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How did An­droid: Netrun­ner be­come the game of game de­sign­ers? And could this table­top sen­sa­tion ever be re­alised in videogame form?


How did table­top ti­tle An­droid: Netrun­ner be­come the dar­ling of videogame de­sign­ers?

es­igned by Magic: The Gath­er­ing’s Richard Garfield and con­sid­ered to be one of his great­est de­signs, Netrun­ner was, un­til late 2012, a largely for­got­ten col­lectible card game. Re-re­leased by Fan­tasy Flight Games – the pub­lisher of well-re­ceived board and card games such as X-Wing Minia­tures Game and A Game Of Thrones – as An­droid: Netrun­ner, the game has since picked up le­gions of fans, among them videogame de­sign­ers and game aca­demics. At the 2015 An­droid: Netrun­ner World Cham­pi­onships – part of Fan­tasy Flight Games’ five-day Or­ga­nized Play World Cham­pi­onships at the com­pany’s own Game Cen­ter in an in­dus­trial park in Ro­seville, Min­nesota – we watch over 250 play­ers from across the world com­pete, and try to iden­tify what makes Netrun­ner the mod­ern game de­signer’s game.

Con­structed asym­met­ri­cally, Netrun­ner sees play­ers take turns play­ing both a cor­po­ra­tion and a run­ner. As a cor­po­ra­tion, they cre­ate servers, pro­tect them with ice, and at­tempt to ad­vance agen­das in or­der to win the game. As the run­ner, play­ers in­stall pro­grams (such as ice­break­ers), hard­ware and re­sources, and make runs on the cor­po­ra­tion’s servers in an at­tempt to break in and steal the agen­das and, in turn, win. At first glance, the game seems deeply com­plex – a per­cep­tion not helped by a ter­ri­ble man­ual – and it can be ar­cane at high-level play. But in re­al­ity it has an im­pres­sively sim­ple set of rules that cen­tre the game on play­ers’ abil­ity to per­form their plans ef­fi­ciently and deal with not only bluff­ing but the in­for­ma­tion hid­den on the board (cards in servers are in­stalled face down, and can be traps or ice that run­ners can or can’t deal with).

“One of the things that’s really el­e­gant in Richard’s orig­i­nal de­sign is the con­cept of lim­ited ac­tion,” Netrun­ner’s lead de­signer, Da­mon Stone, ex­plains. “By re­strict­ing what the player can do, it ac­tu­ally of­fers cre­ativ­ity to the player. They need to find a way to ac­com­plish what they want by forc­ing their will upon the game.”

Quintin Smith, of board and videogame shows Shut Up & Sit Down and Cool Ghosts, con­sid­ers Netrun­ner the only game to have taken over his life. “Netrun­ner is noth­ing if not a se­quence of in­ter­est­ing de­ci­sions,” he says, echo­ing Civizila­tion de­signer Sid Meier’s fa­mous def­i­ni­tion of a game. “And the de­ci­sions are in­ter­est­ing not only be­cause you’re do­ing cal­cu­la­tions of risk and re­ward, but also be­cause you’re try­ing to read the other per­son. It’s si­mul­ta­ne­ously an in­ter­est­ing math­e­mat­i­cal puz­zle and a brag­gado­cious game of poker. In a game of

Hearth­stone it’s rare that you’ll get the feel­ing that you truly bested some­one, or that you won by be­ing clever or sneaky. Netrun­ner has that in spades.”

Mark Of The Ninja de­signer Nels An­der­son is among those at­tend­ing the World Cham­pi­onships. Be­tween making videogames for Campo San­tos – cur­rently Fire­watch – he plays Netrun­ner and records a pod­cast, Ter­mi­nal7, about the game along­side Jesse Turner of Slick En­ter­tain­ment. An­der­son sees the suc­cess of Netrun­ner in three com­po­nents. “The

asym­me­try makes the game a lot more in­ter­est­ing. At least half the time you’re solv­ing a dif­fer­ent set of prob­lems so, as the cor­po­ra­tion, you’re con­sid­er­ing what you’d do as a run­ner, and vice versa,” he says.

“Then there’s the hid­den in­for­ma­tion. It’s not just what cards each player has in their hands, it’s what cards are on the ta­ble. Is that card a trap? Is it some­thing I need to get now? Or is it some­thing you’re giv­ing me now be­cause you’ll put me in a bad po­si­tion later on so you can do what you want?

“Thirdly, the them­ing is really strong. Magic: The Gath­er­ing never hooked me and, it’s a small quib­ble, but there you’re pit­ting a flock of birds with three dam­age against a pike­man with one dam­age. It’s a hodge­podge of im­ages and num­bers that may or may not have any­thing to do with each other.”

Stone agrees that the them­ing is of huge im­por­tance to Netrun­ner’s suc­cess. “We try to make things in the game re­al­is­tic in terms of be­ing based in tech­nolo­gies sci­en­tists are work­ing on or con­cepts from com­put­ing that are in de­vel­op­ment,” he says.

“My favourite cards meld theme and me­chan­ics well. I’m a big fan of the card Scorched Earth [ca­pa­ble of end­ing the game by killing the run­ner]. Here’s a way of do­ing mas­sive amounts of dam­age to the run­ner by sim­ply blow­ing up the build­ing they’re in, be­cause that’s the kind of thing a cy­ber­punk cor­po­ra­tion would do. And even if it doesn’t kill the run­ner, they have to spend turns re­cov­er­ing, be­cause they’ve been hurt.”

An­der­son views this as one of the key lessons that de­sign­ers are tak­ing away from Netrun­ner. “Even the small­est thing in a game, if you have to make it more the­matic or less the­matic, al­ways make it more the­matic,” he says, pulling the ref­er­ence points closer to videogam­ing. “It’s one of the rea­sons FromSoft­ware’s games are so good. Me­chan­i­cally, yes, they’re in­cred­i­ble, but the world and ed­i­fice they fit around those me­chan­ics are all in theme.

“There are so many lessons across the board, but player ex­pres­sion is an­other huge part. There’s the whole game you play at the ta­ble and the en­tire game you play be­fore­hand, where you con­sider what decks you want to play – what do you as a player find in­ter­est­ing? How can you ex­press the way you like to solve prob­lems?”

As a Liv­ing Card Game, Netrun­ner sur­vives via monthly data pack re­leases, each of which con­sists of 20 new cards. Like Magic: The Gath­er­ing, the game has sev­eral fac­tions (four cor­po­ra­tions, three run­ner fac­tions), and play­ers build their own cor­po­ra­tion and run­ner decks from the avail­able card pool.

Via this release sched­ule, Stone and his de­sign team try to en­sure that there’s a flow to Netrun­ner’s deck metagame. “We fre­quently cre­ate mul­ti­ple cards to­gether, and they’ll be re­leased a couple of packs or some­times en­tire cy­cles [each set of six data packs makes up a cy­cle] apart,” he ex­plains. “There are times when we release an­swers to things that we haven’t in­tro­duced yet. We have a really great set of playtesters, and we use their feed­back to help de­sign cards. If we no­tice that one deck is really strong



based on cer­tain cards, we’ll en­sure there’s ei­ther a vi­able an­swer in that or the next pack, or we ex­plore if the an­swer ex­ists al­ready.”

The team at Fan­tasy Flight are also us­ing Netrun­ner to push cy­ber­punk fic­tions in in­ter­est­ing di­rec­tions. Char­ac­ters within the game are largely mixed race and of vary­ing gen­ders and sex­u­al­ity, and the next cy­cle of cards, the Mum­bad Cy­cle, is to be set en­tirely in In­dia, fol­low­ing the story of the cam­paign for clones to gain cit­i­zen­ship. Told across the release of each data pack, it’s akin to the release of DLC for a story-based game, but with the unique chal­lenge of also al­ways hav­ing to of­fer a ‘pick-upand-play’ ex­pe­ri­ence for play­ers who ei­ther choose to dip in and out of data pack pur­chases or who sim­ply don’t have an in­ter­est in the game’s story told through theme.

With the in­tense amount of playtest­ing re­quired and dif­fi­culty of making changes – there’s no easy way to patch a flaw out­side of ban­ning or er­rata – An­der­son ad­mits that a ma­jor les­son of Netrun­ner for him is that he’d “never want to de­sign a com­pet­i­tive card game. It’s clear how much work is re­quired and how im­por­tant the com­mu­nity is.”

In­deed, Netrun­ner re­lies heav­ily on its com­mu­nity across the world, the di­ver­sity of which is on show at the World Cham­pi­onships. While lack­ing in gen­der bal­ance – an is­sue that the team at Fan­tasy Flight is aware of – the game at­tracts a wide racial and re­gional di­ver­sity, with strong com­mu­ni­ties as far afield as Scan­di­navia, the Philip­pines and China. A 12-strong con­tin­gent of play­ers from the UK are also in at­ten­dance, one mem­ber re­veal­ing in ca­sual con­ver­sa­tion that the group had drilled 78 games of Netrun­ner on the transat­lantic flight alone.

Within videogame cir­cles, the most cel­e­brated meta (the term for a lo­cal Netrun­ner com­mu­nity) has to be NYU Game Cen­ter’s Lo­cal Meta, which boasts de­sign­ers such as Doug Wil­son ( Jo­hann Se­bas­tian

Joust) among its mem­bers. The meta in­vited Netrun­ner’s pre­vi­ous lead de­signer, Lukas Litzsinger, to give a talk at the cen­ter’s an­nual PRAC­TICE: Game De­sign In De­tail con­fer­ence in 2014.

The pop­u­lar­ity of Netrun­ner in the scene has also led to sev­eral videogame-minded de­riv­a­tives. Michael Brough ( 868-Hack) has re­leased an An­droid: Netrun­ner de­make, Cy­ber­gal­lop, as free­ware, while Zach Gage ( Spel­lTower) has writ­ten on Medium about the “hy­per-lo­cal meta” – a quick-and-dirty de­sign for play­ers over­whelmed by Fan­tasy Flight’s fre­quent pack re­leases.

And yet, al­though aware of Netrun­ner’s pop­u­lar­ity with game de­sign­ers, Fan­tasy Flight has been slow to cap­i­talise on this or move Netrun­ner into the videogame space, some­thing Smith puts down to the dif­fi­culty of cre­at­ing truly en­gag­ing bluff­ing in the dig­i­tal space. “Videogames don’t have a par­tic­u­larly rich history with bluff­ing,” he notes. “It’s not some­thing AI is par­tic­u­larly good at, and it’s not some­thing that’s par­tic­u­larly fun when you can’t see your op­po­nent. Even if I’m ter­ri­ble at poker, I’d rather play it in per­son be­cause I can feel like I’m read­ing my op­po­nent. If I call your bluff af­ter look­ing in your eyes, that’s a tremen­dously sat­is­fy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence I can’t get on­line.”

De­spite that, the in­cred­i­ble suc­cess of Ac­tivi­sion Bliz­zard’s Hearth­stone, cur­rently rak­ing in higher rev­enues than World Of War­craft, makes Smith frus­trated about the lack of a dig­i­tal Netrun­ner. “I don’t know any­one who plays An­droid: Netrun­ner who can stom­ach play­ing Hearth­stone,” he says. “We have here a beau­ti­ful game that cap­tures the imag­i­na­tion of so many peo­ple with­out a dig­i­tal com­po­nent, and I can’t wait to see those two things meet in the mid­dle.”

How­ever, Fan­tasy Flight is be­gin­ning to dip its toes in the wa­ter in a rather round­about fash­ion, an­nounc­ing shortly be­fore the World Cham­pi­onships that Legacy Games (an un­re­mark­able de­vel­oper of TV tie-ins for phone plat­forms) is re­leas­ing a mo­bile RPG based on Netrun­ner and writ­ten by 80 Days scribe Meg Jayanth. It’s a strange de­ci­sion – the ti­tle will use none of Netrun­ner’s de­sign, in­stead largely re­ly­ing on the game’s set­ting – and one that seems like an own goal given that a uni­ver­sally lauded de­sign ex­ists on the ta­ble, and on­line card games have be­come a bil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness.

Th­ese fac­tors don’t ap­pear to be an is­sue for Fan­tasy Flight Games, whose fo­cus re­mains on the table­top version. (Stock short­ages of key Netrun­ner data packs make it clear that just main­tain­ing the game at its present level of pop­u­lar­ity is chal­lenge enough.) The com­pany is also am­biva­lent about the tools that have sprung up to try to en­gen­der an on­line Netrun­ner com­mu­nity. OCTGN is a generic table­top sim­u­la­tor with a large com­mu­nity de­spite be­ing in­cred­i­bly com­plex to use, and new­comer jin­ of­fers a web in­ter­face and au­to­ma­tion that’s been widely praised. Nei­ther are con­sid­ered good in­tro­duc­tions to Netrun­ner – in fact, most play­ers con­sider it a bad idea to at­tempt to learn the game on­line – but they do of­fer proof that it can work in the dig­i­tal space.

“It’s not im­pos­si­ble for Netrun­ner to be a suc­cess as a videogame,” Smith con­cludes. “I cer­tainly never thought on­line poker would take off in the way it did. I think it’s pos­si­ble for videogames to of­fer the de­sign space where bluff­ing is pos­si­ble – games like Ubisoft’s RUSE did it very well, though it was sadly over­looked – and I think Netrun­ner could be the one to do it.”

Netrun­ner lead de­signer Da­mon Stone, who pre­vi­ously worked on Fan­tasy Flight’s hugely suc­cess­ful A Game Of Thrones

Two play­ers from Toronto’s meta com­pete. Its strong­est player, Dien Tran, fin­ished ninth

The base Netrun­ner box de­liv­ers lots of bits and pieces – brain dam­age to­kens, virus coun­ters, cred­its and more

Netrun­ner’s mega­lopo­lis of New An­ge­les is home to the Beanstalk, a space el­e­va­tor that rises up into low or­bit

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