It makes so much sense. You have a license to print pictures of NFL players on playing cards. Why not take the step to add some numbers, a text box, and a rule system to make a game? Panini is one of the few companies poised to try to make a successful sports tabletop game using real-life, non-fantastical characters. I have the privilege of getting an early look at this game, and I’m excited to share my initial takes with you.
NFL Five: Positives
At a glance:
- Feels like football
- Minor mechanical details that work
- Rarities matter
- Draftable game
- Strong deck construction potential
- Future sets
Let’s start things out on a positive footing. The game feels like football. This was an important note to hit since the game is looking to draw typical TCG players as well as become a gateway table top game for the average football fan. A lot of table top card games can feel all too similar. NFL Five’s system cuts out several TCG tropes to form a more unique experience. The biggest thing to point out here is that cards have no cost. While each play, typically, takes 1 time unit off of the clock, you don’t have to spend extra time to game additional yards, nor do you have to keep track of an energy system. Instead of a more typical cost or energy system, NFL Five has players select effects they would like to have happen and then determine if their effect is successful or not. This approach may take some players a moment to catch onto, but, with the other administrative tasks included in playing, it is a pretty clean approach to a sports card game.
NFL Five also cuts down on the number of card types compared to several other games. More card types certainly can add to a game’s complexity, but it may not have a positive effect on the game’s depth and general enjoy-ability. This game consists of Player Cards, Play Cards, and Action Cards. The latter two each get their own deck and have specific instances in which you draw from them. This creates a nice balance in your hand since you know that you will always have various plays to choose from and at least two Action Cards to potentially bolster your strategy.
I would like to touch base on a few mechanical details which really shine in the game’s system. First, Grit Value–which is a way to determine the success or failure of certain specific football effects on offense or defense throughout the game (usually started through playing an Action Card, i.e. Sack). The success or failure of a field goal or the yardage of a punted ball are also determined by Grit Value (see the rulebook for specifics). Without Grit Value, NFL Five would have needed to have clunky conditional effects to see when and if a field goal, sack, or interception actually occurred.
Another mechanical success is Play Strength. This quick mathematical analysis of the Offensive and Defensive plays allows a simple approach to see if a pass was completed or how many yards a runner gobbled up before being tackled. While actually playing, I found the calculation to be very easy to do on the fly. While it feels great to steal away with a 45 yard run, it’s also nice to see things balance out with the difficulty of many Long Passes being very specific.
Lastly, I want to talk about the use of the time clock in NFL Five. By breaking up the game into a number of time units, players have no restrictions on the number of drives they can have–so long as there is enough time on the clock. Plays having a time cost makes sense to me, and I look forward to forward sets expanding on clock management.
I’ll make this point brief. Rarities really matter. While drafting, a legitimate strategy will arise of initially just taking the rarest card in the pack. From the pictures above, you can see how these running backs advance in efficiency as the rarity of the card progresses. With only 4 downs to score, gaining additional yardage from your Players’ abilities can make the difference between points on the board and a turnover.
As a draftable game, cards of all rarities should be playable to an extent, but I think Panini did a great job of making low rarity cards more conditional and higher rarity cards more efficient. Drafting strategies vary based on play style. Players need to decide if they’re drafting based on pure value/rarity, focusing on Defense or Offense, or just selecting some of their favorite NFL players to have a good time with.
Draft is an excellent format for newer players. It can quickly even out the playing field to have more decks be on an even level. As tournaments pop up for NFL Five, attending draft events can be a great way to build up your collection, too.
Future sets could add a lot more depth to this game. Set 1 has several players with very similar effects. On the NFL Five discord, designer Brian Fahmie has hinted that future sets will continue adding to the complexity and depth of the game, including having Play cards with a strength of X.
NFL Five: Concerns
At a glance:
- Administration of the game
- Panini’s Resurgence
The best way to start playing this game is to pick up a starter deck and some boosters to improve the deck. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a starter deck, it will be extremely challenging for you to set up the administrative elements of NFL Five. With the starter you receive a game mat and punch-put cardboard tokens for keeping track of the spot of the ball, timeouts, the score, the number of downs, and the time remaining in each half.
Even with the starter deck, this administration can be cumbersome. The entire game can be effected if the ball is spotted incorrectly, the time clock is mis-managed, or any other malfunction in the organization of the fragile tokens. It seems to me that a lot of the tasks that must be monitored on the game mat could be easily automated by an app. Having an app would certainly clean up the game space and allow players to focus more on their decision making.
While designing my own football card game over the past several years deciding how to keep track of and manage yardage, downs, special teams operations, and turnovers were some of the most challenging hurdles. For the most part, NFL Five does a pretty smooth job with these functions. The current state of the meta has the game flowing fairly quickly. However, that speed often comes at a cost of players not feeling like they have much say, in the form of interactive options, from play to play. Many of the plays are very similar right now, and the starter decks have a pretty limited approach to what they can do offensively. As I get more constructed games under my belt, I hope to see more options for interaction on each play.
I really hope that higher quality game mats and tokens quickly become part of Organized Play prizing. Additionally, I hope the game gets popular enough to have some usable secondary market options that are compatible with NFL Five. I’ve always disliked playing with crunchy starter deck game mats, but, with NFL Five, you don’t have any other option.
The origin of Panini Games was a godsend to DBZ fans everywhere as the Score engine that so many loved was brought back to life. PanZ revived the love of table top gaming for myself and countless others. The way that DBZ was taken from Panini’s hands felt like a kind of betrayal. So many of us felt as if we had just received a swift blow to the gut, it was devastating.
Panini has taken two shots with original games as well: Afterworld and Meta X. Each had their own merits, and in a different time of production, each could have really been successful. However, neither was able to successfully break through with mass-market appeal. At this time, both of these games seem to still be on Panini’s radar for potential future re-launches, but both have also suffered from a lack of aggressive marketing into the saturated world of table top games.
With a healthy level of skepticism in one hand, I could really see NFL Five being a different story. The rumblings of Panini Games Division employees being a little hamstrung from higher-ups in regards to marketing/Organized Play plans, strategies, and budgets seem plausibly true, but this time the game features a license already near and dear to Panini’s hearts: the NFL. Promotional prizes should be easy to come by. The marketing team will already be familiar with the players instead of it being a foreign concept like an anime or superhero universe. Maybe, just maybe, the entire team at Panini could get behind this game and take Panini Games to a level closer to the FFGs of the world as a company who can support and produce top-grossing games.
Those are my main objective concerns with the game. Some of my other concerns I am going to hold off from publishing because they are more opinion-based on what I love about games. Other people may reasonably disagree, and I could be wrong about NFL Five not having these features due to my limited play experience with the game.
I am excited to keep giving the game a shot, especially a few constructed games with the lord of darkness himself, Legendary Tom Brady.
I’ll be back soon with even more thoughts on NFL Five. If you get the opportunity, give the game a shot for yourself. I for one cannot wait to build a steel wall of a defense.
See you on the gridiron,
Tommy, undefeated Powder Puff Football Coach