Boarding party

The internet has its critics, but after using it to spend his money on football games to make up for his deprived childhood, Harry Pearson  certainly isn’t one of them

My childhood contact with football board games was confined to gazing wistfully at the adverts in Jimmy Hill’s Football Weekly. They promised so much delight. Wembley was based on “The English Football Association Challenge Cup Competition” and boasted “the most gripping features and exciting uncertainties” recreated “with vivid and amazing fidelity”. Soc­cerama, meanwhile was thrillingly endorsed by Eng­land World Cup star Alan Ball.

But I was an only child and the Second World War had given my parents an aversion to board games that was exceeded only by their loathing for German aero­planes and tinned fish. “If you’d played as much Mon­opoly in air raid shelters as I have you’d never want to shake a dice again,” my mother would say as I at­tempted to persuade her of the joyful family evenings we could spend playing Soccerboss (“Buy to streng­then your team”) or League Championship (“Exciting action every second”, according to Gordon Banks).

But you didn’t win the war by giving in to whining, so I never got to own a football board game. Well, not back then any­way. Thirty years later and thanks to the internet auction site Ebay my house is bulging with them. Soccerboss, Wembley, Soccerama, Forecast (“The football game of the 90s”) Emlyn Hughes’ Team Tactix (“90 minutes to compile Eng­land’s greatest team”) Kevin Keegan’s Matchday, Billy Hamilton’s Football Academy, Bryan Robson’s 90 Minutes and Pepys’ Penalty all now take up space that might otherwise be filled with something culturally uplifting, such as a piano or a life-size wax model of Peter Schmeichel.

I should stress that I am not talking about action games. Not Waddington’s Table Soc­cer (played with a tiddlywink), games in which spring-loaded players are operated by levers (Chad Valley Soccer, Campioni), mov­ed around with magnets (Super Soccer) or twid­dled using knobs (Casdon’s Soccer Game – endorsed by Bobby Charlton and later by Kenny Dalglish), or where they kick the ball when you push their heads down (the 1960s German game Tippkick and its successors such as Striker) have no place in My Collection.

Dice, spinners and cards marked with instructions such as “strong wind favours home team add two to their score” control these games. And I have persuaded a few like-minded individuals (or sad middle-aged losers as we prefer to think of ourselves) into playing, too. Results have been mixed in more ways than one.

“The best game I’ve ever played!” Alan Ball says on the lid of ASL’s Soccerama. If this is true all I can say is Ball should have stayed in more. Soccerama has low production values and the same relationship to football as that line of hair on Gary Neville’s top lip has to a moustache. The game’s one endearing feature is the board. Made from extruded polythene (“stain resistant to hot and cold liquids”) it features drawings of rear views of footballers, many of whom seem to be executing the sort of dance moves Dick Shawn demonstrates in the 1960s comedy epic It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World. The effect is given a Michael Clarke-ish tinge by the fact that the number six is apparently wearing a G-string, while the centre-forward is plainly naked from the waist down. Ball’s World Cup team-mate Gordon Banks’ game League Championship is little better in terms of real­ism and lower on latent homo-eroticism, but at least the winner gets to wave a two-inch high replica of the League trophy.

Wemb­ley and Soccerboss were made by Ariel, an upmarket company that specialised in complex strategy games such as Kingmaker that locked teenage boys (or fat men with beards and Metallica T-shirts) in a room for several days without producing any tangible result other than a collective headache and a refulgent pong. Their two football games are, quite literally, heavy in comparison to their rivals. Soc­cerboss, for instance, outweighs Kevin Keegan’s Matchday by close to a kilo. Wembley, which first ap­peared just after the Second World War (“Like all Ariel games it is British in conception, in its intelligent construction, universality of appeal, as well as in the unrivalled quality of its manufacture,” says the introduction with the same complacency that led the Eng­land international team to unravel) could be played by between three and 12 players. In the open­ing, Monopoly-style, stages players accumulate mon­ey that will allow them to buy teams. The better the team the more they cost. The fact that Spurs are valued at 50 per cent more than Manchester United will be a source of amusement, or pathos depending on your point of view. When “The Cup” begins results are determined by die rolls – the better teams getting to throw dice with higher numbers on them. Inevitably in my experience the game ends with one player having all the semi-finalists while the others look on sourly and pretend to take an interest.

Soccerboss billed itself as “The Exciting Game That Puts You In The Manager’s Hot Seat” (if the cover shot is anything to go on, in those days that gave you access to a big telephone, an in-tray and a cinema screen showing Leeds v Wolves). It has a lot going for it. There are hundreds of brightly coloured little footballers which slot into your team board, an injury and suspension chart and rules that come in the form of a mocked up newspaper with headlines reading “Italians in £400,000 swoop for United Trio” and so on.

The focus of Soccerboss is a truncated Division One, which mysteriously includes Celtic and Rangers as well as Manchester United, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest (though as the rules point out, these names can easily be replaced with your own favourite team – charmingly the example given is Bishop Auckland). The same dice used in Wembley determine who wins fixtures and at the end the person who has accrued the most points from winning the league, Cup or accumulating the most money is crowned manager of the year. This takes a very long time. If a full complement of eight people is playing, by the halfway point even hard-bitten traditionalists may find themselves join­ing Arsène Wenger in appealing for a winter break.

Billy Hamilton’s Football Academy is “The game designed by a professional footballer” and since the copyright is in his name you suspect that for once this may be true. The usual mad randomness prevails (clearly even pros believe the game to be com­pletely controlled by fate), though Football Acad­emy at least takes a different approach to the usual with each player serving a three-year ap­prenticeship before being let loose in the professional game. During their apprenticeship players win effort and skill tokens by landing on squares that say things such as “Your leg hurts in training but you play on. Pick up 2 effort tokens”. Effort tokens are aspirin-sized, blue and marked with the letter E. Those were more innocent times.

Bryan Robson endorses 90 Minutes with the words “It’s a winner” (this is clearly a truncated version of what Bryan really said which was, of course, “As I said earlier, it’s a winner”). 90 Minutes takes place on a pitch, the movement of the ball controlled by dice and the picking up of action cards featuring photographs of two very unathletic looking men in football kits posed against a mocked-up crowd. In many ways the game perfectly recreates the feeling of being a football fan since what is happening on the field is completely out of your control. I played 90 Minutes on my own and after a quarter of an hour was yelling: “Stop passing it backwards, you morons,” just like at a real game.

I could go on about luxury stand cards, the Central Authority Pool and the painting of Malcolm Macdonald on the front of Palitoy’s Superstars, but I wouldn’t want to sound like an obsessive geek. And besides, the auction on a 1920s edition of Car-Soc (“Incorporates every move in football”) ends in 15 minutes and there’s no way I’m missing out on that.

From WSC 204 February 2004. What was happening this month