Seven game design lessons from Netrunner

The idea for this post was born during a conversation in Essen with Remo Conzadori, designer of Expo 1906, Game of Crowns and writer on the blog River Forge Project, where this post was first published in Italian. My thought was that Netrunner from Richard Garfield has several lessons for a starting game designer, lessons that are also present in many other games, but in Netrunner they have a very high “density”.

Netrunner in short: a player plays a monolithic and evil corporation (called Corp), and tries to complete her world domination plans, while the other player is the hacker (called runner) that tries to break into the Corp servers to steal the same plans.

Each player has a resource (credits) that carries over from a turn to the next one and a resource (clicks) that resets at the beginning of each turn, as mana in Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone.

The Corp plays face-down cards (ICE) to protect its servers, while the runner must do runs, trying to overcome the ICE to access the content of the servers. Netrunner was first published by Wizards of the Coast from 1996 to 1999, and then restarted as Android: Netrunner from Fantasy Flight Games in 2012.

Lesson 1: Catch-up mechanics work better when implicit

Many CCG-style card games, starting from genre founder Magic: The Gathering, tend to have a snowball effect, where a player with the best board position (e.g. more cards in play, stronger units on the board) keep on getting a better position, and it gets more and more difficult for the opponent to turn the game around.

Copyright: Plaid Hat Games

This situation makes for boring endgames where there isn’t fun neither in winning or losing. To limit this effect there are usually specific cards that balance the situation, destroying all cards in play (Wrath of God in Magic, Valar Morghulis in AGOT:LCG) or giving an advantage to the losing player (Magic Drain in Summoner Wars). Usually these cards are not appreciated by the player, and seen as unexciting necessity.

In Netrunner instead the actions required to win, as advancing agenda cards for the corp or making runs for the runner, requires the spending of both clicks and actions, so the player that scores points unavoidably gets poorer and the board state moves toward a new balance.

Copyright: Fantasy Flight Games

Lesson 2: Game mechanics should support the theme with style

The asymmetry between Corp and runner is “told” in many ways: victory points are only found in the Corp’s deck (in the form of agenda cards), so she has a degree of control, while the runner must go and steal them. The Corp plays her cards face-down and the runner face-up: in this way the Corp player fully knows the board state while the runner has a partial knowledge and must take risks at each action.

Further, the Corp spends credits only once for each card, when reveals (rez) them, while the runner must spend credits each time he or she wants to access a server, so must overcome the Corp defenses before they become too hard to pass.

Lesson 3: Capitalise on existing game elements

Copyright: Fantasy Flight Games

As an alternative victory condition, the Corp can blow up the runner’s apartment, send henchmen to his home, or drive electrical pulses through his brain during a connection.

To represent damage suffered by the runner, Netrunner doesn’t use a separated system of life points, but re-use an already existing game element: the cards in hand by the runner. When the runner suffers damage, he must discard cards equal to the damage received and if he has not enough cards he loses immediately.

Copyright: Fantasy Flight Games

In this way no further complexity is added (Richard Garfield affirms that each game has a “complexity budget” at disposal) and there is already an embedded healing mechanics: drawing cards.

Lesson 4: Gambling is fun

Copyright: AEG

Netrunner at its core is a gambling game: the runner pays the cost of a run to get a chance at scoring an agenda card. The cost of the wager is set by the Corp with the installation of ICE.

This system creates tense and fun situations, for example when the runner is on the edge of losing the game but can choose to “bet” all his remaining credits to try and access the last required agenda.

Lesson 5: The player tolerates randomness if he has the tools to control it

The most hated situations in Magic are “mana screw” or “mana flood”, respectively when the player doesn’t draw the lands to cast his spells, or when he draws too many lands so that he doesn’t have spells to cast.

These situations are only partially controllable by the player during deckbuilding, and statistically will happen in a fraction of games. In Netrunner the player can always spend clicks to draw a card or gain a credit, so he always have the possibility to influence the game state, even when he hasn’t in hand yet the cards he requires.

Lesson 6: “Sudden death” victory conditions make games tense from the first turn

Copyright: Fantasy Flight Games

In Netrunner the runner can lose from his first turn, if he suffers more damage than the cards in his hand. This forces the runner to be careful from the beginning, while the Corp tries to build this dangerous situation from the first turn.

Lesson 7: Limit choices to bring variety to the game

In Android: Netrunner the card pool is divided among distinct factions: 3 for the runners and 4 for the Corps. In the 1996 Netrunner original game all cards of each side where playable, with the risk of seeing powerful cards in every played deck.

With the introduction of different factions, each player has access only to a subset of the card pool, and each faction plays differently. He or she also has to choose an identity cards, which grants a special ability or a deckbuilding bonus. This element makes the game even more varied, as each identity force a re-evaluation of the card pool, as weak cards become stronger when played with a particular identity.