Recently, I've been playing Android: Netrunner, a living card game put out by FFG. I say "playing," but you should read that as "obsessing over," because once you play this game a few times, it hooks you like a neural interface.
Android: Netrunner is a two-player cyberpunk game featuring asymmetric gameplay. One player takes the role of one of four amoral megacorporations, and their opponent takes the role of a hacker—named "runner" in this setting—in one of three factions. The corporation, in order to conduct business, must score several agendas over the course of the game, installing them face-down and advancing them. Advancing uses time and money, which are called clicks and credits, because this is the future. Some of these agendas are innocuous, and some are much darker. The runner, on the other hand, must only access these agendas, exposing them to the wider world, to score them.
To keep this from happening, the corporation protects its assets by installing ICE, face down. ICE can end the runner's hacking "run," trace the runner's location, or damage the runner, as well as other, more complicated effects. While face-down, the ICE are inactive—when the runner tries to run the server, the corporation can "rez" the ice, paying an amount specified on the card. The runner can keep these effects from happening by using programs that break ICE subroutines, called icebreakers. Much like rezzing ice, using icebreakers takes money.
Since so much of A:NR involves spending money to deal with threats, a large part of the game involves trying to get the other player to spend theirs first. To help with that, the corporation also has assets, which are installed like agendas and can be protected by ice. These typically give the corporation a solid advantage, but can be trashed by runners who access the card and pay the trash cost. The corporation might place this behind some ice, and bluff that the card is an agenda, prompting a run. Since ICE stays around after a run, this costs the corporation little, but the runner might expend most of their resources to find nothing but an ambush .
The runner, on the other hand, can run everywhere. They can run on the corporations hand, its deck, its discard pile, or any of its installed agendas or assets, accessing cards unless the corporation rezzes ice to keep the runner out. This type of pressure keeps the corporation tied up figuring out where to spend its limited credits. If there's an agenda in hand, can it gamble that the top card of the deck isn't an agenda? Or should it spend some of its credits towards protecting the deck, possibly leaving the hand open to assault?
These decisions add up, and each card played increases the pressure. The game develops like a mix between a strategy game and Texas-hold-'em, bluffing and calling while advancing your own position. But while the game mechanics are amazing, the real draw, for me, is the story.
A:NR's cards are all exceptionally thematic. Whether it's a criminal pulling an Inside Job to access a seemingly locked-down server or a sentient piece of ice deleting the runner's programs, each card says something about the battle over cyberspace. From anarchists trashing ice with their viruses, to the News Broadcasting Network spewing out agendas, the factions come with built-in flavor.
Make no mistake, there are no "good guys" in this game. The closest you can come are the peppy cyberterrorists in the form of Shapers, who hack servers for things like "art" and "the challenge." Which sounds like "I steal things because I like to steal things." The corporations, themselves, skate on a field of gray. From Jinteki running hospitals while damaging the runners, to NBN being both children's entertainment and the eyes of the panopticon.
Putting these cards together in lines of play makes a wild story. For example, Gabriel Santiago, a ruthless Criminal, might be struggling against Weyland, a shadowy consortium. Weyland, after drawing a card, might install two cards in servers protected by ice—effectively starting the projects. Gabriel could then speak to his resources, like Kati Jones, the accountant, and his Tri-Maf contacts, to gain credits. He then, just before the corporation opens, tries a desperate hack into one of the new projects. By using piles of newly-earned cash on programs like corroder and ninja, Gabe gets through the server's defenses, only to find that he's stumbled into Weyland's plans to send kids to Space Camp. "Look!" Weyland says, "we're only trying to build a better world! We're the good guys here!" The outpouring of public support lets Weyland advance their other project for free. They frantically rush the project to completion—an approval for a bounty hunter to find Gabe. And, in an unfortunate "accident," an entire city block burns down.
As these stories play out, over and over, you might briefly wonder if your opponent deserves what you're doing to him or her. You'll push these thoughts out of your mind—you have to take that next agenda. Only once the game is over will you step back and realize what it must have looked like to the average bystander. That moment, when you look up and realize the fiction behind what just happened, is what keeps me coming back.