(Edit: This is one of my Top 5 Games Played of all Time, as of February 2019 anyway. Check out the other games as well!)
Do you think you can run a television network better than the morons who thought it would be a good idea to cancel not only the incredible Firefly but also the incredibly underrated Adventures of Briscoe County Jr.?
(sorry, that one still hurts)
In Gil Hova’s The Networks (published in 2016 by Hova’s Formal Ferret Games, with art by Heiko Günther and Travis Kinchy), you can! You and up to 4 opponents will vie for viewers by developing shows for your network, landing ads and recruiting stars to try and build your network from a public access channel to one that will command the eyes of every viewer in the world!
Ok, that may be an exaggeration.
Let’s see how the game works briefly.
Each player starts with their own network player board, which has time slots for your shows, a green room for your ads and stars, and a place for your reruns and show archives.
Prior to each season (round), the available cards are dealt out on the table for players to choose from.
During each season, players will take turns doing one of five actions.
Develop a show.
Pay the price in red on the left side of the card and put the show in your 8 pm, 9 pm or 10 pm time slots. The show’s preferred time slot is in the top left corner, and not putting it in its desired slot will affect 1st season viewer numbers (as shown on the right side)
Recruit a Star
Pay the amount on the top left of the card (the purple ones) and put that star in your Green Room. This star will be available to put on shows that you develop.
Land an Ad
Take the ad, take the amount of money in the black circle on the left side of the card. The Ad goes into your Green Room and can be used on a show that can hold an ad.
Take a Network card
These cards can have an immediate effect (the exclamation mark), can be played once during the game (x1), have an ongoing effect (the infinity symbol, not pictured) or can contribute to end-game scoring (the “Good Branding” card above).
These cards don’t cost anything to take.
The bottom row symbols only matter in a solo or 2-player game.
Attach a Star or Ad to a show
Sometimes shows don’t require a star or ad, but they can allow you to place one if you want to. These shows, you can later put an ad or a star on the show as an action by itself.
You can also replace ads/stars on shows with another one if you get a better one later.
Drop & Budget
This is basically “Pass,” ending your turn and getting you a set amount of money depending on how many people have already Dropped.
There are intricacies to developing shows that I’m not going to get into too deeply just for space reasons. Basically, some shows require a star, or an ad, or both to be in your Green Room when you develop the show. You must place these stars/ads when you develop the show and you can’t develop it if you don’t have them.
Then there are the time slot issues, as mentioned above.
Turns go around the table until everybody has Dropped and Budgeted.
Once that happens, everybody pays their upkeep from stars/shows that require it (the red circled number on the right) and gets their ad income from ads attached to shows (the black circled number on the right).
They then calculate their total viewers for that season by looking at where the black cubes are on the shows and adding up the numbers in the indicated slots. Don’t forget reruns on the left side! Those are shows that were cancelled this season to make room for a new show. They still get you a couple of viewers before they go off to the archives to die.
Then all shows age one year, which can really lower their viewer count for the next year (look at “Old Folks Complaining” in the picture above on the top right…from 6 viewers in the current season to 1 viewer in the next!). All of your reruns go into the archives, and all of the remaining cards that were available to choose from are wiped from the board and replaced with new ones.
The next turn’s player order is determined by who is losing, with the last place going first and then on up until you reach the person who’s winning. That’s a nice catch-up mechanism.
This goes on for 5 seasons. At the end of the 5th season, after aging the shows, you have one more scoring round. This is very important to keep in mind, as if you don’t replace your shows properly, that last scoring round can be quite low.
Other things I’m not going to get into detail with are genre bonuses (bonuses for having broadcast shows in the same genre during the game) and the intricacies of flipping stars/ads based on some of their requirements.
And that’s it! The player with the most
VPs *cough* Viewers wins the game!
Is The Networks equal to M*A*S*H or more equal to Hello Larry?
I wasn’t disappointed.
What is so great about this game?
Let me tell you.
The parodies of the show names is enough to make you laugh the first few times you’ve played, and can even provide a chuckle after more plays.
Shows like “Doctor What” or “American Samurai Worrier” just lighten the tone of the game, and the wonderful artwork adds to that tone. This is a funny game.
The network names are also pretty good, though I can only recognize one of them.
But the freshness of the show and network names wears off after a while (I’ve played this game 9 times now). What else does it do?
It has a bunch of interesting decisions, because there’s so much you can do but what order should you do it in?
The danger of holding off on an action is that somebody else may take the card/show you wanted instead.
If you need to replace your 8:00 pm show, then you need to take that one that’s out there rather than holding off and maybe having to take a 9:00 pm show and put it in the wrong time slot because the 8:00 show is now gone.
But that Network card is so incredibly useful! Or it could be painful if somebody played it on you! Or you need a Star for your Green Room! Or you need money so you need an Ad and you know they’ll all be gone by the time it’s your turn again.
Did Brandon Tartikoff have to make decisions like these?
It’s these kinds of deep decisions that really make this a wonderful game design. You’re never able to do everything you want, so you have to prioritize your needs.
Sometimes you may not be able to get that really cool Star for your show, but you’re just going to have to live with it.
The game can be a little fiddly, with all of those shows and black cubes indicating what season your show is in. It’s easy to bump them. It’s easy to forget to age your shows. It’s really easy to forget to count your reruns for viewers. This level of fiddliness may be too much for some people. I can understand that.
Thankfully, each network card comes with a handy action guide and order of stuff to do at the end of each season.
The score track comes in three parts and also has a nice handy aid for setting up all of the cards that need to be placed every turn.
The other main complaint about The Networks is that the materials aren’t the greatest. This is mainly a problem with the networks and scoring track. The cards are of reasonable quality and the money is actually quite nice.
But you have to be careful when punching out the boards as it’s very easy to rip the paper off.
But when the quality of the components is the main complaint, you know you have a good game going.
The Networks just satisfies all of my gaming urges and quickly rocketed up to being one of my favourite games. It’s a fun game, reasonably quick (probably 20-30 minutes per player, we finished a 3-player game in an hour the other day), very creative and it’s not one of those games where if you are in last place you are definitely going to lose. There is a bit of a catch-up mechanism in turn order that can really help.
You should definitely check this game out.
(This review was written after 9 plays)
One other small issue with the game is that it can start to feel a bit “samey” when you’ve played it 8+ times. All of the shows are the same. All of the networks are the same. Everybody starts out the same. The order that cards come out can definitely vary and deciding what your plan of action is based on when they come out can vary too. But a lot of it is the same.
For me, this isn’t really that much of a negative for a couple of reasons. One, it doesn’t affect my desire to play the game but more affects my desire to suggest it for a game day. If somebody wants to play it, I’ll happily do so. I just may not volunteer it after a while.
Secondly, if I have 9 plays of a game, I more than consider that to have been worth the money for it.
That being said, as noted in this blog earlier, Gil Hova has launched a Kickstarter for The Executives, an expansion that will add variable player powers, new shows, new networks that have different strengths/weaknesses.
It sounds amazing and will definitely change things up, and is still open until September 29. You can pledge to a level that will get you the base game as well as the expansion, for $75. That’s a steal if you don’t already have it.
Also, check out my Q & A with Gil Hova where he talks a little bit about The Networks and his game design philosophy.