Sometimes, all it takes to explain a game is one sentence, or even a single word. I’m not talking about describing what it takes to win a game – most well-designed games’ victory conditions can usually be summed up fairly succinctly – but rather the spirit or essence of a game. It’s being able to pack a ‘big picture’ view, the role players assume, the objective they’re aiming for, and the path(s) available to get them there all into a compact phrase.
One example of such a game is Gil Hova’s The Networks, which can be summed up in just three letters:
Much like the ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic film that brought us Stanley Spadowski, introduced us to Spatula City, and invited us to spin the Wheel of Fish, The Networks puts players at the head of fictional cable access channels vying to program their prime-time lineups, attract stars for their shows, land advertisers to pay the bills, and ultimately draw more viewers than the competition. But just because a game’s premise is easy to communicate doesn’t necessarily mean it’s well-designed or fun to play. So, stay tuned to see if The Networks is a modern classic like UHF, or if it just isn’t quite ready for prime time.
The Networks challenges one to five players to manage their television stations over the course of five seasons of programming in a quest to secure the highest number of total viewers. In each season, players take turns executing one action apiece out of a range of five possible action types available to them until all players elect to pass.
The first, and arguably the most important of these actions, is to Develop a Show, which allows players to select one available television show from the central tableau of cards available in a season, and add it to one of three positions in their prime time lineup, replacing the show already in that time slot. Each show allows the player to score a number of viewers at the end of a given season depending on whether it’s that program’s first, second, or third season (or beyond) on the air. While most shows experience a steady decline in viewership the longer they’ve been around, some add viewers in subsequent seasons, while the audience for others remains relatively consistent. Each show also has a number of additional attributes that help determine its relative strengths, including development costs which have to be paid to the bank when the show is added to your lineup, upkeep costs which need to be paid each year to keep the show on the air, a genre of the program which confer benefits if a network can specialize in a given type of show, as well as the ability of a show to feature stars and run advertisements by pairing that program with cards of those respective types. Many shows also have a preferred time slot, and suffer a penalty in viewership if they’re run at a different time, and some even boast special game abilities unique to that program.
Players can also Sign a Star from those available in a season, placing them in their ready area, or ‘Green Room,’ to pair with a program at a later point to add viewership depending on the number of seasons a show has been on the air. Like programs’ development costs, most stars have a signing cost which must be paid to the bank when they are selected, with many stars also requiring upkeep costs when assigned to a show.
The third available action, Landing an Ad to place in your Green Room, is similar to Signing a Star, but instead of having signing and upkeep costs, ads pay players cash when they are chosen, creating an additional stream of income every season they’re attached to a show. And like shows, many of the game’s stars and ads have special abilities (or, in some cases, hindrances) which impact the programs they’re assigned to. While some shows require a player to attach stars and/or ads to them from their Green Room at the point when those programs are developed, the game’s fourth type of action, Attach Star/Ad, allows players to pair these types of cards with a show in their lineup (provided the show has room for a card of that type), adding a star or ad to a show with an empty slot or replacing a show’s existing cast or sponsors.
The fifth and final action which players may take on a turn is selection of a Network card. These cards offer a variety of bonuses to players, including benefits taken at the point a player claims the card, single-use powers that can be saved for future turns, continuous abilities, and ways for a player to score additional viewers at the end of the game. Once a player decides they do not wish to take any more actions, either because they are unable to (usually due to a lack of funds) or do not want to, they can pass and choose their position in turn order for the next season.
At the end of each season, players score viewers for each of their shows in their lineup and for shows they’ve elected to cancel (which are put into reruns, returning a modest number of viewers for the season when they’re taken off the air), pay upkeep costs for their programs and stars, gain income from advertisements, and then proceed to the next season with a brand new tableau of cards which can be added to a player’s network. Once five seasons are completed, players score their shows one last time, as well as counting endgame bonuses from network cards they may have, and the player with the most total viewers over all five seasons is declared the winner.
A Cavalcade of Stars (and Shows, and Ads…)
The first thing you’ll likely notice about The Networks is its visual presentation. Besides offering a diverse array of gameplay options, nearly all of the shows, stars, and ads in the game (each of which are unique) are parodies of famous television programs, personalities, and advertisers, or spoof general archetypes of these three elements. The humor aspect of the game is not to be dismissed, either, as it definitely contributes to the strong feeling of theme in The Networks, as well as providing one more ‘hook’ to interest new players and draw them into the game as quickly as possible. The cards also feature art and graphic design that is bold and colorful, with a distinctive style of presenting characters that is somewhat reminiscent of the ‘construction paper art’ style of South Park. The layout of the cards themselves is equally functional and slick, with straightforward iconography and gameplay information clearly available at a glance, even from across the table. Once you’ve taken a round or two to become familiar with the game’s symbology, you can usually discern what your opponent’s lineup looks like at a glance, with very few “What does your card do again?” moments that can slow down even the best-designed games.
There’s also a lot of strategy packed into The Networks. Skills in advanced planning are key, as players have to consider not only the short-term returns of the viewers they can draw this season with a show or star, but also how those programs will perform in future seasons, and whether they can pair them with the stars and ads at their disposal. On top of that, shows, stars, and ads and the returns they can bring have to be evaluated relative to the costs and drawing power of the shows currently in your lineup. Does it make sense to program a show outside of its preferred time slot in its premiere season if it means you can double the Season 2 viewership of the show it’s replacing? If you slot a new show that draws a huge audience in its first season but for which ratings will drop off a cliff afterward, will there be another show in the tableau next season that you want (and can afford) for you to replace it with? In a very general way, the premium placed by The Networks on having a good sense of timing, knowing when to ditch shows and stars to replace them with something new and fresh, is reminiscent of the decline mechanic in Small World, although in this case, strong drafting and pairing of programming elements allow players who might not have the best sense of timing another way to put together a winning lineup.
Room for Some Fine Tuning?
With its generally intuitive yet strategically challenging gameplay and colorful, engaging visual presentation it’s difficult to find much in The Networks to complain about. From a thematic perspective, one might take issue with the fact the two-player gameplay involves a mechanic that randomly removes, or ‘burns,’ one to three cards from the options available each turn. Although perfectly sensible from a gameplay point of view, in a theme-rich title like The Networks where each action and each card ability meshes smoothly with the idea that players are programming the best lineup possible for their station with their available resources, the burn element doesn’t seem to approximate an element one might find in the world of television. In that respect, the mechanism stands out as the only piece of the game which isn’t thematically coherent.
It’s also worth noting that some of the ‘interactive’ Network cards that can be added if you’re playing with three or more players also bring a bit of a ‘take that’ element to the game. While there’s nothing wrong with this from a design, or even a thematic perspective, and while these interactions can actually introduce a means to catch up to the player in the lead, direct negative interaction to this degree might not suit the playstyle of all gaming groups – in our most recent three-player game of The Networks, I used these cards to eke out a win, and actually felt a little bad doing so despite their use being well within both the rules and the spirit of the game.
I’d also like to see an expansion for The Networks sooner rather than later, increasing the range of available shows, stars, and ads. Although the game features more stars and ads than will be drawn in most playthroughs, the number of shows is small enough that players will see most or all of them in any given game. While the pairing of this limited range of programs with the much richer stock of stars and ads still creates a high replayability level, additional shows would help keep things fresh, especially for fans of The Networks who get it to the table on a frequent basis. Plus, we want to see what sorts of new wacky program parodies Gil can come up with, too.
I was a latchkey kid from the age of 8 (don’t worry, by older brother was 10). I was cooking canned Corned Beef Hash on the stove, playing Atari on our 2″ black and white battery powered television when our TV broke, and, when it was fixed, watching a lot of television. I watched tons of game shows, sitcoms, classic TV, cooking shows on PBS, just about anything. I used to watch Tracy Ullman just to catch The Simpsons shorts. To say I was raised by television might be doing a disservice to the video game industry, but it wouldn’t wholly be inaccurate.
Humor is very difficult to pull off in a game. It’s even harder for those same jokes to still be reasonably fresh the second and third times you see them. I haven’t tired of the puns, winks and nods in The Networks quite yet, and hopefully by the time I do, one or more expansions will be ready to add to the game. I love some of these jokes so much that choosing which cards to be photographed for the review was difficult.
To Andy’s comparison to U.H.F., I couldn’t agree more. When you’re running your network, you’re not exactly picking from the best options, especially in the early seasons, you’re trying to get something on the air that might get noticed. Eventually you procure enough good shows for Must See TV, but getting there is a hilarious misadventure. There is nothing really groundbreaking in The Networks, and there doesn’t have to be, all of it’s parts make sense and go together well, add in the humor and presentation, and you’ve got yourself a hit. It’s not the Best Game of 2016, but it might be my favorite!
The Networks is a blast to play. Like a good TV program, it grabs you, and while it may not be the most complex offering out there, or feature a ‘signature’ mechanic that hasn’t been done before, it’s strong in all its elements – theme, gameplay, strategic challenge, accessibility, length, graphics, humor – across the board, making for a fantastic game that’s greater than the sum of its already solid parts. A game of The Networks is more fun than drinking from the fire hose, and in the end, fun is what it’s all about.
Up With Meeple Rating:
Gold medal games are the best of the best, games we think everyone should play at least once, and that we don’t mind playing again and again. They are Appointment Games, the games that game nights are organized around. These games are so well designed, so well-produced, and so fun to play that they set the standard against which other, similar games inevitably get compared.
by Gil Hova
Formal Ferret Games