Wet snow, dark. A cold Wednesday night in Toronto's Chinatown. I'm walking down the street headed to a basement underneath a well-to-do bank, and I'm nervous. I have some whisky with me to take the edge off, and I duck into an alleyway to take a sip. I've never done this before.
I'm going to play a card game—with strangers, in public. It's called Android: Netrunner, and it may be the best game I have ever played.
Netrunner is a game about hacking. Part of it takes place in what is, essentially, a version of William Gibson's endless plane of cyberspace: a representation of data more akin to virtual reality than what we know today as the internet. At the same time, the materiality of the world is present and accounted for, and encapsulates the best Cyberpunk themes. It has a touch of noir that permeates films like Blade Runner while directly addressing the politics of labour that linger like a spectre when we talk about artificial life—android or otherwise.
It is also an asymmetrical, turn-based game you play with a partner. One person takes on the role of a corporation—the massive construction conglomerate Weyland, perhaps, or the media empire NBN. The other is a runner, a hacker, like the tinkerer Kate McCaffrey, or the journalist Valencia Estevez.
The corporation attempts to advance the game by scoring agendas, which represent varying degrees of underhanded plans. These agendas are protected by other cards called ICE, (Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics, another Gibson reference). The different types of ICE are by far the most interesting thing about the game. They can be simple barriers that restrict access, tricky code gates that waste your time with riddles, or sentries that send electronic feedback straight into your runner's brain.
The runner, meanwhile, must break through this ICE and steal agendas from the corp.
The game plays out by building a tableau: the corporation constructs servers and installs ICE. The runner builds their rig and acquires resources while making periodic runs to gain access to the corp's servers, where agendas are hidden. So begins the dance between megacorporation and individuals that attempt to subvert them.
An important thing to know about Netrunner is that it isn't just a card game in a box: it's what is called a living card game. Unlike collectable card games like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon Trading Card Game, Netrunner releases cards on a regular schedule that have no "collectability". Each pack has the same cards, which puts everyone on a level playing field. There is no secondary economy, where people buy and trade cards for obscene amounts of money.
But for me Netrunner is more than just its clever business model or its mechanics. It is both an intricate competitive game and a critical account of our world—a game with a flavour, politics, and a community of play that is distinct.
How come "a game with such diversity within its lore doesn't see it reflected in its player base"?
Netrunner, for example, has never had to deal with power creep. In other words, cards from the beginning of the game are just as useful today as when they were released. There is always a possibility that one card could throw off the balance of the game, but more often than not, the designers' careful implementation of new cards has instead broadened play. Rather than encouraging only one or two playstyles, new cards have allowed for dozens—even if some still win more than others.
At the same time the issue of gender and race representation in the player community remains a problem. The game itself far surpasses just about every Hollywood film and video game when it comes to diversity in its card art—but in the Netrunner community, it's mostly white guys who play.
A good sign is that some regions and cities are organizing 'Ladies Nights', providing safe spaces for women to play in public and build confidence with competitive play. But as Kim Nguyen recently wondered, how come "a game with such diversity within its lore doesn't see it reflected in its player base"?
In the basement around the corner from where I'm sipping whiskey in the snow is a tabletop gaming store. It has a bunch of tables, and lets anybody use them to play games. It's free and ad hoc and you usually have to coordinate with people through Facebook to see if anybody will be there to play the same game as you.
I did not know about this, so I went in blind.
I find some people playing Netrunner, but I'm the odd person out, so I wait until they finish and ask if anybody wants to play against me. I play a few games, lose most of them and go home. It was a an anxiety-inducing experience; I had been playing games online against strangers since I was a teenager, yet I had never gone to a physical space.
But a little more than a year later, I won my first tournament. I was hooked.
On a sleepy Sunday at a local game shop's monthly competition in Downtown Toronto, I went in with decks I had been practicing with for months. The day started well—two wins in my first round—and only got better. At end end of four rounds (each with two games, both players taking turns at corporation and runner) I had only lost one game. I was 7:1. I played well and picked up a few lucky mishaps in my favour too. It felt good.
Now, I feel ready for what's coming next: the Netrunner World Championships in Roseville, a sleepy suburb near Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota.
It's not that I expect to win or even place in the top 16 players, in a field of more than 200. I want to be able to play my best, of course—but at the same time take stock of a growing community. I'm excited because five days of celebration await, and I'll be spending most of it playing a game that I think matters. It's the opportunity to run into people whose podcasts I've been listening to for more than a year. And there's an excitement that comes with being surrounded by hundreds of people who share the same passion as you.
I'll let you know how I do.