Reviewed by Herb Levy
THE NETWORKS (Formal Ferret Games, 1 to 5 players, ages 13 and up, 60-90 minutes; $50)
Like it or not, television has become embedded into the fabric of most of the lives of the human population. Generally, the focus is on the things you see: actors who perform, storylines you follow, the visual impact of sets and locations. But what about the “behind the scenes” activities that bring those shows to the public? Now, that’s another story – and the theme for this new game by Gil Hova: The Networks.
In The Networks, players are owners of various TV networks and, starting with an abysmal line-up, compete to develop shows, book stars to appear in them and entice advertisers to bring their support (and funds) to their networks – all in the quest for attracting the most viewers. After five seasons of this, the player who has, in fact, the highest viewership will win!
Each player begins with his color-coded Network board (and the matching scoring and turn order discs), three horrible shows, 1 star and 1 ad. The shows go on the right of the Network board which is divided into 8 PM, 9 PM and 10 PM slots. A black cube is placed on each show in the top Viewer position to indicate how many viewers it has in its first season. On the left, in the “green room” slot, go the star and the ad. Below that is space for “reruns” and your “archives” which begin empty but will soon fill. For the first season, player order is determined randomly with money given out based on that order. (The earlier in the round you go, the less money you receive.)
Depending on the number of players, a set amount of Stars and Ads are placed in the playing area along with some Network cards and shows ready to be developed. (Shows are divided by season and more valuable programs will appear as the game moves through seasons 1 through 5.)
On a turn, players may do one action from the available menu. They may Develop a Show, Sign a Star, Land an Ad, Take a Network Card, Attach a Star and/or Ad or Drop and Budget.
Shows comes in six different genres (action, drama, reality, sci-fi, sitcom and sports) easily identifiable via color and icons. To Develop a Show simply means to choose one of those available, pay the stated cost and immediately place it in one of your time slots. Shows do better in a specific slot and will attract more viewers the first season if placed there – but even out of place, viewers will be scored. Sometimes, a show requires a star or ad be placed along with it (noted by the appropriate icon in color). Other times, such placement is optional (when the symbol is gray) and may be done later. Any show that had been occupying that slot is removed, rotated and placed in reruns.
Signing a star means choosing an available star, paying the money needed to hire the star to the bank and putting the star in the green room, ready to be assigned on a future turn. Ads are almost a mirror image of this as they pay YOU money when chosen (and then placed in the green room for a future assignment). Attaching a star or ad means that an already active show which can accept an ad or star but has not as of yet may be given one from your green room.
You may decide to choose a Network card. Network cards allow you to bend the rules and/or grant you bonuses and/or create problems for your opposition. Finally, when you have done all you want to do (or find yourself too low in funds to do all you want to do), you Drop and Budget which simply means you pass, move your turn order token to the “Drop and Budget” track and collect either money or viewers (the earlier you drop the more is available).
At the end of each season, expenses are calculated (and paid or collected). Some shows and stars demand payment each season while ads will generate income. Now, viewers are scored. Each show (and many stars and even a few ads) will grant you viewers. These are added for each time slot and your scoring marker moved accordingly around the track. (Active shows, however, will age as symbolized by moving a show’s black cube down one level.) Shows that have been replaced that season into reruns also give you viewers. Once scored, reruns are moved downward into the archives where they will no longer contribute viewers to your total but CAN help you in acquiring bonuses.
If you are crafty enough (or lucky enough) to have put on three shows of the same genre (and those shows can be active in current time slots or in reruns or in the archives), you immediately get 5 viewers. You also get a choice of drawing three star cards, keeping one for free OR drawing three ad cards, keeping one for free and receiving the money listed on the two you return to the bottom of the deck! Manage to get five cards in a genre and you not only get another 5 viewers but can spend money to get more viewers AND get to draw three Network Cards and keep one!
At the end of the scoring for the fifth season, another additional scoring takes place. After aging all shows, the viewership is once again calculated (this time leaving out any reruns). Stars left in the green room are worth 1 viewer each and any Network Cards impacting on end of game scoring are resolved. The player with the highest viewership wins. Tie? Then the player with the most money gets the victory.
Although you are only dealing with one evening’s programming, The Networks is very thematic and manages to give you a feel for the challenges of putting together a winning line-up. The very stylized artwork looks to be like something from the Cartoon Network which suggests the fun to be had in the serious competition of the game (which is partially borne out by the satiric titles of the shows, an obvious alternative to the prohibitive cost of licensing and permissions). Although it is easy to decide when to cancel a show (in some cases, drop off in viewership is drastic!), you won’t always have the “perfect show” to replace it. Network cards can be powerful in setting you up for success, particularly as they pertain to endgame scoring but, in our plays, we have not found them “unbalancing” since, to maximize various effects, you have to plan a round or two (or more) in advance leaving other roads to viewership open and accessible to your opposition. Going first in a season is a big advantage. However, each season’s turn order is determined by viewership. The players with the fewest goes first, followed by the second fewest and so on which helps maintain balance.
There is a lot going on in The Networks: lots of choices to be made, lots of possibilities to consider. Because of so many cards in play, the game demands a good deal of table space. Likewise, with such a large array of cards offering so many possibilities, the game can slow as players need to examine cards (sometimes, needing to pick them up and read the restrictions on some that are found at the bottom of the cards). For this reason, we have found that the game plays at its best with three or four players. With the full five players, we suggest that, once the player going before you has committed to his action, you examine the cards for the action YOU plan to take to minimize down time. The trade-off for this, however, is tipping your hand as to what your next move will likely be. But no matter what you do, timing is important. Choosing what to pick each turn (as what you want may not be around when you go next) and in setting up what needs to be set up in order to maximize end of game scoring from the final round and any Network cards held in reserve is crucial.
With its engaging theme and solid gameplay, The Networks achieves from us the very thing that real life television programmers strive to achieve – top ratings! – – – Herb Levy
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