The Rival Punworks
Hello. How do you feel about puns? Your answer may well determine how you feel about The Rival Networks, Gil Hova’s latest game — and a minor Hova all around.
There’s something to be said for the quantity of puns on display here, and I’ll say it: wowza. That’s a lotta puns. It’s the same thought that ran through my head when playing both The Networks and High Rise. If Gil Hova inhabited the Roaring Twenties, when puns were the height of comedy, he’d probably be working some smoky lounge on the Atlantic City boardwalk, dragging a laugh a minute from soused gin-runners.
Ah, right, the game.
The Rival Networks shares a setting with Hova’s earlier title The Networks, and the premise hasn’t much changed. Two players take the role of — you guessed it — rival networks, competing for the attention of a fickle audience across three evening time slots. Much like its predecessor, the goal is to air new shows, new actors, and new advertisements, always chasing the promise of becoming the big new thing. Old shows are canceled unceremoniously to the reruns pool, channels gradually develop a reputation for particular genres, and it’s possible to cash in on all those ads for a bit of network trickery.
Don’t let the similarities fool you. The Rival Networks may resemble The Networks on the surface, but it’s a very different game. Here the focus is on controlling the ratings of those three time slots, arrayed in the middle of the table in similar fashion to the war-torn cities of Omen: A Reign of War, the battlefields of Air, Land, & Sea, or the sylvan destinations of Haven. In other words, it’s a Schotten-Tot. From a rolling offer of television shows, it’s your job to select the ones that will dominate the airwaves. This isn’t easy, given the inherent appeal of particular shows in different slots. For example, where The Handmade Tail holds great appeal for the folks viewing at 8pm, it’s a minor drama at 9pm or 10pm.
In practice, slotting shows is a minor decision. It’s rare to be presented with a truly agonizing choice, despite the bonuses from playing matching genres or earning extra viewers in the right time slot. Most of the time, there’s a fairly obvious best option from the three shows on display. Even if there isn’t, both players’ ratings tend to hover at fairly level intervals in the game’s first rounds. Without outside intervention, your competing networks would likely be neck-and-neck the entire runtime.
That’s where actors and advertisements come in. Once you’ve aired a new show, your attention turns to a second rolling card offer, consisting of actors and ads that are always paired. Why? No idea. Maybe that Retired Athlete harbors genuine feelings about the PotatoNator and has a rider in his contract that all networks broadcasting his work must also advertise its potato-crushing goodness.
Reasons be damned. This second card offer is the best thing about The Rival Networks. Actors boost the ratings of whichever show they’re attached to, but are only fit for particular genres. Ads, meanwhile, act as currency, letting you purchase network cards that break the rules or spool out combos that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Crucially, ads are worth extra funds if you meet particular conditions, usually by controlling the viewership of a time slot. This is where the game’s most interesting decisions arise, often requiring careful trade-offs between funding and a suitable actor, or requiring you to invest in a prospective future program. This in turn permits your rival to see what you’re hoping to acquire in the future — and perhaps preempt it for an extra viewer or two.
If stealing a handful of viewers from a rival producer sounds like low-stakes drama, it absolutely is. That’s where The Rival Networks stumbles. It’s cute and inoffensive, and certainly isn’t the sort of game that engenders regrets for having played it, but it also doesn’t provide the same breathless moments offered by its peers. Where Omen, Haven, and Air, Land, & Sea offer surprise, often in the form of unexpected turns, unending combos, or a perfectly executed bluff, The Rival Networks never quite escapes its flatness. The distribution of points is often laminar. The end-of-season awards are minor. The catch-up system can be as rewarding as the viewers themselves. It’s a stationary bicycle — a lot of pedaling that doesn’t seem to go anywhere interesting.
Had The Rival Networks burst onto a scene not already staffed with formidable offerings, perhaps its paired card offer would have stood out better. Instead, like I said upfront, this is minor Hova.
A complimentary copy was provided.