There’s nothing quite like getting out the house on a Sunday afternoon and watching some Football Drama unfold. Now indie developer, Open Labs, invites you to helm your own team in a different take on the normal soccer simulator.
Football Drama isn’t your normal soccer experience. Set in a fictional sporting league where the traditional British kick about is king, Open Labs’ new title unfolds to reveal more than a simple spreadsheet. Pitched as the story behind the goal, Football Drama follows the trials and tribulations of Rocco Gallano, an existentially troubled manager of a struggling football team. Put in place by an enigmatic oligarch, Rocco’s fate and the final score for Calchester Assembled comes down to your actions.
Attack or Defend
While games like Football Manager unfold as a series of statistical choices, Football Drama is a mix of streamlined RPG stats, card building systems, and narrative decisions. The 18 matches that make up an individual season are sandwiched between a set of story-based interludes, and they all have an influence on the final score. From the moment manager Rocco takes the job, players can expect to find a wealth of diverging options in front of them. Narrative episodes tend to play out pre and post-match with a regularly reoccurring cast of misfits. The initial existential musings between Rocco and his feline companion build a character that clearly draws inspiration from some of European football’s more eccentric coaches and rewards players with stat boosts for selecting certain responses. The post-match press conference, the owner’s wife, and the shady mobster that also arrive on the scene provide ample extra opportunity to change the game’s core Karma or Chaos stats.
Both of these opposing stats has a fundamental bearing on how Rocco plays on and off the field. When choosing an offhand insult to the press, you’re more likely to build up Chaos points, and playing risqué games with the owner’s wife is definitely going to score more Chaos points, and just as likely to get you fired. Much like Mass Effect’s system, that uses Renegade and Paragon points, the Chaos and Karma stats are the result of these interactions and open up new abilities to players. Instead of telekinetic powers, however, players barking up these two progression trees will find that Karma and Chaos influence the types of match tactics they get to play with. These abilities are called cards and allow Rocco to swap things up mid-game.
Play Your Cards Right
A card-based tactical approach is, like much of Football Drama, an interesting way to slide home the type of system that would be more at home in Slay the Spire than Champ Manager. Taking a maximum of five cards into each match, the card system might allow gamers to push their team into a new formation, play rough, or just kick everything off into the distance. This deck-building addition aims to keep things fresh by replenishing your stash of bonuses after most matches and adequately reflects the type of Karma that Rocco has at any particular point in a season. This is further augmented by the addition of bonus coins, allowing managers to buy add ons that might make life easier. All that is needed now is a magic Bovril vendor and the RPG would be complete.
This isn’t the only stat system in play either. Football Drama doesn’t dive headlong into player information, midfield formations, or the intricate nature of playing for offside under VAR but it does still have basic skill synergies. The overall condition of the Calchester team can vary wildly depending on any match outcome and this isn’t readily presented on screen. Instead, a good manager must check on the overall outcome of each match and pick a pre-game training regime that works with the available tactics cards and his own brand of management. Before each match, Rocco gets to chose how players train. This doesn’t just directly influence the aforementioned Chaos and Karma stats of a team. It also shifts team stats like Condition, Robustness, and Harmony. All in, this can help or hinder all 7 possible attributes and contribute towards matchday numbers. The system doesn’t allow for many variations but it does mean that anybody out to fill Rocco’s shows will not spend hours tinkering for little obvious outcome.
Thankfully Rocco isn’t a player-coach and when 90 minutes are over, you won’t have gone full Fifa. Instead, matches play out in a tactical display that meshes several stats, a quirky commentary, and displays top-down possession. Like early Championship Managers, Football Drama contains a representation of overall possession, decorated in team colors. The simplistic nature of the match display continues with the tactical gameplay. Each encounter is split into a series of actions that cover a period of roughly a minute or two and ask a manager to select from a limited set of actions. Detailed along the bottom of the pitch are two action buttons that allow the player to take a more aggressive or passive approach to play, depending on the set-piece playing out. An array of resources and team stats are scattered along the action buttons, providing players with an overview of what the team is capable of, be it the team power, the fatigue, or their focus. Under the athletic decoration, these aren’t much different to simple RPG combat choices, which is both a blessing and a curse.
The simplicity of the decisions and stats in play makes for a very innovative football experience. Each of the game’s stages from pre-play training to elicit backroom deals add up to create a hat-trick of deep strategy, engaging characters, and fantastic accessibility. The nearest analogy would be Games Workshop’s Bloodbowl, but yet this feels even easier to approach with more relatable characters. The card system, which I haven’t forgotten about, allows players to build a team towards a particular playstyle and adds an element of creativity that keeps things fresh. Each match even has a pair of sarcastic commentators that talk players through the action. Off the field, this RPG style action continues, with a range of choices that make the game feel like it has more to offer than just a standard 4-4-2 formation. The characters that inhabit the world of Calchester Assembled are full of more life and energy than many big-budget football outings, making for an enjoyable 18 game run.
The Ugly Side Of The Beautiful Game
However, you might find yourself in a bit of a crisis going into that difficult second season. While the RPG mechanics are a welcome change and the stat system allows for a surprising amount of customization, match day can feel quite repetitive. Football Drama’s accessibility comes at a cost. The action becomes largely binary and the decision to go all out or hold back is bottlenecked by Calchester’s Strain system. Too much exertion and you can only play defensively. Balancing this might seem like a great idea but, in reality, it makes each 90 minute outing an exercise in mana management.
Win, Lose, or Draw
Despite the repetitive nature of some games, Football Drama has definitely managed to score a winner. Some unusual writing, a great RPG style approach, and a set of visuals that look more at home in a noir murder mystery make this sports simulator really stand out from the second division pretenders. Football Drama wasn’t built for the Madden fanatics or Fifa stalwarts. Instead, it is more likely to spark joy in those who can poke fun at the beautiful game and now how to roll a paladin. There isn’t much in the way of stats on the show but follow Rocco down his wonderful adventure and you’ll understand why Football is more than just a Sunday afternoon kick about. Football Drama is out now on PC, Mac, Android, and iOS. You can pick it up on the Steam Store for less than a half time pie and Bovril or check out the official website for more information