Android: Netrunner is a Living Card Game (LCG) created by Fantasy Flight Games (FFG). It has won the 2012 Best Card Game and 2012 Best Two Player Game at the 2012 BoardGameGeek Golden Geek Awards. I will be evaluating Android: Netrunner’s game design using Schell’s lens of problem solving, the elemental tetrad and of surprise.
Jesse Schell teaches Game Design at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center. He also was the Creative Director of the Disney Virtual Reality Studio, where he designed, programmed and managed several projects for Disney theme parks and Disney online. Schell’s book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses’, provide 100 lenses which he uses to take a step back and evaluate his designs.
In the lens of problem solving, “Every game has problems to solve. To use this lens, think about the problems your players must solve to succeed at your game.” What problems does Android: Netrunner ask the players to solve? Are there hidden problems to solve that arise as part of gameplay? How can Android: Netrunner generate new problems so that players keep coming back?
The players are immersed in a battle of wits. The challenge for both players is to obtain seven agenda points before the other. A sub challenge for the corporation player is to flatline the runner. To flatline a runner, the corporation makes the runner discard all cards in their hand, usually by activation of ICE or a trap. A sub challenge for the runner player is to make the corporation discard his entire research and development deck, also known as a pick-up pile.
The hidden challenges are managing the various resources within the game. The resources are cards in hand, money, agendas, advancements, viruses and traces. Each resource takes at least one of three to four clicks to obtain, and possibly even some credits. Just because the ideal card is in your hand does not mean you have the resources to use it. The runner has the opportunity to make the corporation spend resources when doing a run. The Corporation has the opportunity to make the runner expend resources by setting traps and bluffing. Bluffing is an integral part of the corporation’s resources. Without it, the game is not challenging to the runner.
Since Android: Netrunner is an LCG, newer expansions will continually give players an added challenge of learning the new cards and learning new combinations. For players who are interested in testing their skills on a tournament level, these new expansions test their skill, give them money and give them fame.
The elemental tetrad in Schell’s book is the use of Aesthetics, Technology, Mechanics and Story to form a game. To use this lens of the elemental tetrad, “take stock of what your game is truly made of. Consider each element separately, and then all of them together as a whole”. Does Android: Netrunner’s design use elements of all four types?
The aesthetic appeal of Android: Netrunner is apparent in the artwork on the box, the tokens, the cards, the name of the cards and the ‘flavor’ text. This game is thoroughly engrossed in the culture of a cyberpunk dystopian society. Most of the runner cards are organic and lively, while the corporation cards are mostly sterile and cold.
The technology of Android: Netrunner is defined within the format of a LCG and some high quality cardboard pieces. Card games instantly provides the common terms of hand, pick-up pile, discard pile and a general notion of playing against another player or self. The cardboard pieces are quickly identifiable and easily referenced against a chart. The Living Card Games provide the notion that your set of cards is not complete and will be expanded upon in the future.
The more important mechanics of Android: Netrunner are asymmetric play, corporation bluffing, and multiple point of attack and defense. In the original Netrunner game, created in 1996, asymmetric gameplay was a new innovation to card games. The asymmetry provides differing strategies to each player along with immersive gameplay. All of the corporation cards are played face down, giving the corporation the ability to bluff. Without the ability to bluff, the game becomes significantly easier for the runner. A mega-corporation would have multiple branches and therefore many places to defend. The runner can attack the corporations hand (HQ), their pick-up pile (R&D), their discard pile (Archives) and any remote server the corporation installs.
The Story of Android: Netrunner provides the unifying theme of this game. The story is apparent in the terminology, the artwork, within the identity cards, and the ‘flavor’ text of each card. The terms for a player’s hand, pickup pile and discard pile differ to give the feel that a player is a suppressed victim of the society, or a mega-corporation. The gameplay mechanics further the story by pitting the runner against installed ICE on servers. The names of cards can come from other cyberpunk references. The rules of the cards are a continuation of the struggle between individuals and their quest to take down the mega-corporations. The description of the cards further the fan fiction base. And with each expansion, the story grows.
The Lens of Surprise
Surprise is so basic that we can easily forget about it. To use the lens of surprise, “remind yourself to fill your game with interesting surprises”. What will surprise players when they play Android: Netrunner? Does the story in Android: Netrunner have surprises? Do the game rules? Does the artwork? The technology? Does the rules give players ways to surprise each other? Does the rules give players ways to surprise themselves? The biggest importance of Android: Netrunner is the element of surprise. Without surprise, the corporation has minimal chance of getting the required seven agenda points to win. The story within each cards description provides a meta-story for fans to discover. There is also surprise hidden within deck building, when a player discovers a synergistic card combination across factions. By being a Living Card Game, Fantasy Flight Games has ample opportunity to continue surprising fans with more story, card combinations, and different rules.
Android: Netrunner is a well-designed game, hitting on all the elements on three of Schell’s lenses. Schell admits that his 100 lenses are not perfect nor complete but are tools for examining design. The lenses give a unique perspective on the game, and with a collection of varied perspectives we educate ourselves in the art form of design. I look forward to examining my favorite games through a varied collection of lenses to gain a better understanding for the art of game design.