Game Review Week: 2/7 – Net Runner

by Chris McGinty (According To Whim .com)

It is Game Review week here on the ATW Daily Blog. No need to click a link. You’re already here… presumably.

For my first review, I have not chosen Net Runner, but Nathan requested it, so I’m all on it. (sorry I had to use a link to Wikipedia, but the Wizards of the Coast page is no longer there, not that it had much on it to begin with.) Net Runner is a Collectible Card Game (CCG) better than, but not as well known as, Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, and Yu-Gi-Oh.

The game was created by Richard Garfield, who created Magic: The Gathering (MTG). He also created Rocketville, a board game that Nathan is reviewing this week. As far as I know, he had nothing to do with the surprise game I will review on Sunday. I guess you never know though.

That’s right; I have a surprise game to review on Sunday. Mostly, because I wanted to be able to write my reviews this week without the sound of Nathan’s eyes rolling distracting me, because his eyes are totally going to roll.

Net Runner was the first CCG I played, and I was immediately hooked to the concept. It is also the best CCG I’ve played. While I understand and appreciate that MTG is the longest standing game of its nature, and while I respect its game play, Net Runner simply was a better designed game at its core. I believe that Garfield took what he learned from the design of MTG, and avoided making many of the same mistakes. Net Runner is a very balanced game, with a few exceptions, which is hard to manage with cards that change the conditions of the game just by being played.

If you are at all familiar with the cyberpunk genre, then what I now say will make sense. If not then I apologize. In Net Runner, one player plays a Runner, who uses online and real world people, places, and things (represented by the cards in play) to liberate data from the Corp. The Corp protects this data by using Ice and Upgrades for Net protection, and private detectives and mercenaries to trace Runners in the real world (again, represented by cards in play).

What still makes this game unique to this day is that the player playing the Runner uses an entirely different set of cards than the player playing the Corp. Unlike other CCGs out there, Net Runner doesn’t tend to get bogged down in a contest of who plays their copy of a specific card first. This is not to say that tournaments never became a contest of who could collect which broken set of rares. I’ve read articles that show as much. What I’m saying is that as a player you had to become knowledgeable in two distinct styles of play. And while you could build decks that overpowered your opponent, what you couldn’t do is rely on learning one style of play. If your opponent showed up with a comparable deck playing against you in a role you were not so good at, you couldn’t rely on your combos to win you the game.

Now, I’m not sure which way to go with this article really, because I could write a book on Net Runner (yeah, you heard me Matthews). So I thought I’d deal with something I’ve been thinking about lately. Design space.

There are a number of reasons given why Net Runner was discontinued when it was: notions that the cyberpunk theme appealed to a narrow audience; that the artwork was too abstract, that playing two different sets of cards was too expensive and too confusing. I’ve recently been wondering about design space though.

I read an MTG column by a man named Mark Rosewater about the design of Magic. I started reading him a long while back when I was interested in designing a Virtual Expansion (VE) for Net Runner. A VE is a set of cards that aren’t officially printed by the company who publishes the game. For a non-card game, a VE obviously would use different parts than cards, but for our purposes here today…

If you are interested in Net Runner, and/or the work we’ve done on the VE, click here and join our Yahoo! Group.

I’ve continued reading Rosewater over the years, and continued trying to create a VE for Net Runner. What I’ve realized is that while Nathan sings the praises of Net Runner being a near perfect, well balanced game; it may just be too perfect. I wonder how many new cards were really in the game. The two official expansions failed to capture the excitement of players, and the same can be said of the VEs out there. In our own designing it’s been tough to find cards that were fun and simultaneously not too much more powerful than the official cards.

With MTG they kept these things controlled by having a format of play that only allowed the most recent expansions to be played. I’m sure Net Runner could have done the same thing. But how much of the new sets would be rehash of old sets? Eventually, Net Runner would unbalance the way that Magic did. The individual expansions might be balanced, but cards that we consider great now would be pushed out as better cards came in. That’s probably inevitable in any CCG.

I do want to say that Net Runner could have maintained a balance in formats. There is an unofficial format known as Neal’s Draconian Banned List. It is simply a list of cards that tended to see more play than others, and you are not allowed to use those cards in your deck. What this did was change the way that the game was played among people who had been playing a while, and had all their go to cards memorized. It’s not too dissimilar to Highlander in Magic (only one copy of any card, except Basic Lands, in your deck) or Pauper in Magic (you may only use commons in your deck.) So the same could certainly be said if Net Runner was using only recent expansions for a format.

What concerned me was the idea that maybe there weren’t as many ways to expand on the game as there should be. The Repeat Intrusion Patterns (RIP) VE seemed like a good idea, but the Ice cards relied too heavily on other Ice cards from the same expansion, which made using them in non-RIP decks not very appealing. But that’s a VE you say. Well, the Bad Publicity mechanic from the official Proteus expansion) ran into many of the same problems. If you weren’t building your deck around Bad Publicity, having a Bad Publicity card was almost a loss. I believe this to be because you were often penalized to achieve BP (hmmm, ironic) points. If you weren’t going for a Bad Publicity win, you didn’t want to use those cards.

I guess what I’m saying is that I wonder if one of the factors that contributed to Net Runner’s demise is that nobody really knew where to take the game after the first set. The first set plays almost perfectly, and any official expansion or VE that has come along since has seemed to fail in comparison. With Magic it was something they had to push past, because the game was so profitable for them, but Net Runner wasn’t showing the same motivation. You see, there are those who believed Alpha (Magic’s first set) to be the perfect collection of cards. Magic pushed ahead though, and they have done many things of interest since then.

Since my moment of doubt, I have asked myself a few questions about how to solve the issues that I believe Net Runner has as a game that is very well designed, but had very little time to grow. Using a banned list similar to Draconian for use with VEs is one such way to keep people from comparing cards to each other. Creating Bad Publicity cards that are useful even in a deck not based around Bad Publicity is a good way for it to see play. The introduction of new card types, better use of keywords, or better use of the different game zones are all ways to create new and interesting cards. I still believe the game could have been carried on. I just wonder if it was too hard to see where it might have gone. Maybe it does have less design space than other games like it, but it’s a game that I think was good enough to try.

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