steal company data that sits behind as much security as a Corp can muster. The whole ordeal is essentially centered around one player laying traps (ICE) to test the other player’s ability to escape.
The game gets complicated when you start reading the fine print. Most cards are situational, the stipulations of which were rather hard to keep track of for the first handful of turns. More often than not we were combing the Internet for clarification, since once again our trusted instruction manual was plagued with vagueness. Learning to play Netrunner with Jessie was the most intricate dance we’ve shared during our stroll down tabletop lane thus far.
It also brought the biggest smile to my face. Jessie is admittedly not a fan of computers, or “the beep bops” as she playfully regards all things digital. Her frustrations are understandable. Computer-human interfaces have a long way to go before being regarded as anything close to intuitive, and Android: Netrunner is designed to play off of many of these often-erratic intricacies. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing her tell me all about the programs and hardware she was about to install so she could hack my servers – a little bit of geek speak goes a long way toward winning my affection.
Once digested, the rules aren’t so bad. Some cards still seemed a bit ambiguous but that didn’t stop us from duking it out for a few sessions. The two different play styles perfectly capture the spirit of each faction. When I was serving the Weyland’s interests, I found myself with an excess of credits (the game’s currency), and with plenty of options, but limited in how much I could accomplish every turn. It felt like I was an economic juggernaut. Playing as a runner, specifically as a Shaper, I was always strapped for cash, and forced to think creatively while trying to undermine the avaricious machinations of big business. The thought of there being six more teams to try is a perfect reminder of how Netrunner is as tremendous as it is complex.
I’m not sure Jessie and I will revisit Android very often. Learning the ins and outs of this card game revealed that deck building might not be the most fitting genre of tabletop adventures for us. Part of me is tempted to look into if there is a community of runners here in Tampa, and maybe even get a little competitive with the game. The rest of me is worried if my wallet can handle yet another infatuation. To even be considering it should go to show how much I enjoyed Android: Netrunner. Its complexity is not a weakness. It is a challenge, a call to arms I’m quite eager to accept.