Like all noir, it starts with a murder.
An anti-android activist killed in a dark alleyway by something big. It used a hammer, the same hammers Humanity First uses to destroy the synthetic "golems" they hate so much. In the aftermath of this killing, runners (hackers) and corporations race to solve the case, for very different reasons. The corporation builds servers, protects them with ICE, and begins its investigation. Runners assemble their rigs, and start to crack into the system to find the agendas hidden within. So begins Android: Netrunner's new campaign expansion, Terminal Directive.
Ostensibly, this could be a variation of the story you tell yourself every time you play a game of Android: Netrunner (ANR). This is because ANR was from the outset a "cyber-noir" themed game, with trench coat wearing detectives, shifty corporate types, and underworld runners trying to turn a quick buck. ANR told its story through the cards themselves. There was the "game" and there was what we fondly call the flavor: the illustrations the short lines of text, and brief inserts in every expansion telling a small story in the universe, a world building book, etc. Each game was an abstraction of the "cyber-struggles" of this rich world, an ongoing mimicry of its immediate and ancillary materials, but not a "story", in its common sense denotation, per se.
Terminal Directive changes this. It tells players a story—a very elaborate one—using cards, secrets, and material that feels very retro: stickers. As in the core game, it is played through by two players, but before the first match each player chooses a side (corporation or runner) and a faction (an arms manufacturer Skorpios Defense Systems or a researcher at a local university, Ayla Rahim). The identity they choose will stick with them throughout the course of the campaign. They will not be switching sides. This is because unlike casual and competitive ANR, Terminal Directive doesn't switch back and forth between a "round" of players playing both factions.
Instead, Terminal Directive is dedicated to the story getting told above and beyond the competitive card game's usual fidelity to "fair play." The sides in ANR are very different, which is why two games are usually played with each player playing both runner and corporation. It equalizes the imbalance. But Terminal Directive is anything but balanced and that, in its own way, builds the richness of the narrative.
When, through multiple games, I lost four times in a row, I felt the frustration of my choice of faction and the construction of my deck. Yet I also knew that while my game was going poorly, I still had to at least dig myself out of my rut and try to win a few more games before the campaign ended. I don't mind losing, but I wanted to know how the story would progress for me.
Between each game, players can fully rebuild their decks, adding new cards, and taking poor performers out. This adds a kind of freedom and creativity to ANR never before seen really (outside of, say, cube draft, my favourite way to play ANR). Most importantly, it adds continuity. These decks live and breach in a way constructed ANR doesn't.
Terminal Directive works like this: The players build their decks out of two card pools. One of those pools is the full set of cards from a core set of ANR and the other are cards in the Terminal Directive box marked "OPEN NOW." When these decks are complete, both players crack open a deck of cards and stickers marked "DO NOT OPEN," and peruse a the first subsection of these decks marked "1." In each of these sets is a card with more story, and detailed step by step instructions on what to do with the cards and stickers in the set.
Some of the stickers will be applied to each "PAD" (a cardboard sheet) that is provided to each player to track their progress in the campaign. Other stickers might be added directly to the cards themselves (I put them on card sleeves). The stickers on your PAD will track your gameplay triggers ("do x+y and z happens") and your objectives ("win this many games and open set 3"). The stickers on the cards will also change the core function of the cards, turning a ho-hum contraption into something very dangerous as the game moves forward.
Sometimes you are instructed to destroy cards (but you might want to think twice about that, if you ever want to replay the campaign).
Truth be told, even as somebody who is intimately familiar with "legacy" format games (like Pandemic: Legacy) and who just finished up a seven year Dungeons and Dragons game, Terminal Directive is quite the complicated game to manage. There's a lot of book-keeping between rounds in a way I'm not really used to. Terminal Directive feels like an experiment in translating to a card game things that are often taken for granted in video games, things like branching storylines and important, game changing "choices" like those found in Mass Effect. It's highly ambitious, if awkward.
When I say that it feels experimental, I really mean it. At times, and I have no idea if will ever be replicated again in ANR or any other of the Living Card Games developed by Fantasy Flight Games.
But I really like it. Here's why: I hope that Terminal Directive will do for ANR what its community and competitive scene can't: get more people to play Netrunner again. I've spent around 4 years playing playing this game, singing its praises. ANR has a rich and diverse universe, intricate and beautiful gameplay, and a generally wonderful (if at times imperfect) community. But because ANR is a Living Card Game—a game that receives new cards to play with every month—the buy-in for new players is huge. I see lots of new competitive players all the time, but I also see seasoned veterans of the game leaving, selling off their collections to excited newcomers. I keep wanting to find ways to get more women involved too, but it's already daunting for some women in enter male dominated spaces and make a huge leap into a card pool that costs more than five hundred dollars. It's hard.
I think Terminal Directive can do some of the heavy lifting here. When someone asks me 'Hey, what's the deal with that cyberpunk card game you always talk about? Sounds cool…," I feel like now I can say this: If you have never played ANR, but wanted to, pick up a core set, grab a copy of Terminal Directive, and find somebody to play with over 3 or 4 sessions. Even if that's the extent of your involvement with the game, I feel like you will then have gotten the opportunity to play one of the best games ever created.