“Football is more and more like a game of chess,” Alex Ferguson once said in a 2009 interview. “In chess, if you lose your concentration for a second you’re dead.”

Obviously he was speaking metaphorically – chess-based fatalities are extremely rare – but his point is an important one: when it’s played to a high-level football is never a mindless kickabout, but a game of tactics that requires intense focus. That’s the concept behind Soccer, Tactics & Glory (or, if you're outside of North America, Football, Tactics & Glory), which offers a turn-based take on good old 'soccerball', one where reflection is more important than reaction. It’s a bold idea (if you pretend Inazuma Eleven doesn’t exist) but it actually works better than you'd expect.

You begin in the lowest league of your country of choice (there are 52 to choose from), managing either a brand new team you can create from scratch or one of the pre-existing clubs. If you go for the latter, your team will be punted down from its default position to the very bottom of the league setup, Glasgow Rangers-style, with the game explaining it as the result of some nondescript scandal.

As a result, regardless of whether your team is new or existing, the mission is the same: start off with a team of no-hopers and work your way up all the leagues until you finally start putting some silverware in the trophy cabinets. If you can’t stand the humility, there’s also a ‘sandbox mode’ which keeps your team where it is, letting you start at the top tier should you wish.

At first glance, everything looks like your typical football management sim. You can buy and sell players, plan your formation, study player stats to see who’s best for each role and send out scouts to find the best players to sign. Once you get onto the pitch, though, everything changes. Rather than simply sitting back and watching them play out as in most other manager games, in Soccer, Tactics & Glory, you’re in charge of literally every step your players make, via a turn-based strategy mechanic.

Each turn gives you three moves, and you can use them however you see fit, such as moving a player around (each can only travel a certain distance, in classic RTS style), tackling, attempting a pass or dribble, or taking a shot on goal. If you don’t score a goal within those three turns, the other team takes over and gets three turns of their own. This continues until one team scores or the half ends (i.e. a set number of turns are played).

The central mechanic that drives all of this is based on dice-rolling. Each player has a host of different numerical stats that cover each situation, which are also influenced by things like their fatigue, their mood, the weather and the like. Any time you carry out anything other than a simple run or passing move, these numbers are taken into account as ‘dice rolls’; random number generation, in other words.

For example, if you want one of your defenders to tackle a player with the ball, for that particular scenario your player’s stat may be 32 and theirs may be 14. When you attempt the tackle, each player will generate a random number (no higher than their stat) and whoever gets the highest number wins that battle. Since your player can roll a higher number you have more chance of winning (if you roll 20 vs 8, for example), but it also means if you’re unlucky they can still win if, say, you roll a 7 and they get a 12.

The great thing about this system is that things actually play out a lot like they would in real football. A team with generally better stats will usually beat lesser teams (as should be the case), but if they have some particularly bad luck when it comes to dice rolls, then a giant-killing is always possible in any given match. The result of all this is an oddly compelling game that can demolish your free time if you aren’t careful. On the night we started playing it for this review, we ended up glued to it for something like five hours straight, because it has that elusive ‘one more go’ feeling so many of the best games do.

The more you play Soccer, Tactics & Glory, though, the more its issues start to surface. This is by no means a perfect game and there are plenty of areas where it could be improved. For starters, the matches are just too short. The default game length is 48 ‘actions’, and since each turn generally consists of three actions, that means each team only gets eight turns; that’s rarely enough to build up some good momentum, and you may see a lot of 0-0 draws as a result.

Before you start your career you have the option to turn this up to 90 actions, but it’s still a little on the brief side. Many matches – especially those in lower leagues – can be fairly even affairs and so there can be some back-and-forth before the numbers roll your way and you get a lucky break. Often, though, the time taken to reach this point means you’ll regularly find yourself inching your way to the opponent’s box only for the half-time or full-time whistle to blow because you’re out of turns.

Another major annoyance with Soccer, Tactics & Glory is the complete lack of anything approaching real player names. Obviously, most football games that aren’t FIFA have to put up with fake names, and team names are close enough to at least let you figure out who they are; Celtic and Rangers are Glasgow and Glasgow Old, for example, while Man City and Man United are Manchester and Stretford respectively. If that isn’t good enough for you, all the team names can easily be edited at any point in the game, as can their kits and logos (using a basic logo editor).

All the players, however, are completely random and generic characters who are in no way identifiable. Forget your Van Dijks and Salahs; this Liverpool team’s squad has the likes of Hornblower, Mills, Churchfield and Pepperell playing for it instead. This can make it incredibly difficult at first to figure out formations and the like, because rather than having players you’re familiar with you’re instead glued to their stats, which on the squad screen are basic enough to have you simply looking to see which defenders have the best ‘defence’ stat.

It also obviously makes player transfers less enjoyable because when you haven’t heard of anyone in the game all you’re really doing is hunting for random players whose numbers are bigger than the numbers of the ones you already have. Not that there’s much to it: the transfer process is far too simplistic here.

All you do is assign a scout to an area and they’ll list you some random players – as few as five when you’re in the lower leagues – along with their values; if there’s any you like you can choose them and buy them there and then. No negotiations, no salary quibbles, not even the ability (that we could see) to bid on a specific player. If you’re looking for a new striker, you’d better hope that one of the players your scout chose is both a striker and good enough for your team.

This all combines to make for a game that often feels like it had its beginnings as a mobile title, even though in reality that’s not the case (which is a shame, because it’s also crying out for touchscreen support, which it doesn’t have). Instead, it was originally a PC game, as is clear by the screen in the Switch version that awkwardly asks you to leave a review on Steam. Ahem.

That PC version has mod support, which instantly fixes the issues with fake player names, but naturally, the Switch port doesn’t have any support for user-created content. As such, you either have to deal with the default generic names or will have to spend an eternity editing everything yourself. The fact that the Switch version of Soccer, Tactics & Glory is notably more expensive than the Steam one makes the pill even more bitter to swallow.

Conclusion

At its core, this is a clever take on football with a genuinely entertaining turn-based system, and if you aren’t careful you could spend countless hours working your way up the leagues. That said, its short matches always leave you wanting more (and not in a good way), and the completely random player names make it feel like you’re paying a premium price for a clearly low budget title. It’s the Sheffield United of football management games; ugly to watch and completely lacking in any flair, but effective enough to get results.