Android: Netrunner is an asymmetric, 2-player orthogame (defined by Richard Garfield as “a competition between two or more players using an agreed-upon set of rules and a method of ranking”). One player, the Corp, has near-total information and controls the field; the other, the Runner, has very limited information but gets to initiate all conflicts, choose the location of conflicts, and end conflicts whenever she chooses. It’s kind of like the “one kid breaks the cookie the other kid chooses her piece” path to a balanced conflict-space.

Netrunner has a loose turn sequence which essentially boils down to “make 4 actions,” where there are at least half a dozen kinds of action available. This benefits play by providing a huge amount of unpredictability and variability. Players have a wide variety of potential strategies available to them at any time, many of them viable. Play naturally fluctuates between complex, conflict-oriented turns, and quick, resource-acquisition turns. This makes for a nice, organic rhythm in the narrative.

Like in Magic, almost no space is the sole domain of a single player. This openness of spaces is very much weighted towards the Corp’s playing field—the primary interaction in the game is the Runner assaulting any and all of the Corp’s cards. The interplay is heavier than in Magic, and more intuitively, spatially oriented, instead of being based in mental abstractions and written rules.

Largely a game of bluffing and careful defensive preparation for the Corp, and of fast-and-loose risk-taking for the Runner, Netrunner does a good job of making each role distinct and narratively strong. The major flaw with the narrative is the relative power of the two characters: the Runner seems as likely to win (or perhaps more so) than the Corp. This makes the Corp seem extremely weak, considering the literary wrapping it’s been given as being practically in control of the world. I think the game would benefit from giving the Corp a bit more relative power. Personally I don’t think games need to give players an equal chance of winning, as long as the outcome remains uncertain and the relative difficulty of victory is fairly well known. When playing with a worse deck in Magic I don’t mind losing 60-90% of the time (so long as the game is interesting); and when I do win with a worse deck, it feels that much better.

Netrunner also has a problematic tendency to bog down in mid-late game. Because there’s so much uncertainty, the high tension of a looming loss causes a lot of caution from both parties. In addition, the positive feedback from approaching victory is minimal. This makes for a weirdly slow, drawn-out climax—not a good thing, generally. The result is that games can be quite exhausting, but not unsatisfying.

July 31, 2013