Designed by: Gil Hova
Published by: Formal Ferret Games
Playtime: 60-90 Min.
Review copy provided free of charge by the publisher and designer.
The chances are that at some point you’ve been watching a mindless reality TV show or yet another horrible program about a daft subject and come to the conclusion that if you were in charge of the network you could do so much better than this drivel. Well, The Networks seeks to give you that opportunity. You’ll pick from such shows as Found, Breaking Worse and Agents of S.H.A.M.P.O.O., hire amazing stars like Serial Award Winner, Cult Sci-fi Actor and that Comedian Your Parents Like and air ads for potatoes, yachts and other junk to earn piles of cash. It’s all in the name of getting the viewers and proving to everyone that you could, in fact, do it better than those suit-wearing pillocks.
Of course, it helps that The Networks is actually a simple game to play, boiling down to a bunch of cards on the table that players will choose from. It’s far less complicated than running an actual company filled with staff who constantly wave bits of paper in your face or who want to know why the maintenance budget was spent on cakes and strippers. Want to put on a show which is simply an hour of people shouting very loudly? Go for it! Sadly you can’t just run an adult X rated network, though. Shame, really.
Every player gets handed a board representing their TV station, a crappy “star”, an equally crappy advert and three utterly atrocious shows nobody wants to watch that take up your three available time slots. You’ll also get some starting cash, with the players further down the turn order getting more to make up for the fact that they won’t have first dibs.
Split into five seasons the goal is to have the most viewers by the end of the fifth season of play. A season consists of players taking it in turns to pick cards from the available TV shows, stars, ads and network cards available on the table, slowly building their TV into a powerhouse. The amount of each card type that gets placed depends on how many players are sitting around the table.
Being in charge of a TV station it makes sense that your main concern is producing new shows to wow the millions of mindless drones sitting at home on their couches. To purchase a TV show you need to pay the amount listed on the top left of the card and then pick one of your three available time slots next to your network board where it will replace any existing show, that show then being rotated and moved to the rerun pile where it’ll be scored at the end of the round before finally being carted off to the archives. The timeslot is important for a few reasons: firstly shows that are not in their ideal timeslot will score less viewers during their first season of airing, sometimes as little as half, and secondly because some adverts require a show to be in a certain slot or in its preferred slot, otherwise they get rotated to their worse side. Shows often also upkeep costs as well that must be paid at the end of every round. Their final requirements come in the form of stars and ads. Some shows absolutely must have one or both of these or they could be optional, but the point is to buy a program you’ll need to be able to meet the requirements.
Of course, the most important aspect of a show is the audience it brings in, as displayed on its rightmost side. Once you place a show you’ll also stick a black cube on the first row on the right of it to indicate which season it’s currently in. This cube gets shifted down after scoring at the end of every round, aging the program as time goes on and changing a number of viewers it gets. During viewer scoring at the end of the round you also need to add the value of any stars you’ve attached to the show or promos, a special kind of advert.
Speaking of adverts when you pick one of these up from the table you get the ‘landing bonus’ shown on the top left, a chunk of cash for signing the deal. Once you attach an ad to a program it’ll generate the amount of money shown on its top right corner at the end of every round, hopefully helping balance out the cost of the show and its stars. However, some ads have special requirements such as being attached to a sports show or being broadcast in a specific timeslot. Fail to meet these requirements and the card has to be rotated to show its weaker side. An ad may generate $3-million per round when attached to a sports program, for example, but only $1-million when used with anything else. There’s also promos where if you opt to pay a large fee when attaching it to a show it will not only generate cash but also extra viewers.
Many of the shows you’ll be putting on your network will need a leading lady or man. You’ll need to pay a sum when signing them initially, plus they may also have upkeep costs once added to a show. Much like ads they often come with requirements that must be met otherwise they’ll be rotated and thus attract less viewers. With that said sometimes it isn’t worth waiting for the ideal pairing to appear.
Finally, there are network cards that provide special bonuses like instantly getting an extra five viewers or being able to draw a star from the deck and keep him/her for free. Other cars provide bonus ways to score at the end of the game or abilities that you can play later on, such as reruns scoring an extra four points each at the end of the season.
All of your ads, stars and network cards get kept in the green room on the left side of your station board until they’re actually needed. Shows are the only cards that aren’t kept in the green room as they have to be put into play as soon as you purchase them, so you can’t just snatch up that really awesome program before someone else if you don’t have the stars and ads needed to broadcast it.
An important thing to keep in mind is when to cut and budget, which basically means when you want to drop out of the season. You see, when you finally decide to cut and budget you’ll no longer be able to draft new cards until the next season, but in return you get to choose between a sizable wad of cash or some bonus viewers.
Now that we’ve got the basics of how to play covered, let’s talk about how it actually feels to play. The answer is very maths heavy. This is ultimately a game of numbers, a constant series of calculations as you work out whether to take the shows that offer big audiences for the first season or two and then fade out or go for the longer, more consistent program combined with an expensive star. Bonuses for collecting three and five examples of a single genre are also really tempting and you have to work out if chasing that sci-fi show to complete a set is worth giving up the extra few viewers provided by a different program. It’s a good thing that there’s a little scoring track on the edge of your network card which can be used to keep a running total of your viewers for that round, but that didn’t stop a few players in my group coming to a stop as they mentally weighed up the various options, or whether they should just go with the funny combination. While you’re calculating how to get the most viewers you’ve also got to keep an eye on your funds and decide when to cut and budget. Despite the reliance on arithmetic, though, it’s not an overly hard game to play or learn, yet there’s enough going on under the surface to keep you engaged in the action. Choices feel like they matter, and there’s a solid amount of player interaction that stems from other people taking the things you want.
The two-player game has a few tweaks to counter the fact that with just a couple of people playing there doesn’t tend to be much interaction between them. Instead of having a standard turn order system there are three circles, and in the leftmost one both player’s turn markers are placed, one on top of the other. Whenever someone finishes their turn they flip over the counter stack and move it to the next space. If this sounds a tad odd don’t worry, it’s for a reason: Every third turn a network card has to be drawn and then according to the symbols shown at the very bottom of it stars, shows, ads and network cards must be discarded from left to right, slowly burning away your choices. It’s a bit like having a third player, really, except one that always takes the leftmost card. Talk about a weird quirk.
A singleplayer mode has been tossed into the mix as well, which as a frequent solo player is something I appreciate greatly. Here things get changed by a network card having to be flipped over after every turn you take, and if you can’t get rid of one of the indicated cards, because none are left, then a black cube gets placed on the turn order track. Should five cubes ever be on the track then you immediately lose the game. This adds a little bit of a press your luck style mechanic because to achieve the pretty substantial 265 viewers to win the game you really need to get the most out of every season possible. To counter the black cubes of doom you’ve got two goals to meet along the way: get 65 points by the end of the second season and you can remove one of the black cubes, while earning another 100 viewers by the end of the fourth season lets you remove another. It’s a tightly balanced game as I usually found I was only losing or winning by 10 or 20 points, and the two other goals along the way were tricky to reach in time. Going in I genuinely thought that the solo mode was going to be a throwaway inclusion added merely so they could have the 1-4 player count on the box, but it proved me wrong by being very, very enjoyable.
I think my biggest complaint is something of an unfair one; The Networks needs more. This is a game that feels like it needs an expansion right out of the gate that adds more shows, more stars and more ads. It only takes a couple of playthroughs for you to see everything, and naturally that is what damages the humor. Airing a show about old folk complaining and casting an adorable geek or an action star that looks suspiciously like Bruce Willis to host it is funny the first time, but not so much the tenth. The best example of this is how the shows are split into three different decks that get used as you progress through the seasons. The very first deck has a mere seven shows, so everytime you play the starting lineup will consist of pretty much the same things. Happily, the designer already seems to be working on an expansion that will hopefully bring that extra content, plus it seems like he has plans to introduce unique abilities to each network. The theme also provides plenty of room for further expansion down the line like being able to put shows into syndication or perhaps airing movies as well.
The other complaint would be card quality. In a game that is 90% cards their a little too thin and easily damaged for my tastes. Of course, some card protectors can solve that problem. The rest of the components are fine, though, with basic but serviceable artwork and wooden tokens being used for scoring, turn order and keeping track of how old your shows are.
These little problems aside it’s a damn good game that has eaten up a lot of my time. Arguably my favorite type of game is easy to learn but still has some depth to the choices and The Networks fit that description rather well. It never took me long to teach the basic mechanics to my friends. It’s not a hugely deep game, but that just means it doesn’t suck everyone into a speechless void of thought and instead provides time for people to chat and have a laugh about whatever combination of show and star has popped up. I kind of love it, really, and so The Networks is getting a recommendation sticker from me.
Except while there are shows that make fun of Lost, Breaking Bad and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. there’s nothing that pokes fun at Game of Thrones. That’s just wrong, really.