The good ol' hockey game gets the sim treatment
I have seen how this year’s NHL season will end. The Los Angeles Kings will beat the New Jersey Devils in 7 games, P.K. Subban will win the Norris Trophy, Zach Parise will have an unlikely 52 goals to claim the Rocket Richard title, Joe Thorton will astound with 90 points on the season and Tukka Rask will lead goalies with a modest 2.21 GAA, just ahead of Pekka Rinne. This was my mock season as general manager of the Ottawa Senators (who were ousted in the conference finals after a string of badly timed injuries) in Franchise Hockey Manager 2014.
If your interests are at all piqued by those details, you might want to consider picking up FHM However, if you feel nothing toward any of the names or stats listed above, then the game isn’t for you. In a nutshell, that’s the review. But for anybody that’s been in a fantasy league or those absorbed in the off-ice dealings between players and their teams, FHM offers impressive depth.
As game developers, Out of the Park are mostly versed in baseball simulators, a sport with far better records of its seasons and superstars than most others. The developer[s experience shows, though, in how the game converts statistics into outcomes. At its core, FHM is just a spreadsheet and a calculator, but the level of research that has gone into it, to make it feel like a plausible team management sim, is astounding. Players can not only manage teams from minor and European leagues (or a league of their own invention), but also professional teams from past seasons—with each team member’s statistics changing depending on which of five stages of their careers that they’re in during that season. It’s possible to relive past rivalries and dynasties and change the outcomes, to hang onto Gretzky as the ‘88 Oilers, or to take back Calgary’s game 6 non-goal in the year of the red mile. The ability to measure the stats of past teams and starts is probably the most impressive aspect of FHM‘s extensive research, and one that the sport’s more avid fans will undoubtedly appreciate.
Furthermore, the game doesn’t just allow control over roster contracts and trades, but the player is also able to manage the contracts of the coaching, training, medical, and scouting staff. All of these different categories add further depth to the game, allowing the player to cut a sharper edge in building their dream team in whatever league they start it. Granted, micromanaging so many details is initially overwhelming, but If some of the minutia gets to be too much, the game gives the option for these elements to be managed automatically. Still, the fact that so much control is even available speaks to the depth of the game.
Playing through the season, the player has the chance to skip ahead several games at a time to important milestones in the season such as the trade deadline or the end of the regular season, or they can manage their team’s lineup between games or even between periods. The player can offer or demand a response to a contract or even arrange a trade during a game. If the player chooses to “watch” a game, they’re treated to a scoreboard with scrolling updates written in the style typical of an NHL television or radio commentator. It’s a nice touch that adds a bit of life to a simulation that doesn’t show any actual hockey. The option to skip games is available, and most of the time there’s not much reason to sit through the scrolling text, but it’s nice that it’s there and that there is a tangible effort put into making it enjoyable to watch.
While FHM does go deep enough down the rabbit hole for even the most obsessive fantasy hockey pool, it does not include any authentic logos for any of its over 300 teams or for any of its 19 leagues, nor does it have any profile pictures for any of the players. Granted, the astronomical costs that come with slapping a franchise logo onto anything would shut the lights off anyone smaller than EA, but it’s disappointing that the all-time greats get the same faceless “insert photo here” as the imaginary minor leaguers. It’s a forgivable disappointment, but a disappointment nonetheless.
Moreover, on more than a few occasions the invisible probability calculator will allow some pretty wonky things to happen. Some nights will see several 10 to 13 goal games, which—while technically possible—seem far rarer in an actual season of a professional league than the simulator would suggest. Finally, while the game’s depth is certainly an asset for those that want it, the amount of content provided is probably too overwhelming for most players to dive into managing a professional team. The game features a steep learning curve and little in-game help in mastering it. FHM is also as punishing as real-world fans can be: a single bad trade or failed contract extension—even a poor lineup change—can cost you a season.
That said though, there isn’t really another game that even attempts to do what FHM does so well. FHM creates a management simulator that offers total, believable depth in managing a hockey franchise. It’s not the pulse-pounding excitement that comes from watching a home team cling to an important lead, but it does recreate the long range, dynasty building work of general management. It’s a game about planning, negotiating, gambling, and the well-earned but temporary satisfaction that comes with success as well as the frustrating but never crushing disappointment that comes with underperformance.
For those that love or even that want to understand more of the background machinery that goes into a hockey season, Franchise Hockey Manager 2014 delivers more than one could hope for. For those that’d rather keep the off-ice politics off the ice, it will come across as nothing more than a series of numbers with some familiar names attached to them.