My Netrunner cards have sat front and center on the shelf in my closet for over the last three years. A place of prominence amongst the games stored there, yet untouched. Unmoved. My boxes of runner and corp cards remain unsorted from years prior, once meticulously arranged, still a jumble from the last time I pulled decks apart and put new ones together. A moment of play frozen in time after the game was officially discontinued.
All that changed at PAX East this year. All thanks to Project NISEI.
Are you curious what NISEI is? Perhaps you remember Netrunner as “that two-player card game about hacking that Fantasy Flight Games lost the license to.” Perhaps you’re hearing about it for the first time now. Perhaps, as the Obi-Wan meme goes, that’s a name you’ve not heard in a long time, years since you last picked up a deck, like me. What if I told you that the game was alive and well? What if I told you there were new cards, compatible with the old FFG ones, to spice up your collection? Or for the new folks, what if I told you all it would cost to get into Netrunner was a price of pay-what-you-want?
What if I told you NISEI was the future of Netrunner? And that they’d been hard at work these last 3+ years ensuring that fact.
They just come out and say it. NISEI is the future of Netrunner. And I think they're not wrong!
Can’t Stop The Code
June 8, 2018. That’s the publish date on an article here on Sprites and Dice where I said my official goodbye to the best card game I’d ever played. Ask any number of ex-Netrunner players and you’re likely to get similar responses regarding their feelings for this much beloved title. From the tight game design, harrowing choices each turn, the thrill of running servers and heading into the unknown, the comeback wins, the flatlines, the representation in the game’s cast, the killer theming on each card, the warmth of the community, the affordability of a game with no random booster packs, you are likely to hear the same sentiment over and over: amongst all the deck-constructable card games out there, we’ve never played one as good as Android: Netrunner. As I say in my article, “It’s been more than just a lifestyle game; it's a game that’s been a part of my life.”
Some people weren’t ready to let that go.
Almost immediately, over three years ago, a group of dedicated volunteers stepped into the void of the discontinued game and vowed to keep it alive. Calling themselves Project NISEI, a play on a term from the official game roughly meaning “second generation,” their aim was to create “a Netrunner compatible game” that could continue breathing life into the community through new card releases, continued balancing and tournament support, and in curating community resources. To call Project NISEI just “a fan organization” is a bit uncharitable. I’d say they’re about as close to professionals as you can get without this being an actual day job they get paid to do. NISEI has actual game designers working alongside aspiring designers in a team, building new cards. It has playtester groups, many of whom were playtesters for FFG back in the day. It commissions artists to finish out their new cards, each piece indistinguishable from the FFG originals in their high levels of style and polish. Hold up a NISEI card next to an official Netrunner card and if not for some differences in the formatting and border you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. That’s the level of quality we’re talking about here.
Look at these gorgeous new IDs! The classic style is preserved, but if you look closely you can see some NISEI upgrades.
I’d known about NISEI since their inception, curiously following their work, but I wouldn’t blame you if this was the first you were hearing about them. To this day when I mention Netrunner people will speak of it as if it’s a dead game. “People still play that,” they’ll ask, unaware of NISEI or what they do. You should’ve seen the looks on the faces of folks at PAX when they heard NISEI stuff was new. They’d ask if it could be combined with their old FFG cards (yes). They’d ask if it could be played as a standalone (yes). They’d ask if it was beginner friendly (yes). They’d ask if there was a wider community still playing (yes). They’d ask if physical cards could be bought (yes).
I spent two days of my PAX, on and off, cycling around to the NISEI area to chat with Dan, their marketing lead and all-around awesome guy, and to pick up a few casual games. And what I learned surprised even me.
It felt great breaking out my old mat and tokens again. (not included with NISEI stuff)
The Next Generation
So what is NISEI? I’m going to oversimplify to start, but it’s some cards that allow you to play Android: Netrunner. These cards are broken down into “packs” for the ease of new folks joining the game. There are some cards that come ready-built with a tutorial corp and runner (System Gateway) so you can learn the rules and have fun with the basics; this box also includes a few extra copies of cards if you get it with the deckbuilding pack, so once you’re ready to move from the tutorial 30 card decks up to a standard 40, you just move past the card in the box that says “Stop Here” and shuffle in the new stuff. It comes pre-sorted when you receive it, so a total newbie can grab things in order and just go. If you’re new to Netrunner, this is where you start.
For people who want to start building decks with proper IDs, each adding a unique power and theme as well as informing which cards your deck will predominantly be made of, there is another pack of cards that expands the Gateway stuff into more of a “core set” (System Update). You can mix and remix your decks up for a ton of replayability, even if you just have one other play partner and enjoy “kitchen table” style casual games. With Gateway and Update combined, you could treat NISEI like a standalone board game and play it a ton with just that. Lastly, if expansion packs get you excited, the Downfall and Uprising cards (together referred to as the Ashes cycle) build on that even more. These are what you’d consider expansions that will rotate with time to keep the card pool fresh in the wider community. Don’t worry about any of the new stuff not being “tournament legal,” though. It’ll be years before the Ashes cards rotate out of standard play, and even then it’s not like they go bad. You can always play them with friends in any format you like.
In fact, if you have older FFG Netrunner cards, nothing stops you from using those as well to build out any play group you want! “Standard” format, the current tournament legal list of expansions, is a combination of both NISEI products and the last several FFG expansions released. My own, current decks are standard format. I personally enjoy this style of play for the deckbuilding and balance, as well as the challenge of building something within the constraints of the current tournament card pool. “Legacy” format takes off the gloves and throws caution to the winds, allowing any card from any set. You play this format when you just can’t let go of old favorite cards or want to have the silliest, wackiest time. Anything goes!
And all of this is assuming you want to play with physical cards (the pay what you want level gets you print-and-play copies of the new stuff). You can browse NISEI’s print on demand service if that’s a thing you need in your life, but what’s a runner to do if you’re on a tight budget? What if I told you that you could play Netrunner and NISEI stuff for free? A digital, web-based app called Jintei.net allows players access to the entire card pool, old and new, and free online play. If you want to browse preconstructed deck ideas or just mess around in a more controlled environment, saving decks as you go, NetrunnerDB is also free online. Both these tools have served the wider Netrunner community since back in the FFG days, but they’ve become all the more central as meeting spaces in NISEI times. And if a wider meeting space is what you desire, you can hit up the Green Level Clearance Discord to chat with other friendly humans. Ask questions. Ask for someone to teach you how to play. Chat about card combos or seek out regular play pals. Everything you need is at your fingertips.
Jinteki.net is a free, browser-based app that gives you access to every card ever printed. Learn and play to your heart's content!
Like Riding A Bicycle
“I might lean on you to help teach tonight, if you don’t mind.” Dan tossed out this comment as we finished talking on Friday afternoon. That evening in the community room of the convention center, masks still required, a learn-to-play event was set to kick off. After dinner the plan was to walk back to the con and play some games against other netrunners at PAX, all the while against the backdrop of new folks coming to learn the game with Dan and the other NISEI volunteers. I’m not sure, asking me to maybe help out, how much interest he was gauging from his online promotions of the event, but I couldn’t very well say no. Even if it had been about two years since my last Netrunner game online and over three since I’d touched my physical cards. I wouldn’t need to remember the minutiae of the run structure and timing windows. I just had to break down the basics and give folks a sense of the game’s bigger picture. I’d taught the game to my fair share of players back in the day. I could do it again, right?
I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous. When can you say was the last time you pulled a board game off your shelves, having not played it for at least a couple years, and could recite the rules off the top of your head? That’s essentially what I’d just agreed to. Though of all the games in my library, none were as close to my heart as Netrunner, and the excitement of a community event outweighed any anxiety I was feeling. I’d pulled down my unsorted boxes of corp and runner cards from my closet prior to PAX, tossed my old playmat and tokens into my bag, and assembled my first new decks in years while in our Boston hotel room. I’d come to PAX ready to thrown down with some Netrunner. So what if I ended up teaching all night instead of playing? It just felt right.
The event turned out to be a massive success, bringing in something like 50+ new folks from what I heard. Not that I noticed the flow of people coming and going, as I spent nearly three hours moving between tables, teaching several groups of newcomers. I didn’t actually get in a single game of my own that night, and to tell you the truth I could not have cared less. It felt so good to just be around so many people eager to learn this beloved game I’d missed. Some were totally new, while many others related tales of trying the game once, years ago, and were ready to give it another go. My teaching turned out to be not half bad either, each new group eventually being left to themselves to finish what we’d started together, exploring the game on their own. Everyone had just the best time.
To understand why is to truly understand the beauty of NISEI.
Official tournament support! NISEI also boosts the community by helping local organizers get support for the big events.
Made For YOU
I really don’t know how else to say this, so I’ll just say it: if you are a new player, NISEI is designed for you. I’d made the mistake of thinking they were just new cards when I’d first bought them. Things to keep the game going for all the vets like me who’d played for years and weren’t ready to stop. And don’t get me wrong, they’re still great for folks like me. They still have all the interesting flair, power, and decisions you’d expect from the best Netrunner cards. I’d bought the physical sets and then, due to lack of meatspace opponents, tucked them away with the rest of my stuff, unopened. How wrong I was that they were only for people like me! From formatting and wording clarifications to the aforementioned preconstructed format in the Gateway box, NISEI has had new players in mind since the very beginning. Talking with Dan at PAX made this very clear. Catering to the vets is one thing, but the game’s long-term life is still at risk without new players coming into the community. If you are a new player, reading this article, trying to determine if NISEI is the right jumping-on point for you with Netrunner, understand me when I say there has literally never been a better time for you than now.
If there was one complaint I consistently heard of Netrunner back in its officially supported days, it was that it was something of a bear to learn. New players were handed a complete core set with more options than they knew what to do with, and the included rulebook was a pretty bad time in terms of learning solo. Many people I know who played for years were all taught by other humans rather than that flimsy book, and they were usually handed a deck constructed by their teacher, custom made to wrap their budding runner brains around. NISEI didn’t just set out to make new cards. They took on that role of teacher, heart and soul, and they made some very clever moves in reshaping the new player experience. The Gateway box eases players in and gives them everything they need to taste all Netrunner has to offer without overwhelming them, just like having a personal mentor. The Update box turns a pre-arranged starter kit into the full core set that confident and canny players are eager to mess around with. And from there the sky’s the limit as players dive into new packs and older FFG cards in pursuit of their ideal ways to play.
Some cards may be new, but they've got a certain nod to their predecessors. A little more balanced and considered, and still exciting to play!
While NISEI might not have the budget to do things that a big company can do, in some ways they are more creative and agile than their predecessors. Since NISEI volunteers all have day jobs, for example, they’ll squeeze game design for new cards in a few hours here and there as they’re able. But as opposed to a larger company who might do this with one dedicated lead designer, NISEI’s team combines more than one lead with several other aspiring designers, all bouncing ideas off each other. They learn from one another constantly, and the cards they create are all fantastic works because of that collaboration. New cards are both interesting and balanced between considerations for tournament play, the game’s long term health, and the new player experience. Playtester groups rotate to avoid burning out, as do design groups, and since this is all done on a volunteer basis, any money NISEI makes off the sale of their print on demand products goes right back into the product itself. That is, a good chunk goes to paying for art commissions, keeping cards in that signature cyberpunk style, professional and clean, and NISEI has the means to attend conventions like PAX to spread the word even further.
All of this just to say: NISEI wants you to try some Netrunner. They’re working hard to make the experience of learning, or relearning, as easy as possible. What you get for an investment of your time (as, again, it could cost you monetarily as little as nothing to try it online for free) is access to quite possibly the greatest two-player, head-to-head constructable card game ever made.
Do you like full bleed art cards? NISEI remembers.
Play With Strangers
Once upon a time, I took to heart some very wise words from another, prominent board game reviewer in our online community, speaking at the time about Netrunner, a game they also loved. It was Quinns of Shut Up & Sit Down who once famously said, “Play with strangers.” The wider Netrunner community was, and still is, a place full of friendly and inclusive people. Maybe it’s due to the lack of large monetary prizes at large events (I think the biggest thing a World’s winner ever received was a backpack), but “beating the other person at any cost” has never been the be-all-end-all of why we play. Sure, as the saying goes, the object of the game is to win, but the point of the game is to have fun. And so it’s always been with the Netrunner community.
I took that advice and found some really good friends I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I’ve driven across state lines for tournaments, spending hours with super-friendly folks (who kicked my butt). I’ve taken cards internationally, playing other netrunners abroad. If you have no play partner but really want to get into Netrunner with Project NISEI’s stuff, do yourself a favor and hop online to the Green Level Clearance Discord. There are all kinds of friends there who are just waiting to meet you, teach you the game if that’s what you want, or help you find out if there’s a physical meetup happening in your local area. Want to start your own? I plan on rekindling our local group here in the near future, and I plan to visit the Discord to link us up to the wider gatherings around us. You could do the same with their help.
NISEI and I both want you to play. We want you to experience this thing we love. We want you to be a part of our warm, welcoming community. We want you to have fun playing a game that’s truly like no other. Whether you’re coming back to the game or coming to it for the first time, there’s no denying the love and time NISEI has put into their “compatible game” for Android: Netrunner. NISEI is the future of Netrunner. Do yourself a favor: come and see what the future looks like.