My megacorporation is on the wrong side of a wealthy Criminal playing a nasty Account Siphon. Not only would would that steal nearly half my credits, but it would boost his level of wealth from “Jay-Z” to “Scrooge McDuck.” A single trace is my only chance to stop him and we both know it. If the trace succeeds then he’s forced to end his run against my servers. My money would be safe, but for the trace to succeed I’d have to spend more credits then I stand to lose.
Netrunner overflows with these dilemmas. How much pain do I endure to guarantee my foe doesn’t profit? Did he know going into this that I could stop him at great cost, and just wants me to waste the credits? There’s rarely an answer that’s always correct regardless of the circumstances. While I try to win, I play to wrestle with these dilemmas of the moment.
A few people have gathered around the table. As I announce my decision about the trace, one of these watchers openly asks “WHAT! Are you INSANE?”
“WHAT! Are you INSANE?”
Same sentiment but this is nearly five years earlier at approximately 1 A.M. I’m at the final table of a friendly poker tournament, playing against the final two others when I fold a hand that bring jeers, howls, and even a stern rebuke from the onlookers.
I smile nervously but say nothing. My hands tremble when I’m extremely excited - they’re my tell and so I hide them under the table. Moments later, the round ends, the crowd cheers, and this became a hand we still talk about today. It isn’t because another player was knocked out despite a good hand, but because I’d have been knocked out despite an amazing hand. I read the state of the entire table, figured the leader had a truly phenomenal hand, and played accordingly.
Folding may be losing but that play still feels better than winning. In poker I maybe get one or two of those moments every few games, moments when you see through the Matrix and really are playing the person across the table from you rather than just the cards in your hand. It’s rare though. I spent a lot of time in poker chasing that dragon.
Netrunner is full of those moments. With so many public, discrete bits of information, every turn matters and there are continuous revelations about the state of the game and players. There’s enough mechanical complexity to make a puzzle to ponder, but still enough ambiguity to play the players and not just the mechanics.
There are many reasons I am having a torrid love affair with Netrunner lately but this may be chief amongst them.
Back to the Future
“WHAT! Are you INSANE?”
Back to the dystopian future of Netrunner. I do nothing. I let the trace fail, presenting no challenge to the runner whatsoever and leaving the door wide open to the Account Siphon. I could have shut it down entirely for just one more credit than I lose to it. Instead I left our corporate bank account numbers and a nice glass of tea in our reception area.
Like me, the runner now faces a choice: continue and steal my money, or end the run now and reap no rewards or consequences. It looks like a trap. It looks like a bluff. It looks like an amateur mistake.
I think to myself “Please don’t end the run. Please steal my credits.” I remain silent, doing my best to act annoyed and resigned. I hide my hands beneath the table - they’re my tell.
Thankfully, my opponent’s greed gets the better of him. He finishes the run and takes his ten credits. He also suffers the side effects of an Account Siphon. The runner is automatically tagged, an effect that basically means my giant, powerful megacorporation knows where this little hacker lives.
I use this tag to kill him immediately on the next turn. The game ends and he is a corpse, albeit a fabulously rich one.
I don’t particularly care about the win. That’s not what I’ll remember. I’ll remember the pivotal moment of two decisions - my decision not to resist, and the runner’s decision to continue. Netrunner provides so many of these choices and opportunities to react that I can’t help but love the game even when I’m on the losing side of these decisions.