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ncaa football 2005
madden 2005

Bowl Bound College Football 2005 Review (PC)

By Tim Martin -- Reviews Editor
Published 1/25/2006

Background Info


Gosh, it’s so hard to believe now, but does anyone remember that era in the mid 1990s when PCs were at the epicenter of gaming innovation? Clutching a Super Nintendo controller? Immature. But messing around with that Gravis PC GamePad? Cool! Well, we know how this story unfolded. As the console technology caught up, the PC market thinned. But one genre in the PC sports gaming world remains strong, perhaps even prospering: all-text simulation games that put you in the role as a general manager.

Maybe this should come as little surprise. About the same time the PC was the sports gaming hegemon, fantasy sports really took off, introducing to many diehard fans the next step in armchair quarterbacking. Not only could they badmouth a team’s general manager, they now had outlets to prove their own intellect in the form of fantasy teams where they controlled who started and when. And so, a statistical analysis renaissance was born. All-text simulation games allow the super fans yet another outlet to tailor a team to their style.

Bowl Bound College Football was released in December by Grey Dog Software, a relatively new company, but one that has a few well-respected vets working as its lead designer. Arlie Rahn, a former journalist, is the brainchild behind BBCF. Rahn had previously released three years ago, Coaching a Dynasty, a cult hit among simulation fans. The release of BBCF is unique in that most simulation games focus on professional sports or college basketball. The big names of the genre are the Front Office Football (whose engine is integrated into Madden), Out of the Park baseball and Football Manager (soccer) series. But many of the console versions nowadays utilize some of the elements that were once unique to the PC sims, such as factoring in a player’s happiness or setting ticket prices.

I may be wrong, but I have seen only two college football simulations, BBCF and Solecismic Software’s 2001 release, Front Office Football: The College Years, which was an excellent game. As I began a career as head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions, I wanted to see how the front office/managerial experience in BBCF would compare to EA Sports’ NCAA Football, a game that has a great recruiting engine and roster management touches.

Presentation/Graphics: 45
While BBCF does not have a graphics engine like Madden or NBA Live, it does have a visual design for the interface and when you choose to play a game. For those unfamiliar with all-text sims, when you play a game, you’re not only playing it, but rather only selecting the plays. For the games played, you see your formation selected and some arrows showing the direction of the run play, pass routes or defensive assignments. Unlike some simulations, the little positional logos do not move, a la an old electric football game. Oh well.

Interface/Options : 95
The interface, other than the quality of the simulation engine, is the most important facet of an all-text game. And the most important facet is navigation. Optimally, a strong interface will work like a quality Web site, meaning it has distinct section designs and the ability to sometimes go from A to D, without having to visit B and C. In that regard, BBCF does a solid job, but hits some snags. On the plus side, the game organizes your required tasks in a weekly check-list. The player cards provide everything from statistics to ability to career bests. You can access the cards just about anywhere you see their name. Overall, the navigability is painless because of the order generated from the check-list.

But the game needed some way to allow detailed comparison, whether it’s among recruits, teams or conferences. As it stands, the game makes you sort statistics on a large spreadsheet of information or statistics. That works for comparing teams within a conference or recruits of a certain position in a specified region, but otherwise it’s pretty darn clunky. I had to squint a lot. Setting depth charts, replacing injured players or scanning prospective recruits would become more efficient – and less cumbersome – if you could, say, keep a player card open on one half of the screen, while looking at another.

Unlike many of the sims, BBCF does not have an expansive list of individual season and career records. The game tracks each player’s personal bests, but overall all-time records were non-existent. This is important because statistics drive the gameplay. Especially when you play multiple seasons, it is useful to have access to records because it helps gather perspective on your accomplishments.

BBCF has little in the way of tweaking the tendencies or overall speed of the statistical engine. While the spread offense is en vogue now, the game has a noticeable lack of running quarterbacks or option offenses. For this last college season, seven of the top 100 rushers were quarterbacks, and one – Brad Smith of Missouri – ran for 1,301 yards. Also, the feature to choose not to save some statistics for the sake of speeding up simulation speed is not available.

Gameplay : 85
Perhaps one of the common criticisms fans have with the game – a lack of a substantive in-season recruiting system – may have ended up being BBCF’s biggest strength. The one gripe I had with Front Office Football: The College Years was that it felt more like a recruiting sim than a college football game. From the very first week, you had to identify recruits, woo them, invite them to games, monitor them. The games seemed secondary. Not so in BBCF. But let me divide this section into three sections: before, during and after the game.

The brilliance of the gameplay lies within the numerous week-to-week adjustments you must make. In terms of re-creating the responsibilities of a head coach, the game paints a well-rounded portrait. Most of your time gets spent managing the depth chart, tweaking game plans and making sure players stay eligible. You will probably memorize the names of all your players, from the freakishly talented quarterback to your third-string center who can never manage to stay eligible. Player morale must be monitored, otherwise talented underclassmen – especially those at the skilled positions – will leave. Do you start the offensive lineman with a strained ankle or do you play the back-up who lacks the experience and may cost you the game with a costly penalty?

Regarding the X’s and O’s, BBCF allows for an intense amount of micromanagement. You alter the playcalling by adjusting the percentage of use. All stated, you can choose from 350 total plays. Playing styles on offense and defense get picked before the season, but you can alter the emphasis (short passing, outside running, stop run, etc.) throughout the year. I enjoyed the importance of assistant coaches, who use their savvy to develop successful gameplans and call the right sequence of plays. In fact, they have just as much influence, if not more, than the head coach, i.e. you. The coaches have attribute ratings in scouting players (how accurate coaches can determine a player’s ability, meaning is that stud HB really a stud?) and developing them.

But that’s off-the-field stuff. Where the game falters is when you look closely at the game’s simulation engine and probe into the in-game experience. While final scores and season records seem to flow logically, the actual games, when looked at in detail, have an element of convenient random occurrence to them. It seems freak plays occur to cover the spread. I am all for miraculous plays and David-and-Goliath upsets, but scan the play-by-play game logs and you find some weird stuff. Powerhouse teams may pile on three or four touchdowns in the last five minutes of the game to provide the look of a blowout. An 80-yard touchdown pass with zero seconds remaining in a 42-20 game is not unusual.

Then there is the “convenient inconvenience” of player injuries. While this can be adjusted in the game options screen, I left injuries at the default level (why you can tweak knee tweaks but not passing accuracy or run defense is beyond me). In one unlucky season, I had five players go down for the season with skull fractures. Ouch!! Star players often crumble like gingerbread men the week before important match-ups. Or a root canal may sideline them for a week.

If you choose to play the game, similar “did that just happen?” moments occur. I understand that random events and upsets occur. But in the 20 or so games I have decided to play myself, I have noticed a trend of blatant choking in the final moments of games where I am not favored. Perhaps my team has Buffalo Bills syndrome, but it’s not as if my field goal kickers miss Wide Right. A typical play that occurred in numerous match-ups with Purdue is a long pass, maybe 30 or 40 yards that seems to always get called back for a holding call. Or maybe the receiver fumbles it. Or maybe he is wide open but he drops the pass.

Sour grapes? In trying to make a fair assessment, I tried to envision the gamelog for this year’s Orange Bowl, the triple overtime game between Penn State and Florida State. But even then, BBCF seemed to either protect a favored team or dispel of a potential upset too often. I am now in my 12th season of BBCF, and I see similar results every season – sometimes for my benefit, sometimes not. I would call it a trend.

But if you can align your offensive and defensive tendencies properly, you can occasionally pull an upset. Older, more experienced teams help. While teams like USC, Penn State and LSU have made a habit of starting freshmen, I enjoyed how BBCF rewards starting upperclassmen. This is done through the discipline and instincts ratings, which affect the spontaneity of play, smart decision making and the frequency of penalties.

Perhaps the most illogical part of the game engine is the poll logic. The rankings have more fluctuation than presidential poll predictions on election night. The worst part is not that teams leapfrog each other constantly, but that teams who win do not move far enough up, while squads who lose often don’t leave their high perch. The stubbornness of the polls, I believe, comes from an overemphasis on the strength of schedule and the BCS-like computer ranking systems that do not factor in when a team loses. Or to whom. That stated, my No. 6 Penn State team lost a tight 23-16 game to then No. 1-ranked Purdue (yeah one of those late fumble games), and I spiraled completely out of the Top 25 poll! Granted, it was still in the first half of the season, around week 6, but I never could gain strong footing in the polls for the rest of the year.

After the season, you can accept other school’s head coaching offers, re-shuffle your staff, look for transfers (or watch your own leave) and then recruit. The recruiting is addicting because you have a large budget – sometimes topping $100,000 per week – that allows you to scout 70, 80, 90 or more players. The system is similar to NCAA, where you choose a pitch (prestige, playing time, location, etc.) and allocate money to recruit the player. There doesn’t appear to be a rhyme or reason to who comes to your school, but maybe that is a strong depiction of real life.

In preparation for this review, I simulated through a few seasons of NCAA Football where I found the recruiting to be unexciting and easy. Too often, as a Big 10 school, I was able to bull my way past other top national programs for top recruits. Blue chippers would magically list me as their No. 1 school choice, sometimes, in the final weeks of recruiting. Not so in BBCF, where it seems you land maybe only 10% of the recruits you go after and maybe only one in three of the prospects who have very high interest. I enjoyed the constant re-adjustment of a recruiting plan, the feeling that after I whiffed on a top guy that I had to scoot even farther down the talent barrel.

But recruiting, while based on your team performance, is often predicated on alumni donations and program prestige. Recruiting comes after the season, but you choose before your first game where you want to spend scouting dollars and on what positions. And, as was the case with poll logic, the budget system seems out of whack. After each season, you are graded in a number of categories, from talent, prestige, board expectations, performance and recruiting. In one national championship-winning season where I received straight As – and an A+ overall – my budget nosedived $50,000 from the previous year. Maybe the stock market crashed – but I doubt it. In a game where money plays such an important factor (you must also spread the money into scouting other teams, team doctors and tutors), such inconsistency and a lack of financial reward for outstanding performance, dampers the gameplay.

Replay Value : 90
The game has undergone four patches in just over a month of release. The customer support has been strong, with Mr. Rahn actively providing feedback in the Grey Dog Software’s forums. BBCF has improved from its initial version, and it seems that it is a working model. Maybe some of the flaws above will be fixed.

College sports games tend to have higher potential for replay value because players constantly leave, and the need to update your team keeps gameplay fresh. In professional sports games, you can land a cornerstone player, a virtual Tim Duncan or Peyton Manning, and be set for 10 years or more. The high turnover rate makes for personnel with different strengths year in and year out, allowing for teams to have a different personality every year.

Overall : 91
It would be easy to say this is the best college football simulation ever – there has only been two after all – so it is important, to get a grasp of how good this game is, to analyze BBCF with college football games and the field of all-text games.

Compared to the field of college football games – arcade and sim – BBCF stacks up well. Front Office Football: The College Years has a better recruiting system, even if it de- emphasized the actual games. But that game did not allow you to nitpick the X’s and O’s in the same way BBCF does (you couldn’t even choose individual plays in The College Years). If you dig recruiting, I think the nod goes to The College Years, but the better overall game is BBCF. Now compared to EA’s NCAA Football – a bit of an apples and oranges comparison – the core issue would be to compare NCAA’s actual gameplay with BBCF’s sim engine. I think BBCF provides a wider variety of results, but that NCAA cheats less, even on Heisman. Perhaps that stems from the fact NCAA has game sliders to adjust some of its core flaws, where as BBCF does not. BBCF’s weak poll logic hurts in a sport that relies on the polls to dictate bowl games – and the money that fuels the program. All things equal, NCAA has a smoother presentation and delivery, but BBCF is not far behind.

The all-text games have become quite excellent in recent years. I am reviewing Sega’s Worldwide Soccer Manager 2006, a game with a rich tradition that has not been released in America until recently. Clearly, the Worldwide Soccer Manager series, more than 10 years in existence, has far more polish and depth than BBCF. The interface design is cleaner, management more seamless and the engine stronger. The early Front Office Football games, because they were so pioneering, were ahead of their time and hurdled a higher degree of difficulty. The Out of the Park baseball series, even with the sea of baseball statistics, has a more efficient design. But that stated, BBCF has made an excellent debut, bringing a game that blends a deep recruiting engine with an unparalleled breadth of team playcalling control.

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