How to Play:
If you’ve always wanted to be a TV network executive and decide which shows get a spot in your lineup, War of the Networks (a 1979 Hasbro game) is the game for you. The game allows you to buy shows like “Cattlecar Gigantica,” hire famous stars as cast members (Mona Groana is definitely going to be the next breakout actress), and ultimately try to put together a TV lineup that can dominate the ratings. The object of the game is to win the most money after scheduling three nights of programming.
Before the game begins, separate all of the cards into piles of flash cards, star cards, and show cards. Also, give each player a network token (ZBS, NBZ, ABZ, and IND) and property marker discs of the same color. Shuffle the flash cards and star cards and place them in the areas marked on the game board. Place all of the network tokens at the start corner of the game board. Finally, the banker pays each player $20,000,000.
After the setup is done, all of the players roll the dice to determine who goes first (highest roll starts). Each turn players roll the dice, move their network token the amount of spaces the dice indicate, and do what the space they land on tells them to do (I’ll get into the different spaces later). If a player rolls doubles they have the option of moving forward that amount (as usual) or they might decide to move backwards by half the total on the dice (letting them possibly go buy shows that have already been passed). Players continue rolling, moving, and doing what the space tells them until they go all the way around the board and land on the start space again (not necessarily by exact count). They must then wait until all players have returned to start.
There are many different types of spaces players can land on. The most common ones are show spaces. If a player lands on one of these and the show hasn’t been purchased yet, they have the opportunity to buy it and place it on their schedule for the night. For example, let’s say a player lands on “Claws,” an obvious “Jaws” knockoff that lasts 90 minutes (three half-hour schedule spaces), gets a rating of 6, and costs $1,800,000 to purchase. This is the lowest possible rating but it does fill three schedule spaces. Because of endgame reasons I’ll get into later (and the possibility that other players will land on the Claws space on the gameboard), they still decide to purchase it (since it is important to try to fill as many schedule spaces as possible). They pay the bank $1,800,000, receive the corresponding show card, place the show card wherever they want on their schedule for the current night (since the program is so low-rated they will want to put it in slots that their rival networks have unoccupied to try to sneak out a win in those slots), and place a network property marker on the show’s space on the board (so other players know the show has already been purchased).
If a player lands on a show space but the show in question has already been purchased (indicated by the property markers placed on the board), they owe the other player the network fees listed for the show on the gameboard. For example, Claws costs players who land on it $1,000,000 which will be given to the player who owns it. However, if the show has two property markers on it (indicating the player has one or more stars scheduled with it) they pay the owner the full cost paid for the show (so $1,800,000 for Claws).
If a player lands on a “buy one star” or “buy two stars” space, they have the ability to buy one or two (if they land on a buy two stars space) stars for $2,000,000 each (payment goes to the bank) if they so choose. Stars help improve your shows’ ratings (they are worth between one to four ratings points each). After you buy a star, you take the top star card and “cast” them by placing them onto one of your show cards on the current day’s schedule (also put a second property marker on the show’s spot on the gameboard). This show’s ratings will now improve by how much the star is worth for every single half-hour it airs, so if you cast Julie Ett (who is worth 2 ratings points) in “Claws,” it will now score an 8 rating for all three time slots. You may cast as many stars on a single show as you wish. Stars move with the show if it is moved to a new time. However, they can’t be moved to a different show once they have been cast. If you want to buy a star but don’t have a show to cast them in, you can still buy them for later casting. However, once you purchase a show for the night, you have to cast any stars you have on it immediately. If you land on a buy a star space you don’t have to hire one but they are usually very helpful to beef up your ratings.
There is also a “steal a star” space on the board. If you manage to land on it, not surprisingly you are allowed to steal a star cast on a rival network’s show during today’s schedule (you do have to pay them $2,000,000 though). You then cast the star on one of your own shows for the night. This both weakens one of your rival networks and allows you to strengthen one of your own shows.
The next type of space is the “flash” space. These allow you to draw a flash card, which do things like let you advance to the next show available, steal a show (you get to take the highest rated show and any stars and put it into your own schedule unless you already own it), or collect $2,000,000 from each player. They are basically Monopoly chance cards on steroids.
Finally, there is a corner space that lets you reschedule tonight’s programs (you can also reschedule your shows on your turn once you get back to the start space and are waiting for the other players to finish). The last player to get to the start space is not allowed to reschedule their shows unless they hit the space on the board. Rescheduling lets players try to line up their shows in the optimal way so they win as many time slots as they can.
At the end of each night (once all players have returned to start), ratings are tabulated and $4,000,000 is paid out to the networks who win each time slot. If there is a tie, the winnings are divided amongst the tied players ($2,000,000 each for a two player tie, $1,000,000 each for a three-way tie, and no money for a four player stalemate). This is done at the end of each night (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) and then the next night begins (which is played in the exact same way). Then, when the game is over bonus bucks are paid out. Each network adds up its total ratings for each half-hour time slot (the ratings a network got from 8:00 Friday is added to their 8:00 Saturday and 8:00 Sunday ratings for a grand total) and $4,000,000 is paid out to the overall ratings king of each time slot.
After all the bonus money is paid out, players add up all their money and compare their totals. The player with the most money at the end of the game is the winner.
As a big TV fan, I’ve actually had dreams of being a TV executive and getting to pick which new shows make it to air and what gets renewed or canceled. I’ve fantasized about getting to save shows like Firefly, Chuck, and Arrested Development from cancellation. With War of the Networks, you get the chance to make your own TV schedule. While the game was way ahead of its time (for a game from 1979 it is way more advanced than other games from that time period), it is still relatively simple and very similar to Monopoly.
Even though the game is simpler than I wish it was (a good designer game about being a TV or movie executive is one of the top things on my wish list), I still like the game. The rules aren’t perfect and the game basically boils down to a roll-and-move game with a lot of luck elements but I still ultimately enjoyed playing it. Basically, it’s a Monopoly game that can actually end in a reasonable amount of time and is actually fun to play.
While the only real decisions Monopoly has you make is whether to build houses and hotels and which properties to build them on, War of the Networks has quite a few more. While you should try to buy as many shows as you can, you do have a limited amount of slots each night (six half-hours) so the decision to purchase a show isn’t always so obvious (you might actually pass on buying something once or twice). You can bump shows to the next night though so it is probably worth purchasing most shows you land on. You also have to decide where to schedule shows (so you can win the most time slots you can), whether or not to buy stars and which shows to cast them on, and make sure to plan for the endgame where you attempt to win as many weekly time slots as possible.
However, the game is still very luck-based. If you keep landing on other players’ shows and can’t buy your own, you won’t have many shows to schedule and will constantly be paying fees (a double-edged sword). Also, if you roll a lot of high numbers, you could easily move across the board in just a handful of turns (giving you less chances to land on unowned shows). This is an example of a game where rolling high numbers can actually be detrimental (though it does give you fewer chances to land on a bad space).
One thing I really don’t like about the game are the flash cards. While my copy of the game was missing some of them (so I don’t know all of the possible card types you can draw), most of the ones I have are very rigged. First of all, it makes no sense that you can steal a show or star (in real life ABC can’t just steal Empire from FOX and stars are obviously locked into contracts). In addition to making no sense, these are also way too powerful. The steal a show card allows you to steal the top-rated show on the night (along with any stars on it). That is extremely overpowered and can swing a night with just one card. At the very least the stealing player should have to pay them their investment (including any stars cast on it) to make up for this thievery, since the high rated shows are very expensive and the top stars are hard to get. There are also way too many duplicate flash cards included, all of the card types are repeated at least once when all of them should be unique. When I play War of the Networks again, I’m not playing with the flash cards.
While a lot of the game mechanics are quite simple, I actually like most of them. The Monopoly-like roll-and-move to acquire shows mechanic works fine, though I think taking the shows off the board and making them a random card draw of some sort might be better. I don’t mind the fees for landing on an owned show (basically rent from Monopoly) even though it does add more luck to the game.
I think the ratings mechanics were done extremely well. While there is a decent amount of calculating (especially when the week is over and you have to do the cumulative ratings), the mechanics are still good considering how difficult a system like that is in real-life (the Nielsen ratings which almost nobody understands). It would have been easy to make the ratings mechanics way too hard to understand or too simplistic but War of the Networks found the proper balance.
The contents for War of the Networks are of just average quality. However, I give the game a lot of credit for coming up with some pretty funny show names. Cattlecar Gigantica makes absolutely no sense but it is just hilarious for some reason. Other highlights include The Inedible Bulk, All Star Nothing Happens, The Brainy Bunch, Mucous B. Well, M.D., and Hobo’s Heros. I wouldn’t watch any of them but their names definitely made me chuckle. The gameboard also has some really cool art. In fact, I’d say the art is some of the best I’ve seen in the board games I’ve played.
War of the Networks also gets some points for having a theme (TV) that hasn’t really been done much. While there are more train games, TCGs, and zombie-themed games than you can count, how many TV based games have you seen? Avalon Hill did republish War of the Networks in 1987 as TV Wars (and added some new mechanics like cancellation, auctions, and reviews) but that’s pretty much it for this theme.
War of the Networks is a solid board game which is one of the better older (pre-designer games) games that I’ve played. It’s a little too simplistic to get a universal recommendation (I haven’t played TV Wars but I’m guessing it really improved on the formula) but I think it’s worth trying if you can find it for the right price. However, this is a concept I want to see a new designer game made for now that gaming has taken off.