Have you ever wanted to run your own TV Network? Launching new shows and cancelling them, signing up stars, and landing adverts to pay the bills. Well now you can with The Networks, a game for 1-5 TV controllers from Formal Ferret games.
The Networks – What’s in the box?
The Networks has a fair amount of stuff packed into the box – play centres around a board that is made up of 3 different sections – 2 are always in play and the 3rd swaps around depending on the number of players in the game. There are also boards for each individual player.
Most of the components in the game are cards: decks for shows, stars, adverts and the “Network Cards” which give The Networks its name. Lastly, there are tokens for tracking score and turn order, and generally doing the book-keeping.
The player boards are good quality, solid but light. The cards are all nicely printed and the overall graphic design of the game is really good: bright without being garish, the iconography is fairly simply, and everything is sharp and clean. The art is very deliberately cartoon-y, and gives an overall fun feel to things.
My only complaint component-wise was with the wooden markers: my copy was missing one of the five score-trackers. Not the end of the world, but a bit disappointing in terms of the overall feeling when opening up the game. Luckily, when I messaged the game designer through Board Game Geek, and he was very good at putting me in touch with a customer service team who shipped a replacement out straightaway. When a company is prepared to post internationally for a $0.25 component, it’s hard to feel bad about them.
So what do we do?
A game of The Networks is divided in to 5 seasons. Each season, players will take it in turns to take actions, using them to sign stars and land ads, develop new shows, or take Network cards.
Stars in The Networks cost Money when you sign them, then sit in your Green Room until they get assigned to a Show. Ads, by contrast, gain you money when you land them, but also wait in the Green Room until attached to something.
Shows are the heart of The Networks – each player will always have 3 in their line-up, one each in the 8pm, 9pm and 10pm slots. Some will require Stars, whilst others will need Ads, or both. You need to balance these together: if a show has a coloured-in requirement, you must have the appropriate Ads and Stars in your Green Room, or else you can’t launch the show (a grey ad or star symbol indicates that these can optionally be attached to the show) – the problem is that whilst you spend 2 rounds signing the star and landing the add, a rival Network may have got in and commissioned the show first!
Your ultimate goal in The Networks is to attract Viewers (essentially Viewers = Victory Points), but you also need to stay in budget, and the most popular shows and actors will cost a lot of money, so it won’t be possible to have the very best all the time.
If Green is the first player to drop and budget, she will instantly receive $10 million and 5 extra viewers.
By the time the orange player decides to drop and budget, Green and Blue have beaten him to it, and he will only receive $2 million
Depending on how aggressively you target the Oscar Winners and the smash hits, eventually you’ll find yourself running low on cash – at this point, you can “Drop and Budget” – take yourself out of the round, and gain a cash bonus for doing so. The later you drop, the less money you get, but you will have the opportunity to take more actions.
At the end of each season, you will balance the books – gaining or spending money based on the shows you have active – then measure your viewing figures. Every show will attract a certain number of viewers, and actors (or sometimes even ads) attached to the show will increase that number. Calculate your score for the season, and move your scoring marker the appropriate number of spaces.
Once 5 seasons are over, you score your current shows a final time, and the Network with the most viewers is the winner.
Today’s Hit, Tomorrow’s Trash
The Black cubes track the number of viewers
Most of the time in The Networks, a new show will attract a good haul of viewers, especially if you can cast a major star in the lead role. Gradually though, its popularity will wane, and every show has a track showing its popularity over time – after you score a season you “age” your shows, moving the marker down a level, typically to a lower number of viewers.
Eventually, even the top shows will start to pull in so few viewers that you’ll want to replace them. Any time you want to commission a new show, you simply move the show currently occupying that timeslot to “Re-runs” where it will contribute a few viewers for one more season. After a season in re-runs, the show moves to the Archives (this isn’t Dave, so no perpetual re-runs), where nobody watches it all, although it may still count for certain bonuses.
The way that shows age in The Networks forces you to plan carefully, thinking about how long a show is going to stick around for: some will be huge for a season or two, then dwindle to nothing, whilst others will start more modestly, but hover around that level for a long time, and you need to know which you’re dealing with, and when to cut it.
Getting Into a Spin? Hopefully not!
Some cards in The Networks are straightforward: a cost to acquire, then a number of viewers that they attract. Others though, are more conditional. Most shows will have a preferred time, and generate a lower number of viewers in their first season if shown at the wrong point in the evening – after all, who’s going to watch a family sit-com at 10pm? Other cards in The Networks are even more punishing, and may “rotate.” If you don’t use these cards correctly, you turn the card upside down, and generally attract far fewer viewers, or earn less money.
For example, take your Soap Star Actor – do you put them in a drama for maximum impact? Or in a documentary? If you can put them in the right place, you can expect more viewers.
The good thing about the rotate mechanic, is that it’s all a balancing act: you can’t always take the stars you want and assign them to the shows you want – other players will be competing for the same pool of cards, and you need to stay in budget. However much you want to make Eastenders, sometimes you’ll be stuck with Ross Kemp on Gangs…
Haven’t I seen you before? Probably!
TV is full of Tropes: that same concept for a show, or that same type of actor who appears over-and-over again. The Networks knows that, and embraces it with lots of cards that gently mock TV staples. That said, there are also a lot of cards in The Networks which are very deliberately parodying a specific show – you don’t need to be the closest observer of popular culture to recognise Doctor What? Or Agents of S.H.A.M.P.O.O.
I really liked this aspect of The Networks, it helps keep a strong sense of fun in the game, and the level of observational detail is great. For example: Dr What isn’t the biggest rated show to start with but it clearly has its cult fans, and scores much higher than average as a re-run – this is just one of many carefully thought out little nods to real-world TV.
Where the Shows, Ads and Stars all represent very clearly defined concepts, the Networks cards represent the more abstract side of the game – they can have a wide range of effects, from simply boosting money or viewers, to directly subverting the basic rules of the game: preventing shows from aging, or ignoring requirements that you were unable to meet.
For an introductory game, you’re advised to leave the Networks cards out until season 2, but they are definitely where a lot of the opportunity for in-depth strategy occurs.
There are 3 different sets of Networks cards: the basic ones, which you will use most of the time, advanced ones with more complex effects, and the interactive ones, which can be added as an optional extra in 3-5 player games to allow you to interact more directly with opponents than simply by taking the card they want. Modifying card-decks like this is a simple but effective way of expanding the scope of the game, and of allowing you to tailor the experience depending on the preference of your group, so this was a definite positive in my book.
TV for 2? Or at home alone?
The Networks advertises itself as a game for 1-5 players and for the most part, the actions you can take are pretty straightforward and consistent across the player-counts. However, if you want to play the game with 2, or even play it solo, various changes make the game a lot more fiddly to play.
Sometimes you’ll only burn a single card. Other rounds, it might be 3 at once
The big change with 1 and 2-player games is the concept of “burning” cards. At certain points in the game, you will reveal a Networks card and, rather than acquire it for its powers, you will focus on the bottom line. At the bottom of each Networks card you’ll find a set of symbols, which will tell you to get rid of Stars, Ads, Shows, other Networks Cards, or even spaces on the drop-and-budget track.
It’s fairly easy to see why the designers of The Networks brought in these features: with fewer players there is less pressure on the resources, and it becomes too easy for everyone to turtle, getting their full pick of cards, and taking their time about arranging them. Introducing the burn mechanic ensures that the game keeps up a decent pace, and re-introduces that element of unpredictability.
What are all these tokens for? I’m playing as Purple!
Overall though, The Networks didn’t feel like it worked as well in the lower player-counts. The solo variant in particular involves any number of tokens littered around to act as markers, reminders, or triggers, to the point where you spend more time distracted by these things than you do actually focusing on the cards which are the heart of the game. Overall at this point I felt bogged down by all the minutiae I was having to keep track of, and won’t be bothering with another solo session any time soon.
The Networks: Renewed? Or Cancelled?
I’m generally looking for board games to be good with 2 or solo-able, and for that reason, The Networks didn’t quite hit the spot for me: once you’re down to the lower numbers it becomes too much about luck, and not enough about either skill or interacting with other players.
That said, I still think that The Networks is a really good game for 3-5. The components are solid, and the whole thing has a nice, fun feel to it so that, whilst you do have to balance the books, the game still feels more about the joy of creating entertaining televisual mash-ups, than about getting bogged down in the accounting side of modern-day television.
If you watch a lot of TV, or at least keep a finger on the pulse, then you’ll be better able to appreciate some of the pop-culture nods in this game, but there’s no requirement for this, and you can still have a good time just getting it out of the box and playing.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.