Full disclosure: A review copy of The Rival Networks was provided by Formal Ferret Games.
I’d say this is my last bit of writing, for a bit, but I know that’s not true. Instead, I’ve just managed to clear a bunch of game reviews I’d been meaning to write for about a week or two, which is great. I have a whole stack of games on the floor that I’ve been chipping away at for the last couple weeks or so, and I’ve finally made it through all of them. Now some of them will move on to future forever homes and some will stay in my collection, and I’m excited about what’s next. The last game in the sequence that I’ve been working on is The Rival Networks, from Formal Ferret Games! Let’s see what’s up.
In The Rival Networks, you’ve just gotten enough resources to start your own TV network! Finally, you say, you can reboot Heroes, a second time. A show nobody wants to watch again. That bad idea aside, there’s all sorts of things you can do! You can recruit Stars! Sell Ads! Leverage the power of your Network! Unfortunately, it’s been brought to your attention that your hated rival has started their own network, as well. This indignity can’t stand, of course, so you need to go sort that out. Three seasons. The Network with more viewers wins. Will you be able to rule the airwaves?
To start, give each player a house in the color of their choice:
Then, set up the board! One player should be on the blue side and the other should be on the yellow side:
Place a ratings points token on each of the 0 spaces on the three Time Slot Boards. They should be +20-side down.
Shuffle the Pilot Season cards and deal one to each player’s 8PM / 9PM / 10PM slots.
Now, create the Show Deck based on the Season cards:
Each set of Season Cards (1, 2, 3) gets individually shuffled, and then each season gets stacked on top of a Season Finale card:
Flip the top three cards face-up to create the Show Display. Then, give each player a Starter Star randomly:
They’ll place it in their Green Room. Place the four Mega-Star cards nearby:
Shuffle the other Star Cards:
Shuffle the Ads cards, as well:
Reveal the top 3 Star cards and the top 3 Ads cards, placing them in two side-by-side columns. Shuffle the Network Cards and reveal 3, as well:
Separate the Awards cards by Season, as well:
Shuffle the Seasons, and reveal an award for Season 1 and Season 2. Keep the Season 3 Award card face-down, for now. If you want to play with Executives, shuffle them now:
Each player draws 2 and keeps 1; put the remaining back in the box. To finish out, place the Viewer Tokens nearby:
And place the Ratings Tokens nearby:
That should cover everything! You’re ready to get started.
The Rival Networks takes place over three seasons, as players try to build their up-and-coming stations into titans of television. Along the way you’ll recruit stars, add new TV shows, and sell advertisements! Maybe you’ll even be able to gain some network advantages and even take home some awards! As with all TV, the viewers are what count, so if you can turn ratings into viewers, you’re sure to win!
A turn can have up to four actions. Three must be performed in order, and the fourth (Buy / Play Network Cards) can happen at any time. Let’s go through them.
Develop a Show
You have to do this every turn! Take a Show Card from the Show Display (you cannot draw from the deck) and add it to your 8PM, 9PM, or 10PM lineup. Each show has a recommended airtime, but you can play them anywhere. If you’d prefer not to play a show, you may also take a show and add it to your Rerun Area immediately, bypassing your time slots (you probably shouldn’t do this). If, across your time slots and reruns, this show is the third (or fourth or fifth) of its genre, then you earn a Genre Bonus, depending on the genre of the show. This may net you additional Stars, Ads, or Ratings, which is good!
Adding a show to your lineup cancels the previous show in that time slot, moving it to your reruns. Your Stars on that show are discarded (keep your Starting Star), and any Mega-Stars on that show are returned to the Mega-Star pile. Similarly, any Ratings Points tokens are returned to the supply.
Now, gain Ratings. If the show is in the correct time slot, you gain the larger number; if not, gain the smaller. Your Ratings Points go back to 0 when a show is cancelled; you always start from 0. As you pass Viewer icons, you gain 1 Viewer. This means if you earn 7 Ratings Points from a new show, you gain 3 Viewers.
Sign a Star and an Ad
After you Develop a Show, you must take one Star and one Ad. These must be the two adjacent options, but you can draw a random Star and a random Ad from the deck (they must both be random). Place both into your Green Room, on your side of the board.
If the Ad deck runs out, shuffle the discard pile to create a new deck. If the Star Deck runs out, check the discard pile; if there are fewer than 10 Stars discarded, players must both simultaneously discard a Star from one of their current shows until there are at least 10 Stars in the discard pile. This won’t affect the show’s ratings, but it might affect Awards. Either way, shuffle the Star discard pile to create a new deck.
(Optional) Attach Stars to a Show
Now, you may attach as many Stars in your Green Room to one show as you’d like, following one rule: the Star must have a matching Genre Icon on their card to the show you’re putting them on. When you attach Stars, you improve the show’s ratings, moving the Ratings Token up the same way you did during the Develop a Show Phase (gaining Viewers as you pass eye symbols).
(Optional) Buy and Play Network Cards
Another thing you can do on your turn at any time is buying and / or play a Network card. In order to do so, you have to sell Ads you’ve obtained.
To sell an Ad, check to see what type it is. A Time Slot Ad has a time slot symbol on it, and can be sold for its max value if you’re leading in Ratings during that timeslot. Otherwise, it’s sold for the lesser value. The other type of Ad is a Paired Ad, which can be sold with another Paired Ad for $5M (total). Each individual Ad is worth $2M.
When buying Network Cards, you can overspend! The game won’t make change, but if you try to buy a $5M Network Card and a $3M Network Card with two $4M Ads, that’s fine. You can buy up to three Network Cards in a turn; they refresh at the end of your turn.
You can also play Network Cards! As many as you like, following the rules on the card. Once you do, rotate the card 90 degrees to indicate that it’s spent. You may need them for certain Awards, so don’t discard the Network cards. Each card may be used only once.
End of Turn
When your turn ends, refill the Star Display / Ad Display / Network Card Display. If the Season Finale Card is not in the Show Display, reveal the next card from the Show Deck. If it is, don’t; you can’t start the next Season until the current one finishes.
Also, you can use this opportunity to consolidate your Viewer Chips (converting 3 1-Viewer chips into a 3-Viewer chip) and placing them into your bank.
End of Season
On a turn, instead of developing a Show, you may take the Season Finale Card. This will end the Season, but your turn continues. This means that you must still take a Star and an Ad, and you may attach Stars or buy / play Network Cards.
After your turn ends, the Season Finale is scored! First, the player leading in more time slots scores a Viewer for each time slot they lead in; the other player gains 1 Star from the top of the Star Deck. In the event of a tie, nobody gets anything.
Then, score Awards! For each requirement, any player meeting that requirement gains the indicated reward. This does mean that both players can gain a reward from an Award card. Gaining a Star means you gain the top Star from the Star Deck randomly.
Then, clean up! Discard all remaining cards in the Star Display, the Ad Display, the Network Card Display, and the Show Display. Refill them with the cards from their respective decks. Discard (or flip over) the Award Card for the Season that just ended. If this is the end of Season 1, reveal the Season 3 Award card, as well. The player with the Season Finale Card discards it, and their opponent takes the first turn of the new Season.
End of Game
Once the third Season ends, the game is over! Both players count their Stars and Ads in their Green Room; the player with the most gains 1 additional Viewer. Count your Viewers, and the player with the most wins!
If you want to use the Executives variant, deal those out during Setup. If their ability can only be used once per Season, rotate them after being used and unrotate them during the Season Finale Cleanup.
For a simpler variant, try the Intern variant! Ignore all Ad and Network cards; you won’t use them. Additionally, all Genre Bonuses are replaced with “Draw 2 Stars from the Star Deck”.
Player Count Differences
None! Another two-player-only game.
- Use your Network Cards to your advantage. Network Cards are, effectively, the single biggest differentiator between players in the game. Anyone can get Genre Bonuses (though, it’s difficult for both players to get the same Genre Bonus in a game, since there are only 5 of each Genre card), but each of the Network Cards is unique. One, in particular, lets you count it as a show of any Genre of your choice for a turn, so you can potentially get another Genre Bonus, but I’m digressing, a bit. The key here is to figure out what you’re going for. Is it one show with high ratings? Is it consistently hitting 7 – 10 ratings? Is it Ads? Hopefully it’s not Ads. But regardless, there are Network Cards that align with those strategies that you can turn to your advantage. Plus, depending on your Awards, having high-value Network Cards is good, so keep an eye out and buy what you can, when you can.
- Keep an eye on the awards and plan ahead, as best as you can. As I said, sometimes this is buying Network Cards. Other times it’s locking down time slots. I had a really weird one in my last game (photographed here) where every Award wanted to lock down the 8PM time slot, which was amusing. As a result, players were incentivized to consistently build up their 8PM show and maintain that so that they could control that zone for additional Viewers.
- It’s not enough to have one really good show. Yeah, so one of the players found out that even a show with 26ish Ratings Points wasn’t enough to pull the game in their favor, because they kept missing out on Awards and they weren’t holding enough time slots at the end of each Season to get the Viewers they needed to win. Which, to be fair, is pretty consistent with TV networks. Having a single excellent show is great, but you need some more support or you’ll get crushed by other networks. Plus, in Rival Networks, you really should be replacing shows fairly regularly. You can keep your best show going by adding additional Stars, but that locks down one of your time slots and limits your future options.
- Getting a bunch of stars can be useful, but you need to have the right shows for them or the Network Cards to work around them. Sitcoms tend to work well for getting many stars into your Network as possible (that’s their Genre Bonus, two free Stars). That said, going deep on a limited number of shows means that you can very likely end up with Stars who cannot be placed on any of your Shows. Thankfully, there are a few Network Cards that will allow you to ignore Genre on Stars, meaning there’s always a backup plan. Going deep on Stars is good for your Ratings (and consequently good for Ads), but you should try to make sure there’s an alignment there, if possible.
- In general, you want to get Genre Bonuses when you can. This isn’t a game where you’re particularly benefitted from going wide (beyond one Network Card), so going deep on Genres can let you rack up a lot of additional Ads (and consequently Network Cards) or Stars or Ratings. You want to try and find a balance that works for you if you want to win, and Genre Bonuses are a great way to work toward finding that balance.
- Be strategic about when you end the Season (or when you choose to let your opponent end it). It can actually be to your advantage to end the Season early, since it discards Show, Ad, Star, and Network cards from their respective displays and locks things down for Awards. If you’re in the lead in two time slots and / or on enough categories of the Awards, you may want to pull that Season Finale sooner rather than later. If you’re even luckier, you’ve just potentially removed two cards that your opponent wanted for potential Genre Bonus Reasons from the game, as well. That will make things more challenging for them in later Seasons, even if you’re taking a slight loss from not being able to get Viewers. That said, consistently ending the Season may not be optimal, again because you’re missing out on scoring Viewers on your turn from Developing a new Show. If you’re in a pretty comfortable lead, then, you may want to force your opponent to end the Season by taking the other available Shows, so that they only get a Star and an Ad.
- Specifically working your shows and time slots so that you can sell Ads at their peak value is a great way to quickly pull Network Cards. You are totally allowed to sell Ads to buy a Network Card as soon as you pull ahead in Ratings; the Ad is sold, so it won’t matter if your opponent beats you next turn. Heck, you can sell Ads before you Develop a Show if you’re worried that the new show will open to lower Ratings than the previous one (and you still want to do that; it might be useful for Genre Bonuses). The when of advertising in this game is just as important as the what.
- Similarly, try to maximize the viewers on a show before you cancel it. Specifically, try to cross the nearest Viewer threshold, if you can. If that means you end up with 7 Ratings Points for a show, that’s fine; you don’t necessarily need to push to 10 and you can save the Star or Bonus for later. This is more of an efficiency thing than anything else. If adding a Star won’t push you above the Viewer threshold, save it until you find one that will (or a combination of Stars that will).
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I really like when games endeavor to hide how many points players are scoring. This is actually one of my favorite things. I used to play games with a lot of people who would waste time counting each others’ points during turns, which, is fine, but they would actively do this during their turn, rather than on my turn silently and privately. This ended up wasting a lot of game time, which is frustrating. In Evolution: Climate, Rival Networks, and a few other games, players have some way of obfuscating their point total, which prevents this, and I appreciate that. I also particularly like the little houses. It’s a cute way to handle viewers.
- Also really love the theme of this game. I think TV has a lot of opportunity to be mined for entertaining themes, and I think Gil’s work on The Networks games is consistently fun, in that regard. I played my first game with a friend who works in entertainment media and she loved the theme of this one. It feels authentic and the game’s narrative is consistent with its mechanics, which is good. Sometimes I don’t cancel a show because the show is stale, I just cancel it because I want to put another Action show in its time slot. TV is a cruel business, sometimes. But I do appreciate the fun and upbeat theme of the game making it clear there’s a lot of fun to be had here, as well.
- The show puns are great. For some reason, I can’t get “America’s Got Talons” out of my mind. I’m just thinking a lot about the logistics. Is this a good use of my time? No. Is it fun? Not sure. It’s just a process. There are some other great ones, but I won’t spoil them outside of the photography. A nontrivial part of the fun for us was being surprised by the various cards, so, there’s that. Whoever’s writing these show titles is doing work.
- I appreciate how specific all the Ads are. Almost upsettingly so. Several of the Ads are very good, very funny, or just very specific. It’s part of the overall sense of humor of this game, and I’m a big fan of it. It almost makes me want to pick up specific Ads, just for the humor value, but then, I remember: strategy.
- The fundamental loop of each turn is pretty quick to pick up, and turns are generally pretty short. You’re essentially drawing three cards and placing a few of them, occasionally buying and selling others. It’s not too hard to pick up, after a couple games, and I appreciate that! Simple gameplay loops are usually nice, especially in two-player games; lets you focus on the strategy.
- You store the Viewers in little houses. Little houses! That’s truly delightful. Assembly is a slight pain, but what can you do.
- I also appreciate that the game has higher-complexity and lower-complexity variants. Sometimes you want to change it up, and sometimes you need to change it up based on who you’re playing with. Some slight flexibility is a good way to accomplish that, and I like that the game has these options.
- Having an insert would go a long way towards keeping everything in box organized. I haven’t yet put it back after all my photography because I’m still trying to figure out a good way to do so. I think I saw a 3D printed version online, but I’m always a fan of having an organization solution in the box, except for Barenpark. That was a terrible insert.
- I’m not sure what symbols would have been preferable, but the “sun up” symbol for 8PM and the “sunset” symbol for 9PM really mess with my brain. I think it’s that I don’t really associate the symbols with the times. I think it’s “early, middle, late”, and that makes sense once I make that secondary association, but I will definitely say that it confuses me.
- You may be frustrated by some of the random dependencies in the game, depending on your tolerance for luck. There can be oddities (like all three Awards in one game demanding players hold the 8PM time slot), but there are also potential issues. Since there’s only one show of each Genre per Season, should your opponent start with a color, depending on the initial Show Display it may be very challenging for you to get a Genre Bonus in that color without getting fairly lucky. This can be compounded by Awards rewarding players for holding on to that Genre, which may feel unfair or tilted. I don’t think this makes the game unwinnable (and, if it did, you could quickly amortize that by rematching), but it can feel odd for players over the course of the game. I haven’t tried the expansion cards, but I’d be interested to see how that would change the outcome. There just ends up being a lot of power behind being the first player to start a new Season, since you get to see all of the new cards first (and have a 50% chance of the Show card you want coming up, given that half of the cards are revealed).
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, I like The Rival Networks quite a bit! I think, for me, the game really starts with its theme. It’s got jokes and bright, colorful art, and Rival Networks lets you know from the start that while you’re going to have some strategy and some conflict, you’re mostly here to have fun. It’s a pleasant tone for a game to take, and I think it works well for the position it seems to occupy, gently lampooning TV and TV networks. Beyond that, though, there’s a good amount of interesting strategy, to this one. I remember the original Networks (though it was a while ago, my last play), and this is definitely a streamlined and simplified version of that. But it works with two players! I think a lot of two-player games similar to The Rival Networks all kind of have a tug-of-war mechanism that I find gently annoying, but here, it’s deemphasized. You have a tug-of-war, still, for control of the three time slots, and winning that is good, but it’s not the be-all / end-all. It’s a gentle incentive, and I appreciate that. I was actually surprised by the Rival Networks’s simplicity. I expected it to be a little bit weightier or complex than it actually is. To me, that’s good! It means that once you get experienced with this, you may be able to loop a full game in 30 minutes or so. Means it’s also pretty easy to get in for a rematch, which is kind of ideal with these two-player games. Sure, there are shorter ones, but if you’re looking for something on the weightier end of fast, Rival Networks might be more your speed. This also helps balance out some of the random elements that can potentially frustrate, as you can just play another game if you felt you were disadvantaged by card draws during the first one. You should try to make your own luck, but there are ways that you may run afoul of certain random combinations. That’s randomness, sometimes. An included insert would have been nice, and I do get confused by some of the iconography, but those are fairly small issues in a game I’ve otherwise quite enjoyed. If you’re looking for a fun romp through the ups and downs of TV network management, a cute game with great art, or a solid two-player title, I think The Rival Networks might be right up your alley! I’ve certainly enjoyed it.