And now for something completely different. From kicking footballs with fire tornadoes and explosive headbutts to the enjoyable intrigue that is managing your own football team.
In my last review, I covered the obscure but highly enjoyable soccer JRPG Inazuma Eleven 2, where it took the basic game of soccer and managed to make it one of the most entertaining action-tactics RPGs I’ve played in a while. Today, I introduce you an equally unsung game called Hattrick.
Named after the impressive accomplishment of scoring three consecutive goals in a match, Hattrick is, in essence, Ogame meets Football Manager. If either of those names sound familiar to you, than this game will likely interest you right out of the gate. If not, then pour yourself some tea and cookies (or biscuits, for those of you of the English persuasion) and put your thinking cap on; this review is going to be something completely different.
Hattrick is a free-to-play browser based fantasy football management sim by Hattrick, Ltd. Already, I’m assuming that entire sentence just frightened at least one of you in some way or another, so let’s kick this off by breaking it down to its constituent parts.
First, while this is a free-to-play game, it is the type where any monetary investments you may pour into it are almost entirely bonuses for your team that you can easily play the game without, like automatic friendly bookings, more detailed statistics for the min-maxing crowd, and the ability to customize your match kit and do press releases, among other things. You get all of this and more for a month after you sign up, and it asks literally nothing in return.
Second, while this is a fantasy football/soccer game, this game puts the fantasy aspect at the forefront. For the month I’ve played so far, I almost never ran into any real-life teams (aside from one team which was based off of Arsenal FC), so those of you worried that you’ll need to keep an eye on your TV so that you’ll know which teams to field, rest easy; this game is mercifully divorced from the real world sport, so all that matters is your ability to understand and get the most of your team.
Finally, while yes, this is a management sim, it is surprisingly easy to learn and start playing, as the website’s “Help” section contains a full manual of play, which tells you everything you could possibly want or need to know about the game. Alternatively, if you’re more of a visual learner, the official YouTube channel (TheHattrickTV) has a 10-chapter tutorial that is surprisingly short. In addition, this game is surprisingly user-friendly, even giving you access to a mentor who can help guide you through the game for a couple of months. This was especially handy for me, as this game will likely leave you out of your depths when you start, and a few parts of it (most notably the lineup screen) will take a bit of getting used to. I was actually paired up with a Finnish player, and in spite us coming from opposite ends of the globe, I took to his advice like a duck to water, and I hope that I can keep up my record once our time is over.
Being a browser game, Hattrick is resource-light, needing at most a working Flash plugin. Even then, it’s only used in a few places—most notably the match kit designer and the lineup screen—making it an exceptionally easy game to run alongside other tabs in your browser. You can even get an Android app that allows you to access the majority of the site’s features, if you’re the kind of person who likes to have your fix more discretely.
In keeping with its low-spec nature, the graphics for this game exist mainly in the form of clip art-style portraits of the major members of your club, including your secretary, your player-base, and your coach. It’s not much, but it’s enough to fuel the imagination while you watch the play-by-play tick away.
You’ll notice that I compared this game to games like Ogame and Football Manager. The reason for this is actually quite simple: its gameplay, however minimalistic in scale, is surprisingly deep. Unlike Inazuma Eleven, wherein your formation and lineup are just setup for the battle system, Hattrick uses it as but one part of an intricate and honestly frighteningly complex metagame. Make no mistake, this is not a game where you can just field whoever you like and order them to do exactly as you tell them to. The most you are able to do is to set up who’s on the field where at kick-off, who the substitutions will be, and how you want them to play that match.
Casual though this game may seem, this is a thinking man’s game, and you’ll need plenty of wit and savvy to seize the day.
But what about the actual gameplay itself, you must be asking. If the game is so hands-off, what makes it so appealing? Well, for as frighteningly deep as the game is mechanically, it moves at a pace slow enough to allow even the busiest of players to keep up. This isn’t like Dwarf Fortress, where the game practically throws you to the wolves and expects you to be able to come unscathed out of pure instinct. This is a game, I feel, that was made to educate people into the technical aspect of Football, with stats and figures that are fairly easy to read. It gives you plenty of time to set up a routine, even allowing you to prepare well in advance for future matches, which is a godsend if you aim to play series and cups. The game even states quite plainly that you don’t need to be always online to play, and this is very much by design.
The game itself plays in real-time, but like most management sims, the vast majority of your play-time will be behind the scenes. You’ll be making bids for new players, hiring and firing staff to optimize performance, arranging friendly and preparation games in between series and cup matches, and generally acting as the man who makes the decisions off the pitch. The actual matches themselves play out in real-time as well, in a simple, but entertaining play-by-play format not unlike what you’d hear playing over the radio. The ticker will update whenever something significant has happened in-game, such as team members being substituted, goals being scored, injuries sustained and yellow and red cards being handed out, as well as stat changes (which go by both a numerical value and a title, both of which you can see during the set-up to give you a better at-a-glance look at your team). Each match goes by standard regulation time with two 45-minute halves, and all the standard rules apply. Expect to hear how players commit fouls and offsides, humorous comments about how the fandom reacts to the match, and even the occasional moment where one of your team members snatches the mic to point out how much possession you’ve maintained.
I admit, saying it all out loud, I must sound like the biggest nerd in Silicon Valley.
If you need a reason to play this game, think of it like this: I’d discovered this game by chance, whilst searching for good retro soccer games. When I initially started, I hadn’t the faintest clue as to what I was doing. I was given some twenty-odd starting players, basic starting goals to meet, and a man from Finland for whom English was a secondary language to guide me through it all. Two months and several bot-stomping, come-from-behind shut-outs later, I felt like I the commander of a legion of superstar athletes ready to take on the world. If that isn’t enough to convince you, I’ll leave you with this last bit of food for thought.
If I hadn’t discovered Hattrick in my search for Soccer games with customizable teams, I may never have bought Inazuma Eleven 2. In case the irony of that statement didn’t quite sink in, I’ll say it once more with feeling: A slow-burning, free-to-play real-time casual football management sim managed not only to keep my attention, but it educated me with just how Football worked, both on and off the field, and eventually lead me to buying and playing one of probably my favorite JRPGS on the Nintendo DS.
If that doesn’t convince you that this game is worth your time, if only for a month, I don’t know what will.
Just be warned that if this game hooks you, it’ll be just as much a part of your daily routine as Animal Crossing or Tomodachi Life. With over 2,000 players from almost 150 countries playing all at the same time since 1997, it’s never been a better time to become the proud owner of your own little team of future football legends. My team will be waiting for you, and if we ever meet on the pitch, we’ll happily trample you like a cadre of Mongolian horsemen.
Join the free soccer world today; It’s always looking for fresh meat.