Deep, complex simulation. Huge number of clubs to manage. Improved match engine. Hyper-detailed database, tactical options, and staff instructions.
Intimidating for newcomers. Lacks full licenses. Results can seem cruelly arbitrary on occasion. Somewhat easy-to-manipulate transfer market.
- Bottom Line
Football Manager 2018 is an engrossing, addicting experience and one of the richest simulations available. Some interest in soccer is recommended for players of this top-notch sports title and uniquely capable storytelling vehicle.
The Football Manager series is an enigma to many outside observers, but the seemingly niche appeal has grown into a borderline obsession for a large, passionate fan base. The football (or, yes, soccer) sim is an insanely detailed, text-heavy simulation of the world's most popular sport, wherein you take on the role of club manager overseeing player transfers, on-field tactics, staff instructions, and everything in between in a bid to lead your club to glory. Part tactics sim, part strategy game, part financial manager, and part talent scout, Football Manager 2018 is a PC game capabale of eliciting a wide range of emotions, and it has a surprisingly strong capacity for creating emergent narratives.
Aside from the anticipated annual roster and player updates, 2018 additions like squad dynamics make the game more immersive and fun, even if its match simulations are sure to frustrate as often as they elate. Football Manager 2018 is not only one of the best sports sims available, but one of the deepest and most rewarding video games of any kind. Football Manager 2018 lists for $49.99, though there are often deals available.
The Devil Is in the Details
The main thrust of Football Manager is simple: Create a manager avatar, choose a team, decide which players to buy or sell, and choose the tactics to make your team win. The reality is much more complex, with hundreds of smaller details and decisions making up those processes. If you're unfamiliar with the series, know that you don't control the players in a match yourself, but watch and issue directions from the sidelines. Not controlling the players 1:1 as you do in EA's FIFA and other more familiar sports titles may be an instant turn off to some looking for action-oriented play, and that's fine. Sports Interactive's series scratches an entirely different itch.
In Football Manager, you're not just a coach, but also (in the mold of more traditional managers in the sport) an almost omnipotent decision maker in all of the club's activities. Your goal is to take over a team at the start of a season and achieve whatever objectives your club's board lays out. If you decide to manage a small club, goals will be more modest—finishing in the top half of the table could be deemed a success. If you're a real underdog, simply avoiding relegation could be your aim. Should you play as one of Europe's elite clubs, you'll be expected to win or compete for the league title and Champions League. You can manage many years into the future, with the game creating fictional young players of varying talent and potential to fill the places of players who age out.
Those basic ideas are present in the career modes of games like FIFA and Madden, but the depth of detail and options in Football Manager dwarf those of the more mainstream titles. Decisions big and small, from what formation to use and how you train, to convincing a specific player to stay at your club with the right conversation options, will determine your success over years of simulation.
Daily actions include answering questions from the press, setting up training, speaking to players and staff, bidding for new players, scouting talent, petitioning your board for facilities or stadium upgrades, tweaking tactics, and of course (on game day), managing matches. In addition to the expected meetings and press conferences, events occur dynamically based on several factors. For example, a key player can pick up an injury during training on any given day. It may seem random, and sometimes it is bad luck, but how hard you set your team training, how often you rotate your starting lineup to give players rest, and that individual player's injury susceptibility all play a role.
When you advance to a day your team has a match scheduled, Football Manager switches from text-based menus with charts and graphs to a full polygonal simulation of the stadium and players. Even though you're not playing the matches yourself, Football Manager is thrilling in its own way. The decisions you make off the field build up to what happens on it—match results are where you see if you made the right calls, and ultimately where your legacy is made.
The match simulation engine looks incrementally better this year, and there are more complex animations and passing plays than in previous Football Manager games. That said, Football Manager is still a visually simple title, and much of the game is text-based, so the minimum system requirements listed on its Steam page are low. A faster processor and more RAM will save you time, as the game is very load-heavy while it simulates (it even gives you an estimated game speed based on your components), but clearing the floor isn't too hard. The official listed requirements are an Intel Pentium 4, Intel Core, or AMD Athlon CPU at 2.2GHz or higher, and at least 2GB of memory. On the graphics side, you'll need at least an Intel GMA X4500, an Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT, or an AMD Mobility Radeon HD 3650 GPU. Football Manager 2018 is available on Windows 7 and up, as well as Mac OS X.
Football Manager delivers an admittedly slow, methodical experience, and you could be forgiven for seeing a mostly text and data-based game as dull—that may well always be the case for you. It offers a satisfying loop, though, a rhythm working up to worthwhile payoff not dissimilar from the hooks in the Civilization series. You plan for a realistic long-term goal—whether that's taking your tiny club from the lower leagues up a division or winning the Champions League as one of Europe's giants—and attempt to achieve it over the course of a season or more.
If it's clear your squad won't meet objectives as the season winds down, it's time to start running through ways to improve for next year, whether through a different tactical setup or by upgrading your squad with quality player transfers. The available data set when a player starts a new save file is the same for everyone, but as soon as days begin simulating, every file increasingly and dynamically diverge. Within an in-game year, your file will look very different from another player's. After several seasons, the landscape will be dramatically and unpredictably different, which is part of Football Manager 2018's beauty.
Build Your Legacy
Football Manager is undoubtedly intimidating for newcomers, with so many options and menus presented at once, but it's not impenetrable. The in-game pop-up tips help you understand each button and menu to a decent degree, though a useful online guide or friend who knows the game can make a big difference in how quickly you learn the ropes. Many of the menus are self-explanatory and include useful tooltips, but poking around the menus to learn where your different departments and options are located takes some time. Most of your time is spent outside of matches, where the default screen includes an inbox of messages from staff members and players. The lefthand side holds a persistent bar with buttons to access your tactics, player transfers, scouting, staff, and other options.
You begin a file in preseason by default, going months without competitive matches so that you can assess your squad. During this time, you can head over to the tactics screen to pick a formation, decide how you want your team to play, and put players in their best positions. You can look over your team, see which positions you're weak in, and check which unneeded players you can earn a profit from by selling. Players can bring forth concerns that they're not playing enough if you've consistently benched them, tell you that they want to leave for a bigger team, or inform you that they're unhappy with some other matter. It's your job, through several conversation options, to convince them to stay or assuage their concerns. In player conversations, press conferences, and team pep talks, you can choose to speak in several different ways (calmly, assertively, passionately, cautiously, and aggressively). How you choose to speak impacts morale, and players react based on their feelings toward you and their own personality.
This is all, of course, provided you keep your job. Managers may wield a great deal of power, but they still answer to a club's owner and administration. Each team has a differing expectation, which their boards clearly outline at the start of the season. Hitting or exceeding expectations leads to contract extensions, and if you succeed in some goals and come close to others, you'll likely keep your job. Fail for an extended period, or have one especially poor season, and the board swings an ax or decides not renew your contract. Bigger jobs come along with success, though you'll have to find a new position or start a new file if you find yourself unemployed.
Jumping between clubs after achieving short-term success is a valid way to play—I tend to stick to one club in a file to create a dynasty with the squads I assemble, and start a new game when I want a different challenge. This is partially because I enjoy reaping the benefits of the talented computer-generated players I recruited and watching them slowly replace my original team. When I do want to switch clubs, I'd rather start from scratch with the real squad, not jump in years down the line after the AI has significantly changed the team.
Each year of Football Manager brings updated rosters that reflect reality, UI tweaks, changes to the match engine, and new features. Player attribute ratings are adjusted based on their real-world performance: Somewhat incredibly, Sports Interactive employs real scouts to watch and rate players, and shares its remarkable database with professional football clubs. Part of the fun in Football Manager, like most sports titles, is scanning the new attributes each year, seeing how your favorite (or most hated) players are rated.
The menus have been moderately redesigned this year, mostly for the better. They're generally cleaner and grouped in more intuitive ways, but the tactics screen requires several extra clicks to navigate. Although it was altered after some beta feedback, the current setup doesn't feel as efficient as it could. There are also new features, such as squad dynamics and pre-match briefs, covered in detail below. As it has been in the past, you can jump into a persistent online file with friends, which you can save like an offline game, but open up for others to join in as managers of other clubs. The game advances when you both hit continue, so it can be slow moving while everyone attends to their affairs. Still, the shared world is rewarding.
The match engine operates differently every year, with tweaks to AI behavior and decision-making, and this is probably the most divisive area of the game. Since your success is determined by on-field simulations that are out of your direct control, it's easy to feel consistently done-in by the AI if results don't go your way. The game will inevitably frustrate you, even during generally successful seasons, and I've shouted at my players' incompetence an embarrassing number of times. That said, if you can hang with it, the failure drive you to solve your team's problems on the field or in the transfer market.
I've seen a decent number of complaints from the community about the 2018 match engine, and it's not without its issues. Strikers with high finishing ratings seem to ruin one-on-ones more than they should, and crosses are very effective (with fullbacks not closing down as well as they should). That said, I've had long runs of success with multiple clubs, even after some mediocre seasons, and there seems to be consistent internal logic to it. As any fan knows, real-world football can be cruel and illogical, too. After 150 hours played, I can say it ultimately comes down to tactics—and a lot of trial and error.
The elation of your team scoring a late winner and the crushing feeling of conceding a late equalizer are both still present, caused by poor tactical decisions (or simple bad luck and the ever-present debate about whether a team can "deserve" to win a match if they fail to do so) rather than physical dexterity. Your team's actions are a manifestation of several layers of long- and short-term decisions you've made, including which players are on the field, their morale based on comments you've made, how they've been training leading up to the match, the multiple ways you've instructed them to create scoring chances, and how to react when the opposition has the ball. If your players are pushing up too high against a team with fast attackers, you'll know it when you're exposed at the back. If you trusted a young talent with a start in a big match, you'll feel just as excited when he scores the winner as if you had controlled him to do it yourself.
There are countless such examples of your decisions and instructions showing up on the field, giving you short-term joy or disappointment when you win or lose a match, and long-term satisfaction or distress when your club wins the league or fails to qualify for Europe on the last day of the season. When an especially long run of bad results crops up, you may need to go back to the drawing board and create a new tactic or formation from scratch.
The match engine may look graphically simple, but the simulation runs through a swath of factors behind the scenes that influence your players' decisions and the game flow. Tactical decisions are at first a best guess based on the players available to you, which you can then alter if you don't like what you're seeing on the field. Familiarity with the sport no doubt helps you better understand some settings off the bat, but the game has its own language to learn, too. Default attacking tactics will likely increase scoring, but you run the risk of leaving your defensive third exposed and often losing possession. If you try to play a controlled, possession-based game, you may not be able to break down defenses, and can leave yourself vulnerable to a counter. In addition to those macro-level strategies, there are more specific instructions to enact within those systems, such as playing wide or narrow, closing down or standing off opponents, or passing shorter or more directly.
Some of these instructions are a better fit for overall team philosophies (attacking, counter, etc), while others are counterintuitive when paired together and lead to disjointed play. You have to balance not only a logical tactical mix, but one that also matches the players you have at your disposal. Additionally, you can issue instructions to individual players rather than the whole team, tweaking what they do with or without the ball, what part of the field they occupy in an attempt to emphasize their strengths and minimize weaknesses. It's easy to overcomplicate your strategy and issue contradictory orders if you don't think about how the parts fit into the whole. The devil is in the details, and Football Manager really appreciates details.
By and large, this year's version is reasonable, with these tactics working as you'd expect—I didn't find myself bewildered by long runs of bad form (attacking philosophies have given me the most success in Football Manager 2018, whether managing Chelsea or tiny lower league Spanish side Real Irun). That said, in some cases it isn't clear why a tactic isn't quite bringing positive results with the players you have. After so many hours with the game, there's a certain familiarity with how some instructions should play out, but the performances occasionally don't match expectations. Perhaps you should alter something small, like individual player instructions that may be disrupting the team's flow. Maybe you should tell the team to be more expressive, operating outside the confines of your setup if inspiration strikes, or tell them to slow down after realizing a faster tempo doesn't quite align with prioritizing ball retention. Sometimes it's simply bad luck, where you dominate a match in possession and scoring chances, but you just weren't clinical enough in the final third. If that happens consistently, though, it likely says you should change something about the way your team creates chances.
Certain teams will also just match up better to your tactics than others and dominate a game even when you've been on a good run of form. Sometimes that's simply due to superior talent, but tactics play a huge role, and it can be hard to see what common opposition traits cause you trouble. Coaches offer advice before matches on what instructions or formations you may want to consider, which can sometimes prepare you for specific opposition. However, I often found these plans require you to tear up much of your system on a game-to-game basis. I have won plenty of matches using nearly the opposite of what they recommended, so I tend to ignore them on the whole. You can sift through a pile of analytics (data analysts, a new staff position last year, are much more functional in this game) if you want to get into the gritty details. Once you are comfortable with the mechanics, it's easy to determine what to ignore from your inbox.
That leads into one of the new additions, pre-match briefs. These are an extension of the more general coaching advice you receive, but come in the form of team discussions leading up to a game. You can reinforce the plan you have, or give directions to individuals that will apply specifically to the upcoming match. Perhaps, if you've nailed down a specific formation that gives your team a hard time and see the opposition is using it, you could make appropriate adjustments here without changing your default plan. It's nice in theory, and there are a few use cases, but I didn't find them very necessary. I usually set up two or three tactics to deal with different situations and switch between them accordingly, reducing the need for this feature. I eventually left pre-briefs to my assistant manager to save myself the time, and never really looked back.
Master the Transfer Market
The exact nature of pulling off player transfers and finding new talent hasn't changed significantly over the last few game editions, but tweaks every year make the process easier. You can find and assign a scout to a specific player by typing athletes' names in the top navigation bar and then have your scouts compile reports on broader groups or give you a list of players that meet certain requirements, such as age, position, and talent level. Signing better scouts and assigning them to certain leagues, nations, or regions of the world is a task in and of itself, but you can leave it up to your chief scout to save yourself the micromanagement. Through either method, scouts that spend time watching a player gain a more concrete measure of their attributes, personality, and habits. The scouting assignment and transfer center UI tweaks are particularly welcome this year. Micromanaging staff is fairly time intensive, but it pays to have the best coaches, physios, and sports scientists.
Players are rated through myriad metrics, some of which you can't even see in the game, but can be observed in a separate editor program. The most visible and important numbers are the attributes, rated on a scale from 1 to 20 across three categories: technical, mental, and physical. These include the obvious skills, such as dribbling, finishing, positioning, marking, vision, composure, pace, and stamina. Less visible are personality traits, such as professionalism, consistency, injury proneness, and others that guide how players react to training, press conference comments, and big matches.
In general, transfer values are more realistic in Football Manager 2018 than they were previously. It can be tough to land good players as a more modestly resourced club (as it should be), and even if you have money to burn, clubs hold out for some truly astronomical fees for their stars or top prospects. That said, it's not too hard to game the system after a season or two and end up with a very unlikely squad of elite players. If you manage to sell a couple of players for big fees to bolster your budget, it's not too difficult to twist the arms of other clubs into selling their players, offering more money than your given club may ever normally spend on a transfer. Structuring a big transfer with the majority of the fee paid over several years in installments and performance bonuses goes a long way to affording prices you can't pay in a lump sum up front.
The most egregious example I have is a multiplayer file I played with a friend in which I managed Borussia Dortmund—a moderately wealthy and successful club, but hardly one that splashes out on huge transfer like Europe's giants. For reference, Dortmund's real all-time record transfer fee sits just under £30m (being most familiar with Premier League fees, I play with the pound as the default currency). In just two seasons, I was able to acquire Eden Hazard (£89m), Marco Asensio (£84m), Delli Alli (£104m), Daniele Rugani (£28m), Aymeric Laporte (£56m), James Rodriguez (available for just £22m), Alex Telles (£34m), and Nelson Semedo (£25m), along with a supporting cast. My friend, also managing in the Bundesliga, was less than happy with my business. These are among the best players in the game in their positions, and while Dortmund isn't a small club, it's more than a little silly to imagine several of them making the jump—pulling Hazard from Chelsea and Asensio from Real Madrid (and having the money to do so) was particularly absurd.
Additionally, one year I had enough extra money to spend nearly £100m on regens (shorthand for the computer-generated youth players who come in to fill the game as older players age out), spending over £300m in one year with only about £150m in sales. Having the funds to afford these deals was made possible with a few shrewd moves, earning cash from players I purchased and later sold for big profits, but having that lineup at Dortmund, all on what should be prohibitively high wages is the realm of fantasy.
Of course, that's exactly what Football Manager seeks to offer, in part. Like any sports game's management mode or fantasy league, fictional sports management is often about collecting the biggest stars on one team, realism be damned. The sensation is a bit more incongruous with this series than others because of its commitment to realism in most regards, but the thrill of putting together a squad of stars against the odds remains. Plus, great players do not automatically result in wins, and Football Manager is not an easy game. In that Dortmund file, even with two consecutive Bundesliga titles under my belt, big clubs can still get the best of me with the right tactical setup, and I have yet to win the Champions League.
The added beauty of Football Manager is the breadth of clubs available to control—much of the fun centers around huge transfer deals, but none of that is possible if you decide to take over a third division Spanish side or take charge of a team in League 2. With small clubs on a shoestring budget, it becomes all about bargain deals, signing players on expired contracts, taking profits where you can find them, and maximizing results on the pitch with smart tactics. Talk of transfer coups with richer clubs aside, it can be grueling to meet objectives with more modest sides, especially in the lower leagues with virtually no budget. It's an altogether different challenge than choosing a European giant or even midtable Premier League team. If you manage to find success across five or six seasons, though, your formerly minor club may find itself making those big deals under your reign.
Sports simulations may not be the first genre that comes to mind when you think of emergent storytelling, but I'd argue they're one of the richest veins. More linear genres are at their best with tightly scripted set pieces and recorded dialogue, but simulations thrive in the unexpected. Every file plays out drastically differently, and there are nearly limitless combinations of factors at play. Your young, hot prospect could go on to become one of the best in the league, but suffer a bad injury during his first season and never quite reach his potential in someone else's game. Your tactics can fail to get the best out of your team and star striker, causing him to force a move away to a club that can offer him a chance in the top European competitions. Your academy could generate some of the best youth talent in Europe, giving you a golden generation of homegrown players (the game can literally describe your graduating academy class of generated youth players as such this year), or it can churn out mediocre youth that force you to buy from abroad. Meanwhile, in a league in another nation far away the computer is making decisions to shape the landscape. That can include a rich club becoming richer by winning and buying your players away as a result, selling a top player to a rival in your league, or building up a solid team that knocks you out of the Champions League years down the line.
These are individual, often small occurrences that read like simple facts on paper, but if you were to convey the events of your save file to a friend, you'd suddenly find yourself speaking with specific names, transfer values, and matches with such detail that they sound like real-world events. The story of your save is uniquely your own, and you build up a rapport with these digital players, get angry at those who consistently let you down, and hold grudges against clubs that always seem to give you a hard time. You could argue that these events don't earn as much emotional investment as a written story, but I've felt just as attached to my squad and entirely computer-generated players of the future as I have with prefabricated characters in other genres.
There are dozens of seen and unseen statistics and attributes influencing every event, working behind the scenes to operate the digital world. If you have friends who play the series or are part of the community, swapping stories and showing the absurdly high-potential players that come from your file with one another is a big part of the appeal. The entirely unscripted nature and sheer number of possible factors that change on every simulated day is what makes the experience so compelling. For open-world RPGs like Skyrim, player stories outside of the written campaign come from the sandbox chaos, driven by a similarly unpredictable combination of human and computer decisions. These are often much more memorable than the shared pre-written story that every player can experience. In Football Manager, those moments are delivered by sealing a mega deal, suffering a heartbreaking defeat, or overseeing a Cinderella story with its roots planted across several years. The tale of how you raised a club from obscurity to a globally recognized name—a very difficult task that will take many seasons of success—becomes the story.
All sports simulations achieve this to a degree with their career and manager modes, but Football Manager's depth makes it unrivaled for storytelling and immersion. In a testament to Football Manager's impact and believability, Dutch club PSV recently announced a player transfer with a video of signing the player in the game. The game very effectively creates a living digital world, even if it's more game-y moments poke through the illusion at times. Online games only add to the possible permutations and make for an engrossing shared world in addition to more familiar competitive spirit. There are so many examples of dynamic world-building that add to the richness of each individual tale, even if the main story is about your results on the pitch. Some fans simulate hundreds of years into the future and look back the history of league and cup winners and losers. It's fascinating to see how and why formerly big clubs sank into obscurity, or how a minnow rose to the top over decades and won multiple major trophies. On a shorter, more standard scale, it's fun to watch those changes occur alongside you as you play, and observe how the leagues have changed by, say, 2024.
The new squad dynamics system shows social cliques within the squad, and how your players feel about each other and you, adding to the immersion. Cliques form based on shared languages, ages, and time at the club, with some wielding more influence than others. It does have an impact at times and I enjoy the idea conceptually, but I found it to be something I only had to monitor passively. If you sell or upset an influential figure, others will get more upset, which affects the players' morale and willingness to stick around the club. You can usually assuage concerns with conversations, though, or have your captain talk someone down from causing a scene. Another, smaller new feature is the chance for players to come out as gay in the media, though this is rare—I have yet to see it in around 100 hours of play time. Players can also struggle to adapt to new countries, including failing to pick up the native language quickly even if you send them on an intensive training course.
The game goes as far as to model eventual Brexit scenarios, with multiple outcomes for how the UK can leave the EU, making it harder for you to sign or register players. If in your file a "hard Brexit" occurs, buying foreign players becomes difficult, forcing you to include more homegrown players in your squad. Registering squads according to real rules is granular to begin with—not a feature you'll find the vast majority of FIFA players, for example, looking for—so further complicating that with a real-world political event is fascinating. Including an element that is so removed from the sport itself and boring as a bullet point in most other contexts sums up Football Manager's commitment to realistic simulation and dynamic outcomes. Just as enjoying a fantasy RPG may require (or at least be enhanced by) an affinity for castles and dragons, Football Manager is undeniably much more appealing with a love for or interest in the sport itself.
It should be noted here that, as in past years, the lack of official licenses somewhat hurts the series. Clubs from major and more minor leagues are (almost) all included with their proper names, and you can manage teams in an impressive array of nations and divisions across the globe. However, club badges and kits are replaced with generic facsimiles with similar colors, and league iconography is not official either. These authenticity issues may not matter to everyone, but they're distracting, and one of the first things I do each year is download fan community fixes that insert the correct badges, icons, and player photos (rather than the silhouettes that appear for many of them). The process is simple and I recommend you download these fixes at the offset. Once they're loaded, it's easy to forget that the game doesn't include these assets by default.
Hard Works Pays Off
For such a dry experience on paper, Football Manager is capable of eliciting a wide array of emotions. Your team's high points will elate, and its lows will frustrate you no end, but committing for the long haul is as challenging as it is rewarding. There are multiple ways to play, which keeps it fresh over a long period of time. Because you could easily play a single file for hundreds of hours, buying the new version each year is by no means essential, but I've found enough reason to do so again and again. Year-to-year changes include the updated rosters and player ratings, as well as UI and feature tweaks. That may not be enough for some fans to purchase the new annual release if they own the previous version, while for some, it's all they need. If you have even any interest in the sport, deep sims, or both, I recommend giving it a try and sticking with the learning curve. Some knowledge or love of football goes a long way, but Football Manager 2018's complexity and depth alone are equally impressive and engrossing.
Matthew Buzzi is a Hardware Analyst at PCMag, focusing on laptops and desktops with a specialty in gaming systems and games. Matthew earned a degree in Mass Communications/Journalism and interned for a college semester at Kotaku, writing about gaming before turning it into part of his career. He spends entirely too much time on Twitter (find him @MJBuzzi), with which he has a complicated relationship. When not gaming or writing, the rest of his time is spent on the emotional rollercoasters known as Chelsea FC… More »
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- Football Manager 2018 (for PC)