JP Casey

Front Office Football Seven (FOF7) is not a new game. First released in 2013, and updated in 2015 with a roster update, the title boasts a long and distinguished history. The developers, Solecismic Software, have been publishing the games since the early noughties, and series entries Front Office Football 2001 and EA Sports Front Office Football have both won awards in Computer Gaming World magazine. But with the NFL season getting into stride, it’s as good a time as any to look at American football’s answer to Football Manager.

FOF7 is more of a club-building game than a team-managing game. Playing the role of General Manager, as opposed to Head Coach, the player is primarily tasked with several financial aspects of running their team, from negotiating contracts to offseason stadium renovations to setting ticket prices. At the end of every season the player is presented with a score out of a hundred, by the game’s only consistently named character, Herb the referee, to reflect their performance that year, based on four categories. Three of these categories – financial performance, roster value and franchise value – relate directly to the financial, not athletic management of the club.

And this financial management is staggeringly deep and rewarding. Unlike experiences such as Franchise Mode in the Madden games, no features are explained, and there are very few opportunities to let the AI make decisions on the player’s behalf; this is a game where the player is thrown in at the deep end, and expected to find their own way through the myriad of menus the game throws at them. It is also worth noting that all of these factors influence one another; signing a quality coach will put a dent in your salary cap, limiting your ability to sign players. In this way, the game unites the day-to-day responsibilities of running a football team with the more abstract macroeconomcs of stadium redesign and contract disputes.

These two areas are united most clearly in the player’s ability to call individual plays in games. The fourth criteria to contribute to a player’s end-of-season score is team performance, and with features such as a complex depth chart system and robust and diverse playbook, the actual football-playing elements of the game are rewarding in their own right. Even the presentation of the games is enticing, using an old-school light-up scoreboard to track scores and in-game stats, making for a welcome break from the otherwise endless menu-surfing.

One of the more underrated aspects of the game, however, is the depth of its customisation. Lacking an official NFL license, the game is forced to rely on adaptations of real NFL teams, such as the New England Volunteers. However, every city in the game – and this includes those who currently lack a franchise, as teams can swap cities as in the real NFL – can have their name customised, as can every franchise. I decided to reshape the league as if it were a British and Irish affair, and so the Belfast Daggers play the Manchester Warriors, while the Cornwall Rebels host the Swansea Harpoons. There is also an extensive system of generating fictional players to fill out rosters, akin to the regens of Football Manager. These players come with complex mentalities – represented by five separate mental attributes – and can form both positive and negative relationships with their teammates.

One issue I have with long-term management games such as these is that it can be difficult to keep track of the in-game world as seasons wear on; every NFL fan knows of the dangers Cam Newton poses in the Panthers offence, but what happens when he retires in 2028 and Carolina are led by rookie QB Vinny Lauderdale? Often, I’ll play teams without even knowing their players, as searching opponents’ depth charts is a laborious and counter-intuitive affair, and even then I’m just presented with lists of numbers. FOF7, however, has an exhaustive and engaging collection of power rankings, annual awards, magazine articles and statistical categories to at least encourage players to engage with the game world around them which, for the most part, is a success.

However, the game falls down in places. The playcalling, while intricate, is at times illogical; I appreciate there must be some margin for error in sports, but I find it baffling that calling passing plays with a strong QB against a weak secondary unit results in several interceptions, while running the ball against a tough front seven can yield 200 yards. Often, even a coach with a low Play Calling stat will be more successful than the player in micromanaging their team, which could break the engagement for some players. Also, the players’ stats are a little baffling; receivers have ‘Avoid Drops’ as an attribute out of 100, rather than ‘Catching’, and skills such as ‘Getting Downfield’ appear to be a combination of the ‘Speed’ and ‘Route-Running’ skills from Madden, yet these are not explained. Perhaps most cripplingly, however, is the lack of universal skills; there isn’t a core of abilities such as Speed, Strength, Toughness, Agility, and so on, that all players are judged on, which can make using the game’s position-change feature a dangerous one to use. I successfully converted an undersized defensive end to an outside linebacker, but that was more good fortune than my acute man-management, as I was completely unable to judge him on his linebacking skills before the conversion.

The game’s presentation, despite the cute in-game scoreboard, is also lacking, with the game played through menus accessed from five primary drop-down menus. The scale of some of these categories – the Depth Chart menu alone stretches from the top to the bottom of my screen – is daunting, and it will take players a few seasons to ease into them, discovering which set of variables is where, and how these will influence the team’s performance.

Yet this is a database game, and an over-reliance on databases is hardly a damning criticism of such a title. The game promises to be a deep, no-frills American football simulation, where the joy comes not from flashy graphics and licensed teams, but by watching your young QB’s passer rating crawl up from the 70s to the 100s over his ten-year career. And with that brief in mind, the game is an addictive and delightful success.

Image credit: JP Casey

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