One of the common complaints about table-top games which fall outside of the traditional mould is that they are overcomplicated and inaccessible. While this is often unfair and causes people to miss out on some great games, there are some that, unfortunately, live up to the stereotype. Android: Netrunner is one of them.
It is a two-player asymmetric card game, set in a dystopian cyberpunk future (think Blade Runner, or Neuromancer). One player is a hacker, or ‘runner’, and the other controls an evil corporation. The corporation scores points by advancing hidden agendas, and the runner scores points by exposing them. An interesting and high-concept idea. Aside from the agenda cards, there are other ways to win, such as exhausting the corporation’s deck, or ‘flat-lining’ the runner, by causing a lot of ‘brain damage’, reducing the Runners hand limit to zero.
If you’ve noticed a fair few words in inverted commas creeping in recently, you may have already anticipated the first problem. Netrunner has its own jargon, and the terminology isn’t even consistent between the two factions. The corporation’s hand of cards, for example, is called ‘HQ’ and the runner’s hand of cards is known as a ‘Grip’. While this helps to create the world that Netrunner inhabits, it also acts as a major barrier to new players who are trying to understand how the game works and can cause significant frustration. The rules included with the game aren’t much help, although with time and effort you can just about fathom what you’re supposed to do.
The corporation player has agenda cards in their deck and can advance these by spending credits on them. Once they are advanced, they score, and the corporation player needs to score seven to win the game. You put these cards face down in ‘remote servers’ and protect them with ‘Ice’. You can also set traps with decoy cards which act like agendas but aren’t. The runner player needs to build up their ‘rigs’ with different assets and programmes they use to make the run and strengthen their hands, with ice-breaker programmes, compiling a mix of ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ to break into the corporate servers.
There are different corporations and runners available, and each of which has slightly different decks of cards and accompanying artwork. The corporations are your standard evil media network, your evil bio engineering firm engaged in dodgy cloning and what have you, your evil robotics factory – you get the idea. The runners are, respectively, an anarchist, a criminal hoping to make a fast buck, and someone just in it for the lols.
Here comes the second problem. I’ve played Android: Netrunner several times, both as the corporation and as the runner, and the runner won every single time, no matter who was playing. The corporation, supposedly having tons of money and huge resources at its disposal, always seems strapped for cash. The runner, on the other hand, never seemed to run out. In the games I played the corporation just couldn’t defend itself, unable to do much to prevent the runner waltzing in and doing whatever they wanted. The corporation’s ice programmes were barely a hindrance if it could afford to use them at all. The runner never got into real difficulty, with brain damage rarely occurring.
Is this because we weren’t playing the game correctly? A quick Google search resulted in plenty of other people reporting the same thing, with the corporation always losing. There were several suggestions; that the base game is purposefully designed to make it easy on the runner, that the game requires expansion decks to make it balanced, and that the way to play is to take turns at being the Corporation and Runner each, then tally up the total score, that the suggested decks don’t work, and need to be modified for balance.
If the first suggestion is true, then the game designers clearly went too far in one direction, as in my multiple playthroughs, with both cautious and reckless opponents, the runner won easily every time. It is possible to make asymmetric, but balanced, games – think of Starcraft, or some of the stronger entries in the Command and Conquer real time strategy series for example. If the second suggestion is true, then this boxed game is a con, simply a means to get you to spend more money because what you have bought is broken. I object to throwing more money at a game just to fix what shouldn’t need to be fixed in the first place.
If the third suggestion is true, then the game seems thematically backwards. The corporation is supposed to be the unstoppable behemoth, with any victories against them feeling hard-won. If the game should be biased in any direction, it should be the runner. If the fourth suggestion is true, then the rules and what they recommend are poor, which shows how a game can suffer by poor instructions. Modifying decks can be fun, but it helps to understand and have fun with the standard set up first.
There are some great ideas in Android: Netrunner; strong artwork, and a powerful theme. Unfortunately, these positives are buried under a pile of frustrations. The use of in-game language, without plain-English translations, means that as a newbie, you’re constantly looking things up. How exactly do you ‘res’ a card again? You’ll need to search through the rules to find out.
Netrunner is often compared to Magic: The Gathering, for which I’m told it shares many similarities, unsurprisingly, as they were designed by the same person. Magic has a reputation for being impenetrable, for hardcore gamers only – serious business. I can see how people will be put off by games like Magic and Netrunner. I am, after all, and I am, presumably, part of their target audience.
Call me a filthy casual if you like, but I like to have a bit of fun when I play games, and to see others have fun. I’m looking for intuitive games that are easy to pick up and understand, but hard to master, with room for difficult choices and engaging gameplay.
As for Android: Netrunner, I hope there is a great game buried in here somewhere, but I’m almost too annoyed and alienated to find it. Much like the Matrix sequels, I really wanted to like it, but, unfortunately, the game now sits unloved on a shelf. At around 30 odd quid, I’d recommend spending your hard-earned cash on something else.