When I was a kid, I didn’t have a lot of time for football. Don’t get me wrong – I knew of it and read an awful lot of Roy of the Rovers comics round my friend Lee’s house. I recall there was an ace story when the titular Roy led his remaining teammates to freedom after being kidnapped by some people in some unnamed land, and that was after they’d all been involved a major plane crash that killed most of the team. The actual playing of the game though? Not really that interested, especially when Roy Race was shot by a mystery assailant and people were trying to find out whodunnit.
Another reason I didn’t like actually playing: I always ended up in goal which was awful because (a) I had a terrifying fear of getting a ball to the face which would smash my glasses and (b) if you were in goal, you’d been picked last, and I was always picked last because I was bloody awful at the game, mainly down to (a). I still am, and that’s probably down to me ending up in the library instead of on the playground as much as I could. There was one time of year though, a time when I totally threw myself into the game – perhaps not playing, but definitely hanging around the people who knew everything about the sport. Those three or four weeks leading up to the start of the new season were great because all of the football magazines like Shoot! and Match gave away League Ladders.
I didn’t give a damn about their proper use – no tracking the ups and downs of a season for me! Instead, I would waste hours (and I mean waste them) playing a ridiculous game where, using all of the printed team banners, I would enact imaginary knockout competitions. Drawing sixty-four teams from a tin, a mix of Scottish and English club sides involved in a cup competition that even now would never exist in real life, I would write them all carefully down in a notebook then roll a six-sided dice to see what the score would be. The winner would progress, the loser returned to the tin, and I’d keep going on and on until there was a winner. Ludicrous match ups would occur, with minnows like Alloa taking down the then all-powerful Liverpool down in a 6-4 thriller. I found one of the notebooks the last time I was back home and shook my head at the stuff I got up to as a kid.
Now, I play ‘proper’ games. Now I waste my hours in a much more productive way, and while I never truly fell for football like so many of my friends did, I’ve certainly got much more of an appreciation for the game, especially when the World Cup is doing its thing. Of course, at the time of writing we’re right in the middle of the 2014 event and Brazil is showing the world how to expertly ignore near countrywide poverty in order to spend all the money on hosting a tournament. Meanwhile, I have gone into my biannual obsessive mode, keeping an eye on stats and numbers and watching as many matches as possible.
And then there are the games – tabletop ones, I mean. Of course, translating any sport to home play is a nightmare at best – generally you’ll find that designers will take the more abstract route with a lot of dice rolling or almost ignore the sporting aspect totally and take a more business type approach (see another game of my childhood called Soccerama). I recently received a copy of Fußball-Fieber from the designer, Pierre Viau, and rather than go down one of these well trodden paths, it’s doing something rather different as well as inspiring a few wanders back to the past – hence the rather rambling nature of this write up.
A quick to play card game that emulates this year’s World Cup, you choose a team from the thirty-two qualifiers and attempt to guide them through the group stages of the event. While there are rules to play through an entire tournament, the focus of the game is just those first three matches that can make or break a country’s spirit – see England’s performances this time around, wiped out after two matches.
All teams are graded – the likes of Germany and Brazil getting 4s, the smaller teams such as Australia and Honduras only 1s – and also split into three sets: A, B and C, just to ensure that things will be nicely mixed up. There’s a little bit of handicapping to ensure that all selected sides are equal and then each player is then dealt their own group – the three teams that they will face – as well as a card saying in which order they’ll take them on. Actual Groups of Death can take place which is hilarious where only one player is dealing with some monster teams while everyone else is just facing the likes of Spain (topical reference!). Next up, you’ll receive a card that tucks in underneath your chosen Country that will be used to show your score.
Last, and most vital, are the cards that you’ll use to get yourself through these three matches. Despite them all being in German, they’re very simple to understand thanks to lovely, intelligent design decisions – cards that effect other cards have the same images printed on them, for example – and your main focus will be on the modifier in the top right corner. Playing a card on your current match (or on any other player’s, as all they all take place at the same time) though in general you’ll be looking to add good ones to your game, bad ones to everybody else’s.
So far, so simple. Of course, there has to be a twist to make things a little more meaty, and in Fußball-Fieber it’s all about limitation. You see, you only get eight cards to get through the whole group stage. Admittedly, you do have to +1 Jokers that bring that hand up to ten in total, but those eight randomly dealt cards will be all that stands between you and qualification.
Play is also very simple. Each time the turn comes round to you, you either play a card from your hand or choose to pass. Playing is as mentioned, just putting a card on your current game or that of another one in progress, then having the affected player slide their score card up or down depending on the modifier. Passing, surprise, sees you skip out for that turn, but you can jump back in if play gets back to you. The match only ends when all players sat at the table decide to pass, bringing that round of matches to a close.
Scores are checked, results noted (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw, nothing for losing – don’t forget the goal difference, that can get quite important) and play goes on to the next match. Before that starts, you may choose to discard two of your cards in order to draw a couple of new ones, just to perhaps open up your options a little. Of course, by that point you may not have the cards to trade in as you might have used them all during your first match – it’s very easy to get involved in what’s essentially a war of attrition with another player, throwing cards at each other and then ending up in a 0-0 draw. Like any shrewd international manager, you must decide what is best for your team at that moment in time. Do you sacrifice a win in order to let someone else spend another of those valuable cards so you can turn the tables on them in an upcoming fixture? Or do you answer their attack , playing a card now but potentially leaving yourself open to getting truly stuffed later down the line?
For such a small, quick game, there are a surprising amount of tricky decisions to make. As the three matches progress, you’ll be looking at the points that have been racked up (along with that goal difference) and having to react to that as well as what’s happening right in front of you on the field of play. Add in the rather ingenious idea of some cards hanging around, causing you misery and requiring multiple plays to get rid of them and their undoubtedly heavy penalty and you’ll have a game that makes for a very enjoyable half an hour.
Problems? Well, it’s only available in German, but the English rules translation is excellent and freely available. You could use a crib sheet, I suppose, but with each card represented by clear imagery I don’t really see it as entirely necessary. In all honesty, my only major issue with Fußball-Fieber is the art which is… well, it’s rather special. I realize that licensing the kits and everything would’ve made the game prohibitively expensive – after all, FIFA do like to take their cut – but some of the shirts that the artist has come up with are a wretched sight. The worst thing is undoubtedly the players themselves though, who look like they’ve escaped from an early nineties copy of Guess Who; they would be better served staring at you from an identikit photo on the evening news of a hunted criminal.
Regardless, this is a bloody charming – and occasionally surprisingly cutthroat – little game. It may be a pain to get your hands on it but I’d suggest grabbing a copy from Amazon.de if you’re in the market for a speedy, accessible filler. There are also rules in the box to play out a full tournament, but I think it’s best to keep this one short and sweet. In fact, I’d suggest that this would work great with a younger audience, especially if they’re hitting that football mad period that all kids seem to experience. For me though, I enjoyed playing Fußball-Fieber, not just because it’s a splendid little game, but because it brought me on a journey back to some happy memories of my childhood. Might have to hit up eBay now and see if I can find some League Ladders…
Fußball-Fieber was designed by Pierre Viau and published by Kosmos in 2014. Between two and four can play with games taking around half an hour. Copies of the game can be picked up from your friendly local game store (in Germany) or from Amazon.de for a mere €7 – get one in before the final!