The Networks Review

The Networks by Gil Hova and Formal Ferret Games is a worker placement board game built around the novel concept of running your own television network. Over the course of five seasons, you’ll battle competing cable networks for the most viewers by adding new shows, hiring stars, and landing ad deals. On top of all that, there’s no room for complacency, as audiences grow tired of shows over time, forcing you to constantly keep your lineup fresh.

Its elevator pitch is one of the most compelling I’ve seen for a board game in quite some time, even as someone who doesn’t like watching television. But how well does its theme translate to the tabletop?

Your goal as the head of one of the game’s five television networks is to have accumulated the most viewers after five seasons. At the start of season one, everyone is on an even playing field, as everyone’s stable of D-list stars and public-access television shows are equally awful. This is where you come in to reel in the ratings.

Sitting at the centre of the table is a board that houses all sorts of information, such as the scoring track, season track, turn order, and more. Placed around the board are a randomly-drawn spread of show cards, star cards, ad cards, and Network cards. The number of cards that are displayed each season will vary based on the number of players in the game.

In front of you will be your personal network board. It’s a fairly skinny rectangle, but there’s a lot going on in front of you. Along the right-hand side are the three different time slots that can hold one show each. At the top left corner is your green room, which is where unused stars and ads are stored until they’re tied to a show. Left-middle is the reruns area, where shows bumped out of prime time can still score you a few viewers for a season. After that, those reruns are bumped into the archives, where they’re essentially out of the game, save for tracking progress towards genre-focused perks.

On your turn, you get one action, which can be used to develop a show, sign a star, land an ad deal, take a Network card, attach a star or an ad to a show currently running, or end your season. Developing shows is your primary means of gaining viewers, but there’s a lot that goes into putting on a show. For one, they cost money to make. Ranging from one-to-five million dollars, the upfront cost isn’t cheap. On top of that, many shows require you to either have a star or ad attached to them before they’re ready for air. You’ll need to scoop up the requisite stars and ads beforehand so that someone else doesn’t lock it up first.

Adding a star will draw in extra viewers, while ads bring in money at the end of each season, but a show’s ability to draw viewers generally deteriorates over time. While you can technically air any show at any time slot, every show has a preferred time slot where it draws in considerably more viewers than it would elsewhere on your schedule. Furthermore, certain shows require an upkeep cost at the end of each season, further draining your bank account and limiting what you can do in the future.

This isn’t even all of the variables that come into play when it comes to managing your network. The upfront learning of how all of the game’s mechanisms work can be a bear, but it plays really smoothly after that, as almost all of its mechanics make sense within the game and in real life. The only disconnect for me was the concept of putting commercials in the green room before attaching them to shows, but it’s a minor foible.

It’s easy to get a chuckle from the humourous cards that parody modern shows and stars, but the true star of the show is its gameplay. From season one right down to the end of the final season, you’re constantly pressed to make interesting strategic and tactical decisions. In the moment, do you take an ad to shore up your bank account? Or do you splurge on an actor you don’t need today, but could be greatly beneficial for a show down the road? Choosing a Network card can also shake up the game in big ways, as they can offer you all sorts of power-ups that circumvent the core rules. That said, taking the Showrunner card to prevent one of your shows from declining from one season to the next could cost you in other ways.

One other aspect of the game that I really want to give The Networks for is its scalability. Normal play is designed for 3-5 players, but the two player and solo variants are great. There are times when games alter the mechanics so much that you end up playing a considerably worse version of the main game, or something that doesn’t resemble the original game at all. In solo or two player mode, it never felt like the game compromised what made it great in translation. The primary difference is this Burn mechanic, where the tableau of available cards decreases over time, which speeds up the game while also giving you more to think about. If you pass up on something now, the game might take it away from you before your next turn.

The one place where the game stumbles is in its show and stars variety. They came up with great shows and characters that are funny while also adding unique twists to the core game, but you end up seeing all of the same shows and many of the same stars every time you play. There are numerous expansions you can purchase to spice things up, but I wish the core game had a few more show cards to slow the effect of burnout.

Underneath its silly parody cards a novel TV network concept, The Networks is a rock solid worker placement game that integrates with its theme really well. Even after the jokes wear thin, the process of managing the immediate and longterm success of your station is always entertaining and thought-provoking. In the age of Netflix and on-demand, there’s still room for traditional network television at your next board game night.

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