Tag: games

Android: Netrunner Full Review

By: Jason Waddell

Last month I gave my initial impressions of Android: Netrunner, wherein I introduced the basic ideas of Android: Netrunner and gave my thoughts after my inaugural 90 minutes with the game. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to play against a variety of opponents both on- and offline, and can now offer a fuller assessment of the game’s design.

One of Netrunner’s marquee selling points is that it is a non-collectible game. The core set and subsequent expansions come packed with a complete playset of each included card, eliminating the need to reach for your wallet whenever you wish to create a new deck or tinker with an existing one. Although this sounds like a universal positive, it does come with significant design baggage: the same product has to satisfy both beginners and veterans alike.

Android: Netrunner is a deep and complex game, often to the point of being intimidating for a beginner. Several cards were either misplayed or misinterpreted in my early matches, and I found myself ending each playsession to scour Google for clarifications on cards or plays that didn’t quite make sense to me. The problem is apparently widespread, as despite a rather lengthy rulebook and supplemental online FAQ from Fantasy Flight Games, many gameplay elements remained unclear.

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By contrast, a game like Magic: the Gathering is both more complex than Netrunner yet simultaneously more accessible. Wizards of the Coast have spent years lowering Magic’s barrier to entry, from the beginner-friendly “Duels of the Planeswalkers” recruitment program, to a pipeline of products designed to ease players into the more fully-fledged environments. I spend my days playing and writing about one of Magic’s most advanced formats, but I started with low-power decks that practically played themselves.

Netrunner is certainly better suited for learning under the tutelage of an experienced player, but for those without the luxury, I do hope you’ll power through, as Netrunner’s gameplay is both deep and rewarding.

The primary gameplay mechanics used in Android: Netrunner are resource management and bluffing via hidden information. The two mechanics blend to form an experience that is simultaneously tense and playful. Rather than sell you on the concept myself, I turn to the words of Richard Garfield, Netrunner’s original designer:

When one player knows something that another player doesn’t a world of game opportunity opens up. This opens the door to game theory – where there is bluffing and misdirection, and the play of the game can leap from the dry statistics of the rules into things like reading the opponents and smelling fear. At its best it allows a heady mix of intuition and reason that is hard to match. Hidden information is not appropriate for all games, but I never design any game without considering it long and hard.

Like luck in games, hidden information can increase the breadth of players that will play it. Whenever I learn a new game with no hidden (or inconsequential) information I know there are some players in my playgroup that will make that game a misery to play. They are not doing it to be abusive – but they can’t help themselves when the optimum line of play is there to be calculated. Even the luck of dice may not reduce their calculation – because they can always seek the probabilistically best move. But if there is meaningful hidden information they can’t overcalculate because they know that other people might be misleading them. And they also can make more arbitrary moves because they know that this may mislead the opponent.

– Richard Garfield, “Design Lessons from Poker

I’m a statistician by trade, and people are often surprised to discover that I don’t enjoy games with complete information. If a game state can be solved, my brain yearns to solve it. The wheels turn and turn looking for an answer, and I can’t turn them off. This is immensely dissatisfying. I don’t play games to solve problems. I play games to play.

As Richard Garfield notes, one of the secret benefits of hidden information is that it can cut down on analysis paralysis. You can only process things for so long before you shove your chips in one direction or another.

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A key element of the design is that the card types Assets, Agendas and Upgrades are all played the same way: face-down on the table. With exception to depleting the Runner’s hand of cards, the Corporation’s only path to victory is “advancing” 7 points worth of Agendas. To advance an Agenda, the corporation spends one credit and one click (action) to place an advancement token on a face-down agenda. The above “Accelerated Beta Test” is worth 2 points and requires 3 advancement tokens to be scored. In total, scoring this agenda requires 4 actions: one to play the card from your hand onto the table, and three to advance it. By design, the corporation only has three actions per turn. Fully advancing an agenda almost always requires passing the turn back to the Runner with an Agenda on the table.

Such, the “safe” play is to first build up a defense of “ICE” to guard the agenda before playing one to the table. On the runner’s turn, he or she can make a “run” at one of your servers, which may or may not be home to an agenda. If they survive the gauntlet of ICE you have placed in front of them, the runner steals the Agenda and scores it for themselves. Of course, as the corporation, you can’t simply hold your Agendas in hand until there’s a well-guarded server waiting for them. No, Netrunner’s design is far too clever for that.

Two mechanics introduce an interesting tension to this dynamic. Firstly, the runner can make a run at just about anything. They can make a run at the corporation’s hand to access a random card from the corporation player’s hand. The runner can make a run at the corporation’s deck (to access the top card) or discard pile (to access all cards there) too. Secondly, the corporation player is required to include a certain number of agendas in their deck.

The Runner will run at anything that isn’t nailed down. As the corporation, a valuable tool against this constant assault is the power of misinformation. The inclusion of assets like Aggressive Secretary and Snare! in your deck allows you to disguise your intentions and slows the runner down by forcing the runner to prepare for the worst before attempting a run.

breaking news netrunner
An Agenda that can be played and fully advanced in one turn. However, its benefit (giving the runner 2 tags) expires at the end of turn. Well designed tension all on one card. 

This system of mechanics allows the player to imbue their play with an incredible degree of style. Like Poker, Netrunner is less a game of mistakes than it is a game of opportunities. Two players with different temperaments can attack the game with different strategies, even with the same deck.  An aggressive player bears more risk, but can get away with certain gambles that a conservative player cannot. And like poker, sometimes it’s best to randomize your playstyle as to not give your opponent the gift of free information.

Like all card games, Netrunner is host to its fair share of randomness. Netrunner takes a novel approach to variance management. The corporation and runner players get 3 and 4 “clicks” (actions) per turn respectively, and clicks can be used in a number of ways. At any point, you can spend one of your actions to draw a card or a credit from the bank. This is not the most efficient way to draw cards or earn credits, but the availability of these options smooths out the game enough to prevent the “pointless” games that can occur in other card games like Magic while still ensuring that duels play out differently from game to game.

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Best of all, Fantasy Flight Games has managed to create a game whose play is both diverse and consistently interactive. The game’s 7 factions (3 runners, 4 corporations) attack the game from very different angles, but the fundamentals of the game’s beautifully designed rules system holds it all together. The corporation must include Agendas in their deck, and the runner must find a way to steal said Agendas.

Android: Netrunner comes together to form an experience that is far more than the sum of its parts, and is hands down the most innovative and engaging new game I’ve played in the last decade. For a heady mixture of hidden information, bluffing and interactive resource management, look no further.

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Emotional Design: Catan Dice Game Plus Review

By: Jason Waddell

Catan Dice Game Plus (CDGP) is a game that I wanted to like. I’m constantly on the lookout for light two-player games to play with my wife. CDGP is billed as a marriage of two of my wife’s favorite games, Settlers of Catan and Yahtzee, yet somehow manages to capture the magic of neither. The game simply doesn’t deliver at an emotional level.


For those unfamiliar, the premise of the game is simple. Each turn, you roll six 6-sided dice over the course of three rounds. At the end of each round you may select any number of dice to re-roll. At the end of the third round, you buy any number of resources that you can purchase with your dice. With the right dice, a player can buy multiple resources in a single round (e.g. a road and soldier).

The object is to be the first player to reach 10 victory points. Victory points are earned in the usual Catan fashion, with 1 point for a village, 2 points for a city, and 2 points for the Longest Road and Largest Army bonuses. There is also a minor resource-management system, as purchased soldiers can be “used” once per game to add their respective resource to your dice pool.


Although the game sounds solid in concept, it unfortunately lacks the tension and emotional spikes that characterize Yahtzee. Yahtzee has players walking the tight-rope between trying to unlock the 35-point upper score-card bonus with the high-scoring lower-card rolls. There is some margin for error, but the game has just the right degree of tight constraints.

The upper score-card bonus is tuned to players scoring an “on par” 3 dice for each category (18 points for 6’s, 15 points for 5’s, etc.). A score of 24 for 6’s, while only earning 6 extra points “above par”, gives a player 6 points of leeway for scoring “below par” elsewhere. In Yahtzee, leeway is everything. You will miss, and like hastily cleaning up a messy apartment before guests arrive, your goal is to find enough compartments to hide your failures. As the game ticks on, that juicy 50-point Yahtzee box starts to look more and more like an appealing junk draw.

Yahtzee is very much an exercise in failure management, and when you finally hit that Large Straight or earn the upper score-card bonus, the emotional payoff is there. You took risks to get there, made non-lucrative early plays to set up the big payoff. Even the unearned random Yahtzees and Large Straights deliver on an emotional level. It’s not by accident that the term “Yahtzee” has entered our cultural lexicon.

Catan Dice Game Plus, however, has none of these hallmarks. You slowly trudge along gaining incremental advantage. You score the extra road or you don’t. You accumulate some soldiers. Each turn you tick a bit closer to victory, hopefully closer than your opponents. There’s some strategy, but none of the emotional spikes, nothing that makes you throw your hands in the air. There’s little risk taking, no zero’ing out your Full House to take another audacious swing at the Yahtzee. Worst yet, there’s a weak climax (if any). CDGP goes until it doesn’t.

The game’s fun factor never materialized. My wife and I tried it several times, hoping to find something in it that we’d missed. What I gained most from playing CDGP was a greater appreciation for Yahtzee’s design. I had never realized how closely the “failure management” system of finding places to score botched rolls played into the fun factor.

Catan Dice Game Plus looked promising on paper, but its failure was an inability to deliver an emotional level.

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Android: Netrunner, First Impressions

By: Jason Waddell

Today I had my first hands-on session with Android: Netrunner, a revamping of a two-player card game originally designed by Richard Garfield in 1996. The game’s “cyberpunk dystopian future” setting is hardly original, but is one that I have a personal affinity for. Neil Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” ranks among my favorite works of fiction, and if you haven’t read it, I give you the same recommendation I received from a friend: just read the first two chapters. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more intense section of prose about pizza delivery.

Netrunner’s theme is intertwined with its asymmetric two-layer design, with one player assuming the role of the Corporation defending servers, and the other playing as a Runner attempting to steal information (Agendas) from said servers. Per Wikipedia: “The Runner’s goal is to gain 7 or more points by hacking into the Corp’s computer network and stealing agenda cards; the Corp’s goal is to gain 7 or more points by activating agenda cards.”

The crux of the design hinges on the fact that Agenda cards are found only in the Corporation’s deck. The runner must interact with the opponent’s deck to win, which is a refreshing change from Magic, where gameplans are often more proactive and self-focused in nature. The cards and mechanics in Netrunner are very opponent-focused. The decks can’t be goldfished.

The emphasis on interaction is amplified by a hidden-information mechanic. The Corporation’s cards are played to the table face-down, and can be turned face-up by paying a “rez” cost at any point in time. Enter bluffing. Let’s take a simple example:

Say the Corporation holds three cards: a trap, an Agenda, and a defender (ICE).

The Corporation may, for example, play both the trap and the agenda card face down, then place a face-down defender (ICE) in front of one of the cards. Which do you defend? On the following turn, the Runner could choose to spend an action to make a run at either card. The undefended card will be accessed immediately, whereas the runner risks suffering damage if they attempt a run on a card with ICE in front of it. Intuitively, the defended target appears to be of greater value, but it could all be a ruse. It’s a familiar quandry:

VIZZINI: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet, or his enemy’s? [pauses to study the MAN IN BLACK] Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I’m not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool; you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

MAN IN BLACK: You’ve made your decision then?

VIZZINI: Not remotely. Because iocaine comes from Australia, as everyone knows. And Australia is entirely peopled with criminals. And criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

Of course, it’s not a pure random guess. The game state and style of the opponent will both factor into the reasoning. And like Poker, I suspect it’s important to mix-up your play, lest you establish a play pattern that can be easily exploited. Game Designer David Sirlin often refers to these types of decision states as “Yomi”, and while some perceive this mechanic as mere “Rock Paper Scissors”, tournament game scenes have established Yomi as a skill you can exceed at well beyond the rate of chance. Games with Yomi also have a certain playfulness to them, which are well suited to repeated play with a friend. There is no mathematically optimal line. It’s a dance that can be played out time and time again, with some real emotional satisfaction to be gained from timeless “Gotcha” moments.

Although, I must confess, this is all a bit of conjecture on my part. Before you “unlock” the mind games, you must first become proficient with the game’s basic mechanics and flow. There’s nothing like learning a new game to remind you of how complicated modern games can be. Even after thouroughly reading the rulebook and digesting a couple YouTube videos on how to play, I was still rather lost in my opening games. Although thematic, the game’s terminology isn’t doing a newcomer any favors. Your hand, deck and discard pile are called “HQ”, “Research & Development”, and “Archives” if you’re the Corporation, and “Grip”, “Stack” and “Heap” if you’re the Runner. Not that the names really matter, but every little thing increases the barrier to entry for a newcomer.

While the game does offer deckbuilding possibilities, it thankfully comes packed with 7 preconstructed decks (3 Runner, 4 Corporation). This allows for 12 unique match-ups, which feels rather generous (cost aside) when compared to a game like Blue Moon that includes only two decks out of the box. Further, the rules recommend newcomers start with the “Shaper” Runner deck and the “Jinteki” Corporation deck, presumably for ease of access. Even with these considerations, there are still intimidating factors. Take this card:

(Card art by Lexxy Douglass, contestant on Penny-Arcade’s Strip Search)

As a first timer, Precognition made me anxious. Casting it meant I would have to read through five new cards, try to process their strategic value and rearrange them in a profitable way. It was too much. In Cube I relish my instant-speed Brainstorms and assorted library manipulation affects, but here I experienced negative emotion when I so much as drew the card. I didn’t want to waste a move casting it. I’m sure this will change, but it’s interesting to see how different things look at different levels of experience as a player. Players can tolerate all sorts of complex cards, decisions and mechanics, but they have to get there in baby steps. This is something Wizards has shown great mastery of over recent years, with an entire pipeline of products and formats designed to ease players into the game. Sometimes as cube designers it’s easy to lose an appreciation for just how far we’ve progressed from the day we first encountered Magic.

And when it comes to games, first impressions are everything. I played Netrunner for about 90 minutes today, and lord knows I’ve given up on dozens of games in far less time than that. As far as Netrunner is concerned, I’m itching to play again, and hope I can track down a friend to play with me tomorrow. There’s a wealth of depth to this game that I’ve only scratched the surface of, and I can’t wait to test-run the remaining five starter decks. Best of all, Netrunner is a so called “Living Card Game”, which means that the base game and all expansions are non-collectible. Netrunner has been on the shelves for just over a year, and you can pick up the core game and all its expansions for about the price of a Tarmogoyf.


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