Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Unlikely Next England Captain

If you know me at all, you will know how passionate I am about football. I loathe it. I am bored by it. I take a particularly perverse pleasure in every single loss that the England football team suffers. As you can see, I am singularly passionate about football.

So what the hell am I doing reviewing a football-themed game when I am still trying to work out why my parents gave me Super Striker for Christmas when I was five? Which was in 1972.

So here is what happened. I was at Curry & Games, a local games meet that takes each month here in Birmingham. J-P Treen approached Chris and myself and asked if we would like to play a game of his. It was, he explained, a game about football titled Next England Captain. Given this theme, both Chris and I agreed with a certain reluctance. We played through it and much to our surprise, found that we had enjoyed ourselves and we had enjoyed the humour of the game. We did break the game though. Sort of.

Leap forward eighteen months and another game design or two and Next England Captain is not only being showcased at UK Games Expo this weekend, but it also being launched on Kickstarter. My name may or may not be in the credits because I helped J-P Treen with the game’s blurb, but the game itself is all his and this review is all mine. So read on and be surprised as I am to find myself reviewing a football-themed game.

The game in question is Next England Captain: The Anti-Football Game, published by Too Much Games. This is a meticulously researched card game for two to four players aged ten and up that can be played in twenty minutes. Each player controls the fate and dreams of a football player—he can make career moves, but sometimes his career is out of his control—who one day hopes to become the Next England Captain. The game is a satire, but a gentle one at that…
It consists of four Playing Mats—one per player; twenty Career Tokens—five per player, each representing a Career Move; and seventy-two cards. The cards are divided into six colour-coded types. Club (black) cards represent the football team that a player plays for—such as Flower Show F.C. or Leyton Occidental; Squad (blue) cards represent his position on the team from ‘Catastrophic Loss of Form’ to ‘He Scores When He Wants’; and England (red) cards are his position on the England national squad, usually ‘England Regular’, but if he is fortunate, ‘England Captain’. If he is unfortunate, it will be ‘Scotland Regular?’ and thus make him ineligible to play for the England team. Status (orange) cards represent a range of things, whether he has a ‘Girlfriend’, ‘Wife’, ‘Children’, or a ‘Car Crash Personality’; Money (yellow) cards are deals that the football player can make, such as ‘Coaching Ambassador’ or ‘Trademark Celebration’; and Final (black) cards represent what a player does after his career, perhaps ‘Foreign Move’ or ‘The Pundit’. Final cards can only be played on a player’s final turn.

Every card has a points value. At the end of the game, each player totals the values of his visible cards—some cards will add to, or modify the total—and the player with highest score will win the game.

Each Playing Mat has spaces for each card type when they played, one on top of each other—only the top card counts. The Playing Mat also has spaces in the middle for placing a player’s Career Tokens when played.

The first problem with the game—all right the second problem with the game, because the first is that it is after all, a football-themed game—is determining who goes first. According to the rules this is the person who last kicked a football. Which is a problem in some gaming groups as they collectively try and work out exactly how many years go any one of them actually kicked a real life football… Once that has been decided, each player receives a hand of four cards and the game can begin.

On his turn, a player can do one of two moves. The first is a Career Move. This allows him to play as many cards as he can, but only one of each type. Essentially, this is the football player doing his best to further his career. It also uses up one of the player’s five Career Moves. The second is to discard cards and refresh his hand. A player can discard as many as he likes, but he must take a ‘Penalty!’, drawing a single card and playing it if he can—this representing the fickle hand of fortune—before he refreshes his hand back up to four.

For example, Dave has the following hand: Woolwich Rovers (8) Club card, Chairman’s Toy (6) Squad card, Trademark Celebration (5) Money card, and Sponsored Boots (2) Money card. As a Career Move, he plays the Woolwich Rovers, the Chairman’s Toy, and Trademark Celebration cards, but not the Sponsored Boots card as it is not worth as much. The other advantage is that the combination of Woolwich Rovers Club and the Chairman’s Toy Squad cards make him eligible to play for the England.

On his next turn, Dave still has the Sponsored Boots card in his hand as well as the Aston Park F.C. (6) Club card, the Scotland Regular? (5) England card, and The Pundit (9) Final card. Of these, he decides to save The Pundit until the final turn because it is worth points and opt for a Penalty! in order to get a better hand. The card he draws is the Leyton Oriental (3) Club, which he has to play. Unfortunately, not only is the card worth fewer points, it also makes him ineligible to play for England! Oh well, Dave had better hope that his new hand of cards gives him a Club card that will make him eligible.

Two Career Moves grant a player certain benefits. ‘Write your own History’ allows a player to take a card from the discard pile before having a normal Career Move, while ‘This is your Year’ enables him to play two cards of the same colour instead of the usual one allowed. Both are useful because certain cards have requirements that need to be met before they can be played. The most basic is the need to have a strong combination of Club and Squad cards so that the football player is eligible to play for England and the player can play an England Regular card. These requirements grow the nearer a player gets to becoming Captain of the England Football team. To become that, he needs to be an England Regular and have the Children Status card, the latter also needing Wife or Celebrity Wife Status cards, and they each have their own requirements.

Why all of these requirements? Well, as the game designer has explained to me, no Captain of the England Football Team of the past seventy years has held the position and not been married or had children. As he has also explained, Next England Captain is meticulously researched, and who am I to say otherwise? (Anyway, saying otherwise would probably mean having to look up a bunch of tedious facts about a very tedious game—and no, I do not mean the one that I am reviewing).*

*(It should actually made clear that not all of the facts given in the previous paragraph is true. This was also relayed to me by the game's designer, which might not lend much credibility as to his reliability as an expert on the position of Captain of the England Football team. Neither does the fact he himself has never held the position of  Captain of the England Football team, but then again this may also prove to be untrue—how would I know? In the meantime, the designer discusses the subject of the position of Captain of the England Football team and marriage in a post here).

Once a player has conducted his last Career Move, everyone else has one more turn. This is the only turn in which Final cards can be played. Then everyone totals up the value of the top cards on their stacks and the highest wins the game. 

Next England Captain combines card drafting and hand management elements with press your luck and storytelling game play. Each player needs to discard cards and take a Penalty! several times in order to get the cards into his hand to make a Career Move a worthwhile move, but will often be forced to play Career Moves in order to keep up with his rival players. As a player puts his cards down, he is also playing out the career of his player and all its highs and lows. What makes this entertaining are the cards, which whilst all drawn from the lives of football players in the Premier League, are all absurd in one way or another, if they do not out and out poke fun at football players and the Premier League. For example, the Sports Drink Promo Deal Money card has the slogan, “Looks like wee. Tastes like sweat. Makes you awesome.”; the Car Crash Personality Status card has words “Why Always Him?” on it as well as the symbol of a sports car; and the ‘Super-Injunction’ Status card has no effect at all, not even a score value at game’s end! (It has been suggested that the latter prevent the other players from talking about the player).

So what do I think of Next England Captain: The Anti-Football Game? Well, first we need to deal with the Rooney in the room. So here goes… I HATE FOOTBALL. Nothing short of a lobotomy is going to change this. So what do I think of Next England Captain: The Anti-Football Game in light of the Rooney in the room?

I actually enjoy playing Next England Captain: The Anti-Football Game.

I actually like Next England Captain: The Anti-Football Game.

It is not quite a perfect design in some ways. Some cards are more important than others—the Status cards in particular. This though, is by design. The role of England Captain is primarily a public relations role and thus whatever football player has the role needs to project the right image—married, children, and so on. So it reflects the Premier League just as it should. 

Next England Captain: The Anti-Football Game can of course be played straight and its satirical elements ignored, but the ‘Anti’ of the game’s subtitle is very much part of the game’s enjoyment. Surprisingly, it is an enjoyable kick up the pomposity of the Premier League and a footballers’ life that in twenty minutes shatters what dreams you might have of being the Next England Captain.