Sports-themed board and card games have never faired too well with the hardcore gamer crowd. There are probably many reasons for this, but, for me, the primary place that sports-themed board and card games are lacking is in the recreation of the pace and flow of on-field action. Tabletop games, by their very nature, are turn-based, and this turn-based approach almost always fails to capture the spirit of the real thing. This probably explains the fact that the most successful sports game franchise of all time (on this continent at least) is the Strat-O-Matic baseball series. Baseball is, after all, the easiest sport to model in a turn-based fashion.
Fightball, from designers James Ernest and Mike Selinker, attempts to address the above concern by replacing the normal, turn-based action of a card game with a more dynamic real-time model. In Fightball, players don’t take turns making their plays. Instead, each player plays through his or her own deck simultaneously. To further speed up play, there is a distinct advantage to being the player who gets through his or her deck the fastest. The result is a quick-paced, high tension game that really does feel more like a sport (albeit a fictional one in this case) than the games that have come before it. It is also much more balanced, fun, and tactical than the games of the past that have attempted real-time simulation.
Fightball features three different two-player sets. Each set contains two Fightball teams in separate decks. The decks also contain color-coded field cards that the players combine (each player contributing twelve cards) to form the playing surface. Once a player picks a team from the six available, no tweaking or "deck-building" is done. Players (called coaches from this point on to avoid confusion) simply shuffle the cards and the game begins.
Play proceeds real-time, with each coach playing through his or her own deck one card at a time. If a coach draws a card that he or she can’t play, that card is placed in his or her own personal discard pile. The top card of that pile remains playable, and every card in the pile is playable if the coach can work his or her way down the pile to the card.
The coaches are attempting to establish scoring plays on the field. A scoring play must contain, at the minimum, a player card, a ball card, and a shot card. Each or these cards vary in value according to the color of field card they are being played on (with some players rated higher from close to the goal, others from far away. The resulting stack must be worth at least ten play points for the play to score. If it is, the coach who placed the cards scores points equal to the value of the field card.
If this was all that happened in the game, it would be fair to see it as competitive solitaire, but coaches also have the ability to play cards into their opponent’s score piles. These cards must be placed between the player and the shot and have a fairly intuitive effect on the play. Playing a player between the opposing player and the shot results in a blocked shot. Playing a lower valued ball results in a lowering of the value of the entire pile (possibly bringing it below ten and causing the play to fail). There are also team-specific special effect cards that can be played on the stacks. These can increase the value of the play, decrease it, or even cause it to score for the other coach. Both coaches can play as many cards between the player and the shot as they want. Any card played outside that frame (say after the shot) is considered a foul. Fouls result in points for the opposing coach, so they can have a substantial effect on the outcome of a game.
Each coach places a "buzz" card at the bottom of his deck before play starts. When that card is reached, the quarter is over. The full game consists of four quarters. The full game is advertised as taking twenty minutes, but I have a feeling that after some practice, the final play time will be more like twelve to fifteen minutes.
Fightball is great, hectic fun. For the first few quarters, it was all my opponent and I could do to keep up with our own stacks and we ended up not doing much in the way of blocking or interrupting the other coach’s plays. After a few games though, things got highly competitive. Fast thinking is certainly rewarded, but the special effect cards add quite a bit of strategy, especially the ones that affect scoring based on cards in the discard piles.
Fightball is the most enjoyable real-time card game I have played to date. The mechanics match the theme perfectly. The card art is wonderful. The teams themselves are humorous and rather cool. I can see the game becoming popular filler material with my regular group.
Originally Published on Armchair Empire, 10/13/02
Follow up: I still agree with everything I said in the review, but it did not become a very-often played game. My last recorded play was August, 2007. I do plan on getting it to the table soon, however, as part of my upcoming marathon of Cheapass/James Ernest Games.