REVIEW: ‘Counter Attack’ Board Game
Have you spent one too many festive periods playing Monopoly? Have you ever wished there was a football related alternative? Do you have a vision for how football should be played? Do you dream of a tiki-taka wonderland or a hoof-ball hellscape?
If the answer to any of those questions was ‘yes’ then I have some *very* good news for you because Edinburgh based creative geniuses Colin Webster and Rachel Codd have created ‘Counter Attack', the world's first football strategy board game having been successfully backed on Kickstarter last year.
It’s a two player board game that somehow manages to combine the tactical, analytical side of the sport with the chaos factor of a bouncing ball or a deflected shot. If you imagine ‘Subbuteo’ without the flicking, ‘Football Manager’ without the keyboard and ‘Risk’ without the horses you’ll be most of the way to imagining ‘Counter Attack’.
Open the box, take to the pitch
When you open Counter Attack you will find a fold-out game board (the pitch), two sets of teams made of wooden counters (by default a Juventus style black/white team vs an Ajax-like red/white), dice, distance sticks (for measuring where / how far a pass can be made), balls, along with yellow/red cards and injury tokens for more advanced play.
The real genius of the game comes in the player cards. The default set comes with 46 cards (extra packs are available through the shop online). The only differentiating factor between players is whether they are an outfield player or a goalkeeper. Every outfield player card has the same seven abilities with an attribute score for each (from 1 to 6).
The player cards do not dictate where each player should line up on the pitch. One person could look at a player with good pace and heading for example and position him as a covering central defender. Someone else might take that same player and play him as a target man to shell long balls up to. It’s up to you!
Before a match can kick-off, each manager needs to assemble their squad. First, goalkeepers are drawn at random. Then four random outfield player cards are laid face-up on the board. One manager picks first, then back and forth until all four are selected. This process repeats (with first pick passing between managers) until each manager has one goalkeeper and a squad of 15 outfield players.
This is where your inner Ferguson, Klopp (or Levein) comes to the fore. Managers choose their starting 11 and line the team up on the pitch using the player counters. It’s up to you how you match the unique attributes of your players to the style of football you want to play. Do you envision a Klopp style Geigenpress with a quick-pressing front three? A more traditional 4-4-2? A daring 4-6-0? The only limitation is your coaching nous and imagination!
Line up, blow the whistle and kick-off
I’ve had the pleasure of playing a few games with friends since I received the game before Christmas. While the game is simple enough to learn, the pace of your first game will likely be on the slow side, with lots of referring to the invaluable ‘quick play’ guides to remind you which elements of play can follow another (wisely, a copy is provided for each manager).
This past weekend, I invited a friend over to play the game for the first time. As mentioned, by default the game comes with Juventus and Ajax style player counters. In a spark of up-selling genius, counters in the team colours of most world teams are available to add to your collection through the online shop. For this game, I chose the Borussia Dortmund yellow team and my opponent went for Juventus (or Newcastle!)
After drafting our squads, we both set up in fashionable 4-2-3-1 formations on the pitch. The pitch is made up of hexes, with one player per hex.
The game kicks off by playing a pass using your transparent ruler style distance stick. Passes can only be played up to a certain distance (and only if there is a clear passing lane to the intended target). Longer passes can be attempted but their accuracy is determined by a player’s ‘high pass’ statistic combined with a dice roll.
Movement Phases are where the shape of the game can evolve. The attacking team initiates a Movement Phase which sees the attacking team move 4 players (the number of hexes each player can move is determined by their pace stat). The defending team then moves 5 players. Finally, the attacking team can move two further players, up to 2 hexes each.
The split-second moments in a match play-out like with a 'Top Trumps' style battle between players. For example, when a defender comes within one hex of the ball-carrier, he can try to tackle to win the ball.
This becomes a duel between the attacking players dribbling statistic vs the defending players tackling statistic. Those numbers are combined with a dice roll by each manager with the highest combined score winning the outcome.
Anatomy of a Goal – An aerial duel springs a quick counter
After a cagey opening period, my opponent found himself with the ball in the centre of the pitch with runners ahead. He decided to play a high pass to one of his midfielders to flick on to his number 9 who was onside and had a clear run in behind.
The high pass was deemed to be accurate because a dice roll + the passers ‘high pass’ stat equalled more than 8. I could reposition a player while the ball was in the air, meaning I had two defenders to challenge for the header. Headers are again a battle of heading statistics plus a dice roll. Fortunately, I was able to win the duel and clear the ball to my full-back (number 3).
I then used a ‘long ball’ (different from a high pass – it can be played to anywhere on the pitch so long as it’s more than 5 hexes from any player) to bomb the ball up the other end of the pitch where my winger had been loitering.
He used his pace of 6 to collect the ball before sending a low pass across goal to my number 9. With my opponent’s defender within one hex of my striker (defined as their ‘zone of influence’) he had the chance to intercept the cross by rolling a 6. When he couldn’t, my number 9 could take a shot on goal (his shooting stat v goalkeeper’s saving stat + dice rolls). With a higher score, the ball was smashed home and a 1-0 lead was secured.
Approaching full-time, another shot on goal was pushed behind by the keeper (again determined by dice roll) to force the corner kick. From the resulting set-piece, a cross was sent into my centre back (number 4) who sent a header crashing in at the back post. 2-0 and the win was secured.
My opponent was left to rue his loss: “While I may have lost heavily it didn’t stop my enjoyment of the game. It is a game that truly rewards strategic thinking and the ability to quickly adapt.”
On the whistle report
What I love about Counter Attack:
This is a game that is easy to learn but hard to master. The level of tactical depth is really impressive. Colin, the creator, has somehow managed to translate almost every aspect of football into dice rolls, hexes and player attributes! Games are injected with real drama and nothing beats a successful dice roll resulting in a goal-saving tackle or the ball nestling in the back of your opponents net!
The number of player cards mean that no two games will play out the same, especially considering it’s up to the manager how the players fit into their tactical approach. The game rewards deep thinking and planning two steps ahead. Counter attacks can be planned and sprung with a little foresight.
If you’ve ever considered how a team is set up tactically, I have complete faith you’ll love this game. Get your set and give it a try!
What I didn’t love so much:
If I have one complaint, and this is likely only applicable to newbies, is that attacking moves can take a while to set-up while you flick back and forth in the rule book. Moving your players, prepping runs and lining up passes takes quite a while only for one dice roll to unravel your best laid plans with an interception or successful tackle.
I’m sure that with more games under my belt, my reliance on the rulebook will lessen and the pace of games can speed up.
You can buy Counter Attack via their online shop here. There you’ll also find all the extra teams and player cards mentioned in this review.
They have just launched a custom player set which allows tech savvy players to create their own player cards at home! Re-create your club team, your favourite team from history or your mates, it’s up to you!
One final thought - don’t underestimate the importance of a good assistant manager!