Kickstarterd in September 2015 (and fulfilled in mid-2016), The Networks is a strategic game of economic engine building designed by Gil Hova (Bad Medicine, Battle Merchants, Prolix). In this game, players assume the roles of competing television network owners battling for prime-time dominance using card drafting and action selection mechanics. Beginning with only three public access shows on their stations, a woeful ad campaign, and No Name actor, players will compete to build the best possible prime-time lineup, while maintaining strong selection of reruns in their archives. A 60-90 minute game for 1-5 players, The Networks‘ challenge is built on the interaction of the Shows you’ll select, the Stars you’ll hire, and the Ads you’ll need to be profitable. Some Stars will perform better on shows of a specific genre, and some Ads and Shows are more valuable when aired in particular time slots. Players will take turns drafting cards from the available types on the board, looking to strategically block their opponents while trying to build their audience and generate revenue. The second printing of the retail version of The Networks is expected to hit your FLGS in March 2017. Is this binge-worthy, must see TV, or just more dead air? Check out our thoughts below.
What’s in the Box?
This game packs a lot of components into a relatively slim box, and is more of a table hog than you might initially expect. When you first crack open the box, you’ll find:
- 7 Scoring Track boards
- 1 Left Scoring Track
- 1 Middle Scoring Track
- 5 Right Scoring Track (1 for each player count)
- 1 black wooden Season Marker
- 102 Money Tokens
- 72 $1m
- 30 $5m
- 5 Player boards – each marked for a particular Network
- 5 Wooden scoring squares – one for each of the five Networks
- 5 Wooden turn order discs – one for each of the five Networks
- 5 100/200-viewer tokens – one for each of the five Networks
- 1 300-viewer token
- 20 black wooden cubes – 4 per player
- 55 Show Cards
- 15 Starter Cards – three for each of the five Networks
- 8 Season 1 Shows
- 16 Season 2-3 Shows
- 16 Season 4-5 Shows
- 48 Star Cards
- 5 Starter Cards – one for each of the five Networks
- 43 Stars
- 42 Ad Cards
- 5 starter Ads – one for each of the five Networks
- 33 Basic Ads
- 4 Promo Ads
- 62 Network Cards
- 30 Basic Network Cards
- 20 Advanced Network Cards
- 12 Interactive Network Cards
How to Play
The Networks is played over five rounds, or Seasons. Each Season, players will be competing for the limited resources on the board to build their audience and gain money. In order to do so, you need new programming and for this you’ll need to acquire Shows, Stars, and Ads. You can develop a Show, but it’ll never be successful without Stars to perform and Ads to generate revenue. You’ll sign Stars to attract more viewers. However, Stars can be expensive and their contracts will usually need to be paid every season. They may also be picky, and might give their best performances only when they’re happy with the Show they’re on. Some Stars will perform best when they’re on a Comedy or a Drama, while others are selfish and want to be the only Star on the show. Just as important as getting the right Star is landing a solid Ad campaign. Ads will usually generate money both when they’re landed and at the end of every Season. Like Stars, your Ads will bring in the biggest bucks only if you air them in their preferred time slot. Crazy Pete doesn’t want children buying his Discount Plutonium, so he’ll pay you more to air his Ad at 10pm.
As the game progresses, you’ll be building an Awesome Entertainment Engine that pulls in Viewers (victory points) and cash. But like any engine, your Shows will start to wear down with age and the number of people tuning in will begin to change – and generally audiences start to grow bored with what they’ve already seen. Like any good Network, you’ll have to know when to cancel a show, sending it into daytime reruns and keeping your prime-time lineup fresh. So the game becomes a delicate balance between refreshing your lineup, cancelling what you have on air to developing new shows, landing new Ads, and signing new Stars – all while blocking your opponents from building their competing Networks more quickly and successfully than you.
Finally, if you want to play with the Big Five, you’ll need a little something extra. Network Cards can give you a one time boost or long term special powers. Maybe you’ll go into niche programming and build a strong, genre-based brand or perhaps you’ll want to hire that big name Showrunner to keep a show fresh. Each of these cards provide you a tremendous benefit; however, they also come with an opportunity cost – and you’ll have to decide which cards to draft and when. Will you take that Network Card now and hope the big ad campaign for Aztec Chocolate Bars is still available next turn? Like any drafting game, timing is key and thinking strategically to build your engine and stall your opponents is harder than you might imagine – and The Networks complicates these traditional decision making processes beautifully with a solid aging mechanic for your shows. At the end of five seasons, the player who has managed to draw in the most Viewers will reign supreme.
The Details: Setup
The Overview above provides a short and sweet rundown of the game. If that’s all you’re looking for, feel free to jump down to our final thoughts. However, if you’re looking for a little more in-depth summary of how to play, then we’ve got you covered.
Setup is going to vary depending on the number of players in your game. You’ll start by placing the Left and Middle Scoring Track boards in the center of the table where everyone can reach them. Both of these tracks are double sided, so be sure not to use the one player side on the Left or the two player side on the Middle Track. Next to these, you’ll place the Right Scoring Track that matches the number of players in your game on the side marked “For the First Season Only,” then place the Season Marker on the Season 1 spot of the Season Track. For our examples, we’ll be focusing on a four player game. A five player game works identically, however for the minor changes necessary to play with 1, 2, or 3 players see the rule book.
Shuffle the Season 1, Season 2-3, and Season 4-5 Show Cards into three separate decks, then shuffle the Ad Cards and Network Cards into their own decks. At this point, you can decide on the level of interactivity you’d like in the game and how advanced you’d like to play. When Shuffling the Network Cards, you can add or remove the ones marked “Advanced” or “Interactive” according to how you’d like to play (it’s recommended to remove these for the first game). After shuffling all of the decks and placing them in reach, the Right Scoring Track will indicate how many of each Show, Star, Ad, and Network cards to deal face-up into the play area for the First Season (7, 5, 4, 4 respectively in a 4 player game). Be sure to use the Season 1 Shows Cards for the first season (after dealing them out, the remaining Season 1 cards can be returned to the box).
Each player will be given a Player Board and will place their Scoring Square on the zero space on their Scoring Track. Turn Order Disc are then randomized and placed on the Turn Order Track. In addition to the Player Board, everyone will be given three starting Shows, one starting Ad, and one Starting Star that will correspond to their Network. The Star and Ad will be placed in the spot next to their Player Board marked as the Green Room. Each Show will need to be placed in a timeslot to the right of the player board at 8pm, 9pm, or 10pm. Each player is given four black cubes, and will use these to mark the topmost Viewer Row on their Shows, the last cube is used to track in-turn Viewers and should be set aside for now. Depending on turn order, each player will take an amount of starting money according as indicated on the Right Scoring Track (in a 4 player game, the first player receives $5m, second $7m, and so on). Finally, place each player’s 100/200 View Token and the 300 View token on the Middle Scoring track. Now you’re ready to play.
The Details: Playing a Turn
The game is played over five Seasons, and each Season is comprised of the players taking turns in order until all players have performed the “Drop and Budget” action. On your turn, player must perform exactly one of the six available actions (as long as there are enough cards for them to do so). You may:
- Develop a Show
- Sign a Star
- Land an Ad
- Take a Network Card
- Attach a Star or Ad
- Drop and Budget
Developing a show is arguably the most important action players will be taking throughout the game as this is how you’ll expand and refresh your lineup. To develop a show, you have to meet its prerequisites and pay all costs. Some shows will require a Star and/or an Ad be in your Green Room and be attached to the Show when it is played. As will be the rule for every other action, if there are no face-up Show cards remaining on the board, you cannot take this action. If you have met the prerequisites and have paid the cost of the show (located to the left of the name), you may take it and place it into a timeslot in your lineup, moving any current show in that spot to your reruns area (discarding any Ads or Stars attached to the Show formerly in your lineup). If the show had a Star or Ad prerequisite, you must move them from your Green Room now and attach them to your show. Finally, place the black cube for that show in the topmost Viewer Row on the newly acquired Show. If the Show you are developing is your third or fifth card in the same genre (indicated in the upper left hand corner), you immediately score five Viewers on the Score Track and get to draw some additional card (see the rules for details). When this action is completed, new shows are not added to the common play area. For all card types, those that are played at the beginning of the Season are the only cards available for that round.
Instead of developing a Show with your action, you may choose to sign a Star. As should be obvious, signing Stars is necessary in order to develop Shows and increase your audience. To sign a Star, you simply pay their signing cost (located to the left of their name) and place them in your Green Room. Your Green Room has no limit to the number of Stars it can hold, and Stars in the Green Room do not impact your Viewers or income and are not paid during upkeep.
Landing an Ad works very similarly to signing a Star, with one notable difference. When you land an Ad, instead of paying the listed cost, you immediately receive that much money from the common pool – after all, advertisers are paying you to get access to your audience. Like Stars, Ads go into your Green Room and can be added to Shows in future turns. Similarly, Ads only bring in upkeep revenue when they are attached to a show – Ads in your Green Room bring no Viewers and do not add to your income. Some Ads are “Promos” – thematically, these are ways for you to promote your own shows and draw in additional Viewers and money. However, when you play these from your Green Room, they will have an additional cost as indicated on the bottom of the card.
The fourth possible action you can take on your turn is selecting a Network Card. These powerful cards give you special powers and do not have a cost – other than the opportunity to select another type of card. Each Network Card has a timing symbol on it, indicating when it should be played: The exclamation point indicates that the effect happens immediately and then the cards is discarded. The “x1” symbol explains that the card is placed face-up in your player area and can be used once per game in response to the appropriate trigger (such as “at the start of your turn”). The infinity symbol specifies that the power on the card is permanent and is active for the remainder of the game. Finally, the right-pointing arrow indicates that the card should be placed face-up in your player area, with its effects occurring at the end of the game.
You can also use your action to attach and Ad or Star to a Show already in your lineup. Some shows can hold multiple Ads, Stars, or some combination of the two. Using your action, you can choose one card in your Green Room and attach it to any Show in your lineup. However, if the Show is at capacity – you must discard an already attached Star or Ad to in order to add the new card as long as the Show’s prerequisites are still met.
Finally, with an action, you may “Drop and Budget” – removing yourself from the remainder of the round. When a player performs this action, they move their Turn Order Disc from its place on the Track and place it on the Drop Budget Track, collecting the amount of money (or Viewers in later seasons!) indicated on that space. If you are the sole remaining player who hasn’t performed this action, you may perform any number of available actions until you must or choose to Drop and Budget. Play continues until all players have dropped, then the Season is scored and the next Season begins.
The Details: Ending a Season
When a Season is completed, four phases occur before the next Season can begin.
- Score Viewers
- Age Shows
- Set up the next Season
In the Income and Expenses phase, players will need to count the upkeep costs on all of the Shows and Stars in their current prime-time lineup. Hey, nobody said making television was cheap! In the upper right-hand corner of these cards, there is a potential upkeep cost – adding these together will determine your Expenses for the round. Next, you’ll add up all the income from your advertisements for the Season – conveniently, these are located in the same place as the upkeep costs and are marked with a “+’ symbol. Adding all of you advertising dollars together will provide you with your Income for the round. Now, math your Income and Expenses together. If your income is $5m and your Expenses are $2m, you will collect $3m from the shared money pool. Hooray! You managed to be profitable. However, if your income was only $2m and your Expenses were $5m, you are running a deficit and will have to pay $3m to the pool – and if you don’t have enough to pay the cash, you’ll lose Viewers, paying your entire expenses in precious Viewers from the Score Track!
After you have determined the profitability of your season, it’s time to measure and score your Viewers. On each of your shows, you will tally the number of Viewers on that shows current Viewer Row, including attached Stars and Ads. Your player board has a convenient track built in so that you can keep a running tally throughout your turn, or so you can quickly calculate the scores at the end of the Season. Remember that some Shows perform better in Specific timeslots – if the Show is in its first season and its preferred timeslot, score the higher number. Next, add Viewers based on the Rerun Value of all shows in your Rerun area. The total from all of your active Shows and Reruns is then added to the central Scoring Track for that Season.
Next, all players will age their Shows. To do this, simply move the each of the black cubes on your Shows down one row in the Viewer Row. If it has already reached the bottom row, leave it there – that is the number of Viewers who will continue to watch until you cancel the Show.
Finally, you’ll clean up and prepare for the next season. All players will start by moving cards in the Rerun Area to their Archives (archived Shows do not bring in viewers, but do count towards genre bonuses). Then all Show, Star, Ad, and Network Cards remaining in the selection area from the previous season are discarded from play. You do not discard Stars or Ads in your Green Room or attached to your Shows.
If this is the end of Season 1, be sure to flip over the Right Scoring Track to its Season 2-5 side. Then, draw the appropriate number of Show, Star, Ad, and Network Cards and place them in the communal play area. For the show cards, ensure that you are drawing from the correct decks for the Season you are about to begin. After refilling the resources, the Turn Order for the new Season will be established by placing the Turn Order Disc for the person with the fewest Viewers in the first position, moving in order until the person with the most Viewers disc has been put in the last position. Finally, move the Season marker to the next number on the Season Track and begin taking actions.
The Details: Ending a Game
After Season Five is completed, scoring occurs as mentioned above, though no new cards are laid out for a new Season. After all players have aged their shows, players will Score Viewers one last time then add in any Viewers for appropriate Network Cards and an additional Viewer for each Star they have in their Green Room. The player who has earned the most Viewers though five Seasons is the winner. Any ties are broken by determining who has the most money. And that’s it. Now you know how to play The Networks.
So I’ll be completely up front here: I absolutely love the theme of this game. It’s fantastic, and not just pasted on. Further, the mechanics feel as though they were designed with the theme in mind – cancelling Shows, hiring and firing Stars, competing for available Ad campaigns – all of the mechanics are not only good from a game design perspective, but excellent in terms of the theme. You feel like you’re building an actual television network and every decision you make feels like it has consequences for your success. Which is great. You really begin to question what you action you’ll take not only in terms of raw mechanics, but in terms of thematically operating your imaginary television network. Should I spend my turn pursuing a Star that might bring me more Viewers? But what if they don’t fit with my brand? Maybe I should be looking to land that big ad campaign? Or I should start working to develop a Show that fits my niche and the Stars I already have on contract. Or perhaps I’ll look at the bonuses on the Network Cards and take that route. Each choice you make is meaningful, and as you draft the face-up cards on the table, you constantly have to weigh each potential card against other options (and what your opponents may be doing) while also looking for the right opportunity to bow out of the round. Further, the aging between Seasons mechanic is pure brilliance, and its interesting to watch your programs’ audiences expand or contract over time and respond accordingly, not to mention watching your opponent(s) struggle with an under-performing show while lacking the resources to cancel it.
I haven’t yet had the opportunity to acknowledge the genius of rotating cards. As mentioned, Ads and Stars can perform better or worse depending on their preferences and where you’re placing them. Having preferred sides of the card depending on the needs and wants of imaginary actors and businessmen is a great touch – and this simple little mechanic both adds a ton of theme to the game, and a huge amount of strategy. The deft touches in all phases of the design on this game speak highly of the amount of effort that went into building it. Everything is very well thought out.
The game works amazingly well in the 3, 4, and 5-player iterations – though, to be entirely honest, five players really starts to drag. The 2-player and solo games are totally different experiences, so I didn’t cover them here – but, if you’re asking whether they’re worth playing, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”. Those variants aren’t as mechanically rich as the rest of the game, though, and The Networks really shines brightest with four players. It still scales well to other player counts if you’re stuck with 2, 3, or 5 at the table, and that flexibility is nice. And I love that I can play solo if I really need to scratch the itch to play.
In addition to the mechanics just feeling right for the theme, the components work well too. The art and card titles are very whimsical and parodic, which is fun. Though the art on most of the cards could have a better background (or backgrounds at all), and the Network Cards are just visually uninteresting. Whimsy only carries the art style so far. Even with that minor critique, I really enjoyed developing shows like Doctor What and American Samurai Worrier. The clear parodies are amusing, and the game is full of them. Unfortunately, the Stars are parodies of actor types (Always Dies in Everything, Celebrity Chef, etc.), and not specific actor names. It would’ve been nice to play with a parody of Sean Bean and not rely on recognizing simple stereotypes, but I guess you can’t have everything.
While the aesthetics are generally good, the graphic design leaves me slightly wanting. The iconography is, largely, fine – however, everything still seems to have a bit of a prototype feel, particularly on the main Scoring Track Boards. Perhaps this is an intentional aesthetic choice. It’s tough to say – but I would’ve preferred something just a bit less grey-tone and a little more well developed. And the Network Cards really could use a facelift.
The physical components are also just ever so slightly on the disappointing side. A couple of the Player and Scoring Track boards in my box look as though the print is beginning to wear already, which is strange considering that they’re not handled frequently during the game. And while shuffling isn’t a huge part of the game, the cards feel as though they should be sleeved. They have a very nice linen finish and feel really good in the hand, but they edges begin to show wear quickly. The quality of the components isn’t bad by any stretch, but there still seems to be something slightly lacking. Your mileage may vary, but I would suggest being gentle with the components.
In addition to my slight components quibble, my one big criticism of this game is that feels as though there isn’t enough. I need more. More Shows especially. Also more Ads. And more Stars. After you’ve played a couple of times, you’ve seen everything the game has to offer, and it starts to feel samey. The affect of developing parody shows when you’re seeing the same few every time begins to wear thin, and leaves me begging for more. While there is a Kickstarter stretch-goal mini-expansion, The Networks: On the Air, which should be available for retail soon, it still doesn’t feel like that will be enough. It’s good that I want more, but at the same time the game feels somewhat incomplete. If and when a major expansion for the game is released, I have the feeling it will be a virtually mandatory upgrade. I’ve already heard from some colleagues that On the Air should be considered a required purchased by anyone who even remotely enjoys the base game – take that gossip for what you will.
So is it fun? Absolutely. It’s a great mid-weight economic game with action selection and drafting elements built over an excellent theme. What else is there to say? This turned out to be one of my personal favorite games of the year, and that’s saying something when 2016 included Scythe, Terraforming Mars, Star Wars: Rebellion, and Great Western Trail (among many others). If you enjoy television or the television industry, this is the game for you. Just go get it. If you don’t particularly care for the theme, go get it anyway.
- Amazingly integrated and innovative theme.
- Smart, difficult choices to make every turn leading to a lot of tension.
- Fun, whimsical art and card names.
- Scales well from 3-5 players, with functional 2-player and solo modes.
- Needs more of everything to feel complete.
- Component quality and graphic design could be somewhat better.
Thanks to Formal Ferret Games and Gil Hova for providing a review copy of The Networks!
Be sure to pick up your copy of The Networks soon! Returning to your Friendly Local Game Store in March of 2017!