I am a huge fan of card games (one of my favorites of all time being The Spoils TCG). I've played Magic the Gathering on and off since the 1990s in both physical and digital forms. I've tended to prefer board games with cards more than those with dice. There is just something soothing about holding a hand of cards and battling wits with an opponent. Android: Netrunner itches all the recesses of my mind and is one of the most amazing card games I have ever played.
First, this is not your 1990s Netrunner; I am here to talk about Fantasy Flight Games re-release and reworking of Netrunner under the title Android: Netrunner. Aside from theme, borrowed names, and a few core mechanics (corp vs runner), the two games can be separated from each other. For all intents and purposes when I am referring to Netrunner, I am referring to Android: Netrunner.
The core of Netrunner themed by a runner hacking the servers of a big corporation. This is brought to the game mat through asymmetrical game play where one player plays the role of runner and the other player plays the role of corporation. The corporation figures out ways of protecting their valuable servers via cards known as ICE while the runner figures out ways to break through that ICE (via icebreakers) to loot and plunder the wonderful rewards within. Alongside the main icebreaker vs ICE there is a slew of card types that have immediate or triggered effects. Cards are played through the use of "clicks" and paid for via the payment of "credits". The end goal is to collect 7 agenda points; which are scored after being advanced by the corporation or stolen by the runner via various means. An alternate victory condition is for the corporation to be run out of cards or for the runner to be dealt more damage than they have cards in hand (known as flat-lining).
What really sets Netrunner apart, in my opinion, is the play of the corporation. The corporation primarily plays their cards face down to the game table. Playing a card is know as installing. ICE is installed face down in front of servers to protect them from "runs" (aka hacking attempts). Agendas, assets, and upgrades are installed face down in the servers themselves. The cards remain face down, generally, until the runner attempts to access them (either through a run or card effect). ICE and most assets and upgrades have a "rez" cost that the corporation must pay to flip the card face up and reap its benefits.
The corporation is not forced into "rezzing" a card leading to a critical aspect of the game: bluffing. The potential for the corporation to bluff a runner is there and many a Netrunner game has been lost to a bad decision. At the same time, just like in Poker, a bluff is still only hiding an end result that can be broken down to a mathematical probability. A good runner is going to be able to look at their cards in hand and in play and know when the odds are in their favor. Between experienced players, bluffing does not play as big of a role as it does for new players learning the game, but the simple fact of having a bluff as a physical representation (face down cards) on the board is an amazing piece of the puzzle for this game.
By description it would seem that the game is tilted towards the corporation player, but that is anything but the truth. The game, in my experience, slightly favors the runner as the idea of playing offensively is more natural and the defensive nature of the corporation is something harder to learn and execute. The runner could always stumble into victory while the corporation will only find victory through appropriate planning.
The runner also has advantages in their favor, first being that they receive 4 clicks per turn to the 3 clicks of the corporation's turn (the corporation is allowed to draw a card for free every turn though as a compromise). Clicks are actions that can be taken during a turn. Secondly, the runner can "trash" corporation cards for a set cost after accessing them which allows the runner to really negatively impact the corporations play. Lastly, the runner does not need to spend actions each turn advancing agendas to score the related points. The runner simply needs to access an agenda played by the corporation to steal it and thus receive it's allocated agenda points towards their victory total (7 are needed to win).
The one big drawback to the runner is that their hand of cards is their life total in the game. Run out of cards and take one more damage and the game is over, victory going to the corporation regardless of the state of agenda points scored. This is a great mechanic which forces the runner to hold back cards and again opens up the bluff mechanic between the two sides. Could the corporation player be holding a card that will do one meat damage and thus bring the game to an end if the runner chooses to end the turn with zero cards in hand?
To further cement Netrunner as an amazing game it also allows deckbuilding via a living card game (LCG) model. LCGs, contrary to booster-pack games such as MtG, release sets of cards on a regular basis. In each set is a complete play set of every card in that release. There is no rarity or chase cards to worry about. If a player wants to play a deck, all they need to do is buy the appropriate "data packs" that contain the cards they want. Gone are the days of having 50 copies of that single common card while having only 1 of the rare. In Netrunner all a player will ever need is sold in each data pack release. Data packs average in cost about $10 to $15 and are released about every 3 months. There is phenomenal value in the LCG model and at the end of the day the core set is plenty to start out with and try some of the deckbuilding without having to invest anything else.
Now there are a couple areas I think the game could improve. First of all, the card layout and use of symbols needs work. It is hard, at first, to differentiate cards or determine values such as influence for use in deckbuilding. The card design appears to be artistic in nature more than driven by the need to present information. This makes for some stunning visuals on cards, but can lead to some agonizing card pile searches looking for a card of a certain faction or value that is not easily visible. Secondly, some of the terms used to describe aspects of the game are a bit hard to grasp at first. For example: the runner's hand is known as their grip, but the corporations hand is known as the HQ. While players adjust to these terms after playing the game, I am not sure what, if anything, is gained by calling a players hand (just one example) by another name.
Over all, Netrunner is a phenomenal game and quickly is rocketing up my chart of favorite card games. It is not for everyone, but for the core gamer out there seeking a challenging and competitive card game there is nothing finer than Netrunner currently. Add in the LCG model and it is friendly to the wallet. If you are interested in the game, the core set is currently on sale for $29 on Amazon.