Hackers versus The Man | Games, Gamers, & Gaming

Android: Netrunner may be the best card game I’ve ever played, period. It’s the kind of game that we have in mind when we talk about the importance of games in libraries, a beautiful and complex creation that ignites the imagination and flexes mental muscles players didn’t know they had. Designed by Richard Garfield of Magic: The Gathering fame and inspired by cyberpunk fiction like Blade Runner and Neuromancer, Android: Netrunner incorporates principles of computer science into the play. Simple mechanics interact in complex ways to create a unique, engrossing game experience.

Android: Netrunner is set in a post­apocalyptic world in which massive corporations control everything; not only do they shape the economy to their liking, but they also dictate government policies and bend society to their will. Standing opposed to the Corporations are Runners, computer hackers who deftly navigate complex digital systems via sophisticated programs and their own economic and social connections.

The haves and the have nots

The game is played with two people, one who assumes the role of a Corporation and one a Runner. This is a living card game, meaning that players form their own decks from a readily available set—there’s no need to worry about buying multiple randomized packs of cards. Players take turns executing actions, but their turns are asynchronous—they don’t do the exact same thing on each turn. Furthermore, there are two different ways to win for both factions.

Corporations are trying to achieve agendas and exploit assets, and their play area on the board represents a server farm where plans for those agendas and access to those assets are stored. If Corporations exploit enough agendas (i.e., score seven victory points by advancing agendas successfully), they win. Runners’ play area represents their computer rig and real-world connections; they are trying to disrupt the Corporation by “stealing” their agenda. Runners do this by hacking into the Corporation’s servers and exposing agendas before they are advanced. When Runners expose an agenda, they score victory points; if the Runner reaches seven points before the Corporation does, the Runner wins the game.

To help protect its assets (which can help advance agendas and give the Corporation game-play advantages) and keep his agendas hidden, the Corporation can install programs known as “ice.” When a Runner chooses to “make a run” on one of the Corporation’s servers, she must bypass this ice before accessing the true contents of the server. To help in this, the Runner can use “icebreaker” programs to cancel the “subroutines” of the ice encountered. Subroutines can cause damage to a Runner (symbolized by forcing the Runner to discard; the Runner loses if she takes more damage than cards in her hand), compound the difficulty of future ice encountered on the same run, or have any number of negative effects on the Runner. Hardware and Resources that the Runner has in play can give her extra currency or make her tougher against subroutines, much like ice helps to protect the Corporation’s servers.

Of course, the Runner can’t see what is in the Corporation’s servers or even what ice is in play until she actually encounters it; the Corporation player plays his cards facedown and only turns them faceup when game play triggers such action. It’s entirely possible for a Runner to break through multiple ice programs to find a deadly trap in the server, which causes damage or puts her at a disadvantage. This adds another layer of strategic complexity to an already mind-warping game.

The Runner can also win by forcing the Corporation to run out of cards, so she has less pressure to rush in and score agendas than the Corporation; likewise, the Corporation usually has greater resources, so he can sit back and wait for the Runner to get overeager and make a grievous error.

Stories to tell

Android: Netrunner requires patience, information analysis, and cunning—much like real-world information security. Though not a role-playing game, it has tremendous thematic depth and clarity that communicate the setting and characters in a realistic way. Not only is the artwork clever, eye-catching, and evocative and the flavor text (the fun quotes that have no impact on actual game play) on the cards amusing and engrossing, but everything about the game ties into the theme of hacking and information security. The Corporation’s play area evokes a server farm, with rigid lines and strict formation. The Runner, meanwhile, literally surrounds herself with her equipment in a more loosely structured format.

What’s more, this game is a great springboard for discussion of cyberterrorism, hacktivism, economic equality, and computer science/information security. It’s a perfect example of a game taking big issues and making them approachable by actually putting the player inside of those situations.

While Android: Netrunner is only a two-player game, there’s no reason why other players couldn’t collaborate with the main player, effectively turning it into a team game—just be sure that lines of communication are kept secret, as hidden information is important. It’s also a great diversion for workshops on computers and technology and can spark some imaginative fires for a creative writing group.

I can’t recommend Android: Netrunner enough for libraries. It’s fun, smart, engrossing, and compelling. It’s—quite simply—a perfect game.

M. Brandon Robbins About M. Brandon Robbins

M. Brandon Robbins (mbrandon.robbins@gmail.com) is the Media Coordinator at Goldsboro High School in Goldsboro, NC. He's a member of the 2011 class of ALA Emerging Leaders.