Netrunner: The Jinteki Deception
I could write a review of Android: Netrunner, but there would be little point. Its quality is well-documented, and its more enthusiastic advocates speak of it with language that could fool the pope into believing it the second coming. Perhaps that isn’t too far off, crucified as it was by the all-consuming popularity of Magic: The Gathering and resurrected by Fantasy Flight Games for a new era. It is risen, etc.
What I’m saying is that this isn’t a review. It’s also not quite like anything I’ve done here on Space-Biff! before. Instead, this is merely a description of one of the purest, most memorable experiences of my board- and card-gaming career.
Two things before we get into it.
(1) There’s someone you’ll occasionally see in the comments posting under the name “Sam Hanson.” We’ve been good friends since elementary school, but we don’t see each other much anymore. Life and such. Even so, we’re still close, and more than anyone else I know other than Somerset, he can read me. You know how it is with old friends. I raise an eyebrow an imperceptible distance, he asks what’s funny. He gets quiet for ten seconds, I start guessing what he’s thinking. Well, after not seeing each other for a few months, he stopped by this morning. One thing led to another, and we ended up playing a round of Netrunner.
(2) This was my second time playing Netrunner. Ever. I don’t know why I hadn’t played it earlier. I’ve owned it since the day of its release, and intended to learn the rules on a dozen occasions, and of course I’d read an encyclopedia’s worth of reviews about how good it is. Maybe it struck me as intimidating, maybe I was afraid I’d be disappointed, but for whatever reason the manual remained closed and I never got around to it until a few nights ago. Now I have another life regret to add to my ever-growing list, because I could have been playing it for a year instead of just a week.
For those of you who don’t know, Netrunner is a delightfully asymmetrical game in which one side plays an unethical corporation trying to fulfill a number of shady agendas, and the other fills the role of a runner trying to hack into the corporation’s database to bring to light its clandestine activities. Either side wins when they complete or steal seven of these “agenda points.”
In the battle between me and Sam, I was the Jinteki Corporation, a Japanese conglomerate with a monopoly on cloning; and Sam was Kate “Mac” McCaffrey, an artful “shaper.”
The game began with both of us earning a flurry of points. Sam humiliated me by raiding my unprotected R&D server (my draw deck) multiple times. This landed him a juicy three-point administrative agenda. Soon after, I finished assembling a Private Security Force; then he raided a remote server I was hoping he’d ignore because it contained a controversial cloning program; then I finished another copy of the same agenda he’d originally stolen from me. After only ten minutes of play, we stood tied at 5-5, each one agenda away from victory.
If this were a chess match, so far we’d been playing a kid’s battle in which every turn revolves around another piece’s demise instead of careful positioning or long-term strategy. So I buckled down and changed my approach.
One thing distinctive about Netrunner is that there’s both a way to win — the above-mentioned seven agenda points — and a way to lose. A corporation fails if its draw deck runs dry, representing an untenable stalling of business. Runners are a bit easier: you just need to stop them from running by forcing them to discard when they have nothing in their hand.
Jinteki happens to be a natural at messing with runners, so I laid a trap. Project Junebug, an asset that looks exactly like a juicy agenda when it’s face-down in a remote server, was the bait. Protecting it, and convincing Sam the server was a worthwhile target and not just another income-generating PAD Campaign, were multiple layers of ice, including a damaging Data Mine that would inflict a single point of net damage (forcing the runner to trash a card) before going to the discard pile itself. Sure enough, Sam took the bait, though he spent some credits to dodge the Data Mine instead of accepting its negligible damage, and uncovered Project Junebug. This had been “advanced” in the same way agendas are advanced, but in this instance it meant he was going to take four net damage.
Instead of giving him time to recover, on my next turn I unleashed a Neural EMP, a cruel trick that lashes out at any runner who made a run on the previous turn. This dealt him one more net damage, leaving him with no cards in hand but not quite finishing him off. If only he’d stumbled into the Data Mine instead of cracking it, he would have been dead.
My Junebug deception knocked him out of the game for a few rounds while he drew lots of cards and scraped together more funds, but now Sam knew my tricks. We both settled into a game of cat-and-cat. I set up a couple PAD Campaigns to generate income, he raided one of them and shut it down. He worked odd jobs and designed a master program to earn extra cash, I opened a Melange Mining Corp to keep up. As the ice protecting my servers grew ever deeper, his icebreakers grew better at penetrating them. Both of us became wealthy, only making nettling attacks on each other — small runs, small traps, repeated for half an hour.
My best server was five layers of ice deep, and even then I couldn’t count on it protecting me from his well-funded runs. I had an open slot there, and I was holding both an asset and an agenda. I sat paralyzed for a couple minutes. Sam asked if I was okay. In response, I slowly laid out two cards: one in a new remote server, completely unprotected; the other behind my wall of ice.
Sam looked at those two cards and grinned. I’d just played right into his hands — specifically, right into the hands of the elite squad of infiltrators he was dispatching to expose the ice-protected card. Soon enough, he’d know whether it was an agenda or another one of my tricks.
Little did he know, I was ready for them. The infiltrators were undoubtedly hoping to bribe some of my employees for inside intel, but I revealed my Zaibatsu Loyalty card from the new server, meaning I didn’t need to reveal anything. Jinteki employees are loyal to their sponsors, after all. Sam said a bad word.
With the hidden agenda-or-trap gathering advancement tokens, Sam had little to do but make a run or risk me winning the game on the next turn.
He slipped past my first two layers of ice with hardly any investment at all. When he reached the third I became visibly nervous, tapping absentmindedly on the tabletop. When he bypassed the fourth, I let out a desperate chuckle. Unexpectedly, he looked up at me, away from the ice he’d been studying so intently before.
“Is that a trap?” he asked pointedly. I realized he thought my nervousness was a bluff.
“I dunno,” I said. “I can’t remember.”
“No, seriously, is that a trap? If it is, I’m dead, aren’t I?”
“The last one did four damage because you had two counters on it, and this one has three. That’s six damage, right?”
“But I have this Net Shield that blocks the first net damage I get, so even if it’s a trap, I’d be okay, right?”
“I think so.”
He paused for a long time, considering his options. He squirmed a bit. I squirmed too. “Is it a trap?” he repeated, looking into my eyes, drawing on over a decade of personal knowledge of my tics, my habits, the tones of my speech when telling the truth or telling a story.
I channeled everything into that moment. I wracked my memory for any clue, any sign he’d be looking for, and then trying to reverse it, to feed him the opposite signals. “I want the game to keep going too,” I said. “In all honesty, it’s a trap.” In that moment, my face reflected the earnestness of a gold-leafed saint in an illuminated manuscript.
Sam nodded and declared he was jacking out, giving up on the run. The game would go on.
Five seconds later, I finished advancing the agenda, revealed it, and won the game. Viva Jinteki.
What a great time we had. Playing off an old friend, using our knowledge of each other as insider information. Sam may never trust me again. He might one day look at my cherubic face and remember that one time it held unreadable deception. Maybe this will be the moment that drives us apart as we forget what made us close in the first place.
But I don’t think so.
For now, what I remember is how hard we laughed about it, and how good it felt to be there, with him, playing this fantastic game, and reveling in how duplicitous it made us feel. How paranoid. How good. We weren’t old friends drifted apart in that moment; we were as close as we’d ever been.
And that’s why games are important.