Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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Brian Clough, 1935-2004

green_amber points, eventually, to William Shatner covering Pulp's "Common People" - available, unusually, as the audio track of a blank QuickTime movie. It's... not without its merits and somewhat preferable to his notorious recordings of Beatles hits. Thus an icon is born, only a few months after people stopped cracking an obscure punchline. Pretty timely for me, that.

Many thanks to all those who provided replies to my previous post about human rights; loads of excellent and considered argument in the replies and I look forward to making time to give the conversation the attention it deserves.

For now, I'm going to repay you by talking about an obscure old game. Obviously.

The big sporting loss of the week here in the UK was the death of (association) football manager Brian Clough. After a successful playing career beginning here in Middlesbrough, he managed two different clubs to the First Division Championship, as was, then won the European Cup two seasons running; arguably, this makes him the finest English football manager of at least the last 30 years or so, and pretty clearly in the top five managers of English league sides regardless of nationality over the same period. In addition, he was hugely popular due to his brash man-management style; a real-life benevolent dictator with very few apparent talents other than an overwhelming passion for and knowledge of football. He had no truck for political correctness and a colourful vocabulary. There have long been movements calling for a knighthood and to give Brian Clough responsibility for the England team; sadly we will never get to find out whether he could have excelled at that in the same way he did at club football management.

Stepping aside from Clough for a moment, an anomaly of British game culture is the popularity of computer games in which the player takes charge of their own football club and attempts to manage them to victory. This takes place as a one-player game at the player's pace and real-life football events have no impact on the game's progress, to differentiate this class of game from the more globally famous fantasy football. Most of the games have a heavy emphasis on the financial side, leading some commentators to decry the genre as deeply uncool accountancy games. Certainly they are traditionally quite keyboard-intensive, which is why they are much better suited to PCs than consoles.

The genre can be traced back to 1982's original Football Manager by Kevin Toms; state of the art is probably the Championship Manager series, selling five million copies over the years - about as high as sales get in the UK. A big feud between Championship Manager 5 and Football Manager 2005 is set to erupt soon, though - Football Manager 2005 is going to be written by the people who wrote Championship Managers 1 to 4, and CM5 will be produced by a new team. I know lambertman has mentioned Baseball Mogul in the past, which is clearly in the same genre of games for a US sport, but other than that, I'm not familiar with the genre's popularity in the US. Similar games do exist for other sports in the UK, but the business aspects of other sports fascinates far fewer than the big-money business of football.

Anyway, linking the two themes of this post together, between about 1987 and 1990 or so, the one game I spent more time on than any other was probably Brian Clough's Football Fortunes. This, unusually, attempted to cross over between a computer game and a board game. Now playing board games on a computer is long known: computer versions of Monopoly, Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit are reliable sellers, particularly for those who want to play the game against a computer. (Let's not get into computer chess.) However, Brian Clough's Football Fortunes was primarily a board game, just one which happened to use a computer to take care of the record-keeping. It worked very well; while it would have been possible to play the game with masses of die-rolling and note-taking, it would have been nowhere as much fun. (With a nod to the genre of sports replay board games, which prove there are people out there who would find it fun.)

I know of only one other game which attempted to merge board games and computer games in this way: ATRAM, not a game in which you can operate Atlanta's transport system backwards, as the name might suggest, but an old-fashioned hex-based war game between a player controlling a squadron of RAF Harriers against counterparts from the US Air Force. The gameplay was meant to be very reminiscent of those wartime exercises with magnetic counters being pushed around a map. The second bottom review on this page was far from complimentary, and speaking to the only person I know to have ever played it, it wasn't a very neat intermeshing of the board and computer format. Unlike Brian Clough's Football Fortunes.

Here I describe the game mechanics in greater detail and enthuse futher. I am ripping off adapting an article I wrote six and a half years ago.

Imagine a league of ten football clubs. Between two and five of these are controlled by real-life players of the game, hereafter referred to as managers; the other five to eight are controlled by the computer. Each manager aims for their football club to win glory in the league, the game's domestic cup competition, and, in later seasons, in European competitions. Success in all of these is rewarded with Managerial Points, which determine the victorious manager.

Football clubs have cash balances and stockpiles of players; both of these are physical components, paper banknotes and cards with the players' details on. A team is made up of strictly one goalkeeper, four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards, though utility players can play anywhere in the outfield. Players have skill levels of one, two, three, four or five. Each manager has a counter which travels around the 36-square board in a highly Monopoly fashion. The turn sequence consists of each manager rolling the dice and moving their counter around the track, then obeying the square where the counter comes to rest, followed by one set of matches.

Ten of the squares on the board lead to auctions; the top player from the auction pile is turned over and managers bid freely until one is willing to pay more for the player than any of the other managers. The requisite sum of cash goes to the bank and the player joins the successful manager's team, probably displacing a less skilled player from the line-up. Six squares feature Selection Problems, which are variations on the Community Chest largely affecting players' eligibility due to injuries, transfer arrangements and the like; six squares feature Manager's Luck cards awarding and penalising sums of cash. The remaining squares award you sponsorship (good), make you pay wages (bad), let you sell spare players to the non-league for a pittance (indifferent) with one square being marked Crisis in the best go-to-jail traditions.

After that, for each of the teams, you add up the skills of the goalie and defenders for an overall defence skill total between 5 and 25, the skills of the midfielders and attackers for an overall attack skill total between 6 and 30, then enter them into the computer at the appropriate point. The computer then calculates the match results and presents them, performing a credible impression of the Grandstand videprinter. Collect gate receipts, take a look at the league (or the draw for the next round of the cup), and go round and round again until the season ends. Two practiced managers can get an entire season completed in about half an hour; with more managers and more wheeler-dealering it takes a little longer. Play as many seasons as you like, and the manager with most Managerial Points wins.

It's not a complicated game; the rules are easier to grasp than those of Monopoly. There's a moderate degree of luck involved so nobody falls too far behind for too long, and the game is fast-moving so you're never bored between turns. The atmosphere is naturally light-hearted, particularly when played between fans of football management games, though matches between manager-controlled clubs are tense. There's a fair degree of interaction between managers, buying and selling players among themselves. Negative criticisms are that the game is a little one-dimensional - there's not really much of a balancing act to perform - and managers getting off to a strong start are hard to catch.

Could the game be played without a computer? Barely, but not knowing exactly how the match resolution process works is probably a benefit to the game, plus there would be so much die-rolling and record-keeping required that it would test most people's patience. I have some board-only football management games and they're far from elegant.

For more information on the Spectrum version of the game, visit the game's page on the World of Spectrum site; it's worth reading several different reviews, ratings in which varied from 2/5 to 9/10. This is a real matter of taste; if the concept of a football management board-computer game appeals, you're likely not to worry too much about the technical merit and be as soft a target as I was for the artistic impression in game terms. Some reviewers got it, some didn't. (I could go on about the differences between the Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amiga versions of the game, but it would be redundant.)

Would Brian Clough have approved of the game named after him? It's hard to think of anyone as bluff as Cluffie wanting to have much to do with a computer and the veneer of football theme is fairly thin. I know it would be possible to have a considerably more detailed football management board-computer game, but this has definitely been aimed firmly at the family end of the board game market. I have played around with some pseudocode for a considerably more complicated design along the same lines. It probably wouldn't make for a better game, though, just one with more of the same. I think that Old Big 'Ead would approve of the atmosphere of laughter and fun that the game creates.

The open question is "Has the concept of a crossover board/computer game properly been explored?" - probably not, but I doubt one could prove a tremendously commercial proposition. Multiplayer games have just developed in a different direction; while BCFF Online could be made to work, the continuous time commitment involved would be too demanding for most. Perhaps PCs are much more mainstream now 20 years later than the home computers of yesteryear and so it is now not so unrealistic to expect people to be able to get their hands on one, but I tend to find that my gaming spaces are set up either for board games or for computer games, but getting a computer to a board game space takes more organisation than I find convenient. Perhaps the popularity of laptop computers would help these days? Certainly the software, being able to be run on an old 48kiB computer, is not too complicated for a Palm or some other handheld these days.

It's worth mentioning the primarily-board games which incorporate electonic gadgets: Dark Tower (where 20-year-old copies in working condition are worth a mint) and the much more recent King Arthur. One slight drawback with the latter from my perspective is that while the game uses electronic synthesised speech so that in-game NPCs can interact with players, the game is only available with the speech in German!

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