Tracing the Roots of Trace

Traces were among the first things I identified that deserved our consideration as we reimagined the original Netrunner. The original system pitted the Corporation’s trace strength against the Runner’s link in a blind bid. The Corporation could bid any number of bits (the game’s currency) at a ratio of one bit to one strength, up to his trace limit, which was given by the trace. So a “trace(4)” meant the Corporation could not bid more than four.

On the Runner’s side, however, things were a bit more complicated. The Runner did not have a trace limit, but was dependent upon his installed cards. The Runner had a “base link,” which started at zero, but which could be increased and would, if announced, establish the Runner’s starting bid. However, if the Runner had no card installed that allowed him to boost his “link,” then he could not spend bits to participate in the bid. A number of cards would allow the Runner to increase his link, but they would do so at different rates of return.

So when I set about updating Android: Netrunner, I looked for ways to streamline the old trace rules in order to fit in better with the rest of the game’s cards and systems. Also, I wanted the trace mechanic to be fully interactive and functional from the beginning of the game, and not have it rely completely on link cards. Finally, I felt it was important to focus as much as possible on making sure the trace system would interact well with another of the most important systems in the game: the economy of bits.

The Early Stages

Playtesting began with a trace system that was reminiscent of the original but sought to increase the system’s interaction. I felt that the blind bid was the most interesting part of the original system, so we began by testing a system with a blind bid where both players had limits as to how many credits (the currency in Android: Netrunner) they could bid. The Corp’s limit was listed on the trace itself, just like the old system, but the Runner’s limit was tied to his or her current link value. All Runners had a starting link of 1, so there was always a bid from the beginning of the game. This system lasted through many different card iterations; it was interactive and combined elements of double-guessing. Ultimately, though, it had a few issues…and one mortal problem.

First, it was a low-impact part of the game, and it was still possible to ignore link as the Runner. This meant that the Corporation often knew it could win the trace; it just didn’t know how much it would have to spend to win it. However, if it really needed to win the trace, it could. Making link cards cheaper helped, but it soon became apparent that the introduction of too many link cards would create the opposite problem: the Runner could always win the trace. Again, it would just be a question of how much he would have to pay. Still, most of these issues could be resolved by correctly costing abilities and tracking the limited card pool. In fact, the system was close to being finalized when the mortal problem reared its head.

The mortal problem didn’t actually pertain to the cards in the Core Set. It appeared when we considered cards from future expansions. I realized that the current system, while workable, left little room for future design. Trace limits couldn’t climb much higher without being incredibly unfair, or without the Runner having access to better link cards. So either the system wouldn’t grow, or cards would have to become more powerful to open new limits, and the game would grow in a negative way.

So that version was scrapped. The next version was more difficult to conceive. I knew it needed to be less restrictive, but I wanted to keep the blind bid because I felt that was an important aspect of the original system. We played with a string of different variations, most just for one or two testing games. Playtesters also began experimenting with their own systems, trying to come up with a solution. Eventually, I landed on a system in which both players were able to bid as much as they want, one for one. The Corporation’s trace limit became his base strength for the trace (generally one or two) while the Runner’s base strength was his links. It seemed to open up more design space because there was a wider range of potential bids, and it could certainly lead to intense moments in the game.

It bombed. The system worked on its own, but it completely trashed the rest of the game. An important trace attempt could bankrupt both players and ruin the flow of the game. The variability was just too high; one bad decision during a bid could bury a player. The economy of the game suffered. This was incredibly frustrating as I knew I needed an answer soon.

Finalizing the Connections

It was back to the drawing board. I reviewed some of my early ideas and started bouncing them off of various people. And then, eureka! Well, kind of. If it was actually a “eureka!” moment you would think I would remember it better. I don’t. All I remember is that I was playing some games with the head of the LCG department, Michael Hurley. That session was the first time we tried the current system. We both liked it. It was a big departure. The system relied on the elimination of the blind bid, and it was that blind bid that I felt was the single most engaging aspect of the original trace system. I was loathe to get rid of it, but it was obvious that in order to promote lively interaction and maintain the integrity of the game’s economy, something had to give. I chose the game, not the system. Trace should support the flow of the game, not supplant it. And the new system had many advantages.

So let’s talk about this system. It is actually the system that bombed, the unlimited bid system, with one important tweak: the Corporation bids first. It turned the blind bid into an open bid, and all of a sudden solved the main issues with the system. It was still interactive, but did not suck credits from the players. It was faster. It could still be bluffed. And it reinforced the economy of credits, one of the game's core aspects.

I was honestly a bit surprised that the system was generally well received by playtesters, but it reinforced what I had already come to realize. Losing the blind bid was disappointing, but it was a necessary sacrifice and led to far more positives than negatives. Rather than draw focus away from the game or detract from the core experience, the new system actually enhances it. It has a noticeable impact and opens up future design space. Players must still ask themselves, “How much is this worth to me?” But the Corporation sets the true value of the trace. Depending on the credit situation, this is an incredibly important and interesting decision. If the Corporation can outbid the Runner, should it? If so, the Corp knows the Runner will spend nothing. If the Corp doesn’t outbid the Runner, will the Runner match? How much will the Runner actually spend? These decisions become more difficult the richer the Runner is, reinforcing the importance for both players of having credits available to spend. The Runner’s decision is simpler, but if he has the option to match, it can be no less agonizing.

Settling on a trace system was probably the most difficult part of the entire design process, but ultimately I am confident that it makes for a better play experience. It puts the focus back on making runs, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    –Lukas Litzsinger, Android: Netrunner Lead Developer


Netrunner is a TM of R. Talsorian Games, Inc. Android is TM & ©2012 Fantasy Flight Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved. Netrunner is licensed by Wizards of the Coast LLC. ©2012 Wizards.


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