Everything I know about running a broadcast television network I pretty much learned from broadcast television. Which is great! Who better to learn from than the creators of content themselves, after all. Thus, I went into The Networks expecting to totally 30 Rock it.
On its face, The Networks is a whip-crack of an idea: take command of a crumbling television station’s prime time lineup and mold it into something everyone involved can be proud of. It’s your job to land ads and sign outlandish personalities to star in your shows, then put together combinations of programs, advertising, and big names to hoover in the viewers by the millions — and all in the proper time slots, since the grannies tuning in at 8pm are not the same as the schlubs still glued to their flat screens at 10pm. You might even get to do some very low-grade network politicking, though when I say “very low-grade,” I mean very low-grade. More on that later.
Part of the appeal of The Networks, as well as a bit of how it can occasionally prove underwhelming, has to do with just how simple this whole managing a multi-million-dollar media empire thing is. Put without adornment, every season features a bunch of cards, and players alternate turns picking them up. The embellished version isn’t much trickier. Shows and stars cost money to produce or sign, and sometimes cost an upkeep at the end of the season. Ads give you money. Network cards let you break the rules or earn a few extra points here and there. The real trick is in how you cobble them together, positioning a show at the right time, attaching the best actors to it, transforming cancelled shows into still-profitable reruns, and so forth.
As with many drafting games, while money is featured prominently and some shows require stars or ads before they can air, the real resource nagging at the back of everybody’s minds is time. Since you can only claim one card per turn, The Networks becomes a game about holding your breath. Perhaps you needed one more star before you could claim a show that would propel your network to critical acclaim, so now you’re hoping nobody notices how much they might damage your plans by developing that show out from under you. Or perhaps you need a perfect combination of network cards to leap to the front of the line, plus a couple ads to earn a few million dollars. Will you pick them up or spend the season floundering? The way this question persists from round to round elevates the entire game by injecting a heart-drumming sense of tension to every card pick.
Even better — and I suspect very few would disagree with this assessment regardless of how they feel about the game itself — there’s a wonderful and slightly wicked humorous streak running through the entire thing. It’s the sort of humor that loses its edge with familiarity, true, but I have yet to witness a round that didn’t have somebody chuckling over the show titles or the all-too-appropriate stars. Everyone’s starting programs are appropriately awful, featuring winners like the reality show Know that Rash! and the Emergency Broadcast Test Hour, not to mention your network’s vice president insisting that he can totally star in your lineup. By the end of the game, you’ll have stars like the Guy Who Dies in Everything (a big bump in viewers for one season, then he’s dead) and the Intense Dramatic Actor (he’s in a drama or he phones in his performance), and gold nuggets like How I Left Your Father, NCISICBMOMGOMG: Scranton, and Paisley is the New Burnt Umber. If designer Gil Hova could roundly win at any one feat of cleverness, it would be making up a whole hell of a lot of TV puns.
All that said, The Networks isn’t without a few downsides. First of all, while I know absolutely nothing about the real inner workings of a television network, the way it’s portrayed in popular culture seems to indicate some degree of intrigue, bargaining, and personality conflict. Unfortunately, The Networks itself is one of those heads-down sorts of games that features functionally zero player interaction beyond the possibility that someone will nab a desirable card before you. Those pink network cards try to make up for this with the occasional dash of dickery, but most of the time end up feeling highly artificial, with machinations like forcing your opposition to pay your upkeep or swapping your crummy failed child actor for someone else’s adorable hipster coming down to whomever picked up the card rather than anything you’ve personally set in motion. This isn’t to say there aren’t moments of incidental cleverness, born of the randomness of the draw. In one game, for instance, I used a combination of Syndication and Daytime Soaps to transform my reruns from a one-shot bonus into a new crop of viewers season after season. This was, sadly, the one time that my success with the network cards felt like the product of a clever scheme.
However, while The Networks has some very real problems, I’m not sure they’re necessarily reason enough to avoid it. Sure, it’s a game about the fiddly optimization of varying denominations of points; then again, it’s a rather good game about the fiddly optimization of varying denominations of points. Sure, some of its facets would have worked better as an auction than as drafting — truly, it would have been a rattlesnake if it had featured auctions — and yes, it feels all too much like a Kickstarter-funded game that would have benefited from more publisher oversight.
But over multiple plays it grew on me, especially as I began enjoying it as a solid drafting game rather than resenting what it wasn’t. And seriously, the drafting is pretty dang good, featuring a whole buffet of options and forcing you to choose a single item at a time until everyone’s bellies are only half-full on bacon and pastry, not sure about the taste of whatever they’ve Frankensteined together.
In short, even when its shortcomings swarm around your eyes like gnats, every turn presents genuinely interesting decisions. For fans of drafting games who find themselves intrigued by the game’s setting, The Networks disappoints — though only slightly and in a way that still provides ample enjoyment.