Edit: The creators of the game have reached out and commented on some of my comments. I’ve done my best to edit out incorrect information and provide context where necessary.
I don’t do reviews often on this blog, that’s not really my schtick, but a particular board game came onto my radar because it combined two or three of my favorite things: soccer, nerdiness, and soccer kits. I thought I’d share some thoughts on it.
Spoiler alert for tl;dr:
I enjoyed the game thoroughly, but can see some weaknesses in it. I look forward to playing it again, but I’m not sure I can say the same for Brigid. The rules are easy(ish) if you know D&D, but the tactics can be a steep learning curve as the sport is baked very deeply into the game.
What it is:
Counter Attack is a UK-made card and dice tactics board game based on the actual sport, soccer. Two players move tokens around that represent players, pass, shoot, dribble, and tackle in order to maintain control of a ball with their feet. Foot. Ball. Why it’s called “soccer” should be obvious.
So Brigid and I sat down this morning after shopping and chores and gave the game a shot. Some background: Brigid has no experience with soccer and I have much more, being an avid watcher and player. This will come into play heavily by the end. We are both also big D&D players, which will also come into play heavily by the end.
We also had a bit of a time limit ticking behind us, the game rules suggest a live timer of 45 mintues for each half with each player getting about 1 minute (with a sand timer) to figure out their turn and lose any unused moves or actions when the minute runs out. Obviously we tossed out the 1 minute rule because we didn’t understand any of the other rules. In the two hours we spent we got one attack in each, maybe a total of five or six rounds.
So the game is already primed for a “professional” (with timer) and “amateur” (without) division in play, and that’s okay. As a former Warhammer player, I’m also used to board games that take hours, so the rules limiting how much movement one can do can certainly speed things along.
Henceforth: “attacker” refers to the human player who has control of the ball, “defender” refers to the human player who does not have control of the ball, and “player” refers to the in-game players represented by tokens and cards.
How it’s played:
It’s pretty easy, after randomly selecting teams playground style and randomly choosing a ref, you flip a coin (or call evens/odds on your 1 thru 6 d12) you pick to kickoff or defend. Counters are numbers 1 thru 11 so that a player card, with their stats is always tied to a particular counter on the board. Brigid and I lumped players naturally along rough forward/midfield/defender divisions, with defenders being the lower numbers and forwards getting the higher ones, as it was in the old days.
One interesting note right away is that you get 15 outfielders, which means you have five on the bench. However, it might also limit your formation, with what you draw dictating what you play, so if you have a favorite FIFA formation, you might have to forego it to strengthen what you have in your hand.
For me, playing as my beloved Magpies, I used a sort of 4-2-1-2-1 that had faded into a 3-4-3 by the time we called the game a wash. Brigid, who is not a soccer person, lined up in a 5-2-3 that had faded into an odd 5-1-4 by the end.
And this is the first weakness: non-soccer people, and even soccer folks who are more just a fan of a team and not necessarily an arm-chair manager, are going to be at a serious disadvantage starting off. For example, the offside rule is described in the booklet as just being the offside rule from real soccer. Not useful as many soccer folks already don’t get how the offside works.
Movement is best divided into the movement phase and all the other movements.
The movement phase is pretty easy to wrap your head around. The rule book describes it as 4-5-2. The attacker gets to move four players based off their pace skills, the defender reacts with five of their owner players based on their pace skills, and then the attacker gets to move two additional pieces (the rule book says “new players” so Brigid and I took it to mean players who had not yet moved that phase) two additional hexes each.
During the movement phase no shots or passes can be attempted… well… mostly. If the attacker moves a player into the penalty box, they may attempt a quick shot with a slight decrease to accuracy. The defender can attempt tackles, one per player, by approaching the player with the ball.
So to be concise, during the movement phase you may:
- Both attacker and defender can move their players
- The attacker can attempt a quick shot either by stepping into the penalty area, or if they just received a pass
- The defender can attempt to tackle to regain possession
Okay, so what about this “all the other movement” you mentioned?
Well, if you’re a fan of D&D, you probably know what an attack of opportunity is. If you don’t, it’s when a character gets a free action because their location is advantageous. They’re generally pretty common sense: if you bend over to tie your shoes in the middle of a battle, the guy trying to kill you is going to try to kill you while you’re distracted.
A lot of actions, and I mean a lot – it’s just about all of them – give players free movement of usually one to three hexes. Keeping track of these free movements can often be far more important than anything,
and they’re not collected in a single place on the quick-glance card or the rule book. For example, a high-ball gives the attacker and the defender one three-hex movement to get to the ball. And if it’s into the penalty area, the keeper gets a single hex. Plus the keeper can already move three hexes in a dive. Shots give defenders a free movement to try to deflect the ball. There’s a lot, I’m sure I’m missing some here, but understanding these free moves is paramount to getting the tactics. If you don’t understand them, you might waste full movements during the movement phase to do what you would’ve been able to do for free anyway.
Edit: The additional movements are collected on the quick-reference guide which, in fact, has two sides.
One of the biggest free movements is once per movement phase, if the ball is in the final third and a player moves in the final third as part of their movement phase, every player in the opposite third starting with the attackers gets a free 6 hex movement. This is actually pretty good to know because you shouldn’t waste movement on getting defenders into shape while you’re attacking. But you need to know it’s possible.
After the movement phase, there’s this nebulous, quasi-phase which can be summed up as “the ball phase”. This is when you do things like shooting, passing, and the such. There’s a lot of choices to be made. A short pass on the ground can be followed up by a first-time pass (basically a player strings a pass without moving to make one big pass), it’s a great way to take advantage of a weakness in the middle.
In the tackling and dribbling is where things fell apart. Brigid rolled a string of 1s that I called as advantages to keep my momentum up, which highlights what Brigid and I figured is probably the number one weakness of the game rules: fouls.
At the beginning of the game, you pick a ref at random. Refs have only one stat: leniency (which is how likely they hand out a card after a foul). When a foul has been committed (defender rolls a 1 during the tackle) the attacker can decide if it’s a foul or if the ref called advantage. If they choose for a foul, which Brigid did when I managed to foul her, both the attack and defender have to roll a dice. The attacker is checking to see if their player is injured, the defender is seeing if their player is booked.
The problem is the attacker decides. Not the ref. So even though we have the most strict ref in the deck, he gave me a string of advantages because as I knew that the chance of injuring my glass-cannon number 9 was too high to risk. I’d rather not have him lose pace to injury and maintain my momentum.
Edit: The creator clarified to us that regardless if the attacker chooses advantage or not, resolve the foul and the injury as normal, which to me: a) doesn’t address the problem of injuries seeming a tad common and disastrous, and b) takes a fun little trade of decision of “do you take the advantage and lose the chance to give the opponent a card, or take the free kick with its chance to set up a powerful attack?”
Brigid’s recommendation, which I agree with, is make it like D&D: 1 is auto fail, 6 is auto success; but for them to be special you need to confirm them. So rolling a 1 in a tackle makes a foul, fine. Then have the humans roll. If the defender gets a 1, there’s a chance for a card. If the attacker rolls a 1, there’s a chance for an injury. And those can be tweaked. Maybe it’s a coin flip. Maybe it’s 1-2 for failure.
Anyway, over the course of two hours we went through maybe five or six full rounds. With Brigid’s rolls coming up poorly, and her lack of soccer tactics, I was picking up that she was running out of good will for the game. I was already pretty surprised that she offered to play.
After an attempted shot was blocked for a corner, we lined up, and an unmarked attacker headed it into the far end of the goal, which we used as the bow to tie up today’s attempt to learn the game.
The disparity in soccer tactical awareness (plus like five goddamned 1s) really killed the friendly spirit of the game, which fair enough. We aren’t surprised that understanding soccer is vital to playing a soccer board game, and we’re not counting that against the game. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it must’ve been very frustrating for Brigid.
The rule book is pretty good, I must say, with a few glaring issues (goal kicks need a label and should be part of the goal keeper page), the little scenario pictures are really clever and often answer a lot of edge questions like the long kick picture has a defender in the line of the pass, outside of the zone of control against the attacker which automatically answered a question we had “can a defender intercept a long kick?”. No. It lands further down the pitch and they have to chase after it. Most of the scenarios have little edge-cases included in them visual for quick resolution.
In the end, this is a game that I think will have many fans pretty quickly. It’s subbuteo for the D&D crowd. Plus, since Counter Attack lacks any physical interaction with goal keeping, it has the possibility to be much more available to a wider range of physical abilities.
I also suspect it’ll be a game with a thousand variations soon enough. The rules are pretty much a sturdy skeleton I can see more meatier rules applied to over time. Every league might have their own home rules, and really that’s great, because then players own the game as much as the creators and are thus much more invested in its success. Hopefully I can get some fellow social distancers around to try it out soon enough and see what you all think!
Some quick tips Brigid and I game up with as we played on mostly how to track things:
- Use the dice to count how many players you’ve moved
- Turn player counters sideways on the board to mark them as having moved especially as the attacker (Edit: the creators recommend pushing your player cards up or pulling them down to show they’ve moved, but as you can see in our picture, we were pretty tight on space, so this is a preference thing, I thought we were being rather clever and it’s immediately visible while you’re scanning the field rather than your bench)
- Use the cardboard balls and not the wooden token balls, you can put them on top of the token who has the ball
- Use the other cardboard ball token to mark the card of the player with the ball
- Might be a good idea, especially if you’re learning the rules, to limit the game to a number of turns, and schedule a few hours, especially if this is your first time playing
Some ideas I came up that might be used to expand the game further:
- Adding out of bounds and throw-ins, for example dribble checks when playing on the line, tackle checks to poke it out, high balls and long passes rolling out of play. Throw-ins treated like standard passes or long throws like high passes
- Goal kicks are defined in the rule book, it’s just not labeled a goal kick, so searching for it in the PDF yields nothing but other expansion rules
- Player traits (like being able to do long throw-ins)
- Ref should be a token, with a field of vision (this might make things much more complicated but also more interesting)
- Ref traits to add more interest to fouls, like we’ve all had that ex-defender ref overlook a crunching tackle or two
- As above, the fouls seem very heavy handed and are almost always representative of heavy, game-changing fouls instead of being a part of the game.
- Injuries are really strong, maybe a chance of them resolving as the game continues is a good idea, especially at half time including rolling for severity? Like a 1 means needs immediate subbing, 6 is injury fades after a few turns, and 2 thru 5 is the injury lasts a half or more, but doesn’t need immediate attention
- Since players can keep pace up for the whole game, substitutions are really only there to deal with injuries, which seems “off” from the spirit of a game about team management
- Manager or “sideline team” cards, again with traits and stats that might impact things like fixing injuries
- Captains, not sure what you can do with them, but captains are a thing and maybe something can be figured out like sharing stats, improving rolls, or maybe talking your way out of a card
- Please center the hexes on the board, it’s really weird that there’s not hexes in the middle of the pitch for the center spot, penalty spots, and to keep the goals even