Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Game of the Week: Football Strategy

A true gaming classic, Football Strategy has been around for almost half a century now. It was one of my neighborhood gaming group's staples back when I was a teen and has never disappeared entirely from the table in the years since.
On the other hand the game, unlike the actual NFL version, hasn't really evolved over time, so it doesn't bear as close a resemblance to the current pro game as it used to. The 1980s addition of the "Aerial" and "Ball Control" charts merely fiddled with the edges.
For those who don't know the game, the essential game mechanic is this: The Defensive player secretly selects one of 10 defense cards labeled A through J. The Offensive player then selects one of 20 offensive plays numbered 1 through 20 listed on a chart and announces it. The Defense reveals its card and the two are cross-referenced on the chart to determine the result.
For example, on a 1st Down and 10 on the Offense 40 yard line the Defense player picks "E" (a 4-3 defense). The Offense announces "4" a Slant. Cross-referencing we find that the result is a gain of 4 yards. Continuing our example, the Offense, now on the 44 yard line, calls a pass play, "14" a pop pass. The Defense reveals card "I" which the cross-referenced result shows to be an incomplete pass. And so on.
The main conceit of Football Strategy is that it is a game of pure strategy revolving around play-calling. As such, it isn't really a simulation in the same way as a wargame might be, despite the fact it was published by the well-know wargame company Avalon Hill. The game takes the approach that play-calling is the central strategic decision in football, all things being equal. There's no Tom Brady throwing the ball, nor any T.O. catching it. All player talent and most luck is stripped out of the game.
Of course, in real life all things are never equal, so the Statis-Pro style football games using actual game statistics were better simulations than Football Strategy. On the other hand, Football Strategy was in many ways more satisfying to play because the player had control over his fate. Aside from some luck in the kicking game and the long gain table there wasn't any chance in the game, and better play-calling would prevail, especially in league play.
Wargames are set in situations that are always (and deliberately) unfair, so game designers usually need to attempt to balance the players' chances of winning to a certain degree, often by redefining game victory away from its military counterpart. Its not uncommon for a player to win a "game victory" in a wargame that would still have been an actual military defeat. Few Battle of the Bulge games, for example, require German players to actually win anything like a true military victory in order to claim a game win. Usually just doing better than the historical result is enough.
Sports games, on the other hand, are set in situations that are always "fair." So differences between teams can make playing a statistically based game frustrating for players. Unless one resorts to creating a gambling-style "spread" to play against, its hard to balance it. Hence the attraction of Football Strategy. Its not a simulation because both teams have an exactly equal talent pool and precisely even chances of winning. The end result is completely up to the players, except for a small chance element.
Taken on those terms, Football Strategy, as a sports-themed game of wits, is a timeless classic.

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