My star striker is a fat alcoholic, I’ve got a kleptomaniac defensive midfielder called ‘The Mummy’ and in my last match I was denied a winning goal by a ‘keeper called ‘The Flying Viking.’ Welcome to Lords of Football, where sporting matters are somewhat less serious than Football Manager.
It’s a game that harkens back to the days when there were far more football management sims out there, and none of them were restricted by legal concerns. Football Manager is a superb series for statistical-based authenticity and tactical challenges, but it can never risk showing any of its named stars as gambling addicted oafs. It seems somewhat amazing today that 90s series’ like Ultimate Soccer Manager even allowed you to dabble in match fixing (something that Lords of Football deems too serious to address with its whimsical attitude.)
As you might have already ascertained from its weird approach to nicknames, LoF doesn’t feature any real players or clubs. It might accidentally generate a name or two that coincide with actual players, but there are no true likenesses or personality matches here. It’s possible to manage teams from five different European leagues (England, Italy, Spain, France and Germany,) with each nation supplying a top tier and second division. Team names are along the lines of Pro Evo’s ‘London Blues’ with approximations like ‘Newcastle Magpies’ and ‘Milano Devils.’
If you want, you can edit the team name, strip and players of the club you opt to manage, but not the names of all the rest of the league. Given that it’s possible to customise your own team in-game there might be further modding possibilities in the future, but that’s mere speculation on my part at the moment. Also, even if you change all the player names their personalities will still be randomly generated; so you might end up with a curiously passive Mario Balotelli.
The season progresses with a regular day/night cycle where you train players and gently manipulate their nightlife activities, followed by a match day where you decide on the usual stuff like tactics and formation. During the match, you can also exert some direct influence by giving individual players commands.
The Sims has been tossed around a lot in relation to the social aspects of this game, but a better comparison would probably be to Lionhead’s The Movies. In that game you had to keep your stars happy enough that they didn’t turn to booze and pills; here, you have to let your players indulge in various vices to keep their spirits (and stats) up, but prevent them from spiraling into full-on addiction.
In practice this means using your god-game like powers of scooping players up in an (invisible) hand and making sure the gambling addicts aren’t making a beeline to the casino and the ego-maniacs are steering clear of the radio station and fanclub. During the day, this same magic hand will be grabbing up players and depositing them on training pitches, in gyms or by the door to the physio. Misbehaving players can be given various ‘punishments’ (those addicted to partying will be forced to exercise on a Dance Dance Revolution esque machine,) or offered therapy for addictions. It’s also possible to keep people training throughout the night.
Various ‘filters’ can be applied to show you, for example, every player who needs a restful massage or a day off to recharge some energy. It’s a quick way to narrow down which skills certain players are lacking in and flash up their needs/addictions as little icons, but the pre-picked selection could do with expanding or the addition of a ‘custom filters’ option. Sometimes you’re trying to locate a specific set of players (maybe “anybody with a stamina rating under 40“ or something) and the default filters can’t quite do the job.
Making use of indoor training facilities can be a bit of a pain too, as when the roof is on (which it will be unless you’re zoomed right in,) you can’t actually see any of the icons above player’s heads. It’d be better to have this stuff available at-a-glance, rather than having to check each individual building to see if it houses a player low on energy (or whatever you happen to be looking for.)
Once you are zoomed it, it’s also kind of annoying to get back out of this close-up view. The zoom in is automatic when you click on a building name, but if you want to pull back to a wider view afterwards you have to manually crank the camera back. It doesn’t sound like much, but gets really tedious on days (and nights) when you’re checking a whole series of buildings at once.
Issues like this make it harder than it should be to keep track of your wayward players, and the lack of any kind of pause function during the limited training/nightlife phases means any time spent struggling with the AI (or delving into player stats for their needs and vices) is time somewhat wasted.
In truth, the ‘social’ aspects of your player’s lives aren’t quite what they were hyped up to be. Each of them has more personality than your usual amalgam of numbers that passes for a person in a football sim, but effectively all you’re doing is looking at indicator bars and repeatedly shuttling them to the buildings that will fulfill a need (and provide a stat boost.) The vague sense of your players being defined by their desires (gluttons, gamblers and sex-pests) is about as far as personality development goes.
Lords of Football also takes the unusual step of decoupling itself from any kind of financial features. For a sport that’s more entangled in money than at any other point in its history, this at first seems like a strange approach. Transfers are taken out of your direct control, instead handled by the club President. You can request certain player types with preferred characteristics, but what you end up with will be out of your hands. This takes a bit of getting used to, though in fact it isn’t too far away from the system used by a few Premier League and European sides, who give the job of transfer dealings to a separate party.
You also won’t be doing any wage negotiations or dealing with agents (thank god,) nor do you organise or pay for upgrades to the club facilities. These are dealt with through a series of ‘upgrades,’ unlocked for performing certain tasks in a match (such as reaching a milestone of 25 goals scored) or using the existing buildings (trained 150 ‘technical’ points to your players.) It’s far from a realistic system, but exonerating the player from some of the more arduous financial dealings and allowed them to focus on the team instead is not such a bad decision.
It’s actually the match day period which turns out to be the star of this title. The tactical options have a decent amount of depth to them (passing styles, individual player ‘mentalities’ and preferred routes of attack can all be set, for example,) without being especially overwhelming. There’s a tidy drag-and-drop-around-the-pitch system in place too, so you can easily slot your players into the area you’d prefer them to stick to.
That’s all fine, but where it really shines is the ability for you to have direct influence on the action. At any point during play you can pause the match and issue some (limited) instructions to individual players. Did you just spot a massive hole in the defense that your striker doesn’t seem to have picked up on? Tell him to make a run into that space, and politely suggest to your midfielder that it’d be a good idea to try to drop the ball in front of where he’s dashing. Unpause, and your team will do their best to carry out your on-the-fly plan.
It’s immensely satisfying when these little schemes work out and end in a goal (or even just a decent shot, which tends to raise the team’s mood,) and you edge a tricky encounter 1-0 thanks to your direct input. There’s a replenishing ‘action bar’ to make sure you don’t micromanage the match to death, but Lords of Football gives you far more active control over a game in progress than previous management titles. It’s great, and adds a whole other layer of thought to your tactical choices; going 4-3-3 to exploit potential holes in the defense is much more attractive when you know you can specifically make your players follow through with that plan.
The match engine itself isn’t anything to cheer about, but it does the job well enough and seems to steer clear of portraying players making absurd, immersion-destroying blunders. It, like the training segments, could do with some user interface tweaks though.
When a player is booked, there’s no indication of this outside the subs screen. It’d be handy to have a visual aide (maybe the classic ‘player’s name goes yellow’ system) so you don’t encourage that same player to make a rash tackle. It’s also a little odd that half-time doesn’t default to the tactics/substitution screen, it just cruises on into the second half. Finally, there’s no option to speed a match up, so you’re stuck at the default speed. However, you can auto-calculate the result at any point (so if you’re 3-0 up you can skip to the end, pretty much.)
Lords of Football may only deliver a superficial version of its promised ‘sports lifestyle’ focus, but its strange mixture of god-game person herding and direct intervention in match day tactics proves to be rather engaging. It’s a niche title with ideas that sometimes outpace their execution, but it just about works as a less demanding, far more playful alternative to the (very) few football management games out there.