Introducing Famous First Downs: The World's Smallest Football Game

Rob Bartel, creator of the The World's Smallest Sports Games series, is on a roll. This wonderful series of sports-themed microgames began with two simpler games that I enjoyed immensely. Famous Forehands takes us to the world of tennis [review], and Famous Fastballs takes us to the world of baseball [review]. All games consist of just 9 playing cards (plus two reference cards), and are quite different from each other, with unique gameplay that does a wonderful job of evoking the flavour of each sport, while at the same time providing game-play that is entertaining and fun.

So which other sports are available asides from tennis and baseball? The series actually consists of games with different levels of complexity, and the above-mentioned titles comprise the Beginner or Easy level. At the Intermediate or Mid-level are two more titles, a golf game (Famous Fairways), and a yachting game (Famous Flagships). But perhaps the most rewarding games are the two in the Advanced or Hard level of the series, namely Famous 500, which is an motor-racing game, and Famous First Downs, which is a football game.

Famous First Downs: The World's Smallest Football Game is certainly one of my favourite titles in the series. The official description of the game is as follows: "Famous First Downs is a fun, fast-playing simulation of the sport of American football. The game focuses on offensive and defensive play-calling and on the need to build and manage your team’s momentum over multiple scoring drives. Each down, the offense declares a play to which the defense secretly responds. The offense then chooses a play option, resulting in the success or failure of the play and determining any subsequent yardage. Blocked plays earn momentum for the defense while first downs earn momentum for the offense. That momentum can then be spent on special plays like interceptions, extra yards, and repeated downs. The various coins are used to track downs, momentum, and yardage."

It's certainly an ambitious project to come up with a playable and enjoyable football game with just 9 cards, but Rob Bartel has done exactly that in Famous First Downs. In fact, it's a personal favourite of Rob Bartel, and has quickly become one of my own personal favourites too. So let me tell you all about this clever microgame!



COMPONENTS

Game box

Similar to the other titles in this series, the box is a handy sized cardboard sleeve that houses the components snugly, and oozes portability.



The back of the box gives us some basic information about the game.



Component list

The version of the game I have is the pre-2013 edition, which didn't come with the quickstart cards. Here's what you get:
● 3 offensive cards
● 6 defensive cards
● instructions

Note that what I'm describing and showing is the edition for sale in the boardgamegeek store - the retail edition available from the publisher includes an additional two quick-start reference cards. You'll also need to provide some coins (10 Dimes, 7 Nickels, and 16 Pennies), or other markers - I used some cubes re-purposed from other games. There's also a playmat which you can print out to make game-play easier.



Offense cards

The heart of game-play begins with the team on offense choosing one of six offensive formations, which are pictured on three double-sided cards. Here's an example:



The important part to look at is what's at the top of the card, where we see nine different options for the offence to send the ball; each offensive card gives the offensive team three possible play-calls to make, which are marked in red along with the yards those calls will give. The six options for offense are Shotgun, Ace, Full House, Pro Set, I-Form, and Short Yards.



Defense cards

The team playing defense gets six cards featuring six defensive formations, and they'll choose one of these secretly before the offensive player indicates which of the three possible play calls he's making. Here's an example:



On each card you'll see nine different responses from the defense to the different possible locations where the offense will send the ball. The shield icon (X) indicates that the offense was blocked, while positive numbers in red will be added to the offense's yards, while negative numbers in blue will subtract from the offense's yards. The six options for defense are Quarter, Dime, Nickel, Forty-Six, 4-3, and Wall.



Quick Start cards

These Quick Start cards aren't included in the first edition, but do come with the second edition that's available from the publisher, and they can also be downloaded here. They are double-sided reference cards with a summary of how game-play works.



Instructions

The instruction sheet is a double-sized sheet that folds into thirds, and explains all the rules in an organized manner. The newest edition of the game doesn't come with these printed instructions, but instead players are expected to learn the game using the QuickStart cards and an online tutorial. While this is probably the most advanced game in this series, it's still not very complicated, and the online tutorial does an excellent job of explaining the game with good visual illustrations. You'll find it here, and I highly recommend checking it out - you'll learn the game in no time:

Famous First Downs Online Tutorial



Owners of the original edition should note that there have been some minor changes to the rules about correct handling of yardage coins after a turnover (details here) and about how missed field goal attempts are handled, which also negates the need for punting (details here). These small changes will be reflected in the QuickStart cards from the third edition, and in the online tutorial.

Play Mat

Rob Bartel has made a wonderful play-mat that you can download and print in order to use with the game. It's very nicely done, and I certainly suggest using it.



GAME-PLAY

Set-up

Here I've set up the game using the playmat and various markers. Yards are kept track of using coins (dimes = 5 yards, pennies = 1 yard), but I've just use some cubes that I had handy (white = 5 yards, brown = 1 yard). Famous First Downs basically consists of a 50 yard field, and in turns you'll get a chance to have a scoring drive in an effort to get a touch down or a field goal. The ten black cubes are used to track momentum, which we'll explain later, but for now note that the 50 yards of yardage start beside the player on defense, and ten of those yards are placed in the neutral zone, to represent the yards that the offensive player has to try to get in order to achieve a first down. The player on offense gets the three offensive cards, and the opponent gets the six defensive cards, and we're ready to play.



Flow of Play

Famous First Downs is especially going to be geared towards football fans, so I'll assume you already know how to play the sport. Here's how it works in this game:

Play-calling

The offense begins each down (turn) by selecting one of their six offensive formations and playing it face up on the play mat. The defense secretly chooses one of the six defensive plays, and plays it face down opposite. Now the player on offense announces which of the three available play options he is choosing (e.g. short pass on left, run down the center etc), and the player on defense reveals his card to determine the outcome. The shield icon indicates that the play was blocked and no yards gained. With all other possibilities, you add up the numbers opposite each other on both cards to figure out how many yards were gained with that play. That's how many coins/cubes/yards are taken from the neutral zone (or defensive player's area if there's not enough) into the offensive player's area, indicating yards he's gained. Just as in football, you get a maximum of four attempts to get a fresh set of downs and a new target of ten yards.


The Offense is about to call one of three possible plays for the Pro Set formation

Scoring

Claiming all the defensive player's coins/cubes/yards means you've made it all the way down the field and scored a touchdown (worth 7 points, which assumes you made the extra point conversion with a successful kick, unless you opt for a more risky 2 point conversion). If things are looking tight and you're on fourth down and don't think you can make it, you can attempt a field goal. You get an automatic 3 points for the field goal if you're within 20 yards of the goal line, otherwise you have to correctly guess the result of a coin flip (heads or tails) for each 10 yards further away.


Scoring a 36 yard field goal with two successful coin tosses

End of Drive

At the end of a scoring drive, players switch sides, with the new player on offense needing to get all 50 yards. The exception is if a player attempts to gamble on fourth down and doesn't make it - in that case you switch sides and the field position doesn't change. Such a turnover on downs obviously can be a big advantage to the player that is now on offense, because it means they need to go less than 50 yards to get a touchdown. Each player will get three drives in total, and at that point the player with the most points is the winner.


Choosing a Defensive play

Momentum

What we haven't mentioned yet are the markers used for momentum. The player on offense gains a momentum marker whenever he gets a first down, the player on defense gets a momentum marker whenever he blocks a play. You can spend momentum at the end of a play, e.g. the offense can spend a momentum token in lieu of an incorrectly guessed coin flip, indicating that they kick the ball an extra ten yards, or spend two momentum tokens to buy an extra 5 yards on a successful trick play (marked with a yellow chevron); the defense can spend two momentum to buy a 5 yard sack on a successful block play (except with Shotgun or Quarter formations). Both players can spend three momentum to cause a down to be repeated, and the defense can spend 7 momentum for a fumble/interception, which forces an immediate change of possession.


The Defense gains a momentum marker after successfully blocking on a risky 4th and 7!

Example Play

The easiest way to explain the game is to show you an example of play. Here we have the set-up of a game, with the offensive player on the top, and defensive player on the bottom. The ball is on the 50 yard line, and the offense needs to get 50 yards for a touch down.



Let's say that the Offense decides to go with a Pro Set play, and plays this card face up. This gives three play-calling options, a long pass on the right (13 yards), a short pass on the right (8 yards), or a run down the middle (3 yards). The Defense decides to respond with a Dime formation. This will block the long pass on the right, while reducing the short pass on the right to 6 yards (= 8 minus 2), and allowing a 5 yard (= 3 plus 2) run down the middle. The card is played face down so that the Offense doesn't know what it is yet.



Now the Offense announces out loud his play-call, and the Defense reveals the card. Let's say the offensive player did opt for the long pass on his right; this would be blocked, and the defensive player would gain one momentum marker. If the offensive player had opted for a run down the middle instead, he'd gain 5 yards (3 yards + 2 yards), and thus would move 5 cents from the neutral zone to his offensive zone, thus being five yards closer to getting a first down.

CONCLUSIONS

What do I think?

Football theme, football feel: Famous First Downs does a good job of simulating a football feel. It's not a football simulation, but it's also not a game entirely disconnected from the theme. On the contrary, it captures a great deal of the thematic flavour, with players engaged in play-calling, and with game-play organized according to downs, and with yards needing to be gained. On second and long, do you go for a more risky long pass, or should you settle for less yards with several running plays? And if it's fourth and short, do you go for it, or do you settle for a field goal? Football can have a lot of intricacies, but certainly these core elements of football as a sport are present, and things like field position and making a successful scoring drive are all an important part of Famous First Downs. If you enjoy football, chances are you'll enjoy this game!

Strategic muscle, mind games: One thing I enjoy about the sport of football is the strategy - despite all the muscle and brawn, there's a lot of mind games going on, and much of the sport is about calling the right plays. Famous First Downs successfully includes this element of the game, especially in the way players call plays, and try to anticipate what their opponents might do. For example, if the offensive formation is a Full House, I know that there's only one card that blocks two of the possible three plays, and that's the outside routes, but is my opponent counting on me doing that and instead hoping to run down the center for some good yards? Should I block the center route instead, or is my opponent already anticipating me to counter his play this way, and going for an outside route after all as a double bluff? It is this kind of rock-paper-scissors mechanism and bluffing that I love about the sport, and it's a big part of what I enjoy about this game.

Small package, big plays: What's especially remarkable is that the above is accomplished with just 9 cards! For a package that small, your inclined to come in with somewhat low expectations, anticipating that game-play is going to be mediocre at best. Given the minimal number of components, Rob Bartel has done a terrific job of packing in a lot of game, and there's definitely real decisions to be made, and a lot of fun to be had. To be sure, one could also criticize the game for what it doesn't do, and a package this size is always going to have its scope and potential limited by the size. But despite this it does pack a lot of punch. Microgames sometimes have to sacrifice a great deal to squeeze into their small size, but with Famous First Downs, you really do feel that you're getting a solid game.

Skillful outguessing, not luck: Despite the fact that it's a small and straight-forward game, Famous First Downs is not really a luck-driven game, but relies almost completely on outguessing your opponent. While this can initially feel like a random guessing game, as you get to know the cards and possible matchups, you'll be able to make more informed decisions, and that's when the game really starts to shine. You rarely feel as if you're just a victim of luck, because the outcome comes down to the choices you and your opponent made for each play. There is some luck in the coin toss used for long field goal attempts, but this is thematic, and there are ways to deal with it by momentum. Speaking of momentum - this is a very solid mechanic, that gives players more options and decisions, and when used wisely it can prove very useful.

For richer, for poorer: Of the games in the Famous Sports series, this is perhaps the one that requires the most additional components. You will need to rustle up some nickels and pennies at a minimum, or else find some other tokens that you can use to substitute for them. I suppose that makes this a game for the "rich", and you will find some minor complaints about the fiddliness this can cause. Some folks have replaced the coins with standard playing cards, and I can't see any reason that wouldn't work - for us using cubes did the job just fine. Even so, it's still a very inexpensive game, and considering the amount of game and theme included here, I consider it to be excellent value.

Grand vision, great series: The games in this series might be small, but the vision that Rob Bartel has for them is grand: "We're not kidding when we call our sports card games the world's smallest. Each of our mini games consists of only 11 playing cards and is about the size of a pack of chewing gum yet delivers all the fun and rivalry you're used to seeing in a packed stadium or on a big-screen TV. Each of our titles is unique and has been expertly designed to capture the essence of the sports they depict. Thanks to their size, our World's Smallest Sports Games are also perfect travel games, capable of going places that bigger games can only dream of. Go ahead - take our mini games camping, play them in the airport, or share them with friends at your local cafe. Our goal? We want to see astronauts playing our games on the space station or the trip to Mars." Astronauts may not yet be playing Famous First Downs on the moon yet, but this and the other titles in the series are certainly outstanding contributions to the microgame and the sports genres.



Recommendation

So is Famous First Downs: The World's Smallest Football Game for you? Along with the baseball themed Famous Fastballs, Famous First Downs is easily my favourite in this wonderful series of sports themed microgames from Rob Bartel. It will especially appeal to fans of football, who will certainly enjoy the amount of theme that is packed into this tiny game, and appreciate the sense of narrative that it creates, and the game-play and tension of the action which offers a bite-sized serving of the real sport. Despite the small size, this game impresses with its sophistication, elegance, intensity, and thematic flavour, qualities that are evident also in the other games of the series.

Congratulations to Rob Bartel for accomplishing very much with very little, and for creating a game experience that is simple but rich. In the final analysis Famous First Downs offers rewarding and enjoyable game-play that defies the tiny size of the box. Football fans are sure to like this, but this is something I can recommend to any enthusiasts of microgames, particularly people who share my love for sports.

Availability: I was fortunate to get this game as a participation prize in a BGG photo contest (thank you Rob Bartel!). However you can purchase the edition pictured in this review (along with the others in the series) from the BoardGameGeek Store or get the newer edition directly from the publisher Famous Games Co.



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Chris Rogers
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This looks miles better than Famous Forehands, the tennis game from this series that you reviewed a few weeks back. I like the idea of move-countermove selection and the momentum tokens that give you a tangible bonus for correctly and repeatedly out-guessing your opponent. Maybe I should try this one out.
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The Eye wrote:
This looks miles better than Famous Forehands, the tennis game from this series that you reviewed a few weeks back. I like the idea of move-countermove selection and the momentum tokens that give you a tangible bonus for correctly and repeatedly out-guessing your opponent. Maybe I should try this one out.
Exactly Chris. While I enjoyed Famous Forehands, especially in how it cleverly implements the theme, I'd be the first to concede that it is quite plain and simple. There's just so much more going on with Famous First Downs, in terms of the decisions to make and the options for bluffing and outguessing. The momentum mechanic strengthens that even further.

I enjoyed Famous Fastballs quite a bit too, which is the baseball game in the series. Like Famous First Downs, it also relies on a bluffing/outguessing mechanic, but in a simpler/purer form, and the theme really helps carry the gameplay. The motor racing game, Famous 500, is starting to grow on me too.

But in terms of mechanics and overall gameplay, Famous First Downs is more elaborate and satisfying, and is probably the game I enjoy the most. It doesn't quite match the thematic drama of something like Pizza Box Football, but considering that gameplay only requires nine cards, it offers a lot in a small and inexpensive package.
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Contrarily to seemingly most BGG, I'm trying to find motives to prune my collection.
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I know it's probably unintentional, but having posted this on the eve of the actual football's quadrennial World Cup looks like big old taunting. whistle
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EndersGame wrote:


The important part to look at is what's at the top of the card, where we see nine different options for the offence to send the ball; each offensive card gives the offensive team three possible play-calls to make, which are marked in red along with the yards those calls will give.

this part is confusing: there are only three possible play calls. So why do you say there's "nine different options?"

Apparently, this relates to the other cards?? So why show these other options at all if these are not real possibilities for this card? Unless I am missing something.

Slightly confused..
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Rob Bartel
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Each card is divided into 3 zones: left, center, and right. Within each zone, there's the potential for a run, a short pass, and a long pass, creating a total of 9 possible slots.

Now for any given offensive card, only 3 of those 9 possible slots are available as play options. The Shotgun formation, for example, offers the three long passes as play options while the Short Yards formation offers the three runs as play options.

Does that make it clearer?
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sundaysilence wrote:
EndersGame wrote:
The important part to look at is what's at the top of the card, where we see nine different options for the offence to send the ball; each offensive card gives the offensive team three possible play-calls to make, which are marked in red along with the yards those calls will give.
this part is confusing: there are only three possible play calls. So why do you say there's "nine different options?"

Apparently, this relates to the other cards?? So why show these other options at all if these are not real possibilities for this card? Unless I am missing something.
Sorry if this wasn't worded as clearly as it could be. Perhaps it's better to say that there are nine different theoretical possibilities for where the ball can go on an offensive play. Of these nine theoretical possibilities, each offensive card only gives three options for play-calling, from which the player on offense will choose one.

So for example, pictured below is the Pro Set card. You can see the nine theoretical possibilities across the top (three on the left, three in the center, and three on the right). But with this particular formation, the offensive player will only be able to call one of three options:
● a run in the center (3 yards)
● a short pass on the right (8 yards)
● a long pass on the right (13 yards)
So from the nine theoretical possibilities, those are the only three options for play-calling with this particular offensive card.



Hopefully this, along with Rob Bartel's response, will clarify what the intent is. Does that answer your question sufficiently?
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yes both replies are completely understandable.

The only thing I think to add, is that Mr. Bartel used all nine theoretical spaces on each card so that they would line up with the nine spaces on the defensive card. The defensive card has to have all nine spaces used since among all the off. cards there are nine possibles.

I was just having a hard time trying to figure why each off. card needed nine spaces when it only used 3 of them.
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Nicolas Weiss wrote:
I know it's probably unintentional, but having posted this on the eve of the actual football's quadrennial World Cup looks like big old taunting. whistle
That certainly wasn't deliberate. I'm actually a big fan of soccer too, and in fact I posted a review of a fun soccer dice game just last week!

Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A fun light dice game for soccer fans - perfect timing for the FIFA World Cup!

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I'm late in seeing this review but did just purchase this game based upon this review. Thanks!
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