Trying to transfer the thrills and excitement of a sporting event to your tabletop is a very difficult thing, not that it hasn’t stopped countless game designers from attempting to do so. It does seem that soccer is the sport that most people try to transfer from field to table, and many would say that the most successful translation is Subbuteo. While it’s true that managing the on-field movements of eleven separate players is nigh-on impossible, Subbuteo’s simplified extrapolation of soccer’s ruleset makes the whole thing manageable and – most importantly – fun. Rather than try to match up to this, a host of game makers have tried to present a more abstract version of the world’s favourite sport, and the latest effort is currently on Kickstarter: Masters of Football.
Taking a rather more thoughtful approach, Masters puts you in the shoes (boots?) of a manager of a randomly chosen team, each of which start the game with a set amount of resources with which you’ll look to build your squad. Rather than look at a single match, your net is spread far wider as you and your fellow players work your way through a season, with one player ending up as champion. The rules recommend that you generally play with four people but it does cater for up to eight should you so desire, and the game works just like a regular season with each team facing off against each other twice. Of course, you can’t field a team without players, so the whole thing kicks off with everyone selecting players from the available stacks of prospective superstars.
Three decks are available to purchase from throughout the game – Gold, Silver and Bronze – and you only need to buy three players to start off with. You can play relatively safe and pick up three Bronze level players (you’re give three Bronze, two Silver and one Gold to choose from) or you may wish to splurge all your cash on a Golden wunderkind, then back him up with a couple of duffers from a fourth deck, represented by Wood. Each player has a specific on-field position and cost to buy, as well as a whole raft of offensive, defensive and tactical skills represented by numbers from zero (meaning they’re awful) to seven (meaning they’re Niall Quinn).
Once everyone has purchased a minimum three players, they’re given a handful of action cards which help turn the tide in your favour throughout the matches and can be played at prescribed times before or during a match. Once it’s decided who will play against each other, managers place three of their players on the spots on the board and secretly select one of four tactics cards which will determine what footballing skill they’ll be relying on for the start of the match – either Possession, Direct, Aggressive and Defensive. Next up, a “Tactical Battle” happens where the winner of a dice roll (plus all their players’ tactical values) gets to reveal which of the two secret cards will be revealed for the first half of the match. It’s these base stats that will be used when trying to score and defend, but things aren’t quite as simple as that.
Once that half’s tactic has been revealed, the teams’ base values are totalled and shown on Offensive and Defensive tracks on the board, made up of coloured squares – and now it’s time for some luck to enter the game – after all, what is sport without the occasional moment of chance? Each half is made up of six turns where the two managers alternate back and forth, attacking and defending, just as you’d see in any normal match. However, rather than seeing the ball crash into the back of a net through fancy footwork, you’re instead looking to have a higher attacking total than the defending side. The coloured squares, as well as your base stats, also represent specially weighted dice that, when rolled, will add to that base, and the higher your starting point the more likely the dice you get to use being of use to your side.
A poor defence with a base value of only 1 or 2 will be stuck using a pitiful red die that’s pretty much covered in zeroes and will be of little help. Meanwhile, a gloriously strong attacking side could possible be using a powerful purple die, potentially adding 4 to each strike on goal. Basically put, the higher your skills, the more likely you are to score (or from the other viewpoint, save). The previously mentioned action cards can be used to perhaps add to your total as well, adding a little extra spice to matches, but most of the focus will be on these dice rolls.
Come half time, substitutions can be made (assuming you have extra players) but there’s a second tactical battle to consider first. This adds a rather interesting element to the game – one player knows precisely what the remaining face-down tactics card is, so can potentially switch out a poor teammate for a much more skilled one in that as-yet-unrevealed area. However, if the tactics end up remaining the same, is that substitution such a good idea? It led to a fair bit of thought in games I played, and echoed the hard decisions faced by many a manager as to whether or not a player should be pulled if they’re having a nightmare.
The second half plays out in reverse, working your way backwards around the rondel-thingy, so the home team has a little advantage in the match’s final moments. Once a match is done, the winning side walks away with three points, the losers zero, or you take a point each in the case of a draw. Once everyone has played each other a couple of times, the manager at the top of the table takes the title, and everyone else is probably sacked, as seems to be the fashion in the Premier League these days.
Masters of Football does a few things well and a couple of things terribly, but I think I’ll give it a tacit recommendation – it’s very much an “if you like the theme, the game’s probably for you” affair. Get four people together who love football, have them create their teams and play out a whole season (which comes with a whole raft of rules about earning more money, pulling in extra players and building up your squad) and I’m sure you’ll have fans of the game for life. Matches take about five to ten minutes, and the back and forth of defending and attacking mirrors the real sport quite nicely. The action cards add a nice flavour to the game; they allow you to screw with your opponent to a satisfactory level, but you rarely feel overpowered and without a chance – just like in the real sport, you’re generally evenly matched with only the occasional runaway victory.
Put Masters of Football in front of your average Eurogamer who is looking for their copy of AquaSphere though, and I fear they’ll run in the opposite direction screaming. There’s just that little bit too much luck in there, and while there’s plenty of opportunity for decision making here, if said decisions can be blocked by something as simple as a dice roll – tactical battle, I’m looking at you – this isn’t one I can recommend to the hardcore gamer. Also, the rulebook for the prototype I received was a horror to negotiate, so I hope that the final version will be a little clearer. Diagrams and icons are great, but clarity in your rules is vital! Finally, if you’re going to play, make sure you’re in for the full season – it simply doesn’t stand up as a way to play a quick match. That’s what Subbuteo is for, remember?
In all, this reminds me of the game I used to play when I was a kid and the new season had just started. Shoot Magazine would give away these League Ladder things, with little cardboard tokens that you could use to track the teams throughout the season. I’d diligently do that for the first couple of weeks, but soon the whole four leagues’ worth of teams (and the Conference) would be thrown into a bag and drawn out, one by one, until I had thirty-two matches written down in a pad. I’d roll a D6 for each team, write down the score, and work out my own little FA Cup on paper. Dream matches could happen. Watford could smash Arsenal 6-1 (we’ll see that next season, I guarantee you). And Masters of Football evokes that, just to a higher level. Nerdy football fans, rejoice – you may have a new champion.
Masters of Football was designed by Pedro Natario, Rafael Pacheco, Luis Rosario and Luis Silva, with art by Rui Duarte – you’ll recognise a fair few faces in there! Check out the game on Kickstarter now, and cheers to the guys for letting me check it out and experience some unexpected warm, fuzzy, football memories.