Counter Attack — Football simulation has all the raw tools to succeed

Counter Attack from Webstar Games tackles the tough task of mapping a game of football to the tabletop. Two players compete against each other to work the ball towards the opposition goal and past their goalkeeper. Sounds simple enough…

As an extremely part-time game designer one area I have returned to again and again on the drawing board is football. I love football. The game that has the most accumulated hours in my Steam library is Football Manager 2014. I dread to think how many hours it would be if you rolled every edition of Football Manager and Championship Manager into one. I’m concerned I have spent more of my life playing those games than I have spent sleeping.

A game of Counter Attack in progress
Ajax try and find a way through Juventus’ low block or something

Football is a relative stranger to the world of tabletop gaming, however. Players of a certain age might remember the classic game Wembley from Gibsons but it is a struggle to come up with many other games that have entered this space and succeeded, Top Trumps aside. Ultimately I think the reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, for a football game to succeed to its fullest it would have to be able to replicate the highs and lows of a full season or competition and to do that requires a complex AI, a large number of human players or both. Secondly there is the problem of actually creating a facsimile of the game itself in tabletop form in a way that engages, is fun and feels like football.

Counter Attack attempts to take on the second of those two challenges. Players take control of a team of eleven players (plus five substitutes) represented by simple wooden cylinders on a board representing a football pitch. That pitch is split up into hexes with all the markings you’d expect of a football pitch; penalty areas, centre circles, all mod cons. Each player has a card representing every player on their team with stats for Pace, Dribbling, Heading, High Pass, Resilience, Shooting and Tackling (Goalkeepers have slightly different stats). The presentation of everything in Counter Attack is simple and functional but bright and very clear. Expect no fancy design flourishes here but what you get in the box certainly enables you to play and enjoy the game with no hindrances.

The first thing that Counter Attack pitches out of the window in its attempt to capture the magic of the beautiful game is player turns. Instead, actions are chosen by the player in control of the ball based on the action that last happened on the pitch. For example, if the last action taken was a High Pass than a Header is your only option to follow up. Conversely, if the last thing that happened was your player winning possession with a successful tackle the world is your oyster. Movement Phases, Standard Passes, High Passes, Long Balls and Snapshots are all available to you. The game comes with a handy grid that lays out all of this for players in a very straightforward readable format. Truth be told, it won’t be long before you don’t need the grid except in niche cases, it’s fairly intuitive.

The card showing what actions can follow the action just taken.
Although the options on this grid look fairly limited they present a world of opportunity.

The Movement Phase is perhaps the most key part of the game of Counter Attack. First the player in possession moves any four of their players on the pitch up to their Pace attribute in hexes. This can include the player with the ball although if they move through a space adjacent to an opposition player there is a chance they will be reactively tackled. Once this has happened, the player without possession can move up to five of their own players. Any who move adjacent to the ball carrier can attempt a tackle if they wish. This is a simple process involving each player rolling a die and adding their relevant stat (Tackling or Dribbling). Success for the tackler will result in them winning possession and the movement phase ending immediately. Failure will result in the ball carrier skipping past them into open space or even in a foul being committed with the potential for injuries and bookings. Once all five of these moves have been made, assuming possession has not changed hands, the player with possession can make two more moves of two spaces each with players who have yet to move. This 4-5-2 system of movement works very well, leaving both players feeling as if they have agency and adding a nice flow to the game.

The reason this is the key part of the game is that a lot of the time spent playing Counter Attack will be in these Movement Phases. As the attacker it is important to keep ball carriers out of the reach of strong tacklers. As the defender the temptation is to rush the ball carrier but if your player is slow or lacks good tackling this can achieve little but opening up spaces in your lines for the attacker to exploit. As a result, these Movement Phases can be cagey and potentially slow. The game comes with an egg timer and it recommends that you use these to limit procrastination in the movement phase. In my games we didn’t feel this was necessary but it isn’t hard to envisage a case for it being required.

Two player cards from Counter Attack
You will quickly learn that Ruiz’ pace of 6 is the magic number in Counter Attack.

When the opportunity does arise though, the ball can transition very quickly into a dangerous position. Counter Attack features both first-time passing and snapshots. These allow an attacker to chain together moves without the defender being able to respond but only if the positioning is just so, hence the importance of the movement phase. In reality this translates to the team in possession keeping the ball safely and moving it around to try and draw the defence out before launching a quick move to try and cut through the lines. What’s great about that is that it really sounds like football! It feels like it to, during the game.

One thing that may spring to mind at this point is that, yes, while that does sound like a particular type of football, it doesn’t sound like all types of football. The patient possession game with quick vertical passing at the right time isn’t the only way to play in Counter Attack, however. Fittingly you can play easily on the break, launching long balls for pacy attackers to move onto after a quick change in possession. Set pieces are very dangerous too with goals aplenty being conceded from corners and free kicks. Pleasingly both of these types of set piece happen fairly regularly too. If I have one quibble with any of this it would only be that, in the games I played, there did not seem to be good crossing opportunities, or ways to get the full backs involved offensively. Counter Attack is a very deep game so it may be that these things are very possible and that I just didn’t happen upon them. In any case, it seems very picky to be complaining that one aspect of the game isn’t implemented the best when so many others are.

The striker is clean through on goal
Photo taken moments before the striker put the ball into the top row of the stands.

It would take more space than there is in this review to give a full breakdown of all the possible things you can do in Counter Attack and the rules that govern them. That in itself is both a blessing and a curse. To do even a passable job of recreating football a game needs to contain the capability to simulate all sorts of different actions and situations. The downside of that though is that there are a lot of rules to those different cases. Counter Attack does its best to keep these situations simple but there is only so much that can be done and it does feel like the rules have to be consulted an awful lot during a game to check exactly how to resolve specific situations. There are plenty of little incidental rules that can be easily overlooked too; things like the goalkeeper getting a free move of one hex when the ball enters the box or players in one final third getting a free move when the ball enters the opposite final third.

A game of Counter Attack consists of three parts; pre-match, first half and second half. The pre-match part of the game is good fun in its own right. The game comes with a large number of different player cards (and many, many more are available to purchase separately from the game’s website). Prior to kick-off these players are drawn randomly in groups of four and drafted by each player into their team. No players except goalkeepers have positions either, it is up to the player where in their team they want to play them. There is no such thing as formations either, you simply place the players where on the pitch you wish them to play and move them from there. This is a very versatile and open-ended system that really allows you to tailor your approach to the team that fate has dealt you. If you’re thinking of picking the game up it is probably worth considering a pack or two of the extra cards as well to keep things fresh and add a lot of variety to each game.

The substitutes bench during a game.
Old “Sicknote” McNulty there, injured again.

The halves themselves are very straightforward. For each one you simply play for forty five minutes then stop for half-time oranges before changing ends. This is a very elegant solution to the problem of how to judge the length of a game that has no turns. In the games I played, my opponent and I each agreed to actually play more like 50 or 55 minutes each half as we spent a fair bit of time learning and looking up rules but the beauty of a set-up like this is that you can make your own rules.

That segues nicely into something else I really enjoy about Counter Attack too. To me it felt like an extremely strong toolkit of stuff for me to make the exact football game I wanted. As I read through the rules I was thinking about all sorts of house rules and additional content that could be created to spice things up. Things like special player abilities, custom rules for injuries and the possibility of straight red-cards, systems to randomly generate or account for players in different form. The possibilities are endless and Counter Attack as a system is flexible and hackable enough that you can turn this game into whatever version of a football game you want, safe in the knowledge that the basics and the essentials of gameplay are well covered.

A game of Counter Attack in progress.
#4 and #7 there having an on-pitch discussion about their dinner plans.

Back at the top of this review I said that a football game needed two things to truly succeed. The second (creating a facsimile of an actual game) is something that Counter Attack focuses its efforts on and can be considered a success. There are some issues I have with some fiddly bits and pieces of rules but, to an extent, that is an unavoidable issue with trying to replicate a real-time, fast-paced frenetic sport like football. What you are left with is a football game that abstracts the concepts enough to be manageable with a ruleset but not so much that it doesn’t feel like the thing it’s emulating.

The first thing that a football game needs is the way to emulate not just a game of football but a season or a competition. Counter Attack does have some suggestions on this subject at the end of its manual but really this area is left to the player. It doesn’t require much extra effort to come up with a season or a campaign mode of the game if you have enough players (and copies of the game!) but it is something that I think the player would have to put a fair amount of their own thought into to make it truly sing. The great thing about Counter Attack though is that it does the heavy lifting for you, providing a fun, robust system of gameplay for you to add all the style and tweaks you want to make it truly the game you want.

You can purchase Counter Attack on Amazon.

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