The Select Game Co, £13.95
Designed by Ellis Simpson
Ideally solitaire, 6-10 minutes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
Ellis Simpson has been working on a soccer replay game for almost as long as I've known him. I think, having been privy to certain stages of its development, that the turning point came two years ago and Fastcard Soccer is the outcome. The resulting design emphasizes fast play (an admirable and difficult target), yet manages to retain many of the detailed trappings and flavour so important to the soccer fan. Well, this soccer game fan anyway. Like most replay games it is best enjoyed solitaire, but I have played some two-legged matches recently with a friend and these worked well enough. By way of a caution, please bear in mind throughout this review, as with Final Score, that I know next to nothing about football. What I feel I can comment upon is the atmosphere and game content of the system, and these are both first rate.
The system uses, predictably, a fast action card system that generates almost all of the action. Reference to charts is needed for goal attempts or unusual results (the infamous Z card effects) and the game status levels, essentially the team's overall ratings, are tracked on the pitch display using counters. The rest is a matter of choosing which teams you want to pair off, logging their ratings on the display, and playing the game.
The central structure, to a lazy bugger like me, seems like simplicity itself. Teams are rated for attack, defence and midfield. The latter ratings are compared to see which team wins possession and mounts an attack. A letter is read off, referenced to produce an attack number and then compared to the defence rating; if it is higher, the attack proceeds, if it is lower the attack breaks up, if equal there has been a clearance but the attacker retains possession. The whole setup runs on the highlight system by which, after each complete passage of play, a random number of minutes are marked off on the time display and the game runs through to 90 minutes, or longer if extra time is applicable. This method is now well established and it is an ingenious way of making sure that some ties have a lot of action and chances while other games are much like Arsenal at home to Arsenal. Game length will vary because of the use of highlights, but should take no more than a few minutes per match and it will get quicker as you become familiar with the card turning.
The big selling point for me is that the game features a commentary system that runs straight off the Fastcards themselves. As the attack builds up, you read a comment off the card that may go something like 'A flurry of passes wins a corner; a dipping cross into the box....'. The next card is flipped to reveal, say, 'A header from the back of the six yard box'. The header may go towards the corner of the goal, only to be saved spectacularly or any number of other possibilities. I may be a sucker for atmosphere, but at the speed this all runs (once you are used to the mechanics), it really conjures up the images for me. It is very much like watching the league goals on Match of the Day. Oddly, given one of my criticisms of Final Score, the speedy handling of this seems to negate the problem of not knowing who is on the ball. You can readily work out who has the goal attempt, but it doesn't seem to matter as much who brings the ball upfield.
The slight problem, and the only one in the game really, is that occasionally the commentary pairs don't seem to match up. Although this hasn't yet happened to me in about twenty games, other reviewers have mentioned it and I have seen it happen in the flesh. You might for instance get a header straight at the keeper, only to find him diving to get his fingertips to it. In this instance you can perhaps explain it away by a deflection or perhaps going the wrong way, but it does grate a little even for a man used to rationalising the weirdest German game systems. I can understand why this wasn't picked up (because of the large number of possible outcomes), but it must feel a little odd when it happens.
The teams provided are all those from the English 1st and Scottish Premier Divisions for 91/92 and Liverpool, Everton, Celtic and Rangers from 1986. This is a good, current selection and I'm sure more will follow soon from eager players and perhaps Ellis when he can face it again. This work will be aided by the simple but entirely appropriate player rating system that owes a lot to the 'pub discussion' method. Players are rated on a 1 to 10 scale, with Pele and Cruyff at the top and Halifax Town's goalie at the bottom. Also provided are the analysis charts that will enable you to rate any team of any period (I think) for attack, defence and midfield. This is a boon, speaking as a man who once spent many happy hours cracking the Pennant Race stats formulae.
Rating teams is as easy as listing the players, looking up your Rothman's or International Yearbook and doing some quick sums. This will take five minutes tops. rating the players will take longer; two minutes to note them down and fifteen to argue with Mike Clifford as to whether George Best rates just a 9 (Ellis, you must be joking!) or if there should be a new negative category for Carlton Palmer.
This clearly isn't a statistical game, but then none of those on the market are given soccer's scarcity of key numbers. With the highly subjective nature of any rating method, you may as well keep it simple and I think this approach is as good as any. Ellis is unapologetic in the rules book on this subjective basis, but this is fine with me as, most importantly, it works. Quickly on this subject, in case you are stuck for obscure ratings, Clive Ruscoe suggested at Gamesday that it might be possible to use the annual average 'out of ten' ratings from your favourite newspaper reports to get a guide to a player's overall performance for the season. As a layman, this struck me as an excellent idea and although broad brush in nature, it does save the non-spectator trying to rate little-known full backs for through ball and heading ability. Just a thought.
The real appeal of such a fast system is that it makes replays of knockout tournaments and even small leagues feasible. You could certainly do a complete World, European or the latter rounds of the FA Cup in a reasonable period, perhaps using a quick resolution system for the non-vital matches. With the ability to rate teams quickly and painlessly, there really is no end to the possibilities. My thoughts instantly stray towards a campaign or management system using Fastcard to resolve the matches, including injuries, transfers, European play and so on. As ever, lack of time is the problem but for the young potential members of the hobby, this must be a godsend. I know I would have preferred this to the endless games of dice cricket.
Production, for a theoretically amateur venture, is rather good. Ellis has gone to the trouble of having the fast action cards professionally typeset onto perforated high quality card. These tear apart with minimal effort thus saving time over the Lionel method of pasting and cutting, but of course they cost both the publisher and the buyer more. The rulebook is neatly done and perfectly understandable with clear examples and some interesting design notes. The pitch display either shows Ellis to have some previously hidden graphic design skills or that he is playing a ringer. All this comes at a price and at nearly £14, Fastcard Soccer isn't particularly cheap. It is comparable in price and content with Lambourne's products but not, of course, to an Avalon Hill boxed game. The verdict is really down to you; Fastcard is a limited run product in a specialized market and simply wouldn't be out there in any other form. My view, since the game works so well, is that it is worth the asking price but I can understand this dissuading some buyers.
As ever, because of the mixed readership, I offer the qualification that this is a replay game so you won't be making any decisions, but to go along for the ride is the thing and Fastcard more than delivers in that respect. All that said, if you build in some of the well thought out optional rules (including playing style, subs, stamina, Dreamteams and so on), there are decisions and they shouldn't slow things up too much. As seems to be the case with some of the best games of recent years, this is a simple system onto which you can graft as much detail as you want. Whatever rules you use, in all the games I've played, I've had believable results including some exciting matches and some boring 0-0 draws, but that is what the real game is all about.
I rate Fastcard Soccer as the best soccer replay game yet. It is a clean system with a lot of flavour, has struck the right balance between detail, realism and ease of play and it is undoubtedly quick. The system is easy to learn, intuitive and low on record keeping while allowing a considerable range of results. The commentary system is cleverly done and, in the main, works well - I think more than anything it is this and the rapid resolution that set the game apart and which retain my interest. best of all, it has that unmistakeable feeling of being 'just right' that graces all too few games. Once again I am impressed with what the so- called amateur sector can produce, and we shouldn't forget the massive effort that goes into these projects. I urge you to support Ellis in this venture and perhaps to have a go at emulating him.
Fastcard Soccer is available for £13.95 inc p&p from The Select Game Co Ltd, 4 Langtree Ave, Whitecraigs, Glasgow G46 7LW.
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