Ironman Football

Published by Simulations Workshop, Inc
Designed by Randy Moorehead
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

2-8 Players
c180 minutes+

Right, first the groundrules. This game is not being reviewed just because it is a gamekit (and a very interesting one at that). It is not part of some fiendish Siggins plan to push obscure, DIY games about American sports. It is certainly not part of a conspiracy between Sumo and gamekit publishers to undermine the traditional boardgame market. Okay? These points have been hinted at over the last year by a selection of a) narrow minded b) jealous and c) deeply bonkers people who believe I am out to conquer the world with scissors and Spray Mount. Wrong. I push gamekits because I like them, they get games onto the market that might not see the light of day otherwise, they put their creators through some of the rigours of design and as a by product they are the most financially prudent way of seeing your game (and name) in lights. And because I think some of you might enjoy them. That is all. No hidden agenda, no conspiracy, just unusual, inexpensive games that need some work to get ready for action.

This particular one takes around an hour or more to cut up the formidable pile of cards, but since they feature such notable institutions as the Pottsville Maroons, the Dayton Triangles and the Frankford Yellowjackets, and mega stars like Red Grange, George Halas, Jim Thorpe and Paul Robeson (yes, that one) it really flies by. Have I lost you? Sorry. Ironman Football is a team management game based on gridiron football in the early 1920's. That was a time when there were no TV million$, no real passing game as they played with a squashed medicine ball, shoulder padding was a sturdy aran jumper, helmets were strictly optional and you were expected to play on both offence and defence. Demanding, eh? They make the special teams of today look like so many effete prima donnas. And how does it work? Well, if you can imagine Soccerboss, Footmania or Phantoms with a healthy dash of realism, plus shoestring finances and a number of clever sub-systems, you'll get the general idea, but this game is different and considerably more flavoursome.

Ironman has a real flair for its subject, conveying the schedule structure, financial survival of the embryo league, the unique problems under which the teams operated and even the prevailing zeitgeist. Not bad for a few bits of paper and card. A side effect of covering all this is that it is going to take you several hours to play through a full single season, and the rules indicate that you might want to play even more than that. Well either they play these things much quicker than us, or they have funny clocks in the States. Either way, it hardly matters as an initial seven game season of this little cracker, at three or four hours or so, will have decided you one way or the other.

The game works on the old system of pulling a team together, playing a series of games, whacking down some event cards and trying to obtain the best record to win the league. And that is where any similarity with the past is left way behind. Ironman skilfully grafts on a number of considered systems to this basic outline, which all add interest, flavour and plenty of factors to think about. The result is a game I intend to play again as soon as possible and is enough to make me wonder where Randy Moorehead has been all these years.

At the start of the game you are handed some event cards, a league franchise, a team name and, unless you are very unlucky, a handful of star players. You also get some money which, take my word for it, will be short throughout the game. Your core players, the poor faceless grunts in the trenches, are abstracted into a simple team rating and a total salary bill (excellent idea) but the star players, the backs and ends, are each given their own individual card. As team manager, it is your job to balance the huge benefits of having these talented individuals on your staff with the interestingly high salaries they demand for performance.

The three key areas of offence, defence and special teams can all be enhanced by the star cards and I would go as far as saying that if you haven't got them, you aren't going to be winning many games. Of course, all of the cards are realistically dated for appearance and named, featuring such worthies as Joe Little Twig, 'Wooky' Roberts, 'Hoot' Flanagan, Benny Boynton (The Purple Streak), Hobby Kinderdine, Elmer Oliphant, 'Sumo' Joe Rickenbacker, and, believe it or not, Larry 'The Atlantic City Airedale' Conover. Not quite the same ring as Gazza or The Fridge, but not bad for his time. Probably gave the cheerleaders some scanning difficulties too.

In addition to the player controlled teams, who will usually play each other twice, the game also supplies a range of 'autopilot' opponents. There are league teams who are often as good, or even better, than the players' lineups and also sandlot teams, the equivalent of Vauxhall Conference non-leaguers, who were played usually to bolster a won-lost record. And yes, they officially count towards your league record - a bit like Spurs turning out to play the Chelsea Pensioners for three easy points. However, it goes without saying that when my manly Yellowjackets confidently went off to scrag the Beloit Fairies in week one, they very nearly lost not only the game, but also their honour. 14-10, and nearly a laughing stock. A full season is up to twelve weeks, but you need only play nine games to be eligible for the title and, thanks to a clever bidding system, you can play less than that if you want to stand pat on, say, a 5-0 record.

The actual games are resolved using a quite wristy system, but it is nevertheless one that works superbly, with perhaps a slight over-egging of kicking advantage. For each quarter of play, your offence, defence and special teams each get to roll a number of dice, as does your opponent. The net result will be 24 discrete rolls per game which not only gives you an accurate score, and favours the stronger team exactly to the right extent, but also generates excitement like you'd not believe. In one game I was 7-0 down going into the last quarter against the league leaders (a far better team); my offence brought us level, the defence played a blinder to hold them off and I finally lost 10-7 to a late field goal. Included within the scoring rolls is an injury system that can see off your key players in no time, perhaps for a game, but with my luck it was always a season.... Incredible stuff and a classy piece of design.

Event cards add a lot to almost any the game and this is no exception. They can be played either before your weekly fixture or during the game itself. Their effects are wide ranging; from new gadget plays that can give you an extra dice on offence, to sponsorship deals that enable you to sell out to local government for big money. There are college players, fan loyalty, rain insurance, scams, scandals, intrigue and even subtle stuff like players' agents, loyalty and defections. Our soccer management games could learn a lot from this design; what price a George Graham 'bung' card or a 'Collymore Inexplicably Stuck in Boot Room'?

Once you have played the game, you work out the gate receipts which are divided between the home team and the visitors based on a pre-agreed percentage split. There are variables such as number of star players on show, rain, home opener, whether you are playing a winning team, etc. As it is more profitable to be at home (no travel expenses) and to play the winning teams with the most star players, each team has an inherent draw factor - remember this is pre-TV - and can negotiate and earn high income accordingly. Want to play the top rated Canton Bulldogs (8-0-2, three star players) at home? You are going to have to offer their boss a healthy enticement to come to Oolong and perform against your 0-5 Indians, just to earn some money to pay off your overdraft.

At the end of the game, having pocketed your share of the take, you must pay all the players their salaries and if you can't meet the payroll, you will start to lose staff. They may stay on out of the goodness of their hearts, but you also need to apply to the league for a stay of financial execution and avoid bankruptcy. All this links into the league structure and influence which is cleverly handled and can't be ignored. If you have any sort of claim against your opponent (he naughtily played college players, resorted to underhand tactics, he has an offensive spot on his nose, that sort of thing) you may appeal and have your rival reprimanded or fined, and always at the back of your mind is simply surviving game to game. Money will be short, you must maintain a winning record, you need to find new players to satisfy the butcher's bill of game injuries and, if you survive all that and play nine games well, you'll get a shot at the league title. Interestingly, the game can be won by other means than just having the best record. The team with the most money also gets a point, and a winning season will accrue another. It is unlikely that with a title win you'll lose, but there will be teams close on your tail.

So then, a flavoursome, exciting game with plenty going on. Everything I have so far mentioned is of a high standard but on a personal level I had some concerns over the financial rules. Nothing wrong with the outcome, or their existence, just that it is all a bit fiddly. Gate income is based on a 3d6 dice roll plus modifiers (fair enough) against a table, but the stadium takes 15% of this, then you split the take as agreed, the visitor pays travel costs, everyone pays salaries and special one-offs, and only then can you think about whether you are still in business. And all of this is in hundreds of dollars which don't always divide out properly. In the end we resorted to a calculator, albeit a human one. It isn't too onerous but it takes a while per fixture and there is more here than feels right for the game - perhaps some simplification and abstraction would help?

There are also some minor comments on the actual terminology in the game which while hardly even worth raising, perhaps could have been attended to. My main gripe is on team ratings. These are shown as letters (A-E) on the team cards, and are amended upwards one category by each two points of star quality on the team. eg a team rated C on offence would raise to B when headed up by Red Dunn (Off 2). The letter ratings convert directly to numbers of dice in the games, so why not simply have a number in the first place? Nit picking, Mr Siggins?

This 'fiddly' feeling with Ironman is admittedly not entirely of the game's making, but is more a function of present day society. For we technojocks who have been exposed to the awesome power of the PC (however, I for one still take these amazing machines for granted), a game like Ironman just sits there and begs to be automated. And because it isn't, it occasionally grates because you can take a few minutes to work out valuable information when you know it would appear on screen in seconds (with a graph if you wanted one). What am I on about? Well, I think I have finally been corrupted by these wretched computer games. So much so that I played Ironman (and Geronimo) thinking how good these would be on the screen - cutting out all the slog and leaving just the decisions, the atmosphere and enough time to play it in its entirety. You could even have the other non-player teams 'active' using AI. Perhaps I have just reached the point where it is difficult to review a boardgame without reference to computers, or thinking about them, or even criticising the delivery medium used when the deisgners may not even own a PC.

Worse is the fact that the system has the right idea as far as financial structure goes, but the system (and the inevitable modifiers) is too much to take on board and use to a) quickly formulate a financial strategy (eg have I got enough money, on likely gate takings, to pay salaries and then hire another player?) and b) to negotiate on an even playing field with your opponents (see above). As I said, the figurework is no worse than in many similar games, but my view is that the days of pocket calculators and fiddly percentages should have left us long ago. But since it isn't a computer game (yet), I will have to live with these complaints. On the credit side, what is does do well is to convey the difficulties of running a team in this era and when your big game, designed to pull you away from the financial danger zone, is rained upon and your opponent's stars are injured, it makes it just a shade too much like hard work. I think this means the financial system works.

Production standards are good for a gamekit. All the cards come ready to cut out, printed double sided on good quality card. There is no sticking involved at all, just cutting. There are loads of cards, including a respectable selection of those historical and varied event cards. Mmmm, my favourite. The graphics are best termed minimalist, but that is no problem as the game has an atmosphere all its own. The rules are clear and not overlong and the whole lot comes in a ziploc bag. At $12 you couldn't ask for more and there is hours of potential play value here.

It is evident to me that a lot of design work has gone into Ironman. Randy Moorehead, doubtless with the help of his team, have done their historical research, identified the key elements of the subject matter - limited finances, star players, exciting fixtures, embryo league, non-league teams, weird and wonderful events - and have skilfully translated these into some really evocative systems. So much so that as soon as you start to play this game you are transported back to 1920s gridiron. I knew this was a good system when, against all the norms of gaming, I decided to defer my big money home opener in favour of racking up some wins against the non-leaguers. The system encourages exactly this sort of lateral thinking, emphasising off-field considerations as well as winning matches, and it is pleasing that the rules reflect reality in this way. This then is no bastardised and backdated NFL sim; it has guts, and feeling for the subject. Personally, I thought it one of the most convincing and engaging systems I have played since We the People. And of course we all want to see ice hockey, negro league baseball and early rugby spin offs as soon as realistically possible.

There are lots of positive aspects to Ironman Football, and just a couple of minor things that might, purely on a subjective basis, have been simplified and speeded up. Whatever, it remains an excellent little game and even if you only play it for a couple of hours, as we did initially, you will have enough fun and excitement to decide whether you want to get a group of you together (no more than four, I'd suggest) and play it for a long afternoon. Sure, there is some luck in the finance rolls, the crippling injuries and breaks of the event cards, but that's the way it goes, and there is also plenty of decision making and lots of action.

Where it is strongest is in recreating the ad hoc, strapped for cash feel of the league, the exotic team names, those all important star players, and the thrilling games. It also has a real talent for atmosphere and period feel. I feel there is much to commend this game and the only instance in which I would advise against purchase is if you don't like longish, financial sports games. Otherwise, I'd suggest you swallow any prejudices and give it a try as soon as possible by making Mr Moorehead $12 richer. On the basis of this game I am more than keen to try the other two non-wargames in the range; Mad Monks and Relics for one, on the strength of a rules read, looks like a real winner. Ironman Football meanwhile represents rather more than an encouraging debut design, being one of my favourite games of the year, and I hope this is the first batch of many more interesting games from Simulations Workshop. Highly recommended.

Copyright 1995, Mike Siggins

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell