Jim Gindin is one of text gaming's pioneer football career management simulation developers. The Front Office Football series has long set the standard for general management complexity in a niche that has very few legitimate competitors. What started as a general manager only game has blossomed into a full featured simulation that allows players to both call individual plays and manage the deepest off-season set of features found in a football simulation product. In a "rags to riches" story, Front Office Football has the distinction of being one of the few text products ever marketed by a large publisher. The EA Sports partnership ended and many were worried that they'd seen the last of the series.
Although Solecismic Software produced its popular The College Years game, many waited with great anticipation for the latest Front Office Football game when it was announced. There was a decidedly mixed reaction to Front Office Football: The Fourth Edition when it was released. The lack of meaningful beta testing was evident in the release version of the product. In a somewhat uncomfortable trend that many text game publishers seem to be following these days, it seems to be OK as a business decision to release products that have glaring bugs or missing features as long as the developer eventually fixes most of the problems through patches. The released version of Front Office Football was broken in many areas and required a significant patch. Version 4.0b was reviewed for this article, so immediately apply this patch after installing the product.
There are many examples these days of how graphics can be used quite nicely in text games. Front Office Football isn't one of them. Before somebody screams "wait, this is a text game idiot", take a look at some of the competition. PureSim Baseball, for example, has come up with somewhat ingenious ways of making graphics part of the presentation. A number of products from .400 Software are raising the bar for the interaction between text games and graphics. Products like Championship Manager and Total Club Manager further meld the worlds of text and graphics-based gaming.
To give credit where credit is due, Front Office Football was one of the first games to throw in a bit of scenery here and there on its play calling screen. The scoreboard and the graphical elements relieve a bit of the spreadsheet-like feel that many text games exude, but then its back to the interface and that Microsoft Access feel returns once again. The play calling diagrams are a nice addition, but overall a lot more can be done to bring the graphics up to speed with other similar products.
Once again, although this is a text game, it should not exempt itself from thinking creatively about using sound. PureSim has all sorts of audio features, not to mention other products that do full-blown radiobroadcasts of games. Tournament Dreams College Basketball uses sound quite a bit while game are played and it is these little things that make a deep game even more immersive. Front Office Football is very sterile compared to many career management products in the genre.
Front Office Football has one of the most awkward game interfaces I've ever encountered. It is, believe it or not, improved over previous versions. Very little is located intuitively on the screen. In a highly publicized reducing of "double" clicks, now single clicking on menu buttons opens specific additional windows that can then be clicked upon to open sub menus that can be clicked upon to open even more sub menus, etc. Some windows can't be re-sized, while other windows can be resized. The simulation window can be opened by a big "simulation window" button or it can be opened by a small football button that is almost right next to the big button. Huh? Changing plays is a finger and wrist numbing exercise as you click through depth charts, click through personnel charts, and click through different types of plays.
Now with all of that said, Front Office Football provides enough options that it almost makes you forget about the very odd interface decisions in the game. Players choose from a list of fictitious teams that contain fictitious players that are very similar in both team location and player talent to the real NFL. Then more choices await the new owner as he or she decides what type of draft to hold (if any), to use something called "team chemistry" and other career game options.
I can honestly say that I learned what exactly an NFL salary cap is because I owned one of the earlier versions of Front Office Football. The types of financial strategy and negotiating that is done in the game are second to none - just wrapped in a pretty ugly package. Cyber-general managers will negotiate contracts, see how the contract impacts future cap considerations, can trade draft picks (the first career game series to allow this with AI opponents), move teams to new cities, build stadium additions, and many other roster related manipulations. Cyber-coaches can spend time tweaking lineups, assigning roles, creating depth charts, and can call plays during games.
Gameplay : 90
When considering the merits of any simulation product the first marker of a great game is the AI. Does it provide enough challenge and realism to keep even the hardest core simulation fan coming back for more? Front Office Football: The Fourth Edition isn't perfect, but it is a very challenging game. Those of us that have played the series for many years now may not find a much greater challenge than before, especially if some of the AI holes are taken advantage of. But these problems are few and far between since patch 4.0b and the latest version in the series adds enough new features to make it interesting.
The level of detail is quite amazing on the one hand but can be quite daunting on the other. A monument to gaming micro-management is the training camp system. Here the exact times spent doing specific tasks and eating meals can be set to the minute. This is the level of detail that you either learn to love or grow to hate. The new "agent" feature is an interesting twist in the negotiation process because you'll need to see how many players particular agents have signed with teams because they like having their clients together. Hometowns are new and can impact the decision of a player to re-sign (or sign) with a team. The depth shines through once again as Solecismic has added the ability to negotiate contracts with player incentives.
Front Office Football: The Fourth Edition greatly improves its overall record keeping options. The new "almanac" contains individual, team, and coaching awards history, including financial and individual game statistics. A new player editor is (surprisingly) pretty easy and intuitive to use. And while the new game plan options create an interface mess, the ability to finally tune an overall philosophy is a very welcome addition. This is one of the very few text based career management games where I feel as if I can just simulate games instead of playing them by calling plays because the options are so sophisticated that I am in control of how my team plays.
It is much easier to call plays in The Fourth Edition. Plays are accessible in one of the few areas where the interface seems to work well. I found trying to get players to move around on the depth chart during games to be another interface chore, but I was much happier with play calling than in older versions of the game.
Simulating seasons is very fast, although I had a couple of game freezes during simulations where I let the computer handle everything. The results were very reasonable with the 4.0b patch. I didn't notice any glaring oddities as far as the stats went and my draft pool was fine. I do not own The College Years, but there is an option to import players for the draft from that Solecismic game into Front Office Football. There still seems to be some issues with players not healing during the off-season.
Replay Value : 88
This is one of the few long-running text games that doesn't seem to have much of a fan development community. Other than a few real name roster sets, there isn't a whole lot available from fan sites other than good conversation. This could be a testament to the number of features that are in the game, so there's no need for all of those nifty utilities. The lack of any multiplayer options limits the replay value and would be a nice addition in the future.
Overall : 86
The documentation included with the CD was terse, but covered the basic features, so most buyers will be able to quickly dive into the game. Spending time reading the help files is recommended for those new to the Front Office Football universe.
Once you dig through the screens, soak your hand and wrist in some warm water, and plow through Front Office Football: The Fourth Edition, there's quite a game in there. It is on par with some of the giants in career management like Championship Manager, but without the refinement found in those games. Where Championship Manager is colorful, easy to navigate, and full of neat features, Front Office Football is jagged and harsh in many areas, but almost as deep.
Click here to purchase Front Office Football 4 from Solecismic.