Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Ten Years On and it's the Game I Keep Coming Back To - Championship Manager 01/02

Some of our contributors and readers are not overly keen on football and hey, there's no accounting for personal taste. Many are put off by the faceless corporatism of the Premier League, as the cult movement of fans returning to grass roots football demonstrates. Too many top players, who are supposed to be athletes at their peak, roll round on the floor and pass off the general demeanour of having been shot when an opponent makes but the slightest contact with them. This bunny can appreciate the thought process of anyone who concludes that the modern game is one of tarts and prima donnas. while of course the game itself will always leave more than a few people distinctly sub-zero.

Of course, I like and follow football, although in recent years it has come a close second to boxing in terms of this bunny's favourite sport. Covering domestic and European fights from ringside, attending weigh-ins and coming face to face with fighters and pugilistic culture provided both a rush and the sense of having really learned something. Boxers do not have things all their own way, have to live something of a spartan life simply to compete and beneath the glamour and high stakes of world title fights that the casual fan sees on television, taking punches is a means of surviving and making money for the the majority of those who turn professional. This bunny admires and respects those who climb through the ropes, giving everything and putting their long-term health on the line, sometimes just to get by.

Without boxing's journeymen, future stars would not have those 'learning fights' on the way up, where mistakes could be made in an environment where the consequences were less than fatal, then rapidly learned from. Guys like Peter Buckley and Matt Scriven are respected by other fighters for a very good reason - when your way of life depends upon being able to fight regularly, a stoppage and some sort of enforced time-out on medical grounds becomes wholly undesirable. Therefore, the development of survival instincts, sound defence and a particularly cagey sort of ringcraft is a fundamental aspect of taking vastly superior, perhaps well-touted opposition to the scorecards and remaining as active as possible. 'Professor' Buckley may have been several leagues below the man who shared his moniker, Azumah Nelson, but was every bit as worthy of the name in his own unique way.

Anyway, back to football - while this bunny can take or leave the FIFA/ISS type simulations that have accounted for countless cases of RSI and child obesity, the team management game of tactics, buying and selling players, training, that sort of thing, has always attracted my attention. Some are fun while they last but ultimately lose their appeal, others are deeply unrealistic and like any other type of simulation, there will always be dug-out gaming experiences that make you resent ever installing the bloody thing. Many believe the Championship/Football Manager series of games to be the most consistent series within the genre, making use of a simple format that has developed over the years into the more complex Football Manager simulations, challenges of their own in an altogether different way (I'll come back to these games later).

I was playing Championship Manager 1994 a few weeks ago, and what struck me was how unambitious it was from a graphics and gameplay point of view even for its time. Matches contained no 'action' as such, merely a text box that appeared at various points over the 90 seconds (less if you hold the space bar) to describe a shot at goal, injury, substitution, booking or sending off. Winning was simple once you got your head round certain things, like appointing quality scouts and having them find future Premier League players at rock bottom prices. 'Influence', which is ChampMan speak for leadership qualities, was a must-have commodity for about half your team. A few old-stagers with this penchant for taking charge on the field can facilitate a fairly uncomplicated promotion, then transfer listing and insuring the player come the end of the season would mean instant retirement, a free space in the (maximum 26 players) squad, while recouping the original (and pretty modest) sum paid for the player - simply repeat to fade.

Even in 2011, it remains compelling - the familiar routine of taking an unfashionable side from fourth tier to Premier league in successive seasons, then into Europe may appear to be a tiring one, but I suppose this is what marks out a good management simulation from much of the trash that has gone by the name. When you rate the game itself, being good at it becomes that bit more important, and any sense of achievement brought about by 'unrealistic' success that bit more real. Having given them a good go, one of the issues this bunny has with the Football Manager series - if playing an entire season in a couple of hours is too instant, then a game that feels like realtime is nowhere near instant enough, and if the unrealistic was somewhat too easy on those early versions of ChampMan (particularly with brilliant no-wingers formations), then keeping the art of the possible within very narrow confines just takes the fun out of it. I appreciate that I couldn't actually manage a professional soccer team, but the last thing I want is a gaming experience that constantly reminds me of this fact!!


There has to be a happy medium somewhere, and two legendary ChampMan incarnations come closest to it. 1997/98 saw the expansion of the game, with several new European Leagues available to try one's luck and at first fail dismally in. It is more than possible to screw your team up and make their fortunes a whole lot worse if you really don't know what you're doing. Midfield balance is a whole lot more important than on any simulation that had pre-dated it - too many attacking, creative players can leave your team something of a soft touch without the ball, while the tempting option of overloading the centre of the park with grafters can bring something of a goal famine. Over-achievement is possible, but takes times and tends to be of the modest variety to start with. There is of course a lower-league team of free transfers who will always get you to a certain level, but beyond that an eye for a bargain (and a regen or two) becomes a necessity. Cm9798 was also the first management simulation to immortalise players who were pretty average in real life - sign Tommy Svindel Larsen, for instance, and you're in business.

This bunny has lost days that could have been spent doing altogether more useful things, long after 97/98 had even a tenuous connection to the football taking place at the time. However, good as it undeniably was and remains, the work of utter genius that is Championship Manager 01/02 knocks it narrowly but clearly enough into second place in the rankings of greatest ever management simulation. The detail of tactical analysis here is spot on - sufficient enough to weed out those who simply cannot cut it, while not complicating things to the extent that even a qualified coach would struggle (as I suspect is the case with Football Manager). Hiring and firing your backroom team - coaches, scouts and physios. Unearthing rough diamonds for nothing from Scandinavia, overseeing the development of players into saleable assets or key components in a machine that storms through the divisions.

As with Cm9798, the unthinkable becomes likely only for the seriously good player who understands the nuances of the game. I appreciate that simulations rely on a match engine that can be worked out if one studies it closely. Having a team that is compact (high defensive line and deep centre forwards), narrow and finds players frequently 'between the lines' can consistently outperform the AI of the computer opponent if sufficient cohesion amongst players knowing their roles exists. Managing Shelbourne to victory in the UEFA Cup or taking Rochdale to Premier League glory in four seasons may be highly unrealistic and probably owed a great deal to luck, but then I've visited a few Cm0102 tribute sites in the last week or so and achievements of this nature in a rapid timescale are quite rare. 'Sussing' something to such an extent may not make you a bona fide football manager, but contrary to what some might believe, the greatest management game of all time was not necessarily a simple one. The distinct possibility of abject failure was a large part of its attraction.

My Scarborough side has just won the Conference in the first season, and this bunny is looking forward to 2002/03, as we take on the powerhouses of the English Third Division. Take care and I'll catch you soon.

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