The national championship all came down to this. Inside the final 30 seconds, Les’ team was down by a touchdown, but his careful playcalls had put them into position to go for the end zone all in one shot. Would the opposing coach be able to figure out their plan and come up with a defence that could stop it, though? No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. With Les’ timeout coming to an end, he gulped and called the play…
Publisher: CSE Games
Thanks to CSE Games for providing a review copy!
A big part of the challenge in making a sports board or card game is that there are two somewhat-separate markets out there for it; sports fans who don’t normally play hobby games, and hardcore gamers who have an interest in sports. Thus, companies looking to appeal to both need to find a way to make it approachable enough for new gamers drawn in by the sports theme while still deep and strategic enough to entertain veterans. There’s also the line to walk between providing a quick and simple game or one that accurately simulates the sport in question. It’s a tough balance to find, but CSE Games has done it quite well with their Hand-Off series. They’ve come up with a game that’s easy to get into and play, but one that still has strategic depth and works well as a football simulation. Most importantly, they’ve come up with a game that’s fun.
First, a word on the Hand-Off series itself. According to its BoardGameGeek entry, “Hand-Off is a new and improved version of CSE Games’ original critically-acclaimed Card Football: Premiere Edition game.” That’s a 2006 game, so this basic system has been around for a while. Hand-Off itself also comes in three separate editions so far: a general college football one featuring a wide variety of teams, and then specific Florida Gators and LSU Tigers editions featuring boards and cards in those colour schemes and legendary teams from those schools. The LSU Tigers edition is the one I’ve played, but most of these comments should be applicable to all editions.
What you get is a board, a deck of custom cards, team cards, a football token (to mark the current yard line), a referee token (to mark the first down line), a die (to roll for big hits, penalties, field goals and so on), and a card with tables for those die rolls. There are several different ways to play this based on player count, but the simplest involves head-to-head play between two players; we’ll discuss that first, and then get to the other ones. The base level of play in Hand-Off is quite simple. The deck is mostly a deck of standard playing cards, but with plays for offence, defence and special teams on each card. On most plays, the offence and the defence each play a card face down, flip them, and the high card wins and executes the play on its card. (Ties go to the defence, and sometimes very much help defence, as will be discussed later.) Red-suited cards are running plays, black-suited cards are passing plays.
However, this is more poker than War, because you have the option of playing multiple cards to win a hand. To do this, you still play your first card just on its own in case it can win that way, but if not, whoever’s currently losing has the opportunity to add further cards to win (and then the opponent would have a chance to respond with additions of their own). That can form a multi-card hand: a pair, two pair, or three of a kind, any of which will beat single cards (with one exception discussed later), with three of a kind also beating two pairs and two pairs beating a pair. In those multi-card hand cases, the top (last) card played determines what play is executed.
Where some of the strategic elements really come in is with the ability to create five-card Power Hands, which are game-breaking plays. Straights, flushes, and full houses are all basic power hands, which give you a gain of 50 yards (and potentially a touchdown) on offence or a turnover and return on defence (with other results on special teams). Four-of-a-kind or a straight flush gives you an advanced power hand that’s an automatic touchdown on offence or defence. A royal flush gives you an automatic touchdown with a two point conversion.
To get any of these power hands, though, you’re probably going to have to use the hand-management side of the game. Both teams refill their hand to five cards after each play, so it’s not just about trying to beat the opponent on a single card, but also about trying to manage your hand to get a power hand. You also have three timeouts per half, which let you discard and replace up to two cards from your hand. However, focusing too much on this can lead to problems, too; if you spend all your time trying to generate a power hand, you’re likely going to lose a lot of individual plays. This leads to interesting decisions; do you spend your pair to win a hand now, or do you save it in hopes of creating a full house or a four of a kind? Moreover, power hands need to come up at the right time, because you have to play a card on every single down. If you have a power hand when the opponent’s kicking an extra point, playing it’s going to only give you a kick block (rather than a big turnover or touchdown).
There’s also one ultimate trump in the deck for each team. Before playing, you each select which legendary team you want to play as, and each team is associated with one card. Playing the card that matches your team will give you an automatic win against any hand, even a power hand. The only way to beat it is if the opponent also plays the card that matches their team; in that case, the higher-valued team card wins (with ties again going to the defence). These cards aren’t always going to come up for you (sometimes they’ll wind up in your opponent’s hand), but they can provide game-breaking moments if used at the right time.
So, where does the football part come in? Well, it’s interspersed throughout. The decisions on what play to call (what card or cards to play) actually bear quite a resemblance to football. Offences can sometimes get away with lower cards (and their corresponding lower yardage results) on first or second down, but if the defence wins, they can cause you to lose yards, force a fumble and a potential recovery, or roll on the Big Hit table for a potential turnover. You have the choice of trying to grind out yards down after down or going for it with bigger plays, and because there’s such a poker element here, there’s plenty of bluffing at play as well.
Something else notable is that the defence has plenty of chances to force turnovers, especially if they’re able to guess if you’re calling a pass or a run. If the defence ever matches the offence’s card in colour and value (i.e. the 4 of spades versus the 4 of clubs), it forces an interception or fumble. There are two jokers in the deck, too, and while those work as individual high cards that will beat any single card and execute the play on their card, they can be even more powerful on defence if you can read your opponent’s intentions. One joker will force a fumble versus any run play (red), while the other will create an interception against any pass play (black). These don’t work against multi-card hands or power hands, and they’re not wild cards for the purposes of multi-card or power hand construction, but they can provide quite the swing at a crucial moment on defence.
Plenty of other football moments are simulated here, too. The game is played over four quarters (each is a trip through the deck), and it includes two-minute warnings in the second and fourth quarter, punts and punt blocks, penalties, kickoffs, returns, field goals, long bombs and even kneel-downs. If it’s in football, it’s probably in here in some way or another, and the end-of-half clock management in particular can be quite fun and strategic. (Just don’t tell Les Miles.) This isn’t as detailed as something like, say, Blood Bowl, but it’s much less complicated, and much easier to introduce to those who aren’t veteran gamers. It provides an excellent football feel and a good level of strategy, and it’s easy to see it appealing to both football fans who are just discovering hobby games and seasoned gamers who are interested in football.
There are numerous other ways to play the game, including solo and team play. The four-player team play sees teammates take turns executing downs, while the solo mode gives you two cards to pick from at a time and the opponent the top card off the deck, but you must play both your cards before refilling. Solo play isn’t quite as strategic as the full game, as the opportunities for multi-card hands are lessened, power hands are absent, and there’s no element of bluffing, but it can still be a lot of fun. It can also present a significant challenge.
Hand-Off isn’t going to work for everyone, of course. While it balances accessibility and simulation play, those looking for an always-strategic, always in-depth simulation might be better off to look for other, more-complex options. This also probably isn’t going to win over gamers who aren’t particularly interested in football; the mechanics here work well with the theme, but they wouldn’t necessarily be too interesting for those who don’t already like football. On the whole, though, this is an excellent game for football fans, one that’s easy to get into but still has depth and repeated play value. It gets a solid recommendation from this corner both for football fans who haven’t played many hobby games and for hobby gamers who find the theme appealing.