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Android: Netrunner – Creation and Control Review

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Android: Netrunner is a Living Card Game and that means lots of little expansion packs. Quite an alarming number of little expansion packs if you’re a relatively casual player of the game like I am. But this latest pack isn’t little: it’s big. It comes in a proper box and contains 165 cards: 3 copies each of 55 different ones. As a casual player I approve mightily.

Like all the expansion before it, the focus is squarely on one faction each for the corporation and runner players, in this case Haas-Bioroid and the Shapers respectively. That’s a bit more odd considering you get a lot more cards in this deck but there you go. The Shapers probably needed it as, despite their name, they’re probably the most shapeless, ill-defined faction so far. And I like Haas because I’m a former genetic engineer myself. So, again, I approve mightily.

So what do we learn about the Shapers? The most amazing thing about Netrunner, in my opinion, isn’t simply that it’s a great game. There are lots of great games. What makes Netrunner special is the emergent theme, the way that if you stripped away the mediocre art and the pseudo-intellectual quotes and the stupid, obtuse jargon the game employs, it would still feel like a game about hackers trying to bypass corporate security and steal digital secrets. And what we learn about the Shapers follows that pattern.

Look at their cards. Self-modifying code which allows you to pick and play a card from your draw deck. Clone Chip which permits you to pick and play a card from your discard pile. Scavenge, which instructs you to discard something in play but replace it with something else from your hand or discard. This is a faction all about flexibility, about freedom, about feeling the code and being one with the machine. And it comes across in the cards.

You see the same playful spirit in their aggressive cards, too. Atman, an icebreaker you can pump up to any strength you like and keep it there, forever, and which can break any subroutine of any kind looks like a game breaker until you realise the strength is fixed, so it’s really only useful against one kind of ice card. But you get to choose that card. Similarly Cypher-Cypher is a super-cheap and powerful icebreaker but it’s tied to one target server. Escher, an event that sees you rearranging corporate ice as you see fit. Destruction by exploration.

So what about the corporation? Haas-Bioroid had a much stronger sense of identity than the Shapers before this set, but they were a little boring to play. Creation and Control adds spice and uncertainty. There’s a new ambush asset which burns the runner for brain damage in exchange for a few creds. Another shock is Howler, a 1-cost ice card that does nothing except install and activate another piece of ice, for free, directly behind it. Tyr’s hand is an upgrade you can trash to stop an ice subroutine being bypassed. Runs on unknown Bioroid servers now have a similar amount of inbuilt tension and danger as the other corporations.

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Actions generally are a focus, as befitting the Haas-Bioroid vulnerability of having ice that can be bypassed simply by the runner spending actions. The Efficiency Committee agenda, for instance, which gives you two actions in exchange for one and an advancement token. Or the Arcology asset which does the same thing except it’s not an agenda, even though it’ll look like one to the runner. You can save actions a different way with the Pet Project agenda which effectively gives you a bunch of free installs.

There are a few neutral cards, too, but they’re generally less interesting. The most powerful is the runner card Daily Casts which costs three credits but pays out eight, two a turn. It’s pretty easy for runners to make a lot of money with the current Netrunner card selection, and this set makes it easier. Indeed I’ve seen some complaints from tournament players and real enthusiasts that Creation and Control has made the game too lopsided in favour of the runner.

That might be true, although if it is it’ll probably get re-balanced over the next few data pack releases. I can’t really say because I’m not a tournament player or a real enthusiast but a casual gamer who likes to break out Android occasionally with friends and savour that amazing emergent theme. I don’t have that whole arms-race deckbuilding thing going on, and I tend to construct decks just for their amusement value and give them to new players to teach the game.

Given that, one of the most interesting things for me in this set wasn’t so much the new cards but the suggested preconstructed decks to use them. A Haas-Bioroid deck loaded with ludicrously expensive and powerful ice, but with lots of tricksy ways to mitigate the credit cost, so allowing you to be in a much more powerful place than it may appear to the runner. A shaper deck which is all about installing and recycling stuff on the cheap, saving money to power one or two game-changing cards.

I like these decks a lot. Not because there’s anything inherently amazing about them: the corporation one in particular is quite difficult to play. I like them as a casual gamer because they seem very well matched, designed to set up interesting trade-offs and gradual power creep against one another. I like them because they’re full of cards that can be used creatively, challenging the player and demonstrating to the neophyte how much scope for cleverly synchronizing card effects there is in this game.

I like Creation and Control a lot. You could go a long way with Netrunner just owning this and the base set, especially if you don’t intend to be a frequent player. Although I’m glad I’ve got a few more cards personally, just to flesh out my beloved Jinteki. You won’t really need any more data packs. But be warned: if you’ve got this, you’ll probably want them.

Mage Wars Review

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I’ll wager that anyone who ever played Magic: the Gathering more than once has, at some point, wondered how great it would be if creatures weren’t just static lines of attack and defense, but actively engaged in tactical manoeuvre. You don’t need to wonder any more because that, effectively, is what you get in Mage Wars.

Furthermore, I suspect that anyone who ever played Magic: the Gathering more than once has, at some point, been so annoyed by rubbish card draws that they pondered on a variant where you could have a bigger hand, or more control over the draw. Mage Wars addresses that problem too, with swaggering overkill. Because in Mage Wars you don’t get a bigger hand, or control over the draw, you can pick whatever you like from your entire deck each and every turn.

Of the people who’ve entertained either question, I believe that the majority rapidly dismissed them as being unworkable. They’d add too much time and complexity for the interest they added to the game. That didn’t put off the designers of Mage Wars though, who seem to be intent on proving the naysayers wrong by making a working sandbox into which you could chuck the kitchen sink of theoretical Magic variants and see what happened. And it turns out the stock answer is half correct.

Playing Mage wars does add astonishing amounts of time and complexity to the proceedings. The rules entreat you to start with apprentice mode and that’s what I felt like looking the game over. The archetypical Sorcerer’s Apprentice, staring up with mixed wonder and terror at their master’s tower piercing the dark clouds above. Wondering how frail humanity could possibly spend years internalizing all the mystical secrets of the cosmos without exploding.

Sadly this lovely metaphor was ruined by the intrusion of the game components, which are an unfortunate mix of competently executed but generic card art and horribly gaudy graphic design. But it’s an accurate picture. With you brain already overloaded by thirty pages of text-dense rules and over a hundred kinds of effects, opening your spell book – really just a stylised binder for your chosen deck cards – and trying to choose two from the entire selection is likely to precipitate meltdown. Not to mention the point when you realise you’ve got to do the same every single turn.

And so, weary apprentice, your journey begins. Trudging slowly up the spiral stairs of the ancient tower, your back bowed under the weight of card options and your footsteps dogged by rules exceptions. Some may stumble on the ascent. Those who reach the top must survive a vicious assault from a new set of advanced rules, and single combat against eye-watering downtime and a chaotically variable play time. Few will persevere. But those who do are blessed with power beyond imagining.

The end of the ascent is a collectible card game nirvana, the realisation of the hopes and dreams of millions of card game fans all over the world. The other half of the old saw was wrong – all the extra complexity adds a whole lot of extra interest to the game. Indeed so much stuff has been shoehorned into Mage Wars that it’s a marvel the game is not more bloated than it already is. It might be difficult and the learning curve might be close to vertical but it’s still the minimum required to deliver its extraordinary promise.

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Let’s check off that wants list, one at a time. For starters, there is enough variety in the box to stand alone. There are expansions, of course, and you may want them but you won’t need them in the way that, say, the Living Card Game model requires regular players to pitch in for updates. This is self contained. You can bake all your favourite play styles from the ingredients provided, from swarms of petty minions to specialising in ultra-powerful monstrosities from the nether dimensions. Or if you prefer the direct route, your choices range from neutralizing your opponent with counter-charms to buffing your own mage into a berserk killing machine. It’s all here.

Second, there’s a fully realised tactical combat model with just the right balance of strategy and randomness. Ranged and melee attacks, different kinds of armour to overcome, a slew of special effects like Rot and Cripple. It takes place on a board just big enough to be worth manoeuvring over, and on which you can manipulate the terrain and summon powerful features like spawnpoints, creating an ever-shifting map of strategic options and taking the focus away from your mage.

Speaking of which, a third realisation in Mage Wars is a distinct avatar. No longer are you limited to expressing yourself only through your card choices. Each of the four mages on offer here tends toward a certain spell selection – although no choices are ever entirely forbidden – but also has particular special powers that tie in with their forte. Beastmasters, for instance, can cast extra summons and bond one as a Pet for a special buff.

All of these things contribute to a final checkbox which is a brilliant evocation of a theme. All of the CCG’s I’ve played, with the notable exception of Netrunner, have generally failed to really communicate a sense of what they’re about through the play. Rich card art and clever quotes are not enough. As you sit, fuming over your awful hand in Magic, how often do you really feel like an omnipotent archmage? Well you will in Mage Wars. An archmage that you, yourself, have created and bought to the board to duel with your opponent.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed with such an obviously derivative game as I have with this one. Mage Wars wears its influences proudly, almost daring critics to lambast it for lacking a little imagination in the face of the mechanical brilliance it conjures forth. It’s living proof that recombining the best bits of older games is still a valid path to greatness. It’s not a game for everyone: learning is a struggle and frequent repeat plays and deck rebuilds are required to get the most out of it. But for those poor in cash but rich in time, it’ll repay the effort put in a hundredfold.

Infiltration Review

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Gaming is littered with quirky little titles that play bait and switch with gamers, masquerading as a style of game they don’t actually provide. It’s not a problem, as long as the game is fun. Indeed it adds to the novelty and charm of the title for the open minded. Dungeonquest, for example, looks like a role-play mimic but is in fact a push-your-luck title and a wonderfully brutal one at that.

Infiltration is equally deceptive. At first glance you would expect this to be a fairly straightforward cyberpunk adventure, where the players take the place of criminals attempting to loot a research facility for information before the police arrive based on a partly-random timer. Collect the most data, and get out before time is up, and you win.

And in a sense, that’s what it is. The game is furnished with quality thematic art and the requisite background quotes and flavour text to add a fake air of authenticity. It also offers plenty of opportunity for the players to interact with people and things in the research facility and to do what criminals in botched heists do best: royally screw one another over for a profit.

However, played with these expectations the game is bound to disappoint to some extent. While the card decks that are dealt from to create a new set of rooms for the facility on each play through are richly varied, thematic and interesting, the same can’t be said of most of the other components of the game.

Players, for instance, have no special abilities. They can take only four actions – move forward or backward through the room cards, interact with the room’s function or loot some of its data. To supplement this they also start with four items which are mostly one-shot variations on the basic actions. But the items deck is pretty small. As a thematic exploration, it works moderately well. As a heist game it lacks the variety and tension required to support repeat plays and has a weak strategic framework against which to make interesting decisions.

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It is, therefore, a damn good job that Infiltration isn’t really either of those things. Sure it’d be nice to see some greater variety in actions and items, but it’s not necessary. Those elements are present but rather than make the game, they just add pleasing extra dimensions to Infiltration’s primary purpose. Which is to be a bluffing game.

The first clue is the way that so much of the game starts face down. Rooms cards can’t be seen until explored or examined via technology. The data files they contain are face-down chips of varying value, and it’s the value you score at game end, not the number of counters themselves. Players hands, and stacks of data files, are hidden from one another. Each turn they select an action individually, play it face down, and only resolve the effects once everyone has chosen.

All this hidden information is absolutely crucial to making the game fun. Many of the card effects add to the sleight and confusion, such as the “Blackmail” item which permits a player to cash in some of his hoarded data files to escape the facility with sublime ease. But its clearest in the action that allow players to steal data in the first place. There’s two variants for this (use “Extract”, trust me) but both mean that players get the most if they’re the first to resolve that action, and less if someone else got there first.

That one point of critical uncertainty alone injects massive tension and psychological manipulation into the game. Everyone has to grab as much data as possible in order to win, so if there’s some left where you are, stealing it has to be a prime consideration. But the same rule applies to everyone. So unless you’re first in turn sequence this round, dare you risk it? Action selection is suddenly transformed into a sweat-soaked frenzy of second guessing and double bluff as you try and work out what everyone else is holding and planning.

That’s just when it comes to downloading data. There is, of course, plenty more. Items can allow you to make sudden jumps back and forth through the facility. Others allow you to break tech-locks or murder employees in certain rooms, releasing more data. There are room effects and non-player characters which will hurt or hinder players encountering them. But you only have one action per turn. It’s all about dare, wondering whether you can waste a valuable action to set a trap for another player, or whether you may become an unwitting victim of your own schemes. It’s all down to those cards held and selected by your opponents in utmost secrecy.

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But of course making your decisions in an information vacuum means there’s little mechanical strategy. That’s the source of the common whine about it being excessively light and lacking replay value. The important decisions are all about bluffing and reading your opponents intentions correctly. The replay value is in interacting psychologically with the other players, not with the game itself. It’s a kind of strategy, but not the strategy some gamers might be looking for. Especially not from the same designer as the mechanically stripped down and low-interaction favourite Dominion.

So Infiltration turns out to be a bluffing game in disguise. In this category it stacks up against an impressive number of popular semi-abstract games like Poker which arguably do the whole psychological angle rather more impressively. What makes Infiltration special are the other strings to its bow. The simplistic maneuver and hand management aspects. The beguiling cyberpunk theme sitting on top the the mechanics like a graphical overlay on a pool of data. The direct and often rather nasty player interaction. The push you luck aspect of balancing the data grab with the need to escape alive. None alone may be done particularly impressively, but as props to the core bluff, they function brilliantly.

It’s that blending of relatively common elements into an unusual combination that makes Infiltration. It’s a fast playing and easily learned game that offers you a gripping hour of cyberpunk plot twists, tension and backstabbing and doesn’t let up until the final score tallies are made at the end. Single unexpected plays and events can totally change the course of the game and you have to be able to take that in your stride, while recognising that the skill comes in doing your best to anticipate and ensure things aren’t quite so unexpected. Manage that, and you’re in for a treat.