We’ve been looking for the definitive football (soccer, my Transatlantic friends) tabletop experience for a long time. Basing a board game around The Beautiful Game is a tricky task because there are so many different ways to approach it. Eleven, from Portal Games (review here) took the approach of running a football club as a business. Counter Attack and UND1C1 are games which try to simulate the actual sport being played on the pitch. Superclub sits somewhere between the two, focusing on building a strong squad of players who work well together, and the staff who work directly with them. It does a decent job, as long as you go into the game with the right expectations.
Tons of sports have a fantasy version now, where you and your friends can put together teams of real-world players and see how they score, based on their real-life weekly performances. I play Fantasy Premier League with my friends, and it’s really good fun to spend your allotted currency, piece together a team, and wait for the results to roll in each week.
The other place we see football games based on building a squad is computer manager games. I, like many others, poured far too many hours into the Football Manager series of games during my formative years. Buying real players and looking to match their chemistry and links with neighbouring players is great fun, and it carries through into the footballing juggernaut that is EA’s Fifa series of games. Football Manager’s other big draw was finding a wunderkind young player, and playing out an alternative future where they perform like a Messi-Neymar hybrid.
I know, I know. “Shut up and tell me about the game!”. Explaining both systems is important though, as people wanting a football game want to know which part of football the game emulates. Superclub leans heavily on both of the systems above and aims to pick out the pieces of each which tickle our dopamine receptors. It’s a game about trying to recruit and train players in each position on the pitch, arrange them in a team for each match, and see how they perform against someone else doing the same thing – sometimes.
Eleven was a great Euro game, but it had one major flaw when taken as a competitive game, in that you don’t simulate any matches against the other players around the table. Football is a game of one team against another, and in a competitive game that simulates it, you’d be justified in expecting to be able to do just that. Superclub does this! Not for every match though, as the game is based around competition in a league, meaning there are more teams than just the folks sitting around the table. But for at least some of the games you play, you get to compete against the other players, which is great.
Teams are kept secret from other people by the use of a clever system of folders. Each player has their own folder with slots inside, and the slots represent the defence, midfield, and attacking lines of your team, as well as having space for your substitutes and staff. You can plot in secret, trying to ensure you have players who work well together. The notion of working well with neighbouring players is represented with half-stars on either side (or both for versatile players) of the cards. Complete a star and that row of your team gains a bonus point. Match outcomes are as simple as comparing midfield against midfield, and attack against defence, with a liberal splash of dice-rolling thrown in.
Despite the game focusing on the structure of your team and players, you still develop training facilities, scouting, and the stadium itself. It’s just a case of buying cards to add to your team’s board, but it’s still there, and it still impacts the game. I mentioned above about finding wonderkid prospects, and you can do that in Superclub. Some players come with empty stars, and when you train them up the cards get replaced with cards with more stars filled in. It’s a nice touch which harkens back to the Football Manager inspiration and rewards long-term investment in your team. Your teams are initially made with a drafting round, spending your starting capital on the players who turn up in the market. It works well enough, just don’t go expecting to see any real players or teams represented, in the base game. More on that in my final thoughts, below.
Accrington Stanley? Who are they?
Superclub isn’t without its issues. It’s easy for one team to go racing off ahead up the league position tracker on the main board, and it can be really difficult to haul them back in. It’s a game crying out for a decent catch-up mechanism. The more your team is worth, the more you have to pay your players in wages, but stronger teams tend to win more, and get a bigger bonus at the end of the season for coming in a higher spot on the league track. This also helps with the auctions for foreign players during the Deadline Day phase of the game, where potentially great players are put up for auction.
The biggest problem people have with the game is the amount of luck in it, which can be a deal-breaker. Superclub slathers on dice-rolling like grease to lubricate the game’s gears. Dice rolls are everywhere – from improving players to determining the outcomes of matches. To put it into context, it’s not a case of ‘roll and hope’. It’s a game built around giving yourself the best chances of overcoming the inevitable bad dice just waiting for you in destiny’s pockets. I’ve played matches where my 19-star midfield went up against someone with 13 stars, but my roll of 4 (23 total) was countered by their roll of 11 (24 total). Infuriating, to say the least.
It’s moments like that which will do your nut in if you’re a “serious” gamer, but here’s the thing. This isn’t a serious game. Superclub is a game you can – and should – play with your friends and family, and not necessarily with your regular game group. Football is a game of unexpected twists and turns, and that’s what we love. If there’s an FA Cup match on between some Premier League behemoth and some qualifier team made up of bakers and mechanics, we feel unadulterated joy at the underdog upsets and fairytale stories. Superclub doesn’t do that in every game, to be fair to it, but it does happen. The dice odds are baked into the game (there’s even a probability table in the rulebook), so most of the time things go the way you’d expect. It’s the times they don’t which give you the stories you’ll still be talking about long after it’s packed away.
Superclub has its sights set firmly on a very particular niche in our hobby. It’s a game for fans of football manager games who aren’t tabletop gamers. In many cases, I expect it’s probably a hobby gamer who introduces the game to them in the first place. The rules are written well enough for just about anyone to pick-up and learn, but it really benefits from a teach if you’re playing with non-gamer buddies. I mentioned the lack of real-world teams earlier, but if you head to the Superclub website they’ve started selling officially licensed team decks and manager folders for the likes of Man City and AC Milan. They’ve also started selling league expansions for La Liga and the Bundesliga, which is a huge coup, and I think will be the final nail in the coffin for those whose wallets are already close to succumbing.
I don’t know whose decision it was to include paper money, but I don’t like them. In a way I can understand its inclusion. After all, if you want to appeal to the ‘Monopoly crowd’, include the kind of board game money they’re familiar with. It’s just pretty horrible to handle, and the stacks of cash slip and slide like the meat trying to escape from a well-sauced burger at every bite. The rest of the components are pretty decent, and my folders aren’t showing the wear and tear I was expecting so far.
If you want a game of supreme soccer strategy and perfect planning, Superclub ain’t it. If the idea of rolling dice, hoping to train up that 2-star prodigy, and rolling ones over and over makes you want to flip the table, look elsewhere. If, however, you’re looking for the beer-and-pretzels equivalent of a football manager game which you can play with any of your friends – not just the gamers – then I’ve got to point you at Superclub. You’ll groan while others leap from the table with a Ronaldo ‘Suuiiiiii!’ celebration, you’ll wonder how you ended up with a squad of Sunday Leaguers while the guy sat next to you drafted the 1970 Brazil national squad, but when you pull off that upset win… as Graham Taylor might have said: “Did they not like that?”. Superclub is lightweight football manager fun for all.
Review copy kindly provided by Superclub. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Superclub: The Football Manager Board Game (2020)
Players: 2-4 (more with expansion)
Playing time: 90-240 mins