Designed by Valentin Herman
Published by Fanfor
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
3 to 6 players
Fanfor have had a history of designing computer and business themed games, and in fairness they have made as good a job as anyone except perhaps Richard Garfield's NetRunner. I still like their Hacker, which comes out occasionally. x.net is the latest, and as the vanguard of what will doubtless be a coming wave, it is a game themed to the Internet. As usual, it is card based and structurally familiar, but this time we get thin card counters instead of the trademark Fanfor wooden blocks.
The basic concept is fine. In the middle of the table is a pyramid of 'demand' cards. These cover a variety of subjects (hobbies, art, business, porn and so on), and symbolise what the public wants to look at on the Web. The higher up the pyramid, the stronger the demand. Over time these change, and can even be reinforced - if the masses want cooking and nature, you give it to them. The players each try to set up their web sites, or content if you prefer, to match the demand and draw in users. Whether this is really the way the internet works, or closer to perhaps the television scheduling model, I will leave you to consider.
Players can run several 'subjects' at once, but eventually, and to score more points through supply/demand matches, you have to start upgrading your hardware. This means buying faster and bigger servers to store the content, and investing in wider 'pipes' to allow public access to your servers. In time, you can buy 'streamers' and other gizmos to improve your delivery response - which as we shall see is key. Money is simply cards paid from hand (a device that I have nothing but praise for) and everything seems to be sensibly priced, even if you occasionally have to wait a long time for that all important upgrade.
So all that is good stuff, and slowly but surely, Mr Herman has shown us that he can design decent games. I think the atmosphere element is coming along fine, and the decision making is usually okay, though they are still rather regimented and procedural. I suppose one could argue that in a game based on computing, that is wholly appropriate. But in the same way a Moon game is identifiably a Moon game, Fanfor stick to some elements that are at best tolerable, and at at worst highly questionable. The most worrying in x.net is the victory criteria, that once again involves everyone marching towards a fixed total, with open and escalating scoring and several methods of pegging back the leader. This may well be fine in Fanfor's playtest groups, but it seems just about everyone else moans about it. So rather than a sudden dash for the line, and first past the post winning, I would like to request a better system, certainly one in which everyone gets the same number of turns.
The other problem, pacing, is also a Fanfor issue we have seen before. The game plods along, seemingly with the players always reacting to, rather than anticipating, the market and making, it must be said, fairly obvious tactical and purchasing decisions. That is fine, and almost what we expect of the man who designed ITC and Brauerei. But generally speaking, the players move more slowly than the demand cards change, so the pattern can be: change your content to form a perfect match for the demand; three other players take their turns and demand mysteriously changes against you, with you powerless; by your turn, hoping to score points, you are hopelessly wrong with your content. Initially this is fun, and you work at it. Later on, it really starts to bite. Finally, I have no idea why you wouldn't change the game to draw your new cards at the end of your hand rather than at the start - is this so difficult to work out?
This game cost a mere £8 in Essen, and would be considered good value at twice that. Which is fortunate, because that is the usual markup before it reaches your local gameshop. The game is chock full of colour cards, and while the 3D graphics won't win any awards (okay, so they are dire), the cards are perfectly serviceable and of good quality. I actually don't know how Fanfor do it. A similar game from Kosmos would be the same price or more expensive, yet I presume Fanfor are not accessing the print run savings that Kosmos must be. I wonder if Valentin is just a rich programmer who is subsidising his hobby?
Apart from the above mentioned problems with scoring, pacing and maintaining interest, x.net is not a bad little game. It has certainly appealled to anyone who is 'net aware'. I think one needs to get it done in the hour, or it is really not worth the candle, but what is there works pretty well, it is close to the theme, and there is a logical structure. It is somewhere between a six and a seven, but I am not sure where. With some subtle tweaking, it could easily become quite a bit better - I would like to see Derek Carver tackle the demand pyramid as it seems to be something he could fix. So one to try or perhaps buy if you like the designer or the theme, but not Herr Herman's best. On which subject, in case this dissuades you from buying, I am still not quite sure if the legendary fatwah (Herman on Siggins) is still in force. I have spoken to the German embassy, but they seem unable to help. So I'll just keep reviewing his games and letting you know what I think, while keeping one eye open at night.
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