Franchise Hockey Manager
System: PC (also on Mac)
Genre: Hockey Simulator
Publisher: Out of the Park Developments
Release Date: Fall 2013
Straight from the creative minds that brought us Out of the Park Baseball comes a new sports simulator geared toward ice hockey. Franchise Hockey Manager has a similar text-based appearance to its sibling, and it comes with many of the same bells and whistles. However, it also has a fair amount of shortcomings that might be expected from a rookie effort.
At first glance, the sheer amount of options FHM has to offer is absolutely mind-boggling. From the title screen, you are able to begin as general manager for teams across the world, not just the NHL. I discovered leagues that I had never heard of, including Asia League Ice Hockey (the only such league outside of Europe and North America), four leagues in England, and a third tier Finland league. If you just want to stick with the NHL, you can play historical leagues all the way from the late 1940s to present day. It’s absurd how many options are available from the get-go.
As general manager, you have control over every aspect of your organization. You are in charge of lineups, including penalty killing, powerplay and who you want to bring in as extra attackers. You can tweak the tactics of every lineup as well, with options to change forechecking, aggressiveness and more to whatever suits your playing style. You can even train players in specific categories. There’s also an in-depth scouting system that monitors young players across the world while also providing development updates on those in your own system. Your team’s owner even checks in regularly during the season to rate your current job performance.
Stat junkies will find plenty to love, as every player has detailed information kept for every season. There are even advanced statistics that I wasn’t familiar with before starting the game. What’s great is that all of this is accessible right from the start. There is a pretty deep learning curve in terms of navigating the game’s menu system, but once you get the hang of it, the possibilities are seemingly endless.
If you prefer to micromanage every detail, you can go through and “play” each game individually. This option, which is my favorite way to play OOTP Baseball, is unfortunately a huge disappointment. Playing an individual game basically consists of watching play-by-play text slowly scroll down the screen. You can go in and mess with lineups and tactics, but you can’t physically do anything while the game is simulating. Each game, even at its max speed, can take anywhere from 15-20 minutes to finish. It’s almost entirely hands-off, making for a frustratingly dull experience. As such, the best way to play FHM is to simulate games and avoid this option entirely.
During my first season as GM, I noticed a handful of bizarre situations unfold. Coaches were fired seemingly every other day (San Jose even hired and fired two coaches in one season!), and at least a half dozen GMs got canned before the season’s halfway point. Perhaps most surprisingly, I received multiple job offers despite only having 25-30 games under my belt. When the simulation stopped to tell me I received a job offer, it was already too late — the teams had already hired someone else. Yet despite their recent hiring, the game still gave me the option to go in and negotiate a contract with them. I didn’t go through with it, so I’m not sure if I would have just stole the new guy’s job, but I found this rather peculiar.
There was also a moment in my first season where my top three goalies all became injured at the same time. My AI assistant had already called up another goalie to replace them, but I still needed to have a backup for him. The game wouldn’t let me call up anyone from my AHL squad, and it refused to let me sign a goalie off the streets even though I had enough cap room. I tried proposing a deal to another team, but they wouldn’t accept anything right away. Eventually, I had to change the position of one of my backup centers to goalie just so I could play my next game. Needless to say, my team got destroyed, and it was the beginning of the end for my once-promising season.
As mentioned earlier, there is a steep learning curve when it comes to learning the ins-and-outs of the game’s interface. While I did get the hang of it after a while, it was still far less accessible than its OOTP Baseball brethren. I feel bad for comparing it to a simulator that has been around for over ten years, but FHM could learn a thing or two in terms of its user interface. It can be difficult to maneuever throughout the myriad of screens available, and sometimes it requires more clicks than seemingly necessary. One small example: why not make the scores at the top of the screen clickable, that way they go directly to their box score? The game recaps are beautiful, but it takes more than a simple click to access them. Some minor tweaks here and there would make for a much more user-friendly interface.
When I first played FHM months ago, I had problems with the game randomly crashing, but I am happy to report that hasn’t been an issue after their latest patches. That is one significant plus in regards to this simulator — it has a dedicated development team supporting it, and it is constantly releasing patches to improve the overall experience. There is still a lot of work to be done, especially in terms of computer AI and team management (not to mention an overhaul of the play-by-play system), but it is promising that major updates are still being delivered.
There is a ton of potential within Franchise Hockey Manager, but it could have arguably used some more time in development before its initial release. It’s still very much a work in progress, and it requires a bit of patience. Hardcore hockey fans should give it a look, as it is still capable of whetting your appetite, but I would recommend downloading the free trial first. Even with its issues, I am remaining optimistic for future iterations. If anyone is capable of making a top-class hockey simulator, it is the folks at Out of the Park Developments.
(A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.)