Dice on Fire Review: Android Netrunner

Image source: herebegeeks.com
Android: Netrunner is the current hotness in the living card game genre (see glossary). A cyber-punk battle between evil corporations, with sinister secret agendas, and lone-wolf hackers, intent on stealing precious data from those same malicious organisations. Netrunner is a tense game of bluffing, mind-games, gambles and guts for two players.

The Basics

In Netrunner, two players battle for control of "agenda" cards by assuming opposing roles. The first role is the corp (corporation): an evil organisation. The second role is the runner (hacker), who must break into the corp's computer servers and mess with those big-wigs. Both of these roles have entirely different rule-sets and mechanisms for victory.

The runner's view, in game, with the corp player in the background.
In order for the corp player to win, they must place their cards out on the table to form servers, protected by various kinds of firewalls, which are called "ice" in the Netrunner universe. Then on these servers, they are able to run programs, including agenda programs. If they can keep an agenda running for long enough, they score it and the accompanying victory points. If they get seven victory points, they win. They can also win by killing the runner (making him or her discard beyond all their cards).

The corp player's view. The four columns of cards represent computer servers, all of which may be attacked by the runner. Far left, a remote server; all cards are unknown to the runner and have advancement tokens. The horizontal card is ice, which has been strengthened against the runners various counter-measures. The vertical cards are probably an agenda which will soon be scored (or a nasty trap meant to look like an agenda) and a server upgrade granting various benefits. Second from left is the HQ, representing the corps hand; protected by two layers of ice. Second from right is Research and Development, which is where the corp draws cards from; protected by one layer of ice, so far. Far right is the trash pile, where played cards are discarded to; currently unprotected.
The runner's job is to attack the various corp servers in a bid to steal these agenda points. This includes servers the corp set up in their turn as well as the corp player's hand, the top of their draw pile and their entire discard pile - all of which may have agenda cards and on all of which the corp may have placed defensive ice. The runner bypasses ice by installing various programs and hardware, by laying them out on front of them and usually paying credits to pay for these associated ice-bypass abilities. The runner wins if they get seven points worth of agenda cards. The runner also wins is the corp isn't fast enough and exhausts its draw pile.

The runner's view. The six cards on the left are upgrades and programs which helps the runner earn credits and attack the corp's various servers. On the right we have, [top] the character card, the draw pile (face down) and the trash pile and [bottom] credits/tokens, rule crib-sheet and turn counter.

The Deeper Stuff

Netrunner is largely a game about secrets and bluffing. Whilst the runner plays all their cards face-up and launches assaults on the various corp servers, the corp plays all their cards face-down, attempting to mislead the runner, wasting their time and luring them into damaging traps.

Resource management is also a major theme. This includes managing your actions (corp gets three actions per turn and the runner gets four) and credits. Without credits, both corp and runner are utterly crippled, so both players must make sure they are playing various economic cards whilst putting up a strong offense or defense. This can be much more difficult than it sounds.

Lastly, this is a living card game (explanation), so as you'd expect from this format, there is a huge element if deck-construction meta-gaming. If you have the data-packs (booster/expansion decks), then you'll need to spend time pre-game, planning your deck strategy and choosing your cards appropriately.

One of several runner character cards, each offering different abilities. This one is from one of the many booster packs, not the core set.

How it Plays Out

So each player has chosen if they are playing the corp or runner and have built appropriate decks for the match up. When building their decks, there are seven factions to choose between - three runners and four corps - each with their own playstyle. Each player will have chosen a bunch of cards from their own faction and then a limited number of cards from alternate factions. This means that each player should present a deck which is reasonably familiar, yet with surprises up its sleeves. This is important because the corp is playing a bluffing game for the most part.

And the bluffing is deadly in its many forms. Some of the corps have stacks of cards which cause various forms of damage (makes the runner discard cards, which, when they reach -1, means the runner has died). Even if the runner isn't killed, an effective trap laid by the corp can waste runner turns as the runner tries to rebuild their hand. And the more turns they waste, the more time the corp has to lay out and develop their agendas.

As you can see, Netrunner gets incredibly tense and rewards shrewd scheming.

An agenda card. The number 5 represents its cost if the corp wishes to score it: 5 actions and 5 credits total. If the runner is able to lay their hands of it, they usually don't pay anything. The  number 3 is the amount of victory points this agenda is worth (players need 7 to win)
The cards are remarkably varied for both runner and corp allowing players to choose cards that meet with their own style, surprise their foe, and pull off some effective combos. And while I'm on the topic of the cards - the artwork in Netrunner is, at times, gorgeous stuff, with beautiful androids and scummy underworlds lavishly portrayed. The art-style is an odd portrayal of a totalitarian, dystopian cyber-punk. Think Blade Runner and Deus Ex (the videogame) with some Lawnmower Man styled cyber adventures - I'm a little bit in love with it.

Really, just any excuse for some Blade Runner.
It's not all perfect though. For one, Netrunner is a brutal experience for newcomers, with a lot of obscure nuances in its mechanics and badly described card effects. And it doesn't help that Netrunner has a terribly complex rule book to go with it. The key point here is that if you have to refer to online videos to figure out a game, then the rule book is garbage. (UPDATE: I have now written my own beginner's guide to Netrunner. You can check it out here.)

Secondly, this game can get awfully expensive, due to its frequent expansions, which are essentially compulsory in any kind of competitive environment. I outline this quite clearly in my CCG/LCG post, but in a nutshell, unless your just going to be playing with close buddies or a spouse, you'll be paying out quite frequently.

A runner card, which lets them mitigate the actions (subroutines) caused by attacks on ice, at the cost of credits.

Colour-Blind Issues

Netrunner doesn't have any major issues with colour. The different deck factions are represented by colour and symbol, and these differences only matter during pre-game deck-construction. This gets my seal of approval!


Netrunner is a tense, highly-strategic and brutal game for two players. Playing it can be a real emotional rollercoaster - a game where victory often feels like its snatched from the teeth of defeat and where crushing blows leave you genuinely pained and at a loss. It is not appropriate for new gamers, at all, but if you're willing to commit the brain-power, the time and the money, Netrunner really is a cut above its competition.