In the board gaming world there are games known as 'lifestyle games.' Games like Bridge and Magic: the Gathering where most people that play them, play only them.
For me that game was Android: Netrunner.
When I first moved in with my partner, I was looking for board games for us to play together. My collection was only just beginning to grow with a handful of the staple gateway games and some other things that looked neat when I saw them on Tabletop.
We played Ticket to Ride and Pandemic quite a lot in those early days but I was looking for something more. I wanted a game that was made for two players. That appealed to me on a deeper level. Something that scratched a certain itch.
That game was Android: Netrunner, an asymmetrical living card game where plucky hackers and ruthless megacorps face off in a Philip K. Dickian cyberpunk world.
It was perfect.
Netrunner is not a simple game. On one side of the table you have the Corp. A player controlling an ambitious and amoral megacorp that is trying to advance secret agendas to win the game. The Corp sets up servers with assets and upgrades to further their plans, building up money and defenses known as ICE to hold off the Runner.
On the other side of the table is the Runner. A hacker looking to foil the Corp's plans by breaking into their servers and stealing everything of value. Each side has an identity, a card that establishes some deckbuilding criteria but more importantly give the player a unique ability to use during the game.
To give these identities some flavour, they fall into different factions. Shapers are a runner faction that cares about the art of hacking, building a beautiful rig and seeing what magic they can weave. Crims are in it for the money, manipulating the Corp and trying to bypass defenses. Anarchs just want to break shit.
Corp factions have larger, loftier goals. Generally along the lines of world domination.
Jinteki uses clone labour and nefarious traps to further their goals. Hass-Bioroid are Jinteki's rivals, using androids to efficiently deliver. Global news network NBN wants control of every piece of information and then there's Weyland. Weyland wants to make money and isn't afraid to use excessive force to stop anyone that gets in their way.
Not the most delightful bunch but what do you expect from a game set in a cyberpunk dystopia?
As with many great games, Netrunner is about decisions and information. The Corp has all of the information, their cards are played facedown and must be 'rezzed' to be activated. This way they can set up ambushes and keep the Runner guessing about what tools they need to crack through.
Meanwhile the Runner is trying to put together a rig, a combination of programs, hardware and resources all in service of the game's core mechanic: the run.
During a Runner's turn they can make runs at Corp servers to try and get past the ICE so that they can steal agendas from those servers or otherwise ruin the Corp's day.
Getting past ICE isn't easy nor should it be.
It requires the Runner to have the right programs lest they suffer whatever penalties the ICE has in store. Managing these programs and having enough money to fuel them is a difficult yet rewarding process.
Having the right tool at the right time is pivotal.
Netrunner is marketed as a 'living card game'. Instead of selling the cards through randomised boosters, publisher Fantasy Flight Games sells the game through a series of completely non-random products that resemble video game DLC.
At least like DLC before loot boxes took over. Guess card games have approached this situation backwards and I'm okay with that.
I lied when I said that Netrunner was perfect. It was perfect for me. My partner despises the game.
It would have been nice for me to realise this before I had bought almost every Netrunner card in existence at the time. Oops.
My collection sat dormant in a box for a few years as we moved from Sydney to Dubbo to Canberra.
A few months into living in Canberra I decided to check out a friendly local game store on the other side of town. The owner - who coincidentally shares a name with a Mexican narco-terrorist but that's another story - casually mentioned that they had a fairly popular Netrunner night on Tuesdays. It was Monday so I went home, pulled my cards out of their box, found some decklists on NetrunnerDB that didn't seem terrible and sleeved up two decks.
When I showed up to the store the next day there was only one person playing Netrunner. He completely demolished me with a Runner deck that constantly trashed its own programs so that it could recycle them.
I had no idea what the cards he was using did. I had no idea how the interactions made it all fire. I didn't care. It was amazing.
Other people started to trickle in as we played. They were a friendly bunch, joking between themselves as they battled over agendas. I was welcomed with open arms.
There was one question on everyone's lips that night: "Are you coming on Saturday?"
That Saturday was a tournament. Fresh on the back of my single win that Tuesday night I decided to give it a go and lost every single match.
Yet I was hooked and I was starting to build a group of friends. Living in Dubbo was a lonely experience, I only had my partner and her work friends to socialise with.
Playing Netrunner scratched a certain itch, one that I had been wanting to scratch since I stopped playing Magic: the Gathering in high school. More importantly it gave me a social outlet. One I had been craving ever since we had moved from Sydney.
I started going to that store every Tuesday night slowly improving at Netrunner. Eventually I started to suck less, learning the flow of the game and understanding how to wrest control back when my opponents started to dominate.
Part of the appeal of Netrunner is the magnificent artwork on some of the cards. Not all of them. Some of the art is outright naff.
But there's one piece of art in the game that I really love, the art for Maya. When Fantasy Flight Games announced that players that earned their way into the top eight of the Regional Championships would win a playmat featuring that art from Maya, I was determined to make one my own.
My friends and I started to work together, I wasn't the only one that wanted that playmat. Plus it was a good excuse to hang out.
Testing decks against a gauntlet of the best decks on offer in the metagame. We played endless games on Jinteki.net, a very unofficial way to play Netrunner online used by all of the top players (and pretty much everyone else too).
After some testing I settled on two decks that had a similar theme: Vomiting cards on the table. Both my Runner and Corp tried to flood the table with useful cards in a way to overwhelm the opponents. Even with the asymmetry of Netrunner it's possible to find common playstyles on both sides of the table.
After a reasonable first round I ran into a newer player in the second round. Overconfident, I made some mistakes as a Runner that let him destroy essential parts of my rig. Upset at my mistakes and unfocused, I tried to recover but the damage was done.
He went on to top eight the tournament. I did not.
My love of the game was still strong. While I didn't win my prize, there was still the game there to drive me. That was enough. A playmat is only a thing. Even if it is a particularly pretty thing.
But there were problems with Netrunner. Groups of dedicated players would find ways to break the game, employing better versions of the strategies I used at Regionals.
Instead of a back and forth between the Corp putting up ICE and the Runner trying to break through, the game became focused on what's known as a horizontal strategy. With the Corp putting too many things on the table for the Runner to deal with efficiently and overrunning them became the playstyle du jour.
Corps no longer cared about installing ICE so Runners didn't care about finding ways to break it. The core interaction of the game was broken.
Every new Data Pack came with new cards that made this strategy even stronger and the only way Runners could respond was to play their own degenerate strategies. The only way to win was to follow everyone else down this path.
Worse was the way Fantasy Flight Games handled the situation. They created the Most Wanted List, a way to limit the cards fueling the degeneracy.
Too many cards needed to be addressed. Too much of the game's core strategy had been eroded.
The player base started to fall apart but I held on until early 2017.
There was a tournament at CanCon, a board game convention that runs every Australia day weekend. By this point my interest was already waning but I thought I'd give it a go. It would be a nice break from wedding planning.
My partner and I were right in the middle of planning our wedding only a few months later. That morning I got a text saying that there was a problem with her mother coming to the wedding. Not a huge problem but a problem that had to be addressed. That's just how wedding planning goes.
I did my best to help over the phone, suggesting ways to deal with the situation while trying to focus on the tournament and have fun with my friends.
During the third round I had a panic attack.
The stress of wedding planning, a lack of food and general anxiety got the best of me. I rushed out of the building and found shade nearby. Lying down and breathing heavily, I fought the urge to vomit.
I want to tell myself that it wasn't that moment that drove me away from the game. It was the metagame, the shift away from Netrunner as I loved it. The new cards that fueled those strategies and the inability of Fantasy Flight Games to address these problems.
Truthfully, I'm not too sure.
Over the coming months I kept trying to get back into Netrunner but it never clicked. They released the Terminal Directive Deluxe Expansion with a legacy campaign for players to unveil a story as they played a series of games.
I bought it. I played it with my friends. We never finished the campaign. The spark was gone.
A new lead designer was announced for the game. The Most Wanted List was changed to a banned and restricted list, removing many of the more degenerate strategies for the game. A Revised Core Set was released and a rotation policy came into effect, removing a huge swathe of cards from the game and further hampering things the community complained about.
None of this got me back into the game.
I remember the first time I played with my partner. She was screwing around as NBN and accidentally uncovered the same horizontal strategy that would later fuel the metagame's collapse. As she laid out card after card in front of me she taunted me, "Where are you gonna run, Bun?"
I'm not going to run anywhere. Not anymore.