Into the Depths

Midnight Sun and Parhelion, collectively called the Borealis Cycle, comprise my first complete cycle as lead designer at NISEI. This was my first opportunity to collaborate with NISEI on what our future design direction looks like, and what kind of Netrunner I am trying to move us towards.

When I first joined the team around a year and a half ago I prioritized organizing the design team around achieving specific goals with regard to the impact of our products. The Borealis Cycle was in early pre-production, but I found without concrete ideals to strive for, it was likely we would release a more freeform or unfocused cycle that wasn’t driving a grander vision of the game forward. After the release of System Gateway, which was a concise product that laid the foundation for NISEI’s releases in years to come, I wanted us to follow it up with something that felt similarly complete and well-formed. 

Our creative team had worked hard during the Ashes and System Gateway periods to put together what is commonly called a “world document”. Think of this as a creative lore guide for the setting of a cycle and the thematic foundation for the design team to work from. Using this, the design team’s existing pre-production work, and a new design agenda, Borealis began to take shape. 

Borealis as a cycle establishes two primary product pillars that will be present in all of our releases going forward:

Set Cohesion: I want product releases from NISEI to feel like pieces of a whole. When a player looks at a card, I want them to know right away that they’re holding a piece of content that belongs to the Borealis Cycle. For the design team, this means making sure each card in the set feels like it belongs to the mechanical ideas and patterns found within it. 

Novelty: Historically, Netrunner has relied on rehashing and reimagining primary game mechanics or timidly putting forward minor spins on central game ideas. These days are over with Borealis. The design team will be emphasizing that every set has a mixture of completely new mechanical ideas in the form of keywords, and/or totally new archetypes that haven’t hit the table before. I hope that returning players feel like they are returning to a new experience with concepts they haven’t experienced before, and for veterans to feel challenged and invigorated with new puzzles to solve upon every NISEI release.

En Passant banner
En Passant by Seojun Park

Beyond these two pillars, we’re looking to start steering the ship toward some gameplay principles that will put the game in a healthier place in the future. These can be broadly grouped into four categories: Game Length, Grinding and Dynamism, Incentivizing Interaction, and Complexity.

Game Length is an area I’ve publicly spoken about. The design team’s opinion is that a game of Netrunner should feel like something anyone can fit into their lives, without feeling unsatisfyingly short or burdensome to complete. I like to imagine myself sneaking in a game or two of Netrunner over a lunch break or happily completing a match during the allotted time limit in a tournament. This is the target vision for game length.

Grinding and Dynamism are concepts I focus on a lot in my own design process, and ones that influence a great deal of the emotional content of a Netrunner game. A “grindy” match is one where the pendulum of a match rarely swings. Think of a tug-of-war match at complete deadlock till the very last moment, when the strength of one team overwhelms the other and topples their opposition. While not altogether a bad thing, grindy matches can often feel like a game of pure calculation, rather than one of bluffs and strong reads on your opponent’s plans. By contrast, a game that is overly dynamic can feel like it changes completely by the turn of a single card, leaving you feeling like your smaller decisions have no impact on the outcome of a match. On the design team, one of our long-term goals is harmonizing these two competing forces, so managing your credit pool and making a calculation in game are as important as finding that perfect time to bluff an agenda or trap. 

Incentivizing Interaction is a tricky problem within Netrunner’s game system. I would argue that games of Netrunner are better when the players are mutually incentivized to interact with each other early and often, rather than playing solitaire where they don’t care very much about the other player’s board state or game actions. Our proposed design solution is twofold: we’re reducing the power level of the Corp’s early game defensive tools, such as cheap and midrange ice that is so threatening it dissuades running altogether, while simultaneously increasing the overall power level of cards that enable them to win the game, such as agendas and upgrades. Put another way, we’re shifting some of the Corp’s power out of defense and into offense, simultaneously allowing and incentivizing Runner interaction throughout a match.

Complexity is the enemy of fun. Not to be mistaken with gameplay depth, something all of us come to Netrunner for, complexity is the raw calculation and comprehension needed to understand the boardstate and effects of cards in play. System Gateway significantly reduced the complexity of a Netrunner game in a way that keeps the game approachable and comprehensible to the novice player, but we hope to carry that forward into future releases as well. Don’t worry, your average Borealis card is still a good bit more complex than your average card from System Gateway, but we’re working hard to cut back on the overall amount of raw text present on a card so that figuring out the expanse of the gamestate is a bit more manageable. 

Hopefully, this gives you all a sense of what to expect in Borealis and our future releases. I want to leave you all with some teasers to speculate about in the time between now and spoiler season.

The Borealis Cycle features:

  • The first Standard-legal neutral identity pair: one Corp and one Runner.
  • Three new Runner keywords.
  • Three 2/1 agendas.
  • A Shaper vehicle console.
  • An icebreaker with the weapon subtype.
  • A new “quest” card. 
  • Four cards designed by major tournament winners.
  • Seven cards with the cybernetic subtype.
  • A “Limit 6 per deck” Runner card.
  • A new region for each Corp faction.

I hope you enjoyed this look at our design philosophy. We can’t wait to show you what Borealis has in store!


  • June Valencia Cuervo

    June was Null Signal Games' lead game designer. She lives in Los Angeles, California, and spends her days scribbling game designs into notebooks, roller blading, and playing poker.