Previewing: The Networks

Welcome back, dear viewer, to Silver City public access! We’re once again on the air after repairing the transmission cable a local family of raccoons chewed through. Again. We have at least one new show debuting this month – once his mom fixes her car – and we’re happy to get some Silver City favorites back out there for all our citizens to enjoy.

This Tuesday at 9, be sure to tune in for the latest installment of “Five Reusable Things Found At The Junkyard”, followed by “Darlene’s Psychic Doppler Forecast” at 10! And after Wednesday’s School Committee meeting, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy the ever delicious-looking “I Do Fondue!” With Frank Gipelli. Finally, as a special treat right here at 8PM sharp on Friday, you’ll be able to watch the Dave Sinclair of Central Street’s Famous Dave’s Barbecue tell you all about his exotic summer trip to the Yukon! Don’t miss out!

networks coverThis is, of course, precisely the type of lineup you’re bound to find littered across public access all around the country. From the terrible to the eclectic, the engaging to the so-boring-you’d-rather-be-deloused, for decades public access television has been a quiet mainstay of many local communities. In the era before YouTube, this was the primary platform for anyone with a quirky, bizarre, or opinionated idea to share on the airwaves. Yet due to the growing saturation of an Internet-fueled world, the debate over the future usefulness of public access has begun.

There’s far less debate about value of The Networks, the latest title by designer Gil Hova’s Formal Ferret Games. The Networks is a solid action-taking and resource management game for 1-5 players whose unconventional premise is matched with a pervasive tongue-in-cheek humor. In this game, players must grow their competing television networks, starting with an often-ridiculed public access station and taking it all the way to having Must See TV status.

In a nice example of blending a game’s theme with its mechanics, the general flow to The Networks conforms to what you’d expect your goal in a game on TV programming to be about. Your tasks revolve almost exclusively around procuring shows people want to watch, finding notable actors and actresses to star in them, securing advertisements to pay for them, and (hopefully) landing the most amount of viewers possible to watch them. After five rounds, or Seasons, the person who racks up the most Viewers is the winner.

At the start of the game, each player starts off with a player board outlining their entire massive media empire.

Alright, maybe it’s not so massive…

…and it’s not quite an empire yet…

Okay, fine, you begin with a third-rate public access station that has absolutely no viewership. Happy? It’s entirely because the most marquee of your three starting Shows is Aunt Mae’s “Let’s Pickle!”. Heck, even she doesn’t watch her own show.

With starting shows like these, you have no where to go but up. Because you're already at the bottom. Prototype Shown

With these shows, you have no where to go but up. You’re already at the bottom.
Prototype Shown

Each of these Shows is put into one of your three possible Show slots, ranging from 8-10PM. Beyond that, you also start off with a single Star (probably Devon from the local improv group) and a generic local Ad (likely for Big John’s Weasel Repellent). Neither of these start off attached to any Show you have and are instead in your waiting area called the Green Room.

This all means you have to improve quickly if you want to become a big time producer. Thankfully, for a Euro-style game The Networks’ fairly straightforward gameplay allows you to get right to work.

Indeed, the central architecture behind the game revolves mostly around balancing which action to take each turn against dwindling options and managing your resources such that you are getting the maximum potential out of each Season. For those familiar with action-taking Euro games (including Gil’s own previous game Battle Merchants), The Networks won’t feel like alien gameplay territory. However, much like public access is to network television, although the foundations may be similar, The Networks in totality is something uniquely its own.

Part of this is because the game never gets weighed down or bloated with unnecessary contrivances and complications (which is decidedly unlike TV). The Networks does a remarkable job sticking to basic mechanics with only moderate deviations.

A 4-player layout. Prototype Shown

A 4-player layout
Prototype Shown

Each Season behaves largely the same way. First, a series of cards are revealed from each of the game’s four decks, according to the number of players. Shows, Stars, and Ads are all used in and around your player board, while one-shot Network cards provide a host of different unique abilities. Then, players take turns taking just one of six possible actions. When you Sign a Star, Land an Ad, or Take a Network Card, you simply choose one of the face-up cards from their respective piles. Stars and Ads are added to your Green Room, whereas Network Cards will either resolve immediately or can be held on to and used at a later time. Taking a Network Card is free, but Stars you must pay for when taken. Ads by contrast give you money when they’re chosen.

Do you take an Ad for Discount Plutonium, or lock in That Guy Who Shouts All The Time? Prototype Shown

Take Discount Plutonium, or lock in That Guy Who Shouts All The Time?
Prototype Shown

The most pivotal action you can take, though, is Developing a Show: acquiring the coveted programs that will take you into the big leagues.

Eventually.

Shows also have a purchase and seasonal upkeep cost, but unlike Stars, Shows are placed immediately into one of your three show slots. Replaced shows are moved to your Reruns section, giving you a few more Viewers at the end of the Season before being taken off the air completely. Every Show has several important characteristics such as a preferred timeslot (allowing you access to the full number of viewers the first season), a genre type (for triggering a couple once-per-game bonuses), and the all-important Viewer Track that outlines how many Viewers it’ll net you each season you have it. Most Shows also have prerequisites in the form of Stars and / or Ads that are needed to even slot the Show.

We're pretty sure we've seen this show... Prototype Shown

We’re pretty sure we’ve seen this show…
Prototype Shown

Hey, if you don’t have a headliner for “Old People Complaining”, people might as well be watching the news.

When you Develop a Show with a requirement, you simply add the needed card(s) from your Green Room to the Show, taking into account any conditional effects of the Ads or Stars that may cause them to flip upside-down and be less useful to you overall. Generally speaking, Stars added to a Show will add Viewers you’ll get at the end of a Season – but you also have to cover a Star’s salary. Similarly, attached Ads will generate you money. Some Shows have optional empty Star or Ad slots; you can also add those to the Show when bought or use the Attach action in a later turn to move one over.

Artwork will particularly help distinguish The Networks Prototype Shown

RIP Mr. Bean
Prototypes Shown

While not functionally important, Shows also highlight a major selling point to The Networks: the oddball flavor. The Networks is bursting with either completely ridiculous show concepts or names parodying well-known titles, which will be reinforced with a distinct style artwork. Some Shows, like “Monday Night Foosball”, are a little groan worthy, but many do a marvelous job at being a send-up of television and their lineups without ever moving into overt criticism. The Networks uses many thinly-veiled references to keep the game lighthearted and entertaining without sacrificing either playability or functionality, and it works.

Seriously, you’ll be surprised how much you want “American Samurai Worrier” to succeed by the end of it all.

At the end of each Season, players amass Viewers for each Show and Rerun they have. While a minor hurdle, this tallying of numbers is the one area of the The Networks that doesn’t run as smooth as the rest of the game simply because of the level of addition-based math involved (mostly in the later Seasons).

That said, given that the greatest detraction to the game is adding 85 and 37, that certainly says something.

After scoring is done, the board resets and all of your Shows then age. Some shows will gain viewers going into later seasons, but most tend to start losing them. It turns out ‘”Remember Me?” With Dan Quayle’ has a limited shelf life. Thus, after a Season or two, the whole churning process for a timeslot begins anew, which propels the game forward while being pretty on the nose about the world of television programming.

For it's first run, will net you $1 and generate 14 Viewers. Next Season will net you 16. Prototype Shown

For its first run, this show will net you $1 and generate 14 Viewers
Prototype Shown

If this were all, The Networks would be a decent game with a fair amount of replayability. What makes the game stand out even more, however, is how much scaling the game offers without running into ideal numbers territory. For normal games of 3-5 players, you have the option of sticking to a basic playthrough version or including more advanced Star and Network cards for some additional complexity – which is well worth it. Moreover, the game adds additional luck-based elements to the game for one or two players, ensuring that it’ll provide the same level of taut gameplay even at lower player sizes.

With screwball humor and well-developed mechanics, this game offers both charming flavor and solid design. The Networks is basically UHF: The Board Game. It encourages you to excel at the inanity of television programming on the one hand while lambasting it on the other, and yet this charming mix of motives adds up to a game that’s amusing and strategic all at once. The Networks is the type of game that should be picked up for a full season, and as the high powered executive you are, you can help with that right now over on their Kickstarter.

This project has earned the Seal of the Republic

Seal of the Republic

 

Photo Credits: Networks cover and artwork by Formal Ferret Games; UHF by MGM Studios.