Despite Its Age, 'Netrunner' Is the Best It’s Ever Been
A trip to the 'Netrunner' World Championship proved that the card game is still at the top of the heap.
All images courtesy of Fantasy Flight Games.
This year, the asymmetrical competitive card game, Netrunner, stood at a crossroads: it was four years old, and by this time it felt like it might be starting to lose steam. There were rumblings that attendance at tournaments was down. There was talk of prominent players and community members dropping out.
I was worried about the game. I really was. But after attending this year's World Championships (in scenic Roseville, Minnesota!)—a five-day circus of Netrunner tournament games and related events—I think it's safe to say the game might actually be in the best position it's ever held, even considering the usual quibbles and concerns that one would expect from a complex, competitive game.
For the uninitiated, Netrunner is a card game about hacking and data security. (For more of a primer, see here, here, and herefor a three-parter on last year's World Championships.) I like to describe it as a competitive asymmetrical maze-building game. One player plays the 'corporation'—the maze architect—while their opponent, the 'runner,' uses hardware, programs, and viruses to navigate their way through the maze, and steal information from the corporation.
The game is also arguably the best cyberpunk offering in tabletop games right now. Think Blade Runner and William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy folded into a card game. Netrunner's world consists of a diverse group of hackers (runners), and four sinister corporations—like the construction and military contractor, Weyland (a nod to the Alien series), or android manufacturer Haas-Bioroid (a double nod to Blade Runner and Gibson's Sprawl books). And the cards are works of art themselves (I was secretly very excited about this year's new alt art for Hedge Fund).
The game itself, originally designed by Richard Garfield in the 1990s, and rebooted in 2012 by Fantasy Flight Games, is nothing short of a masterpiece of design (and by the way, I say this as an unrelenting, academic critic of games). This game is good. It has a narrative richness that is unrivaled, and a ludic complexity that is distinctly its own.
But at the core of any competitive game is its community; as important as the game's design are the people who play it. Many games, especially online digital ones, have woefully toxic play cultures, riven through with sexism, homophobia, and, in a broad sense, bad sports-personship. In Netrunner we are lucky to have (with exceptions, no doubt) a supportive and inclusive community.
The community is why more than a dozen of my fellow Toronto players all flew out to Roseville, Minnesota (a sleepy suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul). Here hundreds of players from around the world drag backpacks filled with cards and tokens to Fantasy Flight's factory headquarters in a light industrial park. Imagine dozens of rows of tables in what feels like a high school auditorium with nondescript thin carpeting.
As players file in, they line up to check their table assignment and their next opponent. When the commotion dies down, the judges start the clock: We have 65 minutes to play each of two games with the selected opponent—one as corporation, one as the runner. On the day of the main tournament, we repeat this process six times, running for about eight to nine hours. In between matches, we relaxed and chatted about the game we've put so much time into.
I won't lie, I expected many of these conversations to be negative. I was worried about the game when I flew out to Roseville,in part because the game appeared to be in a period of extreme flux. This year, the previous lead designer, Lukas Litzinger, had stepped down from his position to take over as the lead designer of other games.
Damon Stone, who had also been working on Netrunner for quite some time (in addition to the first edition of the Game of Thrones Living-Card Game (LCG) and Android: Mainframe) took on the role. Right away Stone introduced a (controversial) card limiting rule set into the game: the NAPD Most-Wanted List. Cards that were over-represented in the metagame would now be more expensive to play with. The game, without a doubt, would change, but would it change for the better?
On top of the new rules, Fantasy Flight Games announced that another of its LCGs Warhammer 40k: Conquest, had been given the axe when the business relationship between Fantasy Flight and the ever mercurial Games Workshop ended. To those who played Conquest, this year's World Championships (the last for Conquest) felt like a funeral procession.
Change was in the air. But by the same token, these games are designed, from the ground up, to change. They are always changing because they are LCGs, where new cards are released roughly every 6 weeks. When a new card is released, the whole metagame can shift all at once. Suddenly binder-fodder from more than a year ago can change everything.
That Netrunner changes so much is appropriate, because the world that it's commenting on is changing. That's because (unlike many sci-fi settings), the world of Android: Netrunner is our own world. The United States just elected a president who wants to change the world (for the worse, for so many people). This is a game that just released an entire cycle of cards about a stock market crash that sends a US-administered special economic zone in Central America into crisis. Several weeks ago the ridiculous billionaire Elon Musk said he's going to colonize Mars, and the next cycle of cards in Netrunner is about a Mars colonized by megacorporations. It's so spot on that it's uncanny.
The changes, both to the rules and Stone's design leadership of the game, have been exciting. Some card power levels have been rising, and strategies have changed.
The community is also slowly changing, in good ways. For instance, last year I called attention to Kim Nguyen's discussion of diversity in Netrunner. For a game that was doing a great job of constantly introducing a wide variety of game characters of all kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities, Nyguyen asks, why was its player base still so white and male?
This year, while white men were still the most dominant group of people represented, the presence of an affinity group explicitly for women—Women of Netrunner—was welcomed and embraced. I saw more women, and I'm seriously hoping to see more affinity groups explicitly organized to promote other forms of gender and racial diversity in the future. In a post-Gamergate world where alt-right fascism seems ascendent, affinity groups and networks of mutual support are needed in all aspects of life, especially our hobbies.
A healthy, inclusive community lets people do what most people do when they have something in common: talk about it. Want some podcasts to listen to? Well, there are quite a few. This year it was great to run into members of Run Last Click and The Winning Agenda, both of which had great coverage of Worlds.
And of course, every day of the event, there's lots talk about the state of the metagame, and the power curves of the factions. This year's champion (the UK's Chris Dyer) brought decks that were variants on what most of us were expecting to see: Whizzard, and a tag-storm NBN: Controlling the Message deck that was this year's "deck to beat." Of the top 50 corp decks, 40 were from NBN, causing quite a stir on the day as players muttered about game balance issues and factional strengths.
Netrunner is an analog game, but it's also a network of sorts.
Yet, it's hard to imagine a game where the player base doesn't gravitate towards the most successful (and therefore uniform) play styles. There's hardly a social group that doesn't experience, at some level, the effects of shared mentalities. And the "science" of deck-building is certainly real, but that means it takes time for new ideas to surface and take hold. In Netrunner, there are paradigm shifts, but they take the right confluence of design decisions from the top and grassroots creativity from the players themselves.
The five days ended with more than 40 teams of players coming together to play in the community organized, Android Netrunner Player's Circuit (ANRPC) event: King of Servers. This, after the community had already crowned its World Champion, was a palate cleanser with a mixture of so-called "jank decks" (read: silly) and competitive decks.
When a huge event like this ends, all of these players return back to their cities and local metagames, carrying on the energy of the game back to those who weren't able to find the cash to fly on out and skip five days of work. There's a give and take between international events and micro-communities in cities and rural areas. Netrunner is an analog game, but it's also a network of sorts. A commodity, a community, and a great game, all at once.