Netrunner is my favourite game, and I think it’s one with a very interesting history. I wanted to explore that a bit, so I thought I’d put together a history of the game.
In 1993 the tabletop gaming landscape was changed forever by the release of Magic: The Gathering. Designed by Richard Garfield and released by Wizards of the Coast, Magic was the first ever Collectible Card Game (CCG) and it was a huge success.
Released in August of 1993, by the end of October that year the game had already sold 10 million cards. By the end of 1994 it had sold over a billion. source
This started the ‘CCG Gold Rush’, where other companies, seeing the success of Magic, wanted to get in on the action. Over the next few years there was an explosion of CCGs, and in 1996 Wizards of the Coast released another game from Magic designer Richard Garfield: Netrunner.
NETRUNNER (1996 – 1999)
The original Netrunner operated in the CCG format: you were able to add cards to your deck, bought in blind booster packs. The gameplay, of Corp versus Runner was established right from the start and would remain largely unchanged in later editions. One interesting thing about this edition was that it was set in the universe of the Cyberpunk roleplaying game, created by designer Mike Pondsmith.
Though it found a dedicated fan following, it wasn’t enough to keep the game alive and the last expansion, confusingly called ‘Classic’, was released in 1999.
ANDROID NETRUNNER (2012 – 2018)
After having laid dormant for a while, in 2012 Netrunner was relaunched by Fantasy Flight Games as Android Netrunner, the game having been licensed to them by Wizards of the Coast. The game shifted from the Collectible Card Game model to FFG’s own Living Card Game (LCG) model: one that sees regular new content released for the game but without the randomisation of booster packs.
The game was transported from the Cyberpunk universe to FFG’s own Android universe.
As well as vastly improved art and production values, this version added factions to the game. In the original Netrunner it was just Corp vs Runner, but now there were three distinct Runner factions and four Corp factions, all of which brought their own flavour.
Beyond some updated terminology (Data Forts became Servers, Bits became Credits), the gameplay remained largely the same as the original.
Android Netrunner was a big success. It developed a dedicated and devoted fan base, and saw organised play, with Store, Regional, National and World Championships officially supported by Fantasy Flight Games.
Content was regularly released for the game, adding new cards in waves called Cycles. Interest in the game started to wane around 2016 with the release of the Mumbad Cycle, which is generally considered to be a low point for the game.
In 2017, Netrunner was rejuvenated by the release of a Revised Core Set, which saw renewed interest in the game. At this time, the YouTube channel Team Covenant released a Learning Netrunner series which remains a key resource for people looking to get into Netrunner.
In 2018 Fantasy Flight Games announced that their licensing of the game from Wizards of the Coast was ending and that the game would be discontinued.
This came as a shock to many in the community as it seemed like Netrunner was on the rise once again.
NISEI (2019 onwards)
Determined not to let the game fade away, a collective of fans formed Project NISEI – a non-profit organisation dedicated to keeping the game alive.
NISEI design and release their own cards, which are fully compatible with Netrunner as well as being playable on their own. They also provide support for Organised Play, and provide updated rules and card lists to ensure that the game stays healthy.
In November 2019 they released System Core, a digital list of cards by which players could create a new core set from their existing collections. After that came Downfall in March 2019, an expansion which added completely new content to the game. Downfall was the first half of Nisei’s Ashes Cycle, with the second half, Uprising releasing in December 2019.
In March 2021 came the most important NISEI release so far: System Gateway. A new starter set, complete with tutorial decks, System Gateway allowed new players to get into the game without having to hunt for a second-hand copy of the FFG version.
NISEI continue to work on new content for the game, with Midnight Sun, the first part of the new Borealis Cycle releasing in Summer of 2022.
(Note: Project NISEI announced in August 2022, that they will be changing the name of their organisation).
Netrunner has had a storied history since its initial release in 1996. From the first Wizards of the Coast version fading away like so many CCGs of the time, to its rebirth with Fantasy Flight Games and then its untimely death, the game continues to survive due its dedicated fans and the passion that they have for the game.
Header images from Fantasy Flight Game