Among the lesser-known titles is Billy Hamilton's Football Academy, a game supposedly conceived by the erstwhile Oxford United, QPR and Northern Ireland striker. I want to believe this is true, and there's nothing to suggest it wasn't, save for a bit of tinkering by the board game manufacturers. I say this because Hamilton's express wish appears to be to detail every aspect of a player's career from being a humble apprentice through to winning the World Cup (potentially, at least).
Between two and six people can take part, and the object is to travel around the board initially as a football trainee collecting Skill and Effort tokens by rolling a dice. The outer ring of the board is where the action takes place in this first part of three, and the messages found on many of the spaces show where Billy Hamilton's own experience comes into play. "You volunteer for extra training - Gain 2 Effort" and "Manager adds you to first team squad - Gain 2 Skill" give an insight into the continuing struggle to improve as a young player.
But there's also a notable mention of the more menial tasks that have to be done when you're setting out at the bottom rung of the football ladder. One space instructs you to "Sweep the terraces - grab a broom" whereas others speak of clearing snow, running a bath, cleaning boots or 'making a nice pot of tea for the pro's after training'. There's no denying Hamilton's intent to show the less glamorous side of being a footballer alongside the fame and adulation, and this adds to the charm of the game.
Three circuits of the outer section of the board have to be completed before moving onto the second part of the game, and if I'm honest, those three circuits get less interesting the longer they go on. Though the messages and the collecting of the tiny plastic tokens starts out as being quite enjoyable, it does get a little tedious towards the end. No matter, because the next bit of the game concentrates on being a fully qualified professional, but before that can be done, there's some mathematics to attend to.
To determine the position you're going to play in for the rest of your career, you first need to divide the number of blue Effort tokens you received by three, then add that number to the amount of red Skill tokens you've accumulated. If the total is 19 or below, your lot in life is to become a goalkeeper; 20 to 24 and you'll be a defender, 25 to 29 and you're a midfielder whereas 30 or more ensures your fate will sealed as a striker.
Being a striker undoubtedly gives you a strong chance of winning the game, because in Part 2, you travel around your positional track on the board taking instructions from whatever the rule book tells you. Suffice to say that the rule book has more favourable messages for the strikers than it does for the goalkeepers.
Goalies roll the dice and move around the ring of green shirts, while the defenders are on the orange ring, the midfielders are on the blue and the strikers are on the pink. When you land on a space, you use the relevant number to look up the accompanying message in the book. The optimal outcome is to collect one or more goal tokens in readiness for the final part of the game and many of the messages provide in this respect. "Save a penalty - gain 2 goals" or "Score with an overhead kick - gain 2 goals" could be the outcome, but you may just as likely be dealt a slice of life with the message "Visit a supporter in hospital" or "Interviewed on local radio" that carry no goal tokens. In this instance the game falls a little bit flat as by now you're purely focused on gaining goal tokens. Are you really bothered if you've 'entered a fun-run for charity' or 'visited a children's home'?
Any such interest in the minutiae of being a footballer starts to fall away quickly by the time you reach the final inner circle of the board, for it's here that you enter the 'International Stage'. An extra dice comes into play now as you attempt to traverse the last 18 spaces quicker than your opponents. The skill comes in 'pledging' the right number of goal tokens (those pleasing flat yellow plastic footballs) to ensure the right result on the dice. By adding your tokens to the number on the black dice, then subtracting the number on the white dice you end up with the number of spaces you move forward. If it's a minus number, you move backwards.
Any goal tokens you pledge go back to the bank, so it's vital to land on a space where you earn more tokens to keep you going. "You make your international debut - gain 2 goals" is the sort of thing you want to hear at this point, whereas "Go to tailors and measure up for a squad travelling suit" probably isn't.
Anyway, without really being fully aware, the final ring of yellow spaces is leading you to eventual glory as a World Cup Winner, but it's an anti-climactic finish that lacks all the triumphant messaging you want to see as you reach the peak of your footballing career. Not only that, but as I found in playing the game, you can easily run out of goal tokens before you even reach the end, thus highlighting an unfortunate shortcoming of the game.
When the end does come, however, you're left with conflicting feelings about the hour that's just passed. On the one hand, you have to admire the effort that's gone into the making of the game, from the delightful coloured football boots that act as playing pieces, right through to the real-world instructions on the board and the ease with which you can get started without reading copious notes that are hard to understand. Unfortunately the element of submersing yourself in the fantasy of being an actual footballer weakens as the game progresses. There's less need to chuckle at the wording as you realise it's all about gaining tokens and getting to the middle of the board first, which is a shame.
For all that, however, there's not a football board game in the world that's perfect and for that reason it has to rank among the better ones that are available. Well done, Mr Hamilton - you may not be a World Cup Winner, but you certainly gained 2 Effort where I'm concerned.
-- Chris Oakley