It’s One Louder – An Eleven: Football Manager Board Game Review

I call St. Louis home. It’s a large city straddling the border between the East and West United States. It’s also known as America’s first soccer capital. Immigrants brought the sport to the area over a hundred years ago, and the passion persists. We grow up playing it and then we teach it to our children. Many professional and national players have emerged from our Italian neighborhood known as The Hill.

It’s a special time. The air is electric. After years of pining, we’ve finally received a Major League Soccer team. They’re 2-0 in the inaugural season. I’m striking up conversations with people I’ve never met before, and our commonality is St. Louis SC. Everyone is talking about them.

The hum reminds me of the fall of 2021. This is when Portal Games launched the Gamefound crowdfunding project for Eleven: Football Manager Board Game. It created a rumble in online communities and united a wide group of enthusiasts who hoped to bear witness to tabletop’s first mainstream hobbyist soccer title. There was both excitement and trepidation about this commercial evolution of the successful indie hit Club Stories. Now, with hindsight, I contend this uproar was deserved, as Eleven is a wonderful game that overcomes some haphazard execution to produce a design that falls just short of brilliant.

There’s something you must know about Eleven. This is not an up-tempo frenetic experience like Techno Bowl. It’s not a detailed simulation like Race! Formula 90. It’s something else. It’s a managerial game. It puts you in a well-cushioned leather seat, your presence inhabiting the warm amalgamized golem of club owner, president, and manager. Then it hurls balls at your head, stomps on your toes, and delivers a nutmeg to your nutmeg.

In business, the vast majority of time spent by management is centered around putting out fires. They deal with nonstop problems, little separating them from a janitor besides a suit and the sizable pay gap. This is Eleven.

Even playing the game is adhering to a schedule. Each round consists of a week of duty. You walk through the door on Monday, drowning your wisps of slumber with gallons of coffee. And what are you greeted with? Mo problems. Like clockwork.

Here’s the thing, solving issues can be surprisingly delightful. In Eleven, these weekly dilemmas manifest functionally as an event card draw. Each player pulls their own unique Monday morning gut punch and then rolls with the pain. Don’t fret, this is far more exciting than cleaning out your overflowing inbox.

You’re presented with a narrative quip that is often humorous and interesting. Maybe all of your jerseys were delivered but they’re the wrong size. You can send them back and eat the cost or force your talent to wear them and suffer the consequences. Better yet, perhaps one of your star players is creating a ruckus and you have the option to loan them out to another club. Does skill trump chemistry and morale? Or, maybe the stadium’s plumbing is decaying faster than your team’s credibility and you have the option to pump money into the frayed infrastructure or save the resources for more prudent team investments.

The clever bit of these event cards is that they encapsulate the extended design philosophy of the whole, presenting Thomas Jansen’s ideals up front with complete clarity.

Firstly, you don’t get to actually decide the solution to the issue. Instead, your club’s board meets and throws their weight around. You toss dice to simulate their sloshy whims, the outcome of a single roll translating to votes based on a director’s individual approach.

This is sort of wild and neat. It captures the personality of your board members succinctly. Certain executives will more often side with resolutions that favor player development and performance. Others will lean towards making the fans happy. The Frank Cross’ of the bunch place profit above all else.

It’s not entirely outside your reach as you draft these board members before play begins, but you’re never given direct authority. Instead, you’re kept subservient to their wishes, tossed under the metaphorical bus and forced to deal with the fallout. It’s sort of beautiful, at least from a less cynical perspective.

The randomized outcomes usually adjust resources or place a new permanent rule into effect. They can be painful, but occasionally you will benefit big time as the process of play is reshaped. This is a microcosm of Eleven’s emotional undercurrent as buoyed by resource management. Mechanically, this is very much an economic game. You carefully spend money with your daily actions to upgrade your stadium, secure new staff, and acquire players. It’s not overly tight, but your eyes are bigger than your bank account and you want it all.

In addition to raw money, you must juggle several other resources which are used to re-roll dice, accomplish additional daily actions, and suit players up for matchday. It’s not an overly complex system, but it does require thought, skillful conversion, and shrewd decision-making.

This counting of beans is not bare. It’s blanketed heavily with wonderful narrative. You’re not spending money to boost player strength, you’re acquiring a new training facility and enacting a fresh strength regimen. It’s the evocative punch captured by the board meeting, and it’s an approach and spirit that is carried through the rest of the design.

For instance, the end of the week culminates in matchday. You square off against a game-controlled opponent by deploying your team’s formation and hoping for the best. Your creativity is somewhat limited by only a couple of formation options, and the structure of match resolution itself requires certain positions of the field be occupied. After setting your players up on the pitch, you flip the opponent’s card and then compare zones of opposing players to determine if goals are scored or not.

It’s actually a surprisingly clever system. It strikes a strong balance between providing strategic decisions related to player management while remaining relatively concise and occupying just a corner of the overall pool of victory points. Much, however, is outside of your control as you hope for effective deployment.

But it’s not entirely random or reliant on intuition. On the back of your opponent’s card is a scouting report. I love this little thematic touch. It offers a couple of sentences with hints of how your adversary may approach the match. Imagine the ditty, “Their team is young and hungry this year. They often overload the right wing while placing their star player up the middle.” That’s something to chew on.

It’s often a relatively open hint, drawing comparisons to narrative games which offer branching decisions and only a clue of what may lie beyond. This is a tricky thing to balance, as you don’t want to provide information that is too transparent, but you also want a solid lead that is actionable. Eleven nails this.

The match system also produces outcomes that are full of story. In one play, my salty veteran that was injured in the previous match stormed back onto the field and won the whole thing with a crucial goal. But the victory was only by a hair, as my star goalie was able to plug the gap in a failed defensive scheme that allowed my opponent to terrorize the midfield. Then all of this flows back into the league standings and your overall team picture, functioning as a decisive episode in the overall season narrative.

This flow between different sections of the game forms a greater cohesion. It’s almost as if all the facets of play – the front office, advertisements, directors, training personnel, the roster – they form one large expansive tableau. The goal is to build synergies across these different vectors, much like any other engine builder. It’s an interesting experiment when viewed through this lens.

It’s not a sloppy product, but the occasional typo or inconsistency is present.

One of the quirks of this game is in the quality of isolation residing over everything. This is again echoed in that Monday morning board room event as each player draws their own card and performs the entirety of resolution in quiet. That process could describe nearly every single phase of the game. There is no interaction between participants beyond taking turns drafting players and trainers from a public market. All matches are against game-controlled opponents and even the league standings feel less firm and more abstract due to the awkward co-existence of isolated teams in a shared league.

Table space is additionally an issue with multiple participants. It’s a bit of a hog in general, requiring a large central area for all of the market decks in addition to multiple individual player boards. Despite the complete lack of miniatures, it occupies a physical space roughly equivalent to the most sprawling of crowdfunding plastic designs.

Another issue is that the multiplayer game drags. It will take several hours with a full complement of four and Eleven simply doesn’t warrant that amount of attention. It’s clear, from the ground up, this is very much a solitaire game built upon the bones of its predecessor, Club Stories. It’s a more brisk and focused experience when played in this format. The narrative perspective is more strongly aligned and your team is given the spotlight. Also, you get to use the exceptional scenarios.

Much like Robinson Crusoe, Eleven offers several scenarios with tailored narrative and mechanical setups. This includes situations such as fielding a weak team of youngsters while trying to avoid relegation. Or competing head-to-head against a specific rival club. This format is superb. The scenario offers a framework to contextualize play and it ties together a greater story. It’s as if you’re playing through a season of Ted Lasso and it works admirably. It’s unfortunate that these scenarios don’t apply to multiplayer sessions, but it’s the clear indicator that Eleven is best experienced as a game for one.

The most glaring wart is also less pronounced in solitaire play. I am speaking of a systemic problem with the match resolution that is borderline game breaking. It’s difficult to ascertain how significant this issue is, as you can choose to turn a blind eye, but it’s most accurately compared to the dreaded Halifax Hammer in Martin Wallace’s A Few Acres of Snow.

Not to spoil the secret, but the issue is that offense outright trumps defense. With just a little bit of advanced stat computation it’s easy to see that always seeking out offensive recruits will result in greater success on match day. The math has been broken down and discussed elsewhere online, and there’s no refuting it. The degree to which this harms overall play is debatable, however, for several factors. For one, offensive players are not always available. Additionally, you can choose to avoid over-recruiting such players and seek a more balanced deployment. Finally, a large portion of your victory points will be determined outside of the pitch and in your management offices. Again, this is an economic game and not one focused on football simulation.

This issue is of course more marked in multiplayer sessions because it’s difficult to avoid successful strategies voluntarily as a matter of principle. Thankfully, Eleven is best served as a solo design for all of those various reasons and therefore this flaw is rendered less than fatal.

I began this review discussing the local passion for soccer and the culture I live in. What I held back was the fact that I’m not really a big fan of this sport. I played it as a child, but my heart long ago transitioned to ice hockey. Yet, this hasn’t diminished my connection to Eleven.

I do think there is a natural allure for those who enjoy the general concept of sports team management. It forms the perfect motif for an economic system, integrating a thrilling and multi-faceted narrative alongside the more cognitively challenging aspects of play. It all comes together rather well, even transcending that aforementioned mechanical failing.

This is also one of the strongest bids in Portal’s catalog of fulfilling their promise of “Board Games That Tell Stories.” Yes, it boasts a poor rulebook, another common characteristic attributed to the publisher, but it manages to come through on the self-professed identity in a way that I haven’t seen since Robinson Crusoe. This is a worthy objective – weaving together Euro-style concepts with expressive narrative to create memorable sessions. Eleven does just this, providing engaging stories full of flourishes such as struggling for sponsors, developing players, and witnessing the development and evolution of a football club under your influence, even if there’s a large cloud of chaos looming over each decision.


A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

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  10 comments for “It’s One Louder – An Eleven: Football Manager Board Game Review

  1. cdennett
    March 6, 2023 at 8:31 am

    Oh man, I was all ready to ask you how you could be a soccer fan when you already were into hockey, a superior spectator sport in every possible way, and then the turnaround at the end… I too played soccer as a kid, but you can’t force me to watch a game these days.


    • March 6, 2023 at 8:59 am

      Yeah, I don’t mind soccer and I’m tangentially following the team because everyone is into it, but I’m a die hard hockey fan.


      • Marc
        March 6, 2023 at 11:01 pm

        Hockey fans already have a realistic management game…

        Liked by 1 person

        • cdennett
          March 7, 2023 at 10:18 am

          Google image search to the rescue, may have to track me down a copy…


          • Marc
            March 7, 2023 at 10:29 am

            Really fun, but runs a bit long for what it is. I suggest starting everyone on two or three wins.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Marc
    March 6, 2023 at 10:53 pm

    I’m no soccer fan, but there was a really fun soccer deckbuilder on iOS called Football Seasons. As this review says, it was sort of similar to Blood Bowl Team Manager, but there was much more turnover in your deck.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. March 11, 2023 at 12:28 am

    Soccer AND St. Louis? Now you’re actively trying to ingratiate yourself with me šŸ˜‰
    A former St. Louisan

    Liked by 1 person

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