With only 2 days left (at time of print) The Networks by Gil Hova is currently taking Kickstarter and the tabletop community by storm. I had the chance to talk to Gil about the game, you can check the Kickstarter out here.
We The Nerdy: Gill firstly thank you for agreeing to this interview with us.
You currently have a game out Kickstarter (The Networks), what can you tell us about the game that we won’t know from looking at the Kickstarter page?
Gil Hova: Honestly, the page tells you a lot!
The folks at Kickstarter will tell you that the role of the campaign page is to “tell the story of the game,” and that’s exactly what I tried to do.
I have to admit to being especially proud of the video, which I wrote, directed, and edited. The video tells you how the game looks and plays, but also indicates that the game is thoughtful and strategic while still playing fast and having lots of humor. That was a difficult needle to thread!
But it’s just a video that’s under two minutes, and it can’t tell you everything. And most importantly, you won’t know exactly how the game plays unless you’ve been lucky enough to get your hands on a review copy, or you’ve printed out the free PNP (Print and Play).
So I’ll tell you: the game plays quite smoothly. Turns are quick and snappy, but there’s still a lot of substantial decisions to be made. It’s a game that feels very polished!
WTN: Having watched the video, and read your Kickstarter page, this is a a game based around owning a TV Network.
Where does the inspiration for a theme like this come from, is it a love of TV or is it something else?
GH: Here comes my honest confession: I’m actually not much of a TV fan! About three or four years ago, I had an auction game that needed a theme, and this one was closest.
That was four years ago, and I’ve spent the remaining time tweaking mechanisms to get closer and closer to the game’s theme. It’s amazing how thematic the game feels now, considering it was mechanism-first.
I also have to point out that my girlfriend is much more TV-literate than me, so she was amazing at helping me develop some pretty deep references in the game. TV fans have really enjoyed the game so far, so I’m very proud of how it’s turned out.
WTN: So how important is theme over mechanics for you?
GH: It doesn’t matter whether you start with theme or mechanism. You want a good, solid intersection of the two.
You want theme to exactly match the mechanism, so the game’s mechanism is telling your game’s story just as well as your theme. That can happen, or not happen, regardless of whether you start with theme or mechanism.
WTN: The theme in this game seems incredibly strong, are there game play elements that get affected by trying to stay as true to the theme as possible?
GH: The theme/mechanism connection wasn’t very strong when I started work on the game, but as I kept working on it over the years, the theme and mechanisms tied into each other better with each play test. The game is extremely thematic now.
At the same time, there are some interesting calls I needed to make. For example, when people put on a TV show in real life, they don’t know how many viewers they’re going to get. They produce the best thing they can afford and hope for the best.
But the fun of the game here is to optimize your shows, stars, and ads. Once you’ve done all that, there shouldn’t be any more moving parts. If I had a die roll or a card draw after all that work to determine how many viewers you’d get, and you’d risk getting a small number of viewers for a great effort, that wouldn’t be so much fun.
This is a concept in game design called input randomness and output randomness. Input randomness is when the randomness happens before you make your decision. For example, when you draw a hand of cards to start your turn, that’s input randomness. Output randomness is when the randomness happens after you make your decision. For example, when you roll a die to see if you kill the dragon, that’s output randomness.
So thematically, output randomness would have been the accurate choice here, but it would have resulted in a game that wasn’t as much fun. What I was able to do is combine input randomness (from the selection of Shows, Stars, and Ads available each season) with variable output of your Shows, Stars, and Ads based on their configuration. Both of those provide enough variability that it masks the lack out output randomness. It still feels variable.
But the bonus here is that as a player, the variability feels under your control. It’s not a die roll telling you how well you’ll score, it’s the decisions you make. So when a player doesn’t score the optimal amount for their show, they’re okay with it, because it was their decision. And when your show scores a huge number of points, it’s great, because it’s your decision.
WTN: You mention on the Kickstarter page about how this game has been in the works for years, re-tuning it to make it perfect for any number of players that are specified on the box
Does the game-play change dramatically with different number of players for The Networks?
GH: I think it’s usually inevitable for a game to change with the player count, especially going from 1 to 2 to 3+; those will all feel radically different. The only exceptions are games that are true multiplayer solitaire, like anything in the Take It Easy family (and those of you who have played Take It Easy know that “multiplayer solitaire” is certainly not an insult; it’s a very good game!). The less interaction you have in a game, the fewer differences you’ll feel at different player counts.
I just played a 2p and a 4p game with the same person, and she was amazed at how different the two experiences felt, while still both being really fun and engaging. The 2p game was a tough, nail-biting affair, where each of us had a pretty good shot at picking up the cards we wanted, although we had to deal with the game’s burn mechanism (which periodically removes certain cards from the available supply). So there was a lot of planning and tension, because we were never sure if the cards our moves were leading up to were going to be taken by the other player or burned by the game. We still wound up with very high scores, because we could make very precise and powerful moves.
The 4p game was more hectic. There are more cards available and no burning, but the three other players snatching up cards makes it much less likely you’ll get away with your Plan A. Which is part of the fun of the game; even if your main plan is foiled, there’s usually a backup plan you can switch to. There’s still a lot of the game you can control, but not nearly as much as with the 2p. Scores turned out a little lower, because it’s more about making do with what you have.
The 5p game is very brain-burning. A good player will have to take into consideration which possible plans are most likely to be affected by other players’ moves. But they have a lot of fun and interesting interaction, and the sheer number of cards out means there’s plenty of interesting things you can do.
I’m very proud of the 1p game. It’s extremely tense. The burn happens after each of your actions, so you’re usually forced into prioritizing one card over another, and hoping that other card doesn’t get burned. And if a card tells you to burn something that isn’t available, you must put a cube on the board. Five cubes on the board, and you immediately lose. So there’s a lot of risk management to deal with.
The 3p game was the “problem child” for a long time. For about a year, it was the most boring way to play the game, with each player doing stuff on their own, not really affecting everyone else. I despaired for a while, then I realized that if I eliminated one of the show genres, the game would feel tighter. And it did! The 3p game plays beautifully now.
WTN: On the face of it The Networks, feels like quite a heavy game, will anyone be able to jump into this game
GH: It’s actually not that heavy. I’d say it’s a middleweight, similar to Stone Age or Lords of Waterdeep. The mechanisms are very thematic and intuitive, so new players who like the [TV] theme should be comfortable by the middle of the game.
There was some struggle getting to this point. I have cards in the game called Network Cards that players can spend an action to pick up. These cards are vital to the feel of the game, because they provide a lot of interesting spin on the gameplay. Without them, the game can feel dull and same-y.
But I found that new players struggled to learn the game with the Network Cards in. I didn’t want to just take the cards out for the first game. At some point, I realized… why not just play without Network Cards in the first Season with new players?
That solution worked amazingly well. New players find the game without Network Cards straightforward to learn. By the time the Network Cards enter in Season 2, players have a good grasp on the base game system, and can appreciate how the Network Cards change the rules. By trickling the rules in like this, the game is very accessible. It doesn’t feel overwhelming at all to new players.
WTN: How did you come up with the names of the shows, are they “spoofs” of real shows?
GH: I just brainstormed! Yes, they’re mostly spoofs of real shows, but altered enough that they’re completely new concepts.
The game used to be set in the 80s and 90s, and I loved those show names. I had to change the time frame to modern day because too many testers didn’t recognize the references. But I’d love to do an 80s pack, just so I can have a show called “Clarissa Knows But Isn’t Telling.”
WTN: How do you judge the balance of a “serious” euro game, with the humour that seems prevalent in The Networks?
GH: It’s funny, my prototype felt like a somewhat heavy game. But once my graphic designer Heiko Günther got ahold of the game and worked his magic, it suddenly turned into a middleweight. He was able to cut through a bunch of the cognitive overhead from my poor graphic design. The new layout is so clean, crisp, and clear now, because of A+ standout graphic design.
So I was really worried about the balance of game play and humor at first. I thought the game might be too heavy to support the humor; the funny stuff would distract from the game. Thankfully, the new graphic design makes the humor fit right in.
There are some nice, funny moments in the game, like when a player reads off their starting public access shows, or kills off the Star who “Always Dies in Everything”. I have a Kickstarter expansion card that is a science fiction show called “Water Bug” that gives you a bonus if you cancel it in its first season. (Yes, I’m a terrible person.)
Gamers who are more experiential, that enjoy more of the narrative that emerges out of the game, like these touches. They like to tell the stories of their networks, like “I started off getting a bunch of sci-fi shows, but now I’m moving towards reality shows. Typical!” But gamers who are more agential, who like to make interesting decisions, appreciate the tough, crunchy choices they have to make. I think the balance of the two turned out better than I’d hoped and planned, which is why the game is so popular right now.
WTN: What challenges have you found with Kickstarter, compared to the self-publishing you have done before and also working with publishers like Z-Man Games?
GH: I left my day job last year so I could devote time to my Kickstarter campaigns. It was risky, but so far, it’s paying off. Kickstarter is definitely a full-time job, compared to working with a publisher and letting them do the heavy lifting.
But there’s a lot you sign away when you sign with a publisher. Publishers will often sign a lot of games, look for one or two to take off organically, and then put their promotional muscle behind those (as well as games from big IPs or big designers). That means a lot of good games from lesser-known designers tend to not do as well, because they don’t have that exposure behind them; they’re not at conventions, they’re not being shopped around to customers, retailers, and distributors. Other publishers don’t even do that much marketing, and just rely on word-of-mouth. No conventions, no advertising, and so on. So it’s really tough in that situation as a designer; you have to trust the publisher.
I knew my games were good, but I wanted more of a marketing push. It seemed that would only happen if I did it myself, and I wasn’t getting enough money per unit to justify marketing myself with a game I signed to a publisher. So I needed to do it myself.
I think signing with a publisher is still the right choice for a new designer, and I’m glad I did it myself. But it’s very tough to have a successful game if your publisher is putting all their marketing muscle behind other games, if they’re doing marketing at all!
WTN: Your publishing company is Formal Ferret Games, what plans are afoot for the company?
GH: In 2016, I hope to keep spreading Bad Medicine‘s popularity. I’m also managing the release of The Networks.
Later this year, after two years of seeing other projects take priority, I hope to finally port my first game, Prolix, to mobile; I think it would be a great app. I’m hoping to finish my book on game design late next year. And I have plans for expansions for Bad Medicine and The Networks I’d like to look into.
And of course, I hope to have a light party game out in 2016, and a heavy strategy game out in 2017. It’s ambitious, but what’s life without plans?