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Subject: Hidden Gem or Just Another Rock from the Indy Board Game scene? rss

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The beautiful thing about board gaming is that there are games with just about any theme. There are games about the fashion industry, games about farming, and even games about American football. Titles themed around America’s Game tend to focus on recreating historical statistics and can take longer than watching the actual sport itself! As a huge fan of both American football and modern board games, I have longed for the title that would combine the theme of my beloved sport with modern design sensibilities. Then I heard rumors that Breakaway Football had dared to do just that. Is this the Holy Grail I had been searching for?

Collectively, we have learned a lot about game design in the last 30 or so years. Gone are the days of having to dedicate 4 hours to have a compelling and memorable gaming experience, as modern design philosophy has taught us that it can be done in 90 minutes or less. Breakaway Football is an earnest homage to the sport while leveraging modern design elements to bring us a game that will appeal to both the fan of gridiron strategy and the refined gamer. The clever level of abstraction sacrifices the detail of individual statistics for compelling gameplay, requiring hand management, valuation, deck composition knowledge, yomi (reading one’s opponent) and more to create the perfect coaching chess match at your table.

1 Basic Mechanisms (Layer 1) 1

Each team has fifteen “double-ended” offensive cards (see below) that are played face down to call an offensive play. The back of each will show your opponent only the formation, so that they can make inferences (or, better yet, probabilistic guesses bases on card counting) about what play you have called. "He called a Power I formation, so there is a pretty high probability of a run here." In response, they will play a defensive card in response (also double-ended) to counter your play. Once both cards are revealed, plays are resolved by looking at the difference between the offensive and defensive play result numbers. For example, if I play a “Pass 6” and your defense has a “3 pass” defense, the result is a gain of 3.


“3 what?” you may ask. One of the abstractions Breakaway Football does is with field position. Instead of trying to tally 100 individual yards, the field is broken down into 5-yard chunks. Further, a first down is only awarded at mid field or at either player’s 20. This ensures that although you will be gaining large chunks of yardage at a time, the critical decision making of down and distance is always at play.

2 Deeper Mechanisms (Layer 2) 2

Honestly, the game would be rather boring if this were it. The next layer incorporates play types. That is, each offensive and defensive play is assigned a general play type, such as Inside Run, Zone Defense, etc. Certain play types are vulnerable to other play types, so it’s not just a matter of trying to play the biggest numbers. Sure, your team’s best defensive call “numbers-wise” might be a Zone Defense, but if your opponent calls a Special Run (like a Draw or other trick running play) you are likely to get gouged for big yards. Now you can use your knowledge of your opponent’s deck composition to gain an edge: “I know he is a running team and my team is weak against the run, but a majority of those runs are Outside Runs, so if I play my Wide Run Defense, I can offset my team’s weakness...” And it’s really not as complicated as you think. Having knowledge of the sport definitely helps here, but there are tables printed on the game board to remind you of what-beats-what.

Sometimes you might get the sense that your opponent has made a great read and that they have hard-countered your play. No problem--just call and audible by rotating your card 180 degrees! Be aware that they can do the same, but the design of both offensive and defensive play cards will give the astute player an advantage.

3 Unique Mechanisms (Layer 3) 3

The next gameplay layer is that each team has a Special Power that can break the rules of the game. Some are very basic, such as defenses that force a turnover after their 5th Defensive Breakaway (i.e. plays that beat the offensive play as listed above) to teams with intricate unlocking criteria that force players to make sub-optimal plays in the short-term as a means of unlocking a powerful ability to benefit them in the long-term. The various team abilities truly are unique, so taking the time to learn one team and how best to use their particular special power is an important part of victory. Combine this with the fact that every team’s offensive and defensive decks are unique mean that every match-up feels fresh and cognitively demanding.

4 Unifying Mechanisms (Layer 4) 4

The last layer in the game design is the Game Day deck. This deck brilliantly encompasses all of the random elements of the game, from modifiers to normal plays (“Move the Pile! Add +1 to a Running Play”) to kicks, punts, and big plays for both the offense and defense. I won’t discuss them all, but suffice it to say that this deck does the real work in the game, and creates the excitement fans have come to expect on game day: clutch field goals, monster punts to swing field position, turnovers, penalties, etc. The deck composition is very tuned to ensure that these this happen with the appropriate levels of randomness, so don’t worry about your brilliant play call getting hosed by a freak event all the time--but it can happen!

After my first game, I sat down and looked through the entire Game Day deck and quickly sketched out a basic probability map of what it was doing with respect to each element of the game. If you are at all mathematically inclined, you will smile when you see what the designer has done here. Oh, and an expansion provides replacement decks for both rain and snow games to really change of the feel of the results! Honestly, it really is a brilliant element that pulls the whole game together.


colonist Other Mechanisms colonist

There are a few other clever design elements, such as time keeping: each card represents roughly 1 minute of game time, which is the reason each team have 15 offensive plays. If your offensive drive takes 6 cards, that equates to six minutes of game time. Now your opponent will have to discard 6 of his 15 cards before taking his possession! This card management decisions are delightfully painful, and you need to make decisions about which plays are gone for this quarter. Teams that can run the ball and chew up clock can really frustrate offensive-minded opponents as they force them to discard large numbers of cards and limit their offensive options!

thumbsdown Rough Edges thumbsdown

Breakway Football does have a few parts that might rub you the wrong way. The first and probably most significant is the cost. As a small, print-on-demand Game Crafter title, the cost might be viewed as pretty steep. Sure, the base game is $55, but once you add all the extra teams and other expansions into the mix, you’re definitely starting to see the ticket price soar. I will admit this was the biggest thing that kept me from ordering it for months, even after watching several Youtube videos and convincing myself that I would be getting a great game. I got some extra money and finally dove it and ordered everything at once, and I can honestly say I don’t regret it. I have hundreds of dollars of beautiful new titles sitting idle on my shelf as my son and I break out game after game of Breakaway Football. I personally feel it was worth the money, but I would be remiss if I didn’t warn of the sticker shock of acquisition.

The other concern that I should share is with the art and graphic design. Breakaway Football isn’t going to blow you away with its presentation, but I will say that it does a very solid job of conveying what you need to play. I wrinkled my mouth a bit when I opened it and started looking at the cards, and it definitely looks like it might rely too heavily on stock art and basic presentation. Still, I really don’t notice it now, and it quickly faded from my mind the more I played the game.

Final Perspective

When I evaluate Breakaway Football as a football fan, I am just IN LOVE with what it does. Each game is a coaching challenge, and the drama of sports often comes through (due in no small part to the genius design and composition of the Game Day deck!) with few affairs being complete blowouts. In fact, during a recent game I was able to mount an epic comeback win through a combination of more thoughtful play calls and just a bit of luck! This game gives me football strategy and excitement from the first play to the last, and the football fan in me hasn’t been disappointed yet!

When I evaluate Breakaway Football as an avid and experienced board gamer, I can see all of the things it does right: it incorporates elegant play mechanisms and modern design elements, it allows for skillful play, and it creates a nice flow of critical game decisions that any gamer would love. Anyone with a deep understanding of modern games will appreciate the work that the designer, a former football coach, has put in to creating a head-to-head game that can legitimately stand toe to toe with heavyweight titles like BattleCON or Yomi.

Oh, and did I mention that the Solo Play variant is actually very, very good? Breakaway Football is a rousing success on many levels--a true GEM indeed!

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Edit: Some Typos
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