My Life with Games (part 9)–Marriage and gaming

On the evening of January 9, 1997, I called Nathan, a friend who I’d met through Castle Archon. He had two phone lines at his house, and it turns out that he was on the phone with another friend of his. Apparently he’d been talking about me a lot to this other friend, and she wanted to know who was occupying all his time. So I agreed to talk with her later that evening.

Crystal tells me that when she got off the phone with me that night around 2 a.m., she turned to her brother and told him, “I just talked to the man I’m going to marry.”

He rolled his eyes at her.

Marrying Crystal has changed my life. This seems like it should be an obvious point, but I want to stress it. Marriage changes everyone, but this was an even bigger change for me. Marrying Crystal brought me into contact with an urban culture that was totally foreign to me. I had grown up in the suburbs of Erie. Yeah, it wasn’t exactly a ritzy section of town, but you could walk the streets at night without fear. I thought I understood what life looked like and how to live it. You know, people are basically good and want to leave in peace with each other. The police are on your side and can be trusted. Crystal introduced me to a world that was dangerous, where society was against you, where you are alone against the world, where people look out for number one and devil take the hindmost. You know, what much of the world is actually like. My idealism collided with her experience and largely lost. To jump ahead in the chronology, I never would have written Dirty Secrets if I hadn’t met Crystal. Any thread of activism or social justice that you detect in my work is the result of my relationship with her.

But all of that was yet to come in the summer of 1997 when we married.

We were poor. We were poor and then we discovered that Crystal was pregnant with a honeymoon baby, which made us extra poor. This meant that entertainment money was at a premium. So Crystal, reluctantly, decided to give these games of mine a go.

I should be clear. I say “reluctantly”, because she didn’t really have an interest in games at the time. It’s also true that she totally chose to be the hero in the situation by trying to meet my needs.

The early stages of this didn’t go well. I had a lot of experience with these games, and I am constitutionally incapable of letting someone win. Add pregnancy hormones into the mix, and you have a volatile situation. I remember dodging a thrown queen after a game of Knightmare Chess ended badly.

Also, Crystal doesn’t really enjoy wargames. They are hard for her to “see”; her skills lie elsewhere, as you’ll see in a moment. So, while she was trying, it’s really hard to remain enthusiastic about playing games when you’re always being slaughtered.

And then came Netrunner.

Actually, Netrunner had come first. It was released in 1996 to broad acclaim. And, really, it was a fine game, perhaps the best CCG ever released.

So, here’s the setup. Netrunner is set in the cyberpunk universe of the Cyberpunk 2020 RPG. One player plays a Corporation (aka “Corp”) which is hard at work pursuing its agendas. Indeed, “agenda” was a central card type. Of course, because everything lives in computers, the Corp is also busy securing its agendas and other computer systems with security software called “ice”. Securing from whom? The other player, who is a hacker (aka “Runner”) who is attacking the Corp.

Each agenda has a certain point value. If the Corp spends enough time and money to advance the agenda, he gets the points. If the Runner hacks through the security software to get to the agenda, he steals it and gets the points. First player to seven points wins the game.

Netrunner is all about resource management and head games. You see, the Corp installs ice facedown. So, the Runner doesn’t know what they are when he begins a hacking run. However, the facedown ice isn’t active. To activate the ice (“rez” it), the Corp has to pay money, but only when the Runner is actually trying to hack through that piece of ice. The stronger the ice, the more expensive it is. So, is that facedown ice a low-cost weak defense, or is it the stronger kind which could kill you? The answer is ingenious: it doesn’t matter, if the Corp doesn’t have enough money to rez the expensive ice.

So games become a dangerous dance of bluff and counter-bluff, with the Runner taking actions to provoke the Corp into spending his money on low-priority defenses (whatever they are) to allow for an opening for the Runner to strike easily. In response, the Corp tries to bluff his way through his ice placement, trying to secure his agendas long enough to score them.

But there’s even more. If the Corp can “tag” the Runner and determine his location in the real world (“meatspace”, if you will), an entire new world of pain unfolds. A properly equipped Corp can wreak financial havoc on a tagged Runner, dispatch corporate mercenaries to the Runner’s location, destroy his network of contacts, and even blow up the building he is in, all in an attempt to squash the annoying Runner out where he’s weakest.

It’s a beautiful, beautiful game. And, unlike most CCGs, having the “cool cards” is not as useful as having a good skill set to play. Like being able to bluff well.

Or, you know, have virtual telepathy by reading body language. Like Crystal can.

For the first time, Crystal and I were on an equal footing in a game. Because playing the Corp was all about bluff and counter-bluff, and Crystal played that game much better than me. She’d look into my eyes and ask me, “Do you have any agendas in your HQ?” Of course I’d deny it, but she’d see something there and run anyways. It was devastating. So, I started working on my tells and body language.

Anything I’ve learned about how to lie effectively comes from playing Netrunner with Crystal.

For years, a game or two (or three or four…) of Netrunner was a common evening occurrence after the children were in bed.

Recently, Fantasy Flight rereleased Netrunner as Android: Netrunner, themed to their cyberpunk world. I’ll discuss this more in a later installment, but for now, understand that this was a really big deal to me. A really big deal.

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