Thursday, 8 January 2015

2014: Game of the Year

I'm stretching my usual definition of both 'Game' and 'of 2014' here, but this is undoubtedly the game I've played most of over the past 12 months, the one that's given me the most pleasure, and the one that has most dominated my thoughts in idle moments.
Netrunner 0
Kate 'Mac' McCaffrey had been building up her rig for weeks, feeling the hot glare of Jinteki's spybots on the back of her neck the whole time. Working a several-levels-below-her-abilities data job to build up a stock of credits, surviving on cheap energy drinks while she built up a fearsome rig. Click, click, click, until... It was finally time.
Welcome to Netrunner, a two-player card game set in a dystopian future of mega-corporations, hackers and elevators to the Moon.

For anyone who has already taken Netrunner's red pill, the above won't be too difficult to translate into a rough version of what's going on at the table. Otherwise, I appreciate it's probably impossible to visualise this as some cards on a table, so let's try and lay it out:

It's early in the game, the fourth turn. The Runner player, who picked Mac from a broad roster of hackers, has spent the majority of her turns preparing for the moment we're picking apart here. The most notable cards she has played thus far are the 'Armitage Codebusting' resource card, which sits on the table waiting to be tapped up for money, and a sturdy suite of three Icebreakers – we'll get to those in a minute.

This turn, she has used up three of the four 'click' actions she gets every turn to take six credits from Armitage Codebusting, and her prep is complete. It's time to run.

Netrunner
Mac rammed the cable into the port where her spine met her skull, tapped the 'enter' key, and she was in. All of Jinteki's servers and defenses were neatly visualised, laid out before her. Without a moment's hesitation, she went right for the company's HQ.
On their turns, meanwhile, the Corp player on the other side of the table (representing Jinteki, a Japanese mega-corporation best known for manufacturing clones) has been playing a very different game.

While the Runner plays all of her cards openly, the Corp's are kept face-down until revealed. This is what runs are for – hacks into the Corp's servers, a risky foray into enemy territory to reveal their plans.

There's not just one game to master here, but two neatly interlocking ones. While the Runner player is constantly on the offence, the Corp plays defence. It's not all they do, but the top priority is protecting every card they have from these hacks. And I mean every card: not just the ones they've decided to play into 'Remote Servers', but also their discard pile (aka Archives), the deck they're drawing from (R&D), even their hand of cards (HQ).

Netrunner server
Jinteki's defence systems stayed dark, letting Mac float right past. Suspicious, maybe, but no time to wonder why now: the files were in sight. Suddenly, there was a buzz down the line, that telltale sign of a rez command. BOOOOOM.
The Corp protects their valuables with 'Ice' cards, stacked on top of each server – their hand or deck or a card 'installed' on the table – for the Runner to approach one by one. These can block entry, or charge a toll, or do some truly nasty things to intruders, and the Runner doesn't have a clue which it will be until the card has been flipped over. Ice is played face-down too, and during runs the Corp has the option to 'rez' – activate the Ice's defenses by paying a set cost – one at a time.

In this case, our Jinteki player has three pieces of Ice in front of their HQ. They peek at the ice card nearest to the Runner, then consider the Runner's line-up of Icebreakers – each of which can break through certain pieces of Ice at a cost, negating their effects but not damaging the Ice itself – and the state of their own finances.

This gamble is Netrunner's heartbeat. For the Runner, hitting the wrong piece of Ice can be disastrous, but failing to run will eventually cost them the game. For the Corp, it can be tempting to rez a piece of Ice, but doing so will deplete their resources in a game where everything costs money, and give the Runner an extra piece of information.

With all this in mind, the Jinteki player declines to rez their first and second pieces of Ice. When it comes to the final layer, with Mac getting dangerously close to the precious cards in their hand, they finally flip one over, revealing it to be a Data Mine.
Netrunner Tim
Back in the real world, a spot of blood dripped from Mac's nose and splashed onto her console', obscuring the loading bar that slowly filled on its vidscreen. She felt the metallic heat on her tongue as half-written programs combusted, and knew corners of her brain would never be the same again. Still, she'd managed to snatch a single file from Jinteki's HQ – vital evidence.
Normally at this point, the Runner could pay a couple of credits to stop the effects with one of their Icebreakers, depending on the type of Ice in question. If it's is a Codegate, they'd need a Decoder; for a Barrier, a Fracter; for a Sentry, a Killer. But Trap cards like Data Mine are an exception, without a corresponding breaker type. There are ways, but they're not common, and Mac doesn't have any in her armoury – catching her out to the cost of one point of net damage.

Netrunner isn't a combative game, in any straightforward sense, but Runners can get hurt. The Corp can broadcast brain-damaging signals through the net, or just trace the Runner back to their poky flat and blow their entire building to smithereens. Reading the largely incomprehensible rulebook, this was the moment I fell in love.

See, instead of intangible hitpoints, Netrunner uses the Runner's cards as their health. When she uses an action to draw a card, the Runner isn't just expanding her options but safeguarding against retribution.

Equally, when the Corp does land a building-demolishing punch, causing her to discard four cards in one fell swoop, it dramatically changes her game plan. That card you've been holding onto the whole game waiting for just the right moment? Oops, it just went up in flames.

Netrunner hand
Mac bit her tongue as the trademark 'Personal Evolution' defences kicked in – more heat – and reached for the back of her neck, ready to disconnect the thick cable from her spinal cord. Too late. There was the flash of an EMP, and Mac slumped onto her console, flatlined.
Winning, and especially losing, in Netrunner can often be unceremonious, even brutal.

Each player's objective is to be the first side to hit seven agenda points. For the Corp, that means placing the agenda cards out on the table and, one agonising move at a time, placing the allotted number of credits on them to score. For the Runner, it's a case of making your way through ice and into the Corp's various servers, hoping you turn over an Agenda. Defence, offence.

But this isn't the only way to win. If the number of cards in a Runner's hand hits zero, and the Corp manages to hit her with another point of damage before she can draw another, it's game over, and the Corp wins by default. Similarly, if the Corp exhausts their entire deck before securing victory, they lose. This second option is much, much less common than the first.

Partly, that's because Corp players are generally bloodthirsty bastards. Partly, it's because there are so many more ways of doing it. These can either be triggered by a careless action on the part of the Runner – from Ice, or from Traps, played face-down where Agendas would normally be – or outright aggression from Corp, by playing cards on their turn – like the Neural EMP which finishes off Mac.

Netrunner 2 
"Ouch," I say, laughing, as my trembling hand reaches for the pint, untouched and now warm. My eyes drift from the table for the first time in an hour, to meet my opponent's gaze. He's trying not to look too smug, the incredible bastard.

"Again?" he asks. I look at my phone, realise I'm on the brink of missing the last train home.

"Yeah, but bagsy Corp this time."

Despite the fact that Netrunner consumes too much brain power to allow for any real conversation, I'd argue that it is a deeply social activity.

I've played Netrunner cross-legged on park lawns, aware of the sideways glances from the office workers eating their packed lunches. I've played it on kitchen tables at 4am as my opponent's girlfriend snores softly on a nearby sofa. I've played it in more pubs than, in the presence of a medical profession, I'd be willing to admit having even been in.

I've played with friends and with strangers and, over time, both. Last summer, the wonders of the internet provided me with an opponent who worked around the corner. We met one lunchtime, quickly struck up a rivalry, and have played probably a hundred times since then. Later this month, I'm going to his wedding.
 Netrunner 3

Netrunner is social in the same way that watching a football game is social. It's certainly the closest I've ever come to following a sport, tracking the latest developments month to month online, listening to some of the dozens of podcasts dedicated solely to the game, talking the talk.


If I meet a fellow Netrunner player, we instantly have a common vocabulary. Anyone I've played a couple of times, we have long personal histories. That's something I have long envied of football fans: the shortcut of simply asking someone about their team.

That's something I've never gotten from any game before. I've never dug deep enough into the kind of games which support it, Dota or Starcraft or even Call of Duty, the kinds of e-sports that command Twitch channels and big cash-money tournaments. I've never been able to make chess or poker feel like they do in films or books or on The West Wing that one time.

You know, that platonic ideal where the game actually exists a good foot off the table, a wire stretched taut between two brains trying to simply out-think one another? Where every action is a signal sent along that wire?

Yeah, that's what Netrunner is to me. I don't care that it's made out of cardboard rather than pixels, I don't care that it was first printed in 2012 – Game of the Year.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.