With all of the tabletop football games that have come and gone, most aim to allow the player to do one thing: Recreate football. In the simplest of terms, these games allow players to recreate history (and sometimes even change it!) but at their heart tabletop football games have been created strictly with stats and realism in mind. Coaching, on the other hand, is somewhat rare as the central point of focus in a tabletop football game's design. 4th Street Software's football bucks this trend by putting the coaching and strategy first, and designing the rest of the game around it. Such a grand plan couldn't work the first time out of training camp... Or could it?
OUT OF THE BOX!
The components of 4SS Football are rather Spartan and not unlike many other tabletop games to date. Lots of cardstock with player stats abound. Rather than having hundreds of individual cards, players are printed on team sheets. Card-lovers everywhere will find it very easy to cut them out should they be so inclined. Veterans of our sport will immediately notice a distinct lack of charts and tables. The elegant simplicity that is this game's virtue works without the use of extensive charts, but more on that later. Two fields are included (one for solo and another for head-to-head play) as are a host of player and game markers. The game's manual is a scant 36 pages on 4.25" x 5.5" pages and is rather unassuming. In fact, the only remarkable feature of this game initially is the supply of play cards. Run plays, pass plays, and even special teams plays are charted out on cardstock play cards.
TIME FOR A TEST DRIVE!
So what to do with all this cardstock? A quick read through the rules clears this up immediately as the rules are, for the most part, very well written. Those points that are unclear are addressed in the "Clarifications" section at the end of the rulebook. The gist of actual play isn't anything new: The offensive players take the field, the defense sends a platoon of men to answer, the offense shows its formation, the defense lines up to counter, and the ball is snapped. Dice are rolled and the offensive play card is consulted. Will the key match-up of the play be an offensive tackle buying time for a passing QB? Or will it be a back trying to make a block on a blitzing linebacker? Once you know who's going to make or break the call, the men in the match-up are compared to the dice and the result of the play is looked up on the player's card again using the dice. The most amazing part of the game's system is that an entire play result can be obtained from one throw of the dice!
BUT HOW DOES IT PERFORM?
The depth of the system becomes apparent after studying the game's play and player cards. The player cards dictate how often a player can have an impact on a play, but also gauge how much of an impact that player will have. Even different positions are taken into account as the run-stopping results of DB's are significantly worse than those of DL's. After studying this phenomenon in detail (I've entered nearly all of my players into Excel and did some number crunching) I am so very impressed with the care that has been taken in the design of the player cards. This is only natural given that only this level of detail makes it possible for the game to work on the player cards alone.
The play cards do exactly what they were created to do: to allow the coach to get the best match-up possible given an average play result. As we all know, even the best play call can sometimes fail due to having to go to a second or third option. The play cards even incorporate this by having alternate receivers with appropriate statistical weight given to each. As an example, calling an out route for your 3rd wide receiver will have the pass going to him 80% of the time, with a 15% chance of the pass going over the middle to another receiver and a 5% chance of going long to your split end. Knowing the possible outcomes of a play is just as important as knowing what part of the field you want to attack.
Which brings us to defense. The board is broken up into seven receiving zones (three short, three long, and a deep zone) as well as seven blitzing slots. Doing the math, a conservative zone defense can cover all of the possible zones on the field, leaving four men in a pass rush. Knowing that football is a game of match-ups, the offensive coach will often call plays under the assumption that a given player will be covering his default area of the field. Good defensive coaches will counter this by moving people around and preventing the offensive coach from being able to pick his match-ups so easily.
It is this aspect of the game that makes 4SS Football so great. The chess game of coaches comes to life in great detail as the offense attacks an area of the field looking for the perfect match-up. Teams can exploit the each other's lineup weaknesses with absolutely blissful depth of play.
Special teams play actually has an important fit in a coaching plan as match-ups come into play here as well. While not as detailed as regular plays, key special team players (not just returners!) can have big impacts. Lose your star cover man and you'll find yourself giving up yards on returns time and time again!
Last but certainly not least is the statistical realism of the game. This tends to get overshadowed due to the focus of the game being on coaching, but 4SS Football does a great job here as well. Players are rated to yield very accurate numbers given average play calls. Certainly, you can increase or decrease these numbers through smart coaching! Most impressive are the purer aspects of football that have been recreated. I am just amazed at how much a great middle linebacker like Ray Lewis can dominate a game--like in real life, how important a good fullback is in a power running game--like in real life, and how VERY important good lines are to the success of any offense--like in real life!
PLEASE DON'T FORGET ABOUT SOLO PLAY!
After playing the game for a while, it becomes very obvious that the overwhelming strength of the game comes from head-to-head play. There are solo rules included that use a variety of charts to yield both offensive and defensive play calls. This process requires preliminary die rolls before the actual roll of the play result and slows the game down significantly. Solo players that enjoy the development of a game (those veterans of Face Off Hockey know what I mean) can appreciate the man-to-man game of 4SS Football. Those looking for a game that doesn't require much decision-making are encouraged to look elsewhere.
ANY DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS I SHOULD KNOW OF?
Despite how much good comes in the box, there are some things that can be a bit of a headache. Specifically, the injury and penalty systems need some improvement. Those that love draft leagues will need to make adjustments to the injury system immediately. The system was put in place to try and make the game match up with the actual events of a given season. That is to say, if a player had a completely injury-free season, his injury rating will be significantly higher than someone that had a single bad year. The downfall of this is that players end up being tougher than they should be, with some players having a maximum injury of being out for one half. "It doesn't matter how bad you roll-my guy can only be out for one half!" The penalty system can be equally frustrating as the penalties are incorporated into the player cards. This was probably a requirement to keep the game streamlined and to have control of each player's individual propensity for fouls. By simply studying a player's charts, you can know with certainty that he will, for example, never cost you a critical play with a bad personal foul penalty because it just isn't on his card!
Oh, and the game has no fake punts of field goals, so don't expect to pull any fast ones on your opponent!
WHAT'S THE FINAL SCORE??
4SS Football was created with the intent to become the ultimate coaching game. In that respect, it succeeds without a doubt. Nowhere will you find a game that better captures the mind games of battling coaches with lineups, formations, and play calling that is at the heart of football. If you have the mind of a coach or are simply a fan of good, realistic football action, look no further than 4SS Football!
Added: Monday, June 02, 2003
Reviewer: Clinton Paris
Related web link: 4th Street Software