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Sunday, 21 May 2017

Your TV, Your Way

Most games about television are really about a particular show or series and in the past, they have invariably been little more than a tie-in with a series, more a marketing exercise than a good game. In an age of modern game design this has changed, with television themed games not only being tie-ins, but also being designed to fit the themes and events of their shows. A great example of this is Fantasy Flight Games’ BattleStar Galactica, which emulated humanity fleeing from a war with a cyborg enemy and searching for the Earth whilst also being betrayed by cyborg infiltrators. Other games about television put you in charge, deciding upon what programmes to buy and when to broadcast them, and this is what The Networks: A tabletop strategy game for 1-5 TV executives is all about. The aim is to take “TV from Public Access to Prime Time”.

Published by Formal Ferret Games following a successful KickStarter campaign and launched at UK Games Expo 2016, The Networks is designed for between one and five players—both solo and advanced variants are included, aged thirteen and up, and takes between an hour and ninety minutes to play. It is a card drafting game in which each player is an executive in charge of programming at a television network. Each network has three important prime time slots—10pm, 9pm, and 8pm—that the executive has to fill with hit Shows that will attract Viewers and Advertising. By combining the right Stars with the right Show and selling the right Advertising space, an executive will make more money to buy and create better Shows and so attract more Viewers. Unfortunately, both Shows and Stars age, and whilst their popularity may grow in the short term, in the long run, they will lose Viewers and so will end up being cancelled. Thus an executive will need to find a replacement Show. In the meantime, the cancelled Show goes into the network’s vault and syndication where it can continue getting Viewers… The executive who attracts the most Viewers after five seasons is the winner.

At the heart of each executive’s network is a Player Board. There are five of these, for each executive and network—ICS, MooTV, U62, VCK, and PKW. Each Player Board has slots down one side for 8pm, 9pm, and 10pm, plus slots for the Green Room, Reruns, and Archives down the other. Each Player Board has a track its network’s Viewers, a reference guide to the actions an executive can do on his turn, and an explanation of the bonuses a network can accrue for developing multiple Shows of one genre.

At the heart of The Networks are the television Shows. Each is a represented by a Show card that has quite a bit of information on it. Not just the title of the Show, but also its genre (Action, Drama, Reality, Sci-Fi, Sitcom, or Sports), the prefered slot for when they should be broadcast (8pm, 9pm, and 10pm), the cost to develop it and maintain it, whether or not it needs a Star and/or an Advert attached, and how many Viewers it attracts when it goes into Reruns. Down one side there are four numbered rows, representing how many Viewers the Show will attract as it ages.

So for example, the Show ‘Doctor What’ requires $5 million to develop and is a Sci-Fi series that it best broadcast at 8pm. It requires a Star to develop and can have another Star or an Advert added to it on a later turn. Its upkeep costs are $2 million and during its first season will attract seven Viewers—or just five if not broadcast at 8pm, before going on to attract ten, seven, and one Viewer over subsequent Seasons as the Show ages. When it goes into Reruns, it will continue attracting five Viewers.

The Show cards are supported by the Star and Ad cards. Each Star card has a name as well as a Signing cost, an Upkeep cost, and the Star’s Conditions. Down each side of the card are four numbered rows which match the rows on the Show card, indicating how many Viewers the Star will attract to the Show. One set of rows is the good side, the other is the bad side. If the executive matches the Star with the right Show and fulfills the Star’s conditions, the good side is used; if not, the Star card is flipped and the bad side is used. Each Advert has a Landing bonus, the amount of money gained for picking it up and an Income it will generate when attached to a Show per Season. Like each Star, an Advert can have Conditions. Get this right and an executive can use its good side, earning the network the stated income, but get it wrong and the Advert is flipped to its bad side, reducing the network’s income.

At the start of a game, each Network has a terrible lineup in terms of Shows, Stars, and Adverts. For example, the three initial Shows broadcast by MooTV are ‘What’s In My Pockets?’, ‘Wide World of Forks’, and ‘You Too Can Play the Recorder!’. The only Advert it runs is ‘Shaggy’s Rugs and Carpeting’ and its only Star is a ‘Moonlighting Travel Agent’. This will of course change as the Seasons progress as each network develops Shows, the Show cards being divided in Season 1, Season 2/3, and Season 4/5 Shows, and adds Stars and Adverts.

The fourth card type is the Network card. These help build a network and give it an advantage or special power. They can be quite simple, for example, ‘Audition’ lets an executive draw and keep a Star for free, whilst ‘Infomercial’ awards him $5 million. Other Network cards are more complex, such as ‘Executive Producer’ lets an executive improve his position in the turn order, but must pay $1 million to each executive he passes in order, or ‘Syndication’, which grants a Viewers bonus to each Show a network has in Reruns.

Lastly, the Scoring Track sits in the middle of the table where it keeps track of the Season number, the Turn Order, and the number of Viewers for each network. It actually comes in three parts. The left-hand and middle sections are always used, but a different right-hand section is used based on the number of executives and networks. This right-hand section shows the start-up funds for each network—varying according to turn order, how much money an executive and network gains when they end their Season, and the number of Show, Star, Advert, and Network cards to add at game start. This will actually change after the first Season as the right-hand section will be flipped over to show the number of Show, Star, Advert, and Network cards to add at the start of each Season and how much money or how many Viewers an executive and network gains when they end their Season.

Set up is relatively easy. Each executive receives his Player Board and starting cards, the Scoring Track is set up according to the number of executives and networks, and the starting Show, Star, Advert, and Network cards are laid out. Some cards may need to be removed if there are only two or three executives and networks. These cards are clearly marked, as are the Interactive Network cards and the Advanced Network cards. The inclusion of these is optional, but are used in the advanced version of the game where there is more interaction between networks.

Each Season consists of several turns, the number determined by how many things each executive wants to do and how much money he has to spend on Shows and Stars. An executive can take as many actions he wants, though there is an advantage in an executive ending his networks action and Season early. The earlier he does end his Season, the more money or Viewers he will gain with the ‘Drop and Budget’ action.

On an executive’s turn, he has several actions to choose from. He can ‘Develop a Show’, purchasing from the current season and slotting it into his current programming. Some Shows require a Star and/or an Advert to be successfully developed. Alternatively, the Show can be sent straight into Reruns. He can ‘Sign a Star’ and hire Star to add to a Show that he later develops using the ‘Develop a Show’ action . The Star sits in the Green Room until attached. He can ‘Land an Ad’, giving him some money immediately and then an income once attached to a Show. The Advert sits in the Green Room until attached. He can ‘Attach a Star/Ad to a Show’, adding a Star and/or an Advert from his Green Room to a Show. This allows an executive to replace Stars and Adverts already attached to an existing Show. He can ‘Take a Network Card’, a card that will give him an additional special ability.

Lastly, an executive can ‘Drop and Budget’. This means he drops out of the current season or round and can take no more actions. An executive usually does this because he has run out of money and can do more to improve his network’s programmed schedule or because he does not want to do any more to improve his network’s programmed schedule. When he does this, an executive places his turn order disc on the highest available space on the Drop & Budget track, selecting either the money or the Viewers indicated on that space. The higher the available space on the Drop & Budget track, the greater money or Viewers to be gained. 

Once every executive has taken the ‘Drop and Budget’ action, the current season comes to an end. Each executive determines his income from Advertising and pays the maintenance costs of his Stars. (If an executive cannot pay these expenses, they are paid for in terms of Viewers.) Then the number of Viewers each network is attracting, primarily from its current lineup of programmes, but also from Reruns, is determined. Lastly each Show that an executive has in his schedule ages, indicated by dropping down a row on the Show card. This will change how many Viewers the Show will attract in the next season.

Lastly, any Shows, Stars, and Adverts not picked up during the season that has just ended are discarded and new ones drawn for the new season. The executive who network has the least number of Viewers becomes the new Starting player and the new season begins.

Once five seasons have been played through, including the aging of Shows and the determination of the number of Viewers each network has, there is a sixth and final aging of Shows and determination of the number of Viewers each network has, these being added to each executive’s final score. The executive and network with the highest score is the winner.

To do all of this each executive needs to maximise his network’s income as well as its number of Viewers. Although having the most Viewers is ultimately the key to winning the game, income is needed because each network not only needs to maintain the upkeep on both its Shows and its Stars, it need to have the money to replace those Shows when they age and eventually go into Reruns. So there is a balance to be maintained throughout the game. 

Physically, The Networks is on the whole, a very nice product. The various boards and money are all done on thick card, everything is in rich colours, and it all looks very attractive. That said, the cartoon-style artwork could be said to be a bit scrappy and whilst they have a nice finish, the cards do feel a bit thin. Overall though, what stands out about The Networks is the effort put into the graphic design which makes everything visually clear and simple. The rulebook is also very cleanly laid out and well written.

In contemporary terms, the theme of The Networks looks a little outmoded. After all, broadcast television is not quite as big as it once was, given the prevalence of streaming services and watching episodes in bulk rather than week by week. That said, the theme of The Networks is perfectly realised. In controlling your network you do feel you are programming your lineup of shows and working to get the right Stars with the right Shows and attract Adverts to get the income to pay for the Shows that attract Viewers. This is helped by the clever titles of the Shows, Stars, and Adverts which parody popular television series of the last few decades. So players will recognise Shows such as ‘Doctor What’, ‘Breaking Worse’, ‘Found’, ‘How I Left Your Father’, ‘NCISICBMOMGOMG: Scranton’; ‘Always Dies in Everything’, ‘Fierce Drag Queen’, ‘Adorable Hipster’; ‘Aztec Chocolate Bars’, ‘Blast Radius Pure Sugar Cereal’, ‘McTaco’s’; and so on. In fact, there is a lot of fun to be had in spotting these references and then going on to program them in your network’s lineup for the current Season and beyond. (That said, these Shows do date the game a bit, but this does not detract from the game play.)

The Networks does look more complex than it is and really, with a play through or two of it under your belt it plays quickly enough, though the advanced rules will increase both game length and complexity slightly. If it needs anything, it is perhaps more Shows and Stars, certainly during the first Season where the choices do limited and there is not quite enough variety. Perhaps this could be addressed with ‘Season Packs’ for the game? In terms of the complexity though, The Networks is a mid-weight game, putting it roughly on a par with games like Glory to Rome or BattleStar Galactica. It is probably not suitable for players who have little gaming experience under their belts, but the theme at least makes up for some of that.

If you were looking for a game where you wanted to be a network television executive and program its lineup the way you wanted it to be—within budget of course—then The Networks is the game for you. The Networks is a great combination of theme and design, giving you control over the television you always wanted.


Formal Ferret Games will be at UK Games Expo with The Networks: Executives, the first expansion for The Networks. UK Games Expo will take place between June 2nd and June 4th, 2017 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

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