Hoping to build from the success of Front Office Football (FOF) and sequels, FOF 2 and FOF 2001, creator Jim Gindin released his first college football simulation entitled, FOF: The College Years. Will The College Years (TCY) be able to mimic the success of the previous Gindin titles? After playing the game for hours on end, I can say that TCY successfully carries the torch.
Interface/Options : 90
Although there is only one game mode in TCY, the game options are plentiful. There are so many games within the game that it feels like there are eight different games that you can choose from. You have to balance the social, physical, and even the economic factors of being a head coach of your program. If your players are not happy, due to a lack of free time, they will not perform as well on the field. If you don't give those same players enough time on the practice field or in the weight room their skills will not improve. If there is no one sitting in the stands, the blame is yours for not generating enough interest in the team. Sound like a handful? And you still have to find time to keep your players academically eligible.
After you select a new game you immediately are faced with toggling a plethora of game options on or off. You can decide whether or not you want to hire or fire coaches, include suspensions, use the bowl system, and if you want your dynasty to begin with the traditional powerhouse teams and conferences or if you want to randomize everything. Are you sick of seeing Florida State dominating year in and year out? You have the option of making Ball State immediate national championship contenders.
There are five difficulty levels ranging from walk-on to all-star. Even the most skilled and experienced FOF players will have troubles playing on the all-star level. On that difficulty level you will encounter every imaginable kind of adversity. Players will be injured left and right, potential recruits will hate your school like the plague, and it will take an immense amount of micro managing to not go 0-11. That is why I played almost exclusively on the middle difficulty level, second string.
The interface was very confusing to me at first. Finding everything is not a simple task as you are immediately immersed in a series of pull down menus that open up to dialog box after dialog box. When in doubt, you always have the option of pressing the F1 button and a situation-specific help dialog box appears, guiding you through your troubles. The learning curve is a bit steep, but as soon as you become familiar with the interface you can really appreciate the game's depth.
Gameplay : 80
In the heart of a text based sim is the micromanagement of managing your team of players. This is where TCY shines the brightest, but ultimately is the main source of frustration.
Player management, as indicated above, is a very important aspect of the game. You have to determine how much time players spend on the practice field, lifting weights, studying football, relaxing, and studying in study hall. If a player spends too much time doing one of those things over another, there will be both positive and negative reactions. As stated above, you can't have your players spending half of their time relaxing nor can you have them living, breathing, and eating football. There is no set way to obtain the perfect time management program, but rather you have to treat each situation individually. This is where TCY really falters. Although the micromanagement is one of the main reasons why TCY is very appealing, it is also a reason why the game gets tedious at times. Having to adjust the time management over sixty players year-in and year-out gets very time consuming and repetitive. The ability to globally change the time management of either a specific position (e.g. the secondary needs improvement as a whole, so you bump up their football studies and weight training) or a GPA bracket (e.g. players with GPA's under 2.50 spend more time in study hall) would have been greatly appreciated. You also have a certain number of time blocks where players can spend extra time with the coaches. The extra time will keep the players out of trouble and improve their grades.
Besides adjusting the time management for your players, you still have other obligations before your team can hit the gridiron. You have to also take care of the X's and O's of the game. You can set your depth chart to your liking and adjust your game plan. You can run a passing attack like Purdue or run the option like Nebraska. You have the power to regulate the amount of time your starters play, your willingness to go for it on fourth down, and even the percentage of runs and passes according to how many yards are left for the first down. This is where the micromanagement is enjoyable. You can tinker any possible situation to your liking. Even on defense you can regulate the percentage of blitzes from a specific position and the types of pass coverage you will be in.
Before simming your first game, you have to recruit players for that week. Recruiting, unlike in NCAA Football 2002, is during the season and not after. Without a doubt, the recruiting in TCY is the deepest ever to grace a college football game. There are over 3,000 recruits to choose from over 14,000 modeled high schools every year. Luckily, TCY provides a nice choice of overview screens that easily allow you to search for potential players that fit your system. For example, you can sort players in a certain location, academic ability, national/state ranking, and statistics.
After you find players that you like, you then have to find players that will like you. The recruits are color-coded. There are four colors ranging in the amount of interest and likelihood of joining your team. Players in black are unlikely to join your school, players in red are more likely to join a more prestigious school, players in blue are most likely to join a school of your prestige, and players in green are very likely to join your school.
The most important gauge of a player's interest in your school lies in the player emphasis. Some players emphasize academics or prestige, while others want to go to a school close by or far away. This is where you really have to understand your school's strengths. If you have a very prestigious program, but not a smart one, don't count on getting players who have a player emphasis in academics. This is where recruiting can become difficult. If you can't recruit smart players because of your poor academic performance, then you will never be able to get those players. That is why time management is so important; to boost those academic ratings. There are a few teams in the game that are just awesome to recruit with. Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, and UCLA all have high academic and prestige ratings. When you have those two aces up your sleeve, you will have no problems recruiting any player.
You can contact a recruit one of three ways. Assuming you have enough travel budget left, you can visit a player and watch him play. You can call a recruit via the phone and you can invite a potential recruit to come visit your school. If you entice the player enough they will eventually visit your school. If you feel insecure about the player's chances when they visit, you can offer them a bribe. Offering bribes is risky business. If you do not get caught and end up with the player then all is good, but offering bribes runs a high risk of getting caught by your syndicate coordinator and being put on suspension. If you get caught, you will be ineligible for post-season play and from being on television. You will also find that recruits will not want to go to your school for those same reasons. The recruiting is the most enjoyable aspect of the game. You will spend hours on end reading scouting reports and pouring over whom to send that last phone call to.
Once you have the recruiting situation handled, it is time to move to the simulation of the games. Up to this point I have sung the praise of TCY in the gameplay department. This is where TCY gets its gameplay score lowered. It is true you can set your team strategy to run this type of play here or there, but there is no in-game play calling mode. You have no direct control over what plays are called. I would love to be able to call the plays for my team and live and die by my decisions.
After a while TCY begins to feel like a recruiting sim. Recruiting is a very, very important part of college football, but the actual games should not take a back seat to it. The games did not feel like games, but the rite of passage in between recruiting weeks.
When the season finally concludes, you are graded in six categories: team performance, academic performance, recruiting performance, television revenue, alumni donations, and stadium revenue. To take the words from the instruction manual, “Score well, and you could receive coaching offers from the top schools in the country. Score poorly, and you'll be asking the lowest-ranking teams for work.” That is why every little thing is important. Ticket sales and grades are as important as the wins and losses.
There were a few bugs encountered in gameplay. None were disastrous, but were annoying enough to mention. For example, when you offer a scholarship to a recruit, sometimes they will answer that they are “concerned that there is a freshman at his position” when in actuality there is not. In TCY, you have an electronic mail window that sends you messages regarding everything in the game. I ran into another bug when I was notified that X player was mad that his girlfriend left him. When I checked out the situation, he in fact never lost his old one. There is another bug when sorting defensive backs in the depth chart. You can't replace the starters with your backups. The backups don't show up as available players to start. But the bug that has stirred up the most commotion has probably been the draft bug. You have the option of importing the graduating seniors and early-entry juniors into a draft to FOF 2. The resulting draft is stock piled with superstar talent. In real life, once in a while you will get a player that is Pro Bowl status as a rookie. In the imported drafts every player in the first three rounds is of status. Luckily, Mr. Gindin has been providing outstanding customer support for TCY. He has already released one patch for the game and a second one is soon to come.
Replay Value : 93
You will get many hours out of this game. The recruiting is immediately addicting and the challenge is always there. If you want to start out with a powerhouse like a FSU or a Michigan and take the reins and go that is fine. The real challenge lies in playing with a Solecismic 8 team. The SC8 is a fictional conference where you try and build your way up the coaching ladder. You get to pick the state that you want your SC8 team in and the other seven are randomly placed. Expect to get your butt whooped the first couple of years, but if you make the right moves you will be able to challenge for a bowl game in a few years.
After you do become successful, there aren't as many job offers as you would think. Posters at the message boards of the website, “Front Office Football Central” have reported that they had won national championships and gotten very few or no offers at all! Unlike in real life where it seems anyone with an 8-4 record can jump to a higher tier school.
Regardless if you start with an SC8 or a bad team, the challenge to join the nation's elite will be a tough one. To contend for the top recruits you will have to own a high prestige rating along with a high academic rating. That is where the micromanagement is a must. Every little detail counts, especially when your team does not have much talent. But once you finally win that first national championship with a Podunk team you know you earned it.
Overall : 89
The College Years is a must-buy for recruiting nuts. If recruiting is your cup of tea, I can't envision a game getting any better than this. Although, if you are a hard-core sim fan that wants to play the role of, “offensive or defensive coordinator” then I would suggest you look at another Front Office Football game, FOF 2. Jim Gindin has put out another solid text-based sim game. With the supply of PC sports games becoming less and less, it is very nice to see a game of this caliber hit the market.
If you want additional information about The College Years and other FOF games, Front Office Football Central is the place to be. The message boards provided me with great insight and information over the past weeks. The users are very cerebral and are picking apart the intricacies of the game.