There is a strange relationship between sports and games. At the end of the day, they both fall into the same recreational category, but some board gamers are not sports fans and vice versa. For his first DWP article, Jason H. examines football in the context of a board game. It’s the start of a series that may make both gamers and jocks look a little differently at each other’s hobby.
Football is a “take that!” game for twenty-two players. Game mechanics include bluffing, pattern recognition, and a certain amount of dexterity. The Super Bowl is the most-watched sporting event in North America, so we know football is fun to watch. But is it broken?
For European readers confused by the term “football”, we should mention that the European game of “football” has been published in North America under the name of “soccer”. This sort of thing happens all the time. Like Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. We won’t be talking about European football here. For one thing, I don’t know enough about it to say whether or not it is broken. For another thing, any game with rules that lead to flopping and the offsides trap is obviously broken.
For Canadian readers, I’ll just note that it would be fascinating to compare American and Canadian football from a game design perspective, but I don’t know enough about your game to write that article. Sorry.
Oh, and for Australian readers: Why do you need your own football when you already have rugby?
Anyway, now that we know which football we are talking about, let’s see if it’s broken.
Even if you know nothing about American football, you’ve probably heard of the quarterback problem. It’s hard to design a cooperative game that requires all players to play skillfully. If the optimal strategy is for everyone to do what the most skilled player tells them to do, then the cooperative game has a quarterback problem.
Ironically, there is no quarterback problem in football. True, the team’s strategy is determined by one person, but the simultaneous play mechanic makes it impossible for one person to make decisions for every player. The linemen have to respond to the blitzers, the receivers might need to adjust their routes, the runningback is looking for a hole. There’s no way one person can micromanage all those split-second decisions. The quarterback’s decisions on the play are often the most significant, but if the linemen don’t do their job, the quarterback won’t get a chance to make any decisions at all.
But the quarterback is still the most important player, and this leads to a game-design flaw: The optimal defensive strategy is to cause the quarterback permanent physical injury.
Of course, this could be a problem in any game. For example, I could probably win a game of chess if I managed to hit my opponent in the head with a shovel. The difference is that, in chess, physically striking your opponent is metagaming, whereas in football, it is what you are supposed to do on every play.
Fortunately, the metagame comes to the rescue. A player who takes a cheap shot at the opposing team’s quarterback will himself be targeted by cheap shots that could end his career. Careers are lucrative; lucrative enough that it really doesn’t pay to risk your entire career on an action that will get you an advantage for one game.
Of course, you could say that any game that requires violent physical contact on every play is inherently broken. I’m not sure I can argue with that.
But the place where I think NFL football is broken is at the end of the game. For most of the game, throwing a good pass is a good thing and throwing a bad pass is a bad thing. But near the end of the game, the team that is behind often prefers to throw a bad pass. A bad pass stops the clock, whereas a good pass keeps the clock running.
Stopping the clock adds drama. It gives the quarterback more tactical options in the final minutes, making for more interesting decisions. I guess a game mechanic that leads to interesting decisions isn’t really broken, but still … couldn’t we come up with a mechanic that requires you to complete a pass to stop the clock?
In college football, a first down stops the clock briefly. What if the NFL took this further and let first downs stop the clock the way incomplete passes do? And what if incomplete passes did not stop the clock at all? That would change the endgame a lot. Would it be a change for the better? I’m not sure, but I’d like to see them try it.