When I was in college, I had to take some required courses in broadcast TV in order to get my communication degree. Despite the fact that I had no interest in working in TV, I found these courses fascinating. The mental and financial games between networks, showrunners, and advertisers when scheduling, creating, and canceling shows will turn your brain inside out. Network TV is nothing but a huge game (and gamble) and it seems like it would be a perfect theme for a board game. Is it? Does the game that takes place in the boardroom translate to a board game? Read on!
How It Plays
The Networks is a card drafting and action selection game that has players acting as the heads of emerging television networks. In order to climb up the ratings and become mega-successful, your little network will need shows, stars, and advertising revenue. But it’s not enough to merely acquire these things and slap them on the airwaves willy-nilly. No, to fully maximize your network’s potential you need to schedule your shows so that you grab the most viewers, maximize your ad revenue, and keep your stars happy. The network that attracts the most viewers after five seasons wins the game. Win and you become the HBO of the game. Lose and you’re that awful infomercial channel no one watches.
To begin the game, each player takes their player board and their starting show, star, and ad cards. Everyone’s beginning items are equally bad. This is all of the crummy stuff your network currently offers and upon which you desperately need to improve. Other cards are placed face up in the play area according to the season being played, the number of players, and whether you’re playing the basic or advanced game. These are the cards you may draw when performing your actions. When cards are taken from the display, they are not replaced until the next season begins, meaning that the options become fewer as players take their turns.
On your turn, you choose one action to perform. Here’s a high-level overview of each action and the game flow. There are exceptions and other rules for each action, but for brevity’s sake I haven’t included them here.
- Develop a Show. Developing a show requires you to pay the cost of the show and meet the prerequisites for stars and/or ads for that show. You then take a show card from the display and place it and the associated star/ad cards (that you’ve previously acquired on other turns) into a time slot on your player board. Note that certain shows perform best in certain slots, so you want to match that if you can. If you already have a show in a time slot and you want to replace it, you “cancel” it by moving it to the rerun area. There are bonus points and extra actions available if you manage to develop multiple shows of the same genre.
- Sign a Star. Take one star card from the display, pay the signing cost, and place it face up in your green room. This star is available for you to attach to a future show.
- Land an Ad. You may take an ad card from the display and take the money indicated on the card. The ad is placed in your green room and can be attached to a future show.
- Take a Network Card. Network cards give you special powers including taking special actions during the game, or gaining bonus points at the end. Network cards cost no money to take.
- Attach a Star/Ad. If a show allows you to attach more stars and ads (other than those you attached when the show was initially developed), you can add them to a show. You can also replace stars or ads with better performing options, if the show allows.
- Drop and Budget. If you cannot afford to perform any more actions, or you don’t want to, you can immediately take money or viewers and end your season. (In season one, you only get money. In season two and later, you can choose between taking money or viewers, but not both.) When you drop, you move your turn order marker to the leftmost available space in the Drop and Budget track and collect the reward on that space. The first player to take this action gets the greatest reward and the values decline from there.
The season ends when all players have taken the Drop and Budget action. Income and expenses are calculated and paid out, viewers are scored, shows are aged, and a new season is set up. The game ends after five seasons. You will end and score the fifth season as normal and then everyone scores only their viewers one more time. (Do not collect income, pay expenses, or score reruns during this final scoring.) Next, score one viewer for every star remaining in your green room and then score any network cards that award viewers at the end of the game. The player with the most viewers wins.
Appointment Television (er, Gaming), or Dead Air?
Spoiler alert: I really enjoyed this game. It was one of the funniest and just pure fun games I’ve played in a while, especially for a game that isn’t a “party” game. The cards are hilarious. Most of the shows are thinly disguised versions of real shows. “Persons of Disinterest.” “Dexterous.” Etc. And the stars are just as funny. There’s even a knock-off Bob Ross and his Happy Little Trees from PBS. The ads are for ridiculous products until you think, “Wait, haven’t I seen something like that on TV?” and then you realize just how absurd TV advertising can be.
Needless to say, the game is a thematic, if abbreviated, version of what goes on in network TV. You have shows that function best in certain time slots, stars that work better on certain types of shows, and ads that go better with certain genres of show. There are expenses to pay, underperforming shows to cancel, stars to replace, and shows that shed viewers as they age. It’s enough to make you feel like a mini-Rupert Murdoch or Ted Turner, only without all the boring meetings and corporate takeovers.
The game itself is fun and breezy. Pick up a card, play the card. While many of the cards have special circumstances (like rotate the card to the “bad” side if it’s not attached to the proper genre or the show isn’t in the proper time slot, etc.) these things are pretty easy to figure out. The cards and score track look like they have some iconography to figure out, but once you read the rules you see that it’s not a big deal.
What makes the game fun, especially for people who just like to play and not sweat an optimization puzzle, is there’s almost always something you can do on your turn. Whether that move is optimal or not is a different story. For example, you might be able to develop a show, but you can’t (or don’t want to) put it into its perfect time slot. You can still put the show out, you just may not receive the maximum points. But you will get some points.
But if you want to put your brain into it, there are some interesting decisions to make and things to consider and they’re all in keeping with the theme. You want to schedule shows in the optimal time slots and pair shows with the best stars and ads to get the most viewers and revenue. Can you go for the genre bonuses by having three or five shows of the same genre? You have to remember that shows and stars age as seasons progress and they may shed or gain viewers. This forces you to keep looking ahead to the next season so you can optimize your little TV production engine. Also, stars and shows require you to pay money for upkeep, so having multiple stars on a show may get you viewers, but it’s expensive. There’s more, of course, but if you play this game to its fullest, there’s a lot to consider.
None of it is difficult to figure out, however. This isn’t a game AP-inducing game of crunching through options and calculations. Unless you’re playing with really slow people, turns move briskly.
There isn’t a whole lot of interaction in The Networks. You will find that cards you want get removed from the display before it’s your turn, but this usually isn’t done out of malice. It’s just that the other player found it useful, too. You do need to keep half an eye on other players, though, when it comes time to consider whether to drop out of the season. The first person to drop gets the best payout, while subsequent droppers get less and less. However, if you’re last to drop, you can run through tons of actions if you have money to pay for them and you can potentially use up the entire network deck. Is it to your advantage to be the first to drop, or are you better off holding out? If you desperately need the money or viewers, you don’t want someone to drop before you. On the other hand, you don’t want to drop prematurely if you’ve got a chance to really rack up points by chaining a lot of actions together as the last player standing that season.
As with most card games, luck is present in The Networks. When cards are placed out at the beginning of the game and replaced at the beginning of a new season, they’re drawn randomly. You have no control over what comes out, so there may be nothing that you can really use, only stuff that you can sort of use. This may bother some players, but for the lightness and family-friendly nature of the game, it feels appropriate. You simply have to adapt your strategy to whatever comes up. A big part of the game is making the most of what comes out, rather than working one perfect strategy from beginning to end.
I was very impressed with how easy the game is to learn. For some reason, after a first glance at the rule book, I thought this was going to be painful. (I think it was all the icons and numbers on the cards.) But then I started reading and realized that even those with little to no game experience can pick this up. The rulebook pretty much teaches you as you play, meaning there’s no lengthy rules explanation, even for new players. The individual player boards also have reminders of the actions and phases of the game, which cuts down on the need to pass the book around the table.
As for replayability, I feel like this is a mixed bag. The game itself is replayable. In the box, you get a basic game, an advanced variant, and a solo variant. While there aren’t a ton of individual strategies to explore, the cards do come out differently each time so your optimization puzzle changes each time. There isn’t anything in the mechanics of the game that would make me want to stop playing it when I’m in the mood for a lighter card game.
Where the replayability suffers a bit is in the lack of cards. One of the best parts of the game is seeing all the crazy shows, ads, and stars come out. Once you’ve played the game a few times and seen all of the cards, some of that joy is gone in future plays. It’s still a fun game, but some of the hilarity is gone. There is a mini-expansion available now which helps somewhat with this, but I’m really hoping for more cards down the road. However, even once you know the cards, it’s still fun to see the pairings you end up with and talk about how you got stuck with this star, or how a certain show tanked mightily.
The game scales well. I’d seen some negative reviews of the two-player experience, so I was concerned. However, I enjoy it. There are special rules for the solo and two-player games that have you “burning” actions at certain points. Burning means discarding cards from the display and covering drop/budget spaces according to a randomly drawn network card whose icons dictate which actions to burn. This is an effective way of tightening the game and applying extra pressure to the smaller number of players. It sort of acts like a dummy player who takes cards you might want and who drops out of the season before you to claim the larger bonus, but without the complication of players having to make choices for the dummy. As far as two-player variants go, it’s easy and it works.
In addition to the lack of cards, I have only one other real negative to the game and that is that it can feel a little long. It’s not AP prone, but it’s such a light, breezy game, that it feels more like it should be a thirty minute game, not an hour-plus. Even with multiple plays we haven’t been able to get it much below forty minutes with the two of us. While forty minutes isn’t bad, in larger groups and groups with slower players that hour and fifteen minutes can start to drag.
I think this is largely because the rounds feel pretty much the same. Yes, the list of things you need to keep track of grows with every round, but you’re still doing the same actions every turn and every season. This wouldn’t bother me in a thirty minute game, but the longer playtime can start to feel draggy, especially when you’ve reached the point where you don’t even get the thrill of seeing new cards as you move along.
Still, I really enjoy the game. It’s a great weeknight game, or a game to play with non-gamer family and friends. (I should also note that it’s clean fun: I applaud the designers for not throwing in porn, religious mockery, or other inappropriate fare dredged up from the bowels of late-night TV. They could have given it a Cards Against Humanity vibe but they didn’t, so, yay.)
It’s the kind of game that encourages table talk if your group is willing to make up stories about the crazy stars or nutty shows. And play is relaxed and non-confrontational enough to feel kind of peaceful after a long day. The negatives I’ve observed come down to personal taste, not inherent flaws in the game itself and they don’t overwhelm the sense of fun and silliness I get from the game. And I love having a weird, if mini, television empire to look back upon at the end of the game.
iSlaytheDragon.com would like to thank Formal Ferret games for giving us a copy of The Networks for review.