Netrunner Never Died

One of my favourite games, six years into its afterlife

Netrunner is one of the best games of all time.

It has also been — at least, by official tally — “dead” for six years now.

What is Netrunner anyway?

Netrunner is an asymmetric card game for two players, with each playing vastly different games that somehow still mesh together beautifully. Since its inception, Netrunner has had a cyberpunk theme; true to form, this means players take on one of two roles:

  • Corporation: As a megacorporation from one of four powerful factions, the player must defend and advance agendas to score enough points to win the game.
  • Runner: As an intrepid hacker from one of three factions, the player must break through the Corporation’s defences and steal enough agendas to win the game.

What sets the game apart is the degree and elegance with which this theme gets baked into the actual mechanics. Corporations play their cards face-down, creating a board of imperfect information to reflect the difference between what the Corp and the Runner knows. Runners can try breaking into everything — not just what the Corp might place on the board, but the Corp’s hand of cards, their deck, and their discard pile too.

The objectives and tools available to each side are vastly different — and yet, the nature of the game forces these into a constant give-and-take (tempo, in the game parlance) as each side tries to force the other into tough choices and eke out a window to win.

The life and death of Netrunner

The game was designed by Richard Garfield, the same guy who created that card-game juggernaut, Magic: The Gathering. Originally conceived in the 80s, at the dawn of the collectible card game (CCGs) craze, Netrunner was one of those titles that catered to the stragglers outside of the fantasy-themed games that took most of the spotlight. In terms of game design, it was very much a product of its time — layered on top of its elegant core mechanics were the usual trappings of CCGs at the time, from randomised booster packs to draft formats and card speculation.

In 2012, Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) licenced the game from Wizards of the Coast (WotC) and re-engineered it as a Living Card Game (LCG). This format ditched the “collectible” aspect of the original game in favour of a standardised starter (“core”) set that could be played on its own, as well as monthly expansion packs with fixed contents to build up the card pool. This meant that players all had access to essentially the same pool of cards for deckbuilding (especially for competitive play), shifting much of the emphasis away from players’ ability to buy up rare and powerful cards.

Fantasy Flight Games also wrapped the whole Netrunner game in its own Android setting, basically skinning it in its own IP.

This is important to note, because this split between who owns the setting IP (FFG) and the mechanics IP (WotC) is probably (1) a key aspect of the licencing troubles that resulted in the abrupt discontinuation of the game in 2018; and (2) a major roadblock to any games company officially reviving the game in its modern format following said discontinuation.

Enter the fan community

When FFG pulled the plug on Netrunner in 2018, I thought that was it for the game.

After some time, rumours started surfacing in the old forums — the game wasn’t completely buried. When I first heard about it, I thought it just meant a small corner of the old community was stubbornly holding on — organising a few tournaments online, checking in on each other occasionally, stuff like that. I was surprised and delighted to find that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

It turns out, in the spirit of scrappy runners everywhere, a few passionate fans banded together to set up a whole registered nonprofit organisation and continue the game in an unofficial capacity.

Null Signal Games is a full-on game publishing company, operating as a nonprofit, that has produced new sets of Netrunner cards and hammered out an organised play system that encompasses everything from game night kits to World Championships. The new cards are published and distributed across North America and Europe; they are also fully interoperable with the old Android: Netrunner kits. More importantly, though, the Null Signal team has put in a lot of work to build a card pool that goes beyond supplementing the old game, working as a thoughtfully designed ecosystem all its own.

Beyond the game itself, there are whole departments covering all the roles necessary to sustain a vibrant, growing community: from game design to distribution to marketing to diversity and inclusion. This has been a revival not just of the product, but of the rich and rewarding community experience that had sprung up around it.

That shines through in what might be the most staggering fact about the whole endeavour, which is that it’s entirely volunteer-run. Every person involved is ostensibly an unpaid volunteer, putting in quite a lot of thought and effort out of sheer love for the game. Look, every single card that has been produced in the Null Signal era is available as a tournament-legal print-and-play, meaning people can get into the game without spending a single cent, and still have access to even the highest levels of tournament play.

The main goal here, clearly, is to keep a well-designed game alive in every sense of the word and bring it to as many people as possible.

Again: Netrunner is one of the best games of all time, and the brilliant mechanics aren’t even the biggest reason why. I feel compelled to talk about this here if only to have a record of what fan communities can create, even when “official” parties like established game publishers abandon a game.