Counter Attack, on the surface, is “Football” the board game, but there is also a very strategic sub-game going on and you will be using your grey matter for the whole match.
The Components in Counter Attack
Before we begin talking about the game I want to talk about the components. Colin Webster, the designer of the game, was kind enough to send a copy of the game for us to review and with the standard copy he also sent another team.
The box contains a “Pitch”, two teams that my son has dubbed Newcastle and Ajax, however, I prefer to think of them as the black and white team and the red and white team. There are two transparent sticks for measuring if and how passes can be made, a box for holding the player cards and the player cards themselves, more on those shortly.
There are also two sand timers, four red card and yellow card tokens, injury tokens for an advanced rule used in tournaments and two card tokens that match each team and two card tokens for the ball. I have no idea what these are for and can only assume they are to replace your tokens if you lose them.
There is also a quick reference card for each player and a comprehensive rule book. The last component is two twelve-sided dice with numbers one to six printed twice. That is to say, they are two D6 on one dice. Perhaps this is common in gaming, I have not seen this before and I thought that was a pretty cool thing.
The rule book is comprehensive and has extremely helpful examples of play at the rear as well as some ideas for shorter games. We found the rule book to be excellent but there are also an awful lot of youtube videos from Colin explaining how you should interpret the rules.
Whilst there isn’t a great deal of weight to the player counters and balls they are very good quality with high-quality printing. This is important as you will be relying on the numbers printed on each counter to link to your drafted team.
There are 46 player cards 4 of which are keeper cards and an additional 4 referee cards. Players are awarded stats for Pace, Dribbling, Heading, High Pass, Resilience, Shooting and Tackling with keepers being ranked by Aerial Ability, Dribbling, Pace, Resilience, Saving, Handling and High Pass.
The four referees are separated by their leniency, in this set ranging from 2-5 and the cards are well printed on good quality card stock. I don’t think I will sleeve them as, whilst they are shuffled and dealt, it only happens once per match and we have some plans for these player cards that I will come to at the end of the review.
Counter Attack Game Setup
There is no included timer for match length but its pretty simple nowadays to use a phone or connected device to time 90 minutes and once you have something set up you begin by drafting your team.
The draft is fun and is the start of the game though not a part of the 90 minutes of match time. You deal four keeper cards face down and select one each. Next, you deal 4 player cards face up and taking it in turns you take one until they are gone, then you deal four more, switch the player who chooses first and continue until you have 15 outfield players each.
Now you need to assign your players to their position. This can take some time and is also an excellent part of the game which, when I read the rules, felt could be frustrating however, I am yet to be in a position where I cannot put together a team with players in appropriate positions.
You then deal the four referee cards and choose one at random. From here you place your team onto the pitch in their respective formation and roll for kick-off.
Playing the Match
I do not want to go into an explanation of the rules which I am very tempted to do as I still feel I need to refer to the manual when making some moves. The game is simple but complicated, a lot like football and we have made a lot of mistakes.
Our worst was misreading the final third rule. The rule states “If the ball is in one final third and any action has come to an end, all players in the opposide final third get a free move of six hexes each, attacking team moves first” which for some reason we were playing as the defending team can move all their players up to six hexes. Suffice to say it was only after two games with no goals that we realised the error and I blamed my son who blamed me for remembering the rule incorrectly.
What we liked about the matches and set-up was the way we both used our teams. I would often play someone in defence who had great pace because I would be thinking about putting them in the way of passes whereas my son wanted to put the same player in midfield to bring the ball forward.
Where and how you choose to play your team is up to you and its these different approaches and freedom to choose that makes Counter Attack such an incredible strategy game.
There are so many variables that no game will ever be the same and even though this is “football the board game” even my wife has played it a couple of times because it appeals to the strategist in her.
The movement phases are, more often than not, akin to a game of chess as you try and work out where your opponent is going to go and when you are attacking you are trying to sell them on setting up to defend right when you are intending to lob a high pass over to the lone winger ready to run in and take a shot.
I am not a great fan of football, I watch the England matches but my home team are Bristol City so its difficult for me to say I know a great deal about the game and who’s who, however, I love Counter Attack. It is not just a football board game, it’s an incredible interpretation of a sport in a strategy format.
When you link passes and moves together and outwit and opponent to get a shot off you do want to jump up and shout and I find my heart rate rising as I am about to pull off a ruse, casually chatting about nothing in particular when my mind is screaming “PLEASE DON’T NOTICE, PLEASE DON’T NOTICE”.
We have changed how we play a little since we first received the game. Firstly, we started playing by laying out a 4-4-2 or 4-3-2-1 or any other formation we wanted to try and instead we now keep our formations but keep a flatter line than traditionally because we feel we can get players where we need them faster this way.
We also tried to secure and play players with pace, pace was king, but have found that whilst it’s important for movement, especially on the wing, accurate passing is the true ruler. A good High Pass will get the ball where you want it avoiding other players’ zones of influence. This is an area around each player.
The immediate 6 hexes are their danger zone where rolling a 6 sees them steal the ball. There may only be a 16.5% (yes I know the actual odds are 16.66667% but its close enough) chance of this happening but it genuinely feels like its 50/50.
Other than these minor concessions this IS football. The movement after kick-off, the setups, feints, bluffing and things that can happen during the match are all there.
To date, we have played about 12 matches. That equates to around 24 hours sitting at a table playing Counter Attack. A lot of time with the game then but my son is adamant that we can only play something else if we have played Counter Attack several times that day! Not quite true but he is obsessed with Counter Attack in a way that is starting to worry me.
The great thing is despite his addiction and knowledge I still win about half the games we play. Admittedly he’s 10 and I am 48 but I will take any victory at this point.
My wife and I were having a match when he came home from his friends one evening and we found out that Counter Attack is a three-player game. His first words were “What, you’re playing without me?”
Even though he considers Caledonian Thistle a football team, Colin has managed to take a football match and break it down into its fundamental parts and put it on the table.
Positioning and movement are the two watchwords when playing Counter Attack. As I previously stated the movement phase will see you move four of your players, when attacking, the number of hexes up to their pace, the defending team are then able to position five of their players, lastly, the attacking team can then move two further players.
This is the most strategic part of the game, can you get a player within shooting distance and then get him away from a defender so that you get a clear shot on goal whilst making your opponent think you are going to strike with another player altogether?
When defending your mind races “is he trying to make me think he is going to strike from there or is he actually going to strike from here and make me think he is trying to strike from there or is it a bluff and really he is….. “
It’s such a great feeling, trying to work out what your opponent is planning whilst you are trying to get a defender in position to steal a ball and have to second guess what may happen all while keeping your goal protected.
Tackling is handled like a game of top trumps in that your defender uses their Tackling stat vs the attacking players Dribbling stat plus your dice roll.
This means that if your defender has a 4 for Tackling and the attacker has a 5 for Dribbling the defender will be relying on their dice roll to win them the ball. It is this unpredictability that makes the game so exciting.
When you are haring down the wing with a fast player who has a poor dribbling stat and a defender is closing you down but there is no obvious cross yet because you were slow getting forward is so frustrating and exciting, that feeling you get when you watch your favourite team closing in on goal, it’s that, but it could last minutes while the play is working itself out as you are waiting to see where the other player is positioning his players and you are trying to figure out what to do now.
It’s intoxicating and we have truly fallen in love with Counter Attack.
Luck or Skill?
Because dice play a large part in Counter Attack there is an element of luck and admittedly when a couple of rolls go against you in succession you do want to flip the table but overall the game is well balanced. Yes, there is an element of luck but it’s felt by both players. There are times when I have had a player sent off even though we had a ref with high leniency, a bad dice roll saw me commit a foul, the foul was in the box and the player was deemed to have been through on goal and then I rolled like a chump and I was a player down.
That felt like a bad way to solve the issue and that a better way should be implemented however, when a similar situation happened in reverse I do remember thinking it was a just system.
There are times in some games when it feels like the dice are broken and the only reason you lost is luck but this is true for all games that use dice and when I sit and think about it, on balance, it’s a great system. There should just be more times when it’s a great system for me!
The skill in Counter Attack is being in the right place to intercept or the right place to receive a ball. Moving your pieces for the move you will play next and not the move you are playing now is how you negate the luck of the dice.
It doesn’t matter about the dice if you have moved past a defender and that defender is focused on stopping someone else or you manage to get through and put a ball right where you want it so that you can knock a goal in. These things are not down to luck, they are all about strategy and so I would say luck plays a very small part in the matches. Right Player, Right Position and Right Decision.
I will share the link here to buy Counter Attack, new teams or cards from the Counter Attack store but I will also post some download links to resources I have found that take Counter Attack to another level.
You will need a printer, laminator and a corner clipper but if you get those things you will be able to play YOUR team, you could choose players from all over the world because board gamers are something special.
Whenever there is a great game a community arrives to do things with it no creator could. It would probably cost millions to officially licence players and teams but nothing is stopping a community from making their own and the Counter Attack community has been VERY busy.
Counter Attack is best summed up as “This is football, just on a table”. It is so much better than Subbuteo or any other tabletop football game my boy and I have played. I broke my back in 2005 and I can’t run about kicking a ball with my son. It is a constant source of disappointment for me but Counter Attack has given us a focus that doesn’t rely on me or my stupid legs to be involved. We can play football together, away from the computer, just my son and I while we chat and debate the best move to make.
I love Counter Attack, I have only played with my wife twice and she said it was OK which, considering I had to make her put her phone down while the penalties were taking place in the final of the Euros as Sancho walked up to the spot, so OK from her is high praise.
For me, I think if you like football, if you like strategy games, if you like board games, if you ever wanted to manage a team, if you like card drafting or you just like round counters you should own Counter Attack.
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