Tuesday, 2 June 2015


"He always beat me at Subbuteo, coz he flicked to kick and I didn't know"

[Yes, we all like The Undertones, just maybe not quite so much as John Peel did.]

"All I want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague away kit."

[Yes, you know Half Man Half Biscuit too, well done. Pop and gaming culture cross over more often than you'd think, eh?]

If you've ever dreamed of receiving the perfect through ball on the edge of the penalty box, taking two touches to improve the angle of your shot, and then firing the ball beyond the diving goalkeeper's outstretched arms into the corner of the net to seal Peterborough United a place in the League One play-offs - strive high, oh Icarus - then this is the game for you.

Except the ball is as big as the players (about an inch high), you're controlling it with you fingers, and the goalkeeper has permanently outstretched arms and lives at the end of a green plastic rod. Oh, yes, and all of the players are plastic. Welcome to the world of Subbuteo.

Over the decades - Subbuteo first hit the shops in 1947 - the pitch, players, and balls have undergone some changes. Much like the real game, you might say. The first pitches were army surplus blankets, on which you chalked out the lines; these days, there's a choice of materials and sizes of pitch (I have a brilliant half sized pitch with a rubber backing which means I can play on a table rather than the floor - my knees, you see, they're not what they were). The players have evolved from cardboard flats, through a variety of moulded 3D plastic players (Charles Stadden, better known for his military models, sculpted one of the classic designs), and the latest incarnation sees them sporting a variety of likely and unlikely hairstyles, and well as a welcomed mix of ethnicities. That said, I've not seen any ginger players yet, so your Gordon Strachan fantasies will have to remain in your head. Even the rounded bases on which the players are mounted, allowing them to glide across the pitch, come in a variety of shapes and weights these days.

Game play is pretty simple: flick your players, by their shiny round bases, to 'kick' the ball. Keep doing this until you a) score, b) the ball goes out of play, c) the ball hits an opponent, d) you cause a foul, or e) you miss the ball. When any of those occur, your opponent gets to play. Add in the concept of your opponent making 'defensive flicks', to position their players or block you, and the rule that a player cannot kick the ball more than three times in a row, and you have the essence of the game.

Competitive leagues and cup competitions have sprung up, top players have insured their fingers, and I once managed to tread on Kenny Dalglish when I was hiding from the milkman on money collection day. Most chaps - and the rather more sensible type of lady - who grew up from the 1950s to 1980s will probably have their own Subbuteo tale to tell. The games stick in your mind for years afterwards - and that's the sign of a good game.

Conclusion: Subbuteo is precisely what un-PC gaming is all about. Yes, you could play a game of football on a computer or games console, with stunning graphics, opponents from across the globe, and countless special moves… but compared to flicking an inch-high ball a distance of four feet in 12 consecutive moves, and then planting that inch-high ball into a goal no more than 6 inches wide, electrical assistance means NOTHING!