Words by Colin Webster
Imagine you wanted to recreate football in a board game. I mean the actual game of football, not a Monopoly-esque move-and-collect kind of thing.
What would your rule be for a player who had just competed for a header How many players get to move when a corner kick has been awarded? Can a player shoot at any time or is a defender allowed to get a tackle in first How do throw ins work? Well, I made a football strategy game and it was bloody hard work. And I have answers to all of those questions… apart from the one about throw ins.
First, a little about me. I grew up in the 1980s in Inverness but now live in Edinburgh. I’m a fan of Inverness Caley Thistle, a Scottish Championship side (and one-time Scottish Cup winners). I’m a dad, I have a girlfriend (check me), a cat called Timmy and I love football probably a little too much.
I reckon I’ve played every football management game that’s been made. Highlights were Football Manager (the original), Tracksuit Manager and Player Manager. Then came ChampMan and it seemed like something had changed; football management games had moved into a new era of immersion, and we bought it in our millions. Of course, Football Manager (the new version) followed on, and now we all play that.
But the problem with these games – all of them – is that they are unsociable ventures. Sure, you’ve got mates who will (to some extent) tolerate your story of how your 3rd division team rose up to conquer the Champions League, but, honestly, they think their team is better than yours. There hasn’t been a good way to settle the question of which of your mates is the king of football tactics. Until now.
It was in 2014 when I started to work on my football strategy board game, spending forever designing the thing and writing up the rules. All those questions I posed earlier – and more – were swirling around my head when I probably should have been thinking about more important things. I printed off pitches, made little player pieces and even devised a rudimentary app to accompany the game. But then something happened that killed the game dead: I played it against a mate. It was obvious within 5 minutes that the game was shit, and we both knew it. My enthusiasm plummeted and I almost forgot about it for four years.
Fast forward to last August. I’m chatting with my workmate Marco about football things and I bring up my failed experiment. Marco’s an inquisitive chap so he wants to know more. He recommended we strip the game back to its basics and then built it up step-by-step. So, one night, that’s what we got started on. Using four sheets of paper to represent the pitch and some rudimentary counters for players, we played a simple version of the game. And we loved it. The dream was back on! I immediately got excited about the project and started to think about how to balance fun with realism.
Football is a dynamic sport. It’s true to say that no two real games of football are the same, but neither are any two moments. There are so many variables at play, making football a terrific illustration of emergent behavior at work. As you can expect, it turns out this can be tricky to recreate with a piece of board and 22 little wooden pieces!
To try to meet that dynamism, there were two elements I wasn’t willing to shift on. Firstly, I was keen that the pitch would be large, so that managers could use the space to execute their favoured tactical strategies. I didn’t want a frantic tackled-at-any-second affair, I wanted the game mechanics to reward thoughtful strategists. Secondly, I wanted all of the players to be unique, just like in real life. Players having their own set of attributes would force managers into strategic decisions. You’re not going to put a slow tackler on the wing, after all.
The basics were in place. What followed next was copious play-testing. Alongside a set of (very patient) friends, we worked out how long balls would work, how many people could challenge for a header, where and when you could shoot…everything. But we just couldn’t fathom throw ins. So we ditched them. The game needed a name, so, after discarding some awful ideas (‘Tiki Taka’ was obviously in the mix), I came up with ‘Counter Attack’. I was well chuffed with that, especially given the players in the game are represented as counters.
I finally got to the stage where I thought that people I didn’t know might want to play the thing. So I set up Facebook and Twitter accounts and invited folks to have a look. I figured that if there was enough interest in the project that I’d take it to a crowdfunding site like Kickstarter to test the appetite for it. I researched board game manufacturers and found one that fits the bill. And now, guess what? Counter Attack launched on Kickstarter on April 10th! Let’s see who’s keen on this thing.
When it boils down to it, Counter Attack is about having a good time around the kitchen table with a mate or three. It’s about getting away from screens (I killed off the app) and being able to indulge in some face-to-face gloating. Who doesn’t love a bit of that on a Friday night?