Developer: Gil Hova
Publisher: Formal Ferret Games
Number of Players: 1 - 5
The Networks, a simple engine building game about taking a budding, terrible TV network and transforming it into something that will bring all the viewers to the yard, has been universally hailed amongst everyone I’ve shown it to as “pretty good”. That’s an underwhelming end to an over-the-top first sentence if ever I’ve written one! Not great, not riveting, not bad either, mind you. Just good. The feedback I receive on this charming game is always the same: it’s simple to teach and easy to play, and the strategy has a little crunch to it, but it’s almost too simple. It’s the kind of game everyone agrees would make a great introduction for new gamers coming to our board game nights, but no one who plays games regularly gets all that excited to play it again. But!
The base game isn’t exactly the reason you clicked on this article, is it? You’re here to know about the game’s expansion, The Executives. Personally, whenever I see an expansion to a game that’s very simple out of its base box, I have the same thought. I wonder if it will bolt on added depth and complexity that will transform the original box into something greater than the sum of its cardboard parts. And if you’re thinking the same thing I was when I cracked open that second lid, you’re wondering: if the base game makes a great gateway game, and the expansion turns the experience into something people want to come back to time and again, wouldn’t this game with its expansion become a must-buy for any board game night host? And what if you already own the base game?
I’m glad you asked! Let’s have a look.
|Modest box, typical table demands. Make sure to have a lot of space for everything you'll need to fan out. Base game featured.|
Setting The Stage
In a classic case of “what is day without the contrast of night,” if we’re going to understand the differences that Executives brings to The Networks, we need to have a look at the base game first. While I was confident that my game group could simply jump into playing with everything mixed in on their first game, I’m glad I listed to Gil’s advice when I talked to him at PAX East. This expansion is so much more than just a bolted-on set of variable player powers. And while fans of heavier games certainly won’t have trouble coming to terms with everything Executives has to offer, my appreciation for just how much it changes the base experience is all the greater for trying everything one piece at a time. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In a basic game of The Networks, players have identically functioning player boards that track their currently running shows (your main source of points), your reruns (a one-time scoring bonus the turn a show cycles off prime time), and your archives (shows that earn you nothing but still let you track sets you’ve collected for bonus purposes). Players take turns building up their engines, earning money to spend on new shows and stars, and slotting those cards to replace other shows as their viewership drops off. They can also take one time bonuses from Network cards, free money from Advertisement cards, and then immediately regret their decisions in a classic case of “I really wanted card A, but then you bought card B that I also really wanted!”
|In my first game ever, I kept a really bad reality show on TV for way too many seaons and ran ALL the ads in it. I'm a bad person.|
In a nice touch of design, the player boards also feature point tracks that let you keep a running tally of what you’re earning each turn, allowing players to see who’s doing well at a glance before scores are tallied each round and added to the main point tracker. Graphic design is clear, and there are symbols in all the right places to remind you about special conditions you’ll need to track even as cards are overlapped and slotted into your board. Everything can be tracked at a sweep of the eyes, and since I’ve been mentioning it a lot lately I’ll also give a shout out to the rulebook. It’s easily one of the best I’ve read through in quite some time! It's got clear examples and concise wording, reminding me of important concepts at multiple points through the rules. Wrap it all up in charming artwork and SO MANY PUNS (literally every non-starter show is a parody of one in real life), and this game definitely gets top marks in the design department.
Mechanically this game is super solid, and the artwork and theme really do serious credit to the game’s title. Still, it is, as a reminder, unexciting overall to the more experienced gamer. You do get objectives to prioritize, such as cards that incentivize you to run lots of ads or going for sets of a particular kind of show. Certain stars or ads work better in certain kinds of shows, and some shows give you more viewers when put them in a particular time slot on your board. When it all comes together, though, the game just lacks that oomph that gets the blood pumping, unless you really like crunching numbers. Nothing’s wrong with that, of course, but even I have my limits despite all the jokes the rest of the Sprites and Dice staff makes about my love for strategy games.
|Executives also replaces your starter boards with new networks. I'm not sure how you pronounce this, but I love it!|
And Now A Word From Our Sponsors
Cue The Executives! These high-powered business men and women are here to take your network to the next level. The most notable change they bring to your game is, well, themselves. Despite the player count for a game being capped at five, you get a whopping twelve executives in the expansion box! You won’t find powers with tiny tweaks here though, like get a little more money or take a couple extra cards. The player to my left took The Butcher, gaining bonus points for shows in reruns and incentivized to cut as many shows after one season as they could afford (basically the Fox Network) and could pay stacks of cash to ignore show requirements! The player to my right was able to sign extra stars to shows even beyond their normal limits (earning extra victory points) and doing all kinds of interesting stuff with stars. I took an executive that let me sign tons of free money off ads every season, making sure I never ran out of cash! And that’s to say nothing about some of the truly novel executives that I haven’t played with yet like The Telethon, a PBS-style exec that has to rely on fundraising and sponsorship from other players to run their economy.
It doesn’t stop there; The initial setup of cruddy starting shows is replaced by a draft round. Players now are able to choose cards that cost them money but earn actual points from the start, or they can draft shows that will earn no viewership, much like the originals, but impart other bonuses like extra money, ads, or stars. This gives players an even greater sense of agency in starting their network out just a little differently from everyone else. And to top it all off, a new deck of shows from season 1 to 5 replaces the base game’s deck, rebalancing and tuning things perfectly for all the new, added content.
|Ah yes, my favorite show! We've all seen this one, haven't we?|
It should be noted that the game offers one more new component: mogul cards. These are set out at the start for all to see but you don’t qualify to take one until you earn a set bonus for your shows that typically triggers around the mid to end game. A bit like the normal network cards you can grab while playing, mogul cards are amped up versions that allow some frankly insane effects. A single mogul card can easily tip the game, and even if other players close the score gap caused by a mogul card by earning one for themselves, lunging early for those set bonuses just so you can get first pick is another delicious layer on this strategy game cake I quite enjoy. Not to mention, hearing your friends say “I’m sorry, you scored how many points this round,” is absolutely priceless.
Is It A Must Watch?
If the base game of The Networks is gentle by design, conservative in the goodies it hands out, Executives is like that that one house on the block you trick-or-treated at that handed out full sized candy bars or fists full of chocolates. Whereas the base game is great as an introduction to board games, the expansion rips off the training wheels and replaces them with a jetpack, giving you all the money, the powers, and the choices you want from a meatier strategy game. In short, it does everything I was hoping it would do in so many more ways than taking a simple, symmetrical game and adding some variable player powers. It makes you feel powerful, and it makes no qualms about the fun you’ll have by giving you some real weight to swing around.
I asked my friends at game night what they thought of the game plus Executives. Would they play it again? Yes, every single person said they’d be happy to give it more plays. Then I asked if any of them were excited by it, and the response I got was, “Excited? Not exactly.” At the end of the day, the people at game night who all helped play this game with me all said it was a good strategy game and that they much preferred it with the expansion. They said they’d definitely give it more playtime, but that it required a certain mood to want to play, and with this I very much agree. This game fits in the 1.5 to 2 hour drier strategy game mark, and so it’s going to naturally compete with other games in your collection for getting played in that slot. Ultimately, you could say every board game requires a certain mood to get the most out of, and you’d be right, but it’s good to note that The Networks: Executives isn’t a game that gets people in that mood proactively to play it. Anecdotally at least, not with my group.
|Some of these card really did pull on my sci-fi geek heartstrings.|
I’ll stick by my assessment on this one, that the game despite its absolutely wonderful theming and artwork is still at heart a bit dry. We all laughed at each new reveal of shows, joking as we slotted appropriate stars into a sci-fi show or sitcom, but as the rounds wore on we all looked at the cards more for their genre colors and their points, as well as if they fit nicely with the requirements on some of our stars and ads. In the end, there aren’t any novel mechanics here that mirror the theme and make it jump to life. We still adhered to our rule of reading each new card flipped into the market so we could chuckle at the names, but we realized this was ultimately an economic game of out-prioritizing and out-purchasing the other players no matter how good a show's name was.
Coming back to the original question, does this all mean that The Networks with its expansion is a must-have for the consummate game night host? I’d say yes and no. It feels odd for me to be so in awe of the strong design that went into this game, effort that clearly shines through in every little aspect, and yet feel so cold towards the theme; while the artwork is incredible, this game could have had just about any skin put over top of it. I’d put this one down as, pound for pound, one of the strongest contenders I’ve seen for this slot on a game shelf, covering the range of gateway to advanced game. If you don’t have something that does what this game and its expansion do, I’d say you’d be hard pressed to find a single game that runs that gamut better. If this sounds like you, then you really can’t go wrong. If, on the other hand, you’re put off by the idea of a mechanically solid but thematically so-so game (despite, again, amazing artwork and card names), or if you already have games on your shelf to cover newcomers and board game vets alike, I recommend a try before you buy.
Finally, for existing owners of The Networks, I would say that Executives is a must have. The extra abilities that it lets you wrestle with as well as all the crazy powers that you can unleash definitely take the game to a new level. Having played with it, unless I’m teaching brand new board gamers, I would never play without it again. Overall, you know whether you have room in your collection for another light to medium weight strategy game, so whether you make that initial purchase on the base game is up to you. If you do, though, make sure you pick up Executives with it!