Tabletop games have always stood at the periphery of my gaming intake. I’ve been exposed to various tabletop games over the years, read about them and knew people who were into them, but never actually made the jump myself. I’d play the Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering games over and over, but never really thought about playing their real-life inspirations.
It was this last PAX South when I decided to finally break my routine and venture into the tabletop area, determined to find something that might catch my eye. At some point in my youth, I had a brief, fleeting infatuation with a miniatures game called Mage Knight, so maybe the more modern iterations would be interesting. A friend always railed on about his love of Settlers of Catan—that could be worth a try.
I settled for Android: Netrunner, a card game I had read about often, on sites like Shut Up and Sit Down and Paste. Hearthstone had been a frequent addiction in the past, so surely Android would have something for me.
The next hour was spent in a nigh-zealous fervor, as I ran through several practice games with an experienced player and a Fantasy Flight rep coaching me as I went. It wasn’t just an interesting card game, it was an outline, a place where rogue net hackers attempted to breach servers of corporations, while those monolithic companies established servers and advanced insidious agendas. Through hacking patterns, mannerisms and playstyles, I could immediately see the room for personal expression. Two players approached one deck in different ways, choosing to value certain targets as the runner or employ certain technological barriers (affectionately called “ice”) to trap careless hackers.
I was ecstatic. I could see myself losing hours to this game, delving deep into the metagame, reading strategies and molding new decks with all kinds of tricks and traps. I turned to the Fantasy Flight rep who had guided me on this journey, and asked him about digital versions.
None, was the answer. And that was the end of my short, sweet love affair with Android: Netrunner.
This might sound heretical to the many tabletop players that still preach the value of physical goods, but if a game can’t be played digitally, it simply doesn’t interest me. I imagine the same could be said for many. The advent of digital gaming has shown a lot of promise in translating complex games into portable, shareable experiences, yet many companies seem reticent to make the leap. These publishers and communities regard the in-person experience as sacrosanct, loathing the idea of moving beyond the tabletop.
For many like myself, though, the sort of investment required in modern tabletop gaming is beyond even the outer realm of possibility. The first major hurdle is the physical aspect itself, the tactile nature of tabletop gaming that is often celebrated. To create that experience, you need the pieces: miniatures, cards, rule sets, boards. Things that cost money, space, and often time, to paint and prep for presentation on game night.
A chief example would be the Warhammer line of games, both the core fantasy version and the 40k science-fiction variant. A grim, bloody construct of war gaming, this strategy game has lore and community-created battle stories that would entice many to the table. The cost, however, will immediately turn them away, and if not that, then the commitment to figures and maintenance surely will.
Armies require upkeep, and so do the miniatures of Warhammer. A squadron of Blood Angel Space Marines, the least amount of buy-in to have some of the smallest battles you could possibly have, is $70. This doesn’t include the paint you’ll need to buy, lest you show up with unpainted figures to a Warhammer event, and the cases for storage you’ll need to keep them packed somewhere. At some point, whenever I actually consider the buy-in, my mouse simply drifts over to Steam and boots up Dawn of War, the Warhammer 40k videogame that gives me the same epic space battles for much, much less.
Then there’s the more necessary investment, not of your own time and money, but other’s. Tabletop games often require many, if not all players, to have their own sets, their own figures, their own tools and dice. Warhammer is another easy example, requiring each person to invest heavily in their armies, and then be willing to set aside several hours for a night’s session.
Even disregarding the incredible buy-in of games like Warhammer, Android: Netrunner brings up a similar issue. There’s no option there for me to be sitting at the doctor’s office, bored and tepidly swiping at my phone, and decide to play a quick match. Even Netrunner, a game only using a defined set of cards to play and lacking the booster-digging requirements of heftier collectible card games like Magic, still requires me to have a person, present and prepared, to play.
That’s not an appealing factor to me, in my daily routine. Hearthstone is the divining rod for the modern market, and its success story is one I’m surprised more traditional games aren’t following. The ability to pull out my phone, right now, and play a match of Hearthstone against an opponent online doesn’t just alleviate the stress of organizing tabletop game nights and getting friends invested; it also means I have more time to invest in this game, and have the chance at constantly bettering myself, challenging players internationally rather than locally. Online play means the best players can organize matches easily, across time zones, and ladders can give you a metric of growth greater than beating that one guy at your local comic store.
This isn’t to say I don’t appreciate having a game night, pulling out a physical board game and socializing in that manner. From family favorites like Monopoly and Connect Four, to some nights I’ve spent with good friends experimenting with sets like Munchkin and Small World, I’ve enjoyed plenty of these games.
But I look at Android: Netrunner, locked in its corporeal form, and see only missed opportunities. Nights I could have spent, spinning up one match before bed to test a new runner deck. But it’s a physical game, and I’m a digital player. I don’t find the time to set aside for shared experiences in that manner, and even if I set aside the time, it’s doubtful my friends would.
So until that day comes, that Android: Netrunner and many others adapt to the way we play games, I’ll have to simply dream of the day that an official, effective format for this game exists. One I can carry with me, one I can boot up anytime and anywhere, one that will let me experience that same rush I felt the first time without all the scheduling and buy-in.
At least we’ll always have Texas.
Eric Van Allen is a Texas-based writer. You can follow his e-sports and games rumblings @seamoosi on Twitter.