On Oct. 22, 2018, publisher Fantasy Flight Games stopped producing the cyberpunk card game Android: Netrunner. It was one of their most popular titles, and the competitive scene, a desirable feature for any game, analog or digital, was robust. Netrunner was alive and then, all of the sudden, it wasn’t. Now, four years after its termination, it’s suddenly thriving, all thanks to its dedicated community.
Netrunner is a fierce, asymmetric experience where one player takes on the role of a powerful corporation executing crooked agendas. The other player is the eponymous “netrunner,” a troublemaker who jacks into the corporation’s servers to sow anarchy. Players go back and forth, attacking and countering each other, until the climactic final few rounds. Unlike Magic: The Gathering, however, the original game wasn’t a collectible one. It was branded as a Living Card Game where everyone is always working from the same set of cards and sharing the same tools — even when building decks from scratch.
It’s absolutely fitting then that this game’s modern legacy is now in the hands of a nonprofit fan collective known as Project NISEI. This group of over 60 individuals — game designers, marketers, and artists — has given themselves completely to rebooting a game that never deserved to die. As a result, Netrunner feels more punk than ever.
“Everyone constantly judges us by comparison to what FFG did,” said Serenity “SwearyPrincess” Westfield, NISEI’s vice president of engagement. “Our first six months we were constantly getting doubted and all our decisions second-guessed. […] However, considering that the most common thing people said to me at UKGE was that [the new starter set] is the best core set this game has had, I think we’ve done ourselves proud.”
To get into Netrunner today you need to either download a free print-and-play PDF of the new material from the Project NISEI website, or have them manufactured through DriveThruCards (an arm of OneBookShelf, which also runs DriveThruRPG and the Dungeon Master’s Guild) and shipped to your doorstep. There’s no box, no pack-in or tuck-boxes for storage, not even a printed rulebook or the necessary cardboard tokens and markers needed to play. You’re expected to download the rules from NISEI’s website and furnish your own peripheral bits using poker chips or spare pieces from old board games. There’s this charming illicit vibe that permeates it all.
The underground feel of the game fits with the thematic nature of its design, but it also serves as a potential hurdle for newcomers. Netrunner was never an easy game to learn. It boasts proprietary terminology and utilizes interesting yet unorthodox processes for conflict. Taking up this exceedingly rich tactical card game today is even more of a challenge when you have to literally collate a clump of cards and dance with a ruleset that is lengthy and complex.
Yet, there’s something beautiful here. Last year Project NISEI released a fantastic set of starter cards that functions as the current entry into Netrunner and its ongoing line. System Gateway consists of two small beginner decks — one runner and one corporation — that are roughly two-thirds regulation size, allowing players to ease into play slowly. The cards are expertly tailored toward newcomers, mimicking the functionality of a preconstructed Magic Commander deck. This set can be picked up from DriveThruCards for a modest $21.
While it doesn’t hold your hand or completely alleviate the hefty learning requirements, it affords a cleaner onboarding and includes a suite of cards that are intended to be better suited to the task than even Fantasy Flight’s own official starter. This tutorial approach works, and despite the lack of a smooth corporate feel to the product, there is a renewed sense of vigor as getting the game to the table is more akin to inserting a USB-C connector than the aggravating type-A variety.
The next step is to begin iterating with deck building. After a few plays with the starter builds, there’s a natural desire to tinker with the setups. As a runner, you may want more subversive viruses to soften your foe’s defenses, so you look to “Botulus” to do the job. Looking for more brutal trap options as the corporation? “Urtica Cipher” has you covered.
System Gateway comes with a small subset of additional cards to facilitate this construction loop, further fleshing out concepts and establishing a deeper understanding of the various processes. From there, an optional deck building add-on doubles your options in the Living Card Game collection, offering a pool of 100 cards to build from. In reality, this $45 combined purchase is the real starter set and the face of NISEI as the stewards of Netrunner. Beyond that there are other small card packs you can purchase, boosting the Living Card Game Pool, as well as a surprisingly robust organized play scene with fresh kits and tournament play.
Of course, fan projects like this have a reputation for getting shut down. So is this even legal? It appears that the answer is yes. The NISEI card sets feature entirely new artwork, the rules found on their website have been rewritten from the originals, and the project avoids utilizing trademarked or copyrighted material. The whole thing is wild. Beating the tragic odds of survival that a typical dead card game encounters is testament to NISEI’s prowess.
This new leg of Netrunner has had some growing pains, most noticeably in the art department. While the game design has remained solid throughout NISEI’s lifespan, the illustrations found on the cards have evolved. Illustrations such as those found on “Paladin Poemu” and “Prognostic Q-Loop” from 2019’s Uprising set don’t carry the same gravitas as System Gateway’s “Overclock” and “Sprint.” The most awkward of portraits have mostly disappeared at this point, with System Gateway featuring an overall stellar selection. These cards can be scattered on a table with Android: Netrunner material, and most casual players would never know the difference. Which is somewhat important, given that NISEI’s card pool is fully compatible with Fantasy Flight’s output.
While Project NISEI’s effort has gained a great deal of momentum recently, it clearly hasn’t peaked yet. Developers say that new players are downloading and printing sets of cards every day, and there are plenty of new cards on the way.
“I hope that five years from now — which will make us longer-lived than Android: Netrunner at that point — people feel comfortable talking about the Netrunner we’re making without an asterisk,” community manager Spencer Dub said. “We get some people who look at us as a ‘fan project’ or ‘unofficial,’ and I’d hope that by Year Nine, our Netrunner would have long since earned its stripes.”
I wondered whether there was a grand strategy for NISEI with a planned date for content to end and the project to be declared finished. Dub remarked, “We’re not aiming for that at all — in fact, we’re trying to breathe new life and longevity into the game, whether that’s by making it more accessible to more players or opening new design space. But if the day eventually comes when the NISEI wheels stop turning, I’d hope that our work could show that games never really die. Netrunner has never stayed dead that long, because people love it so damn much. Even if it’s just people making new cards on scraps of printer paper at their kitchen tables, I hope we can show people the joy of taking the games you play into your own hands.”
Classic Android: Netrunner can still be found sparingly on eBay and Amazon with the odd friendly local game store still carrying some stock. Project NISEI, however, currently lives on DriveThruCards with all of its product line currently available -- although it will eventually have a different name. The team announced on Monday that it would soon rebrand.
Correction: Our story originally stated that consumers had to purchase Project NISEI in order to play. That’s incorrect, as the game is freely available as a free print-and-play download. No purchase is required. We have adjusted the original story to note that.