Having had a passion for football since my youth, and lost more days to PC football manager sims than I care to admit, I was excited to hear friends extolling the virtues of Time of Soccer – a football management board game.
I have no idea how they came up with the name – its terrible. I can only presume it was some sort of Google translate faux pas from the Spanish designers. But what’s in a name? I have games called Hamburgum, Banjooli Xeet and CV after all. More importantly it looks great – I had absolutely no complaints about the components. however I can’t comment on the rulebook as the game was taught to me (thanks Rocky!), but I didn’t hear great things. Also, apologies if I get any naming terminology wrong.
Putting the ‘euro’ into European football
In the early part of play, it becomes clear that Time of Soccer is very much built on a strategy game engine. Half of the main board is dedicated to a grid system onto which are placed tiles that represent players, agents, sponsorship deals and coaches.
The themeing here is a little odd, as the board is made to look like a city grid that you drive around trying to sign the deals you want before other players can get to them. This works in essence, representing the fight of agents to sign players etc before their rivals, but the roads/city just doesn’t work thematically. However, if you can get past this the routing, budgeting and risk taking mechanism itself works very well.
Players start with initial basic agents and deal makers who can be upgraded. Your agent represents the speed you can move around the board, while your deal maker allows you to try and sign a deal you can’t quite reach with your agent’s moves – but its dependent on a dice roll and even then a success will see you paying over the odds. This adds a nice tension, while giving some genuine options as you build your club.
Building the perfect team
Each team starts with a very poor journeyman team, so as managers you are all scrambling to sign some stars before the season begins. Players have a varying set of stats alongside possible connections with their team mates which give bonuses if you can connect them up with each other.
For example, in the image above you’ll notice the two central defenders have a blue triangle on their right and left sides respectively, facing towards each other. This represents a bond between them and will give them a bonus, while if you add a coach that works well with players with this symbol you’ll get further bonuses. This is a great way of introducing a very euro-style puzzle element to team building, while keeping on-theme.
In addition you’re trying to sign these players while also balancing the books, which can prove very difficult. It felt as if there was constant financial pressure, adding another classic euro trait to Time of Soccer’s mechanism arsenal (sorry, couldn’t help it).
A long hard season
Another thing Time of Soccer gets right is the season structure. It boils things down to a six-team league (so 10 games, home and away) and an eight-team cup, with the winner of the game overall needing to score points for both of these plus the quality of the team they’ve put together.
During each week you will have a league game and occasionally a cup game: each other week day is dedicated to going around town to either buy something or position yourself for the next round of tiles (better players, coaches, deals etc come out as the game goes on). You can also have friendlies, although these are abstracted out to a small cash gain.
I felt this was just about the right amount of games to make it feel like a ‘proper’ competition but also to make it feel as if the decisions you were making in the team had enough time to have an effect. But wow, this game was long. It says two to three hours but with four (three beginners) we went well over that.
A game of two halves
I was in for the long haul, and that in itself wouldn’t have put me off buying Time of Soccer – but there was a much bigger problem. Unfortunately the hard work achieved in the earlier euro mechanisms was – for me – undone by the matches themselves.
In theory it’s a good system. Your team building gives you both an offensive and a defensive stat, which is used to decide how many chances you will both create and defend against in each match. So if you create five chances but your opponent only defends three, you score two goals. The team at ‘home’ in the game attacks second, giving them a slight advantage as they know how many they need to score to win.
The problem lies in the way chances are determined. It is of course with dice – and it wouldn’t feel right without them – but for me they have injected too much randomness. Teams always roll the same amount of standard six-sided dice, with fives and sixes adding to the amount of chances you have either created or thwarted. For example, if my team is at level two and I roll four successes that would be five chances – but at level eight those four successes would be nine chances.
This sounds OK, until you note that zero successes is always zero chances no matter what your team’s level. While this gives very poor sides a chance to win any game, it feels like a massive misstep – you can’t expect euro gamers (and trust me, this is 80% euro) to be happy to lose a game after four hours of play simply because they rolled no fives or sixes. This isn’t a war game after all – and I think it could quite easily be fixed.
A hollow victory
For full disclosure, my team of all-conquering heroes did the league and cup double and I walked away from Time of Soccer as the victor by a pretty comfortable margin. However, the victory felt hollow. At no point during play did I feel as if I was the superior player, nor that I had the superior team. I simply had more luck on the dice.
And to make things worse, despite each of us taking different routes with how we created our teams, in the end we all had almost the same stats – in fact Rocky, who came second, just had the better team on paper. While we’d taken different routes, in the end we had all ended up in the same place – making the whole dice fest feel even more empty.
what the game lacked here was a meaning to the stats and some personality to the players; it didn’t feel as if one player had a long ball team, another a slick passing unit, another a lot of tough tacklers. It became an ameritrash dice game but lacked the personality to pull it off, while letting down its euro heart at the same time. Our teams were, frankly, boring. I wanted red cards, crap refs, diving – something less mechanical.
But despite all this, I had fun. This was helped by good beer, being by the seaside and playing in good company and if we sit down again soon I’d play again – once at least, and as long as a better football management board game hasn’t come along before then. What promised to be a title contended at the start of the evening slowly lost touch and slipped into mid-table, if entertaining, mediocrity – the Swansea of board gaming, I guess.