Alone on the Computer
Now that Netrunner is dead, I’ve been thinking more about those first few months of its existence, before the pro scene and a steady march of upgrades left me standing on the highway watching the dust kicked up by its tires as it left me behind. It was one of those games that briefly captured me, gave me a rough shaking, and then departed forever. Years later I would happen across its obituary and stare, unsure whether I was feeling regret at not playing more or relief that I didn’t stick around until the end.
It’s Renegade that brings back those memories. Not because both games feature body-modded individualists peeling away an oppressive system’s layers of defense, though there is that. But rather because they’re both far cleverer than they first appear.
Oh, and because they both positively drown you in terminology. As in, hands around the throat, bathtub of ice water, drowning you.
If anything, Renegade is the worse offender. Where Netrunner saw my corp spending clicks to install ice, only for a runner to safely rez my worst traps and still root through my remote servers, Renegade delights in gussying up everything — its actions, its pieces, even the color of server your hacker’s avatar happens to be standing on — with a procession of barely-distinguishable techno-jargon. The network’s Viking SMC merges sparks into a guardian, which prompts flares to explode to nearby partitions on that server. In response, your avatar moves across into the faith server, enters destruction commands to upload virus contaminants to eventually install a propagator, then uses it to propagate new viruses, then uses them to infect those pesky flares. It’s as simple as A to B to C, except that A is ¥, B is ¶, and C is Ω.
So let’s rewind. In Richard Wilkins’ Renegade, a governing supercomputer named Mother has been granted increasing autonomy until it, totally unpredictably, seizes complete control over everybody’s lives. Your hackers, forced to live underground while championing freedom (rather than living in their parents’ basements while championing bad memes), now log in, dodge increasingly aggressive countermeasures, and hopefully survive long enough to do some damage to Mother’s systems.
More than anything, it’s a contest of endurance. At first your avatar — or avatars, since it plays solo, solo multi-handed, or cooperatively with equal ease — barges into the network, sowing the first few viruses and nodes, and perhaps gathering them together into powerful installations. But with each move, Mother pushes back. Countermeasures spill onto the table, blocking your expansion before expanding themselves, eventually blobbing into guardians. After a while, those countermeasures come faster, and harder, with the additional burden of objectives humming in the background. It isn’t long before you’re forced to make some tough decisions about where to allocate your resources. It isn’t long before you’re pressured to make some sacrifices.
There are a few notable touchstones at work here. As in Pandemic, countermeasures “explode” when they hit a certain density, and the appearance of too many sparks (little baddies) or guardians (big baddies) spells an early amen to your incursion. As in Spirit Island — Renegade’s closest parallel — threats are outlasted as often as defeated. In fact, Renegade goes a step further, with victory almost never reliant on a total cleansing of the network. You’re here to rip and run, not gain ground.
The entire thing is also a deck-building game, though that shouldn’t sound any warning bells. Each hacker begins with their own deck of basic powers, and gradually trades them out for sexier options as they play. But instead of slowing the action, cards are swapped with total ease. A basic Renegade Apprentice, for instance, can be spent to become a spark-wrecking Sidekick, straight into your hand and ready to deploy. Of course, that presumes the Sidekick is available in the hack shack, and that you have the right color of card to swap. But in general, deck management is conducted on the fly, cards exchanged for immediate benefits, rather than gumming up your hand.
Good thing, too, since your deck acts as a regulator for the game’s tempo. Each turn revolves around five cards from your deck. Once each hacker has seen all fifteen, the round is done. It’s a nice middle-point between the uncertainty of deck-building and the desire to see all those cool cards have their say. You can’t always rely on having the right cards at the right moment, but you will have them eventually. Something might not appear in the hack shack until the last moment, but even on the last turn of the game it can be bought and deployed. It’s a heady merger of tactics and strategy, where both moment-to-moment creativity and long-term hedging are rewarded.
And despite the game’s knee-deep vocabulary molasses, the cards themselves are a delight to tinker with. There are four colors to manage, each of which bestows either an immediate advantage or lets you invest in contaminants and installations. Blue, for example, is the color of movement. Used now, your avatar can zip around the network. Piled together, blues become data nodes, which act as “pathways” for free movement later on. Better yet, three data nodes can be transformed into a data port, unlocking teleportation from that space. Who’s zipping now?
The same principle applies to the other colors. Red viruses are useful for killing off Mother’s countermeasures, and can even behave like miniature turrets during the end-of-round contest between your pieces and any sparks that linger on your partitions. Or they can become investments by transforming into propagators, which in turn make it easier to generate new viruses. Yellow tokens hijack evil pieces to your own ends, while greens help you push around friendly and enemy pieces alike. Everything has its function now and an additional function later, should you spend the time and resources to acquire it.
Of course, none of these decisions are strictly easy. Both time and resources are in short supply, especially once you take the game’s objective cards into account. While you’re rushing to keep apace with Mother’s countermeasures, these bastards crank up the pressure with side goals — and potentially hefty penalties should you fail to meet them.
But in addition to being total jerks, these objectives also elevate every single play to surprising uniqueness. Even within the same scenario, each combination of goals forces me to strive in all-new directions. I may be cracking the Alpha-Moby AI for the third time, but where my last incursion culminated in an attempted clearing of every server’s fourth and fifth partition, this job is all about arranging nodes in a particular color order. Viruses and replicators may have ruled the day on my last run, but this time it’s all about movement and pushing.
Nicely, it isn’t necessary to complete objectives — remember, your ultimate goal is mere survival — though doing so tends to mitigate their penalties and racks up your score. Yes, your score. It’s always been my opinion that every solo or cooperative game should feature some manner of scoring, if only to give me a reason to return once I’ve internalized the basics sufficiently to win. At this point I’ve battered my way past Mother’s subroutines and liberated the whole damn world. But I could totally break 80 points on Spider and 70 on Viking with some more practice and a bit of luck.
This is one of those little details that makes Renegade hum. Its closest comparison, the absolutely incredible Spirit Island, gets so many things totally right, and hits many of the same notes. Both feature cool upgrade cards, and survival-as-victory gameplay, and a killer escalating tempo, and focus both on manipulating pieces and eliminating them outright. But you know what Spirit Island doesn’t do? It doesn’t keep score.
Fortunately, I don’t have to choose between them.
At its best, Renegade puts you under pressure and asks you to claw your way out, whether by brute force or shrewdness. It goes without saying that every color has value. But what do you do when you draw too much movement? Or not enough? Or when there are too many countermeasures in one place, but you lack the viruses to deal with them? Or when an objective requires installations in a particular sector, but your equipment is situated on the wrong side of the board? This is when Renegade asks you to knuckle down and get creative.
Or, to put it in Renegade parlance, that’s when it asks you to replicate some replicants and modify all those sparks into spare uplinks. Lexicon notwithstanding, Renegade makes for a solid solo offering.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. If you hack my bank account, you’ll be overcome with pity and instead reroute the Bezos fortune straight to my Patreon.)