Running Nets: The Central Servers

I say …

Even though I read less than I’d like, I still enjoy a good yarn every once in a while. I’m reading the Expanse series right now and struggling my way through Infinite Jest; one of which is great and the other is FANTASTIC but a difficult read, but sometimes I like lighter affairs. My view in comics tends to skew to the more serious and dark (Atomic Robo notwithstanding) but Toby Frost’s Space Captain Smith is one of my absolute guilty pleasures. I could introduce the series more, but I’m just going to flat out put the descriptions of the first couple books here, and call it a day. If these don’t make you want to buy these books, we simply cannot be friends. Netrunner after the jump.

In the 25nd Century the British Space Empire faces the gathering menace of the evil ant-soldiers of the Ghast Empire hive, hell-bent on galactic domination and the extermination of all humanoid life. Isambard Smith is the square-jawed, courageous and somewhat asinine new commander of the clapped out and battle damaged light freighter John Pym, destined to take on the alien threat because nobody else is available. Together with his bold crew a skull collecting alien lunatic, an android pilot who is actually a fugitive sex toy and a hamster called Gerald he must collect new-age herbalist Rhianna Mitchell from the laid back New Francisco orbiter and bring her back to safety in the Empire. Straightforward enough except the Ghasts want her too. If he is to get back to Blighty alive, Smith must defeat void sharks, a universe-weary android assassin and John Gilead, psychopathic naval officer from the fanatically religious Republic of New Eden before facing his greatest enemy: a ruthless alien warlord with a very large behind…

For England! For Country! For TEA!

Tea . . . a beverage brewed from the fermented dried leaves of the shrub Camelli sinensis and imbibed by all the great civilizations in the galaxy’s history; a source of refreshment, stimulation, and, above all else, of moral fiberwithout which the British Space Empire must surely crumble to leave Earth at the mercy of its enemies. Sixty percent of the Empire’s tea is grown on one world—Urn, principal planet of the Didcot system. If Earth is to keep fighting, the tea must flow! When a crazed cult leader overthrows the government of Urn, Isambard Smith and his vaguely competent crew find themselves saddled with new allies—a legion of tea-obsessed nomads, an overly-civilized alien horde. and a commando unit so elite that it has only five members. Only together can they defeat the self-proclaimed God Emperor of Didcot and confront the true power behind the coup—the sinister legions of the Ghast Empire and Smith’s old enemy, Commander 462.

In case you might be inclined to spend a (relatively) few dollars on these books, here they are.

The Central Servers

Burn it … Burn it all down, (GOD the art in this game)

Okay so we’ve talked about a lot of things in this (very) extended introduction to Netrunner, but now we’re starting to get into the meat and potatoes of the game. We haven’t hit the essential mechanic that I’ve been dancing around like it’s so many spiders (Making Runs) but Central Servers are really awesome, and they give some of the awesome flavor of the game all on their own. Besides being clever in their own right, they give the game an increased sense of physicality and interaction that’s really missing from other games.

I’ve played a bunch of CCGs over the years (I have a massive box of SWCCG I’ve collected over the years just within arm’s reach) but I haven’t played a game that has netrunner’s levels of physical interaction. More often than not it is “My Orc/Post Apocalyptic Mystic/Jedi attacks your Human/Evil Death God/Death Star, I have five strength and a billion ability,” or some such nonsense, but Netrunner feels more intimate than that. You are directly interacting with your opponent, and snatching cards from their hand and deck. It’s a great experience, and one of the great strengths of the game. But enough chatting, let’s get into it.

Archives: Routing around in Bins

So the first place we have to talk about is the Archives, the trash bin of the Corporation. Every card discarded due to hand limits (only 5 in hand at the end of your turn) or from various Runner or Corp affects goes here, as do all the installed cards that the Runner has trashed. It quickly fills up with detritus of both the valuable and absolutely essential varieties. It’s got a few interesting mechanics, and the first of those is that cards that the runner has trashed go into the bin face up, as do operations, but cards discarded by the Corporation go into the bin face down.

Why is that important? Well, imagine that you’ve got a hand of 3 Agenda cards which the runner would dearly love to steal, and you’ve got a few other indispensable cards like maybe a valuable ICE or Operation … and you draw another agenda. You could get rid of the ICE< but that might leave you vulnerable, and the Operation might be your only source of money or a key cog in your plan to flat line the runner, so you look at your 4 Agendas, plug your nose, and drop one of them into the bin. But remember, it goes in face down so your opponent might see a card hit Archives and not think anything of it. After all, in the rush to draw the right balance of money, ICE and Agendas oftentimes you’ll draw extra copies or cards you simply cannot play. It’s not all that unexpected for cards to be discarded simply because the Corp has other priorities at the moment. And so the Runner never really knows what exactly is going into the bin, it could be Upgrades or Assets that are useless to the Runner but it might be tasty Agenda’s.

But if you’ve learned anything yet, it’s that Netrunner is never a game that quite that simple, and the Runner has tools and rules that they can abuse as well. For starters, if the Runner runs successfully on Archives, they get to access every single card in Archives, all at once. It might take multiple runs on HQ or R&D (more on them in a moment) to get Agenda’s, and you have to run multiple times to snag Agenda’s from remote servers, but at Archives they can snag everything in there for a single click. Three 2 point Agendas in there? Guess the Runner just scored 6 points all at once. It’s pretty sweet, but it’s also a bit of a vulnerability. See that card up there? That beautiful Shock!? Every time the runner accesses it, you deal a Net Damage to the Runner. Find it in a server or R&D and you take one, wrinkle your nose, pay two and never see it again. But in Archives? Since you have to access every card every time you run on Archives, you lose a card every single time. And if there are two, or three Shock!s in the bin, you’ll be taking 3 cards every time you want to riffle through the Corps refuse to see if that’s where they’re hiding the Agendas. It’s a great balance.

R&D: Let’s go Diving

One of the more fun central servers in Netrunner, R&D is actually the DECK of your Corp opponent! That’s right, you can make a Run on your opponents deck and steal cards from it. Unlike Archives which the Corp has some control over (they can choose to keep their valuable cards in hand instead of discarding them) R&D is the lifeblood of the Corp player and they have no real control over what they’ll be seeing next.

Make a successful run on R&D and you can access the top card of their deck. Accessing a card means that the Runner can interact with it in a few important ways: if the card has a trash cost like an Upgrade or Assset, you can pay the trash cost and throw it in Archives, if it’s an Agenda you can steal it, immediately scoring it’s point value, or if you choose not to trash the card or encounter an operation, you can put it back on the top of the deck. The best part of this is, when you access a card off the top of R&D, the RUNNER gets to see it, but the Corp doesn’t.

Red Herring (literally) or it might be the economic engine the Corporation needs to bring online to really power through the Runner.

Accessing the top card of R&D gives the runner information that the Corp just doesn’t have: information about the future. If you’ve had easy access to a central server to some time due to the Corp only having draw Sentries and being well set up with your Killer already installed, and you see a Barrier off the top of R&D, you can bet your sweet behind that the Corp player is going to slap that on a server the first chance they get, cutting off your access, so you better go find your Fracter. And if you use a sweet little card like Maker’s Eye you not only get to see the top card, but the top three cards of R&D. And remember, any Agenda’s you access you can steal immediately for points. You might get 6 points in a single card!

And the shenanigans don’t end there, if you play a card like an Indexing or have something like an R&D Interface out (a piece of Hardware that allows you to access one additional card every time you hit R&D) you might be able to get to a state that’s been termed an R&D lock. If the Corp player’s R&D is sufficiently porous that you can easily get in, you can snag Agenda’s before the Corp player can draw and score them! Or you could use Indexing and re-arrange the top 5 cards of R&D, perhaps putting 3 Agenda’s on the top so you can score them with a followup Maker’s Eye or maybe putting that piece of ICE the corp needs 5 cards deep, so they can’t get it. The possibilities for nefariousness are endless!

HQ: The Honeypot

So this is the big one. The one that really cements Netrunner as a different beast and a game you should be playing. HQ is my favourite central server, but it is also the bane of my existence and the most beautiful thing ever created. What is the HQ you ask? Well, the HQ is represented by the Corp’s ID card (like the beautiful Spark Agency: Worldswide Reach to the left) and actually has you running on the Corp players hand. That’s right, not only can you hack the Corps discard pile and draw deck, but you can even blow up their hand!

A successful run on HQ means the Corp player gives their hand a quick shuffle, spreads them out, and let’s the runner player take a card from their hand and access it. Repeated accesses follow the same rules: shuffle, spread, pick one. And there is the beauty, frustration and great design of Netrunner: accesses on HQ are completely random. Where R&D has some pattern to it, HQ is completely random. Your opponent might have 4 Agenda cards and once ICE card, but if you get unlucky you might hit that ICE 4 times in a row. Or reach into a hand full of juicy economic assets you’d love to trash and instead hit the trap … twice. But on the flipside, you might have the Runner access that Asset they can’t quit trash time and time again, keeping your Operations secret from the runner, ready to flatline them at a moments notice. Or they might reach into your hand full of useless ICE only to find the one Agenda, giving them the points they need for victory.

HQ is the bleeding edge of Netrunner, the Honeypot, the juicy core of the game that gives and takes away with equal impunity. Since it’s random, it’s fair to both players, and oh so tempting for both sides. The Corp player will be tempted to stuff HQ will all sorts of cards they want to keep out of the filthy grasps of those philistine runners, and eventually the Runner will drive themself crazy trying to pluck that last Agenda that they KNOW THE CORP PLAYER DREW, because you saw them do it.

I love the concept of the Central Servers because it exposes danger to the Corporation at every turn. R&D and HQ especially are sacred cows that have to be protected at all costs. Archives you can deal with as long as you don’t discard any Agendas in it, and often gets little or no ICE to protect it, but HQ and R&D need protection. All it takes is one string of bad luck for the Corporation player to get behind. It takes multiple turns, lots of cards, luck and planning for the Corp to score an Agenda, but all it takes for the Runner to score them off R&D or HQ is just for the Corp to be unlucky once, or inattentive. Or who knows, maybe on first click the Runner plays a card like Wanton Destruction, runs into HQ and spends their other 3 clicks to just discard three random cards from your HQ. Potentially moving those three Agenda’s you were guarding into Archives which has no ICE on it. Oh, isn’t that unfortunate, you should probably fix that. I’ll just be over here, cackling like a madman.

Next Time!

Into the abyss we go, pack a lunch

Okay, next time for sure I promise we’ll get into the real meat of the game, the part that ties it all together, and makes it awesome: making runs. I’ve sort of explained it, but I’ll get really into it next time and we’ll talk accesses, central servers, ICE, upgrades, Assets and the whole game through the lens of it’s most essential rule. It’s almost time to get HACKING!