September 2022. I was walking around the Tabletop Gaming Live convention in Manchester having a look around, upstairs in the back room there were a few games demos set up, one of them caught my eye and I went over. It was a football pitch set up with a hex grid on, no fancy miniatures but wooden discs with team patterns and numbers on them, something caught my interest so I sat down with the designer to play a demo of a few rounds. It was a second edition version of Counter Attack. Once finished I thanked him for the game and went on my way around the hall, looking around for other games and tables that might interest me. I don’t normally go for football games, or 2 players games, but something about the game had stuck with me and I just couldn’t not leave without purchasing a copy, so that’s just what I did. I managed to pick up a few expansion player packs for Counter Attack too, got home and played a game, and then convinced a friend to pick up the remaining player packs the next day as I was already hooked and could tell I would be needing them.
Counter Attack has a sleek and simple box design, complete with The Football Strategy Game subtitle on the front, smaller than the standard Kallax fitting box but not too big for what it needs to be. Opening up we’re presented with a rulebook, a large gameboard folded into eight, a punch sheet with a few tokens to pop out, the player counters and some football counters too, and then some sand-timers, Counter Attack involves some elements of real time play. There is also a small sturdy box included for player cards, as good a quality as a regular board game box, and enabling us to hold all the cards neatly and protected in one place. The art on all the components doesn’t feel over cluttered, just having simplicity for the design without having to cram player art everywhere, the minimalist aspect going towards the aesthetic of the game and the strategy game aspect rather than a football simulation game as is often seen. A delightful Easter Egg on the back of the board is the inclusion of various team set ups, one of which is the great PES Master League team, I’d recognise Ximelez and Castolo anywhere!
The Counter Attack rulebook is set up nicely with an easy to read layout, complete with picture references. It starts with the game set up and getting started before moving onto the basic rules. When playing our first full we game we went through the rule book in order, and mostly we did the actions as we came across them, now and then having to look forward for a situation, or backwards to double check a rule. Counter Attack does assume some level on football knowledge, it won’t explain the offside rule for you (so if you don’t know it you’re on your own there!) but it does a good job for displaying what actions are available in different situations and explaining how each works individually, and there are even some handy reference cards to help with what you can do each turn based off of your previous actions. By the time we had reached the second half of the game we had even managed to add in some of the advanced rules, most fitting right in where it looks like they should and opening a few new lanes of options for strategies.
Whilst we just shuffled out a team between the two of us for the first time, games of Counter Attack should begin with a player draft, with each manager taking turns to draft first from small pools of players, allowing you to build your own team as you see fit, and each manager creating a side with individual strengths and weaknesses determined by what they like in the players. Once the draft is over and the starting kick-off determined, play starts with two 45 minute halves, each one run in real time. This could mean that slower players may eat up the clock, whether by accident or on purpose, but as said earlier the box contains some sand-timers to counter this, and the rules do state that they can be used for slow managers and a turn will end with the timer if they take too long. Actions the players take will either look to a particular stat for how well they perform it (e.g. during a move phase each player can move hexes up to their pace value) or they will feature a duel between two players (e.g. a shot would take the attackers Shooting value versus the keepers Saving value) and the duel is when the dice get rolled, each being 12-sided but numbered from 1 to 6, giving a more football like feel to them than regular six sided dice. There are other stats for players to take into account, Resilience if they are fouled, Tackling versus Dribbling etc. And goalkeepers have an almost completely different set of skills tailored to their one role in the match. Sometimes the game feels less like a game of football, there are less moments of teams playing the ball around the midfield, but the strategic options are varied, a high pass to a player in space, a long pass for a high defence with your high pace striker ready to out-sprint the left back, shooting against a keeper out of position, so many options! In the past few games I’ve played at least half of them have come down to the final action taking the ball from the team chasing a goal, or the last kick of the game watching it sail into the goal for the stoppage time equalizer.
Due to the real time aspect, most games of Counter Attack can be predicted to be the same sort of similar length, around the 2 hour mark. This can deviate slightly depending on how long managers take for drafting and set up, and if there are any extra time rules played, but other wise it makes a good benchmark, and once you become familiar with the set up and rules you should be able to get 2 hours every time, perfect for bringing to a game night where you know the exact limits on play time. The game is very expandable, as mentioned before there are extra player packs to give variety for the team choices, not only this but there a packs containing international teams, each with its own strengths and weaknesses as thematically fits, so you may find an international team that has a high level of Dribbling skill among the players, but lower pace overall where they like to showboat. There are enough of these teams to create your own World Cup tournament, and the rulebook does contain some extra tips at the back for running your own tournaments. The game is also customizable with many different team counters that can be purchased, enabling you to get away from the included Ajax v Juventus counters and match up Liverpool v Manchester City for example.
Post Match Interview
There is a very active online community for Counter Attack, currently they are nearing the end of the 6th online season, and through this there is a lot of helpful answers to be found for any questions related to the game. An off shoot of this is the creation of a living rulebook, the online wiki clarifies many of the frequently asked questions, and new rules added can be found here, such as playing for extra time, or the new jackpot dice roll that will not be present in the current boxed version. Having a large community means that I have played matches with players around the globe, and also played against many different play styles, some players like to play this as a football game, whilst others will go at each match as a board game player, there are never any two games the same, helped by the draft of teams from 90+ available players each match. The rules complexity can be a bit too much for anyone looking for a simple football game, whilst they have a good online FAQ the fact that it is needed has come up in most games, for the odd rule here and there or situation that crops up rarely.
I have never been someone who purchases two player games, or football themed games (soccer anyway, American football is a whole different kettle of fish) but yet this game has had me hooked and I am already looking at when I can sign up for another tournament, and arranging a few Counter Attack friendlies so I can test new strategies and tactics to see how well they will fare.