Hand-Off Game Review

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The Basics:

  • For ages 10 and up
  • For 1, 2, or 4 players
  • Approximately 45 minutes to complete

Geek Skills:

  • Active Listening & Communication
  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading
  • Pattern/Color Matching
  • Strategy & Tactics
  • Risk vs. Reward
  • Cooperative & Team Play
  • Hand/Resource Management

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Moderate
  • Adult – Easy

Theme & Narrative:

  • Coach your football team to win the big game!

Endorsements:

  • Gamer Geek approved!
  • Parent Geek mixed!
  • Child Geek rejected!

Overview

When it comes to favorite seasonal sports, football is often at the top of many people’s lists. It’s a game where stats and names are thrown back and forth at social gatherings like so many pigskins flying through the air. It’s an event that brings friends, family, and communities together. For some, it’s not a sport at all; it’s a religion. Football is shown on television screens across America, and for those who enjoy a good dice, card, or board game, football can be played at the kitchen table, too.

Hand-Off, designed and published by CSE Games, is comprised of 1 game board, 54 playing cards, 10 Team cards, 1 Referee marker, 1 Football marker, 1 standard twelve-sided die, 1 Chart/Result card (double-sided), and 1 Score pad. The game board is mounted on solid cardboard and the cards are as thick as your standard playing card. Not included with the game, but necessary to play, is a pen or pencil to keep track of players’ scores.

One Game, Different Teams

Hand-Off currently comes in 2 different packages: LSU Tigers and Florida Gators. The game is the same, regardless of which team you want on your game box. The only notable differences is the artwork on the playing cards, Team cards, and game board. Everything else, from the game rules to the text on the playing cards, is the same. I mention it only because I’ve heard some refer to the two different versions of the game as different games entirely.

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Pregame Show

Note: The game is best played with 2 players, in my opinion. I’ll discuss the solitaire and team play variants later in the game review. The game set up described here is for a 2-player game.

To set up the game, first set the game board in between the players. Players should site across from each other and behind the goal lines on the game board.

Second, place the Football, Referee, and Chart/Result card to one side of the game board. These will be used during the game, but not yet.

Third, each player rolls the twelve-sided die. The player who rolls the highest number wins what is essentially a coin toss. The winning player gets to decide if they want to kick-off or receive. They also get to decide if they want to be the Home or Away team.

Fourth, shuffle the deck of playing cards and deal to each player 5 cards, face-down. Players should look at their cards but keep them hidden from their opponent until played. Place the remaining cards face-down to one side of the game board. This is the draw deck for the duration of the game.

Fifth, each player can select a Team card. Depending on what football team version of Hand-Off you have available, these will either be LSU Tigers or Florida Gators. No other teams are available, but you do get to pick the year in which the team played. For our football buffs, this was exceedingly important. For everyone else, not even remotely a concern. The Team cards are used during the game to trigger special wins, but the stats on the card are there only for historical purposes.

That’s it for game set up. Let’s play some football!

It’s All About the Cards

Hand-Off is completely driven by the player cards. Each player card has your standard card suit (Ace of Clubs, for example) which is used to determine which player has the stronger hand during game play. But the playing card is so much more than suits and ranks.

Included on each playing card are Offensive and Defensive plays. Each card also has Special Team plays. For example, kick-offs, kick returns, field goal kicks, and additional points after a touch down. Players will want to pay very close attention to these values and descriptions during the game, but not all of them. If the player is acting as Offense, they will only be using the Offense play. The same goes for the player acting as Defense and the special teams are only triggered when the game calls for it.

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Kick-Off

Note: There are a great many football terms used in Hand-Off that are going to confuse a player who is no familiar with the game. At the very least, a player only needs to know that their one and only objective when they have control of the ball is to move it down the field as quickly as possible until they score a touchdown. For the player who doesn’t have the football, they only need to stop the player from scoring. And that’s it. How players go about doing that is the proverbial devil in the details. In a player’s hand is the team’s playbook. Using it, players must devise a strategy to move the ball down the field or stop it from moving completely.

Before kicking off, place the Referee token on the kicking team’s 35 yard marker noted on the game board. This signifies the location of the football on the playing field before it’s kicked.

First, the player who is kicking selects a card from their hand and places it face-up in their “First Down” box on the game board. The Referee token is moved down the field towards the opponent’s goal line where the playing card’s kick-off (KO) distance states. This value is noted in the card’s “Special Teams” box as the “KO” value.

Now the player who is receiving the kick plays 1 card from their hand and places it in their “First Down” box on the game board, face-up. The Referee token is moved down the field towards the opponents’ goal line (back in the direction where it started) a number of yards equal to the playing card’s kick-off/punt return (KICK RET) value. This value is also noted in the card’s “Special Teams” box.

Both players now take their played cards and place them face-up next to the draw deck to create a discard pile. Each player also draws a new card to bring their hand back up to 5 cards.

Finally, replace the Referee marker with the Football marker to show the line of scrimmage. Place the Referee marker 10 yards toward’s the opponent’s goal line.

First and Ten

Note: What follows is a game play description that falls somewhere between the quick-start instructions and the game’s official rule book. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this game is “complicated”, but it’s awfully involved. A lot of time and attention has been put into this game to mimic all the ups and downs, the many close calls and near misses, and the incredible plays and horrible calls that happen in a real football game. You cannot summarize that and do the game justice.

After the kick-off, the game enters its next phase. The player who has possession of the ball says “Hut” and both players place 1 card from their hand face-up. If either player wants to place a second card, they may, by placing it on top of the first card they placed. This continues until both players have stopped playing cards from their hand.

In all cases, the player who has the better hand wins. The different possible hands are as follows, from weakest to strongest plays. Note that when the term “top-most card” is used, it means the last card played by the player. The cards played, as well as the order in which they were played to the table, is very important in this game.

Normal Hands

  • Singe-Card: If both players have played a single card, the high card wins and the appropriate action is taken based on the winning card.
  • Pair: The high card in the pair (Ace being highest) wins and the appropriate action is taken based on the top-most winning card placed.
  • Two Pair: The high card in the two pair wins and the appropriate action is taken based on the top-most winning card placed.
  • Three-of-a-Kind: The high card in the three-of-a-kind wins and the appropriate action is taken based on the top-most winning card placed.

When the player wins, they read the “Offense” or “Defense” section on their card, depending on what their current role in the game is. This could be anything from fumbling the ball to making a stellar pass. If you’ve seen it in a real game of football, it’s listed on the cards. But because the cards are different, each player will have to not only consider what cards they want to play, but in what order they want to play them. For example, you might have 3 “Queens” you want to play for a winning Three-of-Kind, but the last Queen played will determine what the play is.

Players can also attempt to create special power hands during the game. Power hands are much more difficult to create, but provide a tremendous bonus that could be a game changer if the player is attempting something specific. The different possible power hands are as follows, from weakest to strongest plays. Note that the weakest power hand always beats any normal hand.

Straight, Flush, or Full House

  • Offensive: Gain 50 yards
  • Defensive: Automatic turnover, then draw 1 card and read the Return under the “Special Teams” section
  • Field Goal: Automatic success
  • Point After Touchdown: Automatic success
  • Kick-Off Return/Punt Return: Gain 50 yard return
  • Punt Block/Field Goal Block: Kick is blocked, then draw 1 card and read the Return under the “Special Teams” section
  • Point After Touchdown Block: Kick is blocked

Four-of-a-Kind or Straight Flush

  • Offensive: Automatic touchdown
  • Defensive: Automatic touchdown
  • Field Goal: Automatic success
  • Point After Touchdown: Automatic success
  • Kick-Off Return/Punt Return: Return for an automatic touchdown
  • Punt Block/Field Goal Block: Kick is blocked and returned for an automatic touchdown
  • Point After Touchdown Block: Kick is blocked

Royal Flush

  • As above for a Four-of-a-Kind or Straight Flush – automatic touchdowns include automatic two-point conversions for a total of 8 points

It should also be noted that each player has 3 “Time-Outs” per half they can trigger before each play. This allows them to discard 2 cards from their hand and draw another 2 cards. This is the only way a player can attempt to change their current hand during game other than new cards are the end of the play.

Quick Word on Special Teams and Team Cards

The special teams include Kick-Offs, Field Goals, Point after Touch Down, Punting, Kick Blocking, and Kick Returning. They are triggered when the opponent or player is attempting to do something specific. Like attempting to make a Field Goal, for example. In most cases, the defensive player will have to match the color and value of the offensive card that is attempting the action. This is the only time this color and value matching is required.

The Team card selected at the beginning of the game is matched with 1 card in the deck. If the player places the card that matches their Team card, it beats all other cards except another Team card match that has a higher value. This creates, essentially, a Trump that cannot be beaten. GO TEAM!

Second Down and So On

The game continues, hand for hand. The ball will move up and down the field based on the results of each play. When the player is offensive, they will be attempting to score a touchdown using passing (all black-suited cards) and running (all red-suited cards) plays. Defensive players are doing all they can to stop the offensive player from scoring by sacking and causing loss of yards. If the defensive player hits hard enough, they can trigger a “Big Hit” and a die must be rolled to determine if the ball is turned over or not. A die is also used to randomly determine if a Field Goal is good or the results of a Flag on the Play.

After each down, the players discard the cards they played and draw back up to 5 cards each. When the draw deck is exhausted, the discard pile is picked up, shuffled, and a new quarter begins. At the end of the 2nd quarter, a “Two-Minute Warning” is triggered that allows each player to discard 2 cards from their hand to draw another 2 cards. Or, if you like, bring in new players and get a fresh page in the playbook. At the end of the 4th quarter, another “Two-Minute Warning” is triggered again. These warning do not count against each player’s time-out limits.

At the end of the 4th quarter, the player who has the most points wins the game. If the game is tied, Sudden-Death Overtime is triggered and 1 more quarter is played. Victory will go to the player who scores first.

Game Variants

Team Play

Up to four people can play Hand-Off at once splitting the group into teams of 2. Time-outs are shared and allow both teammates to add cards to their hand. Other than a few other rules that deal specifically with how to manage the deck of cards and quarters, game play is the same.

Solo Play

Hand-Off can be played as a solitaire game, where the player is going up against a fairly unimaginative opposing team. The player starts with 2 cards (not 5) and the opposing team’s plays are determined by flipping over the top card on the draw deck. It works, but isn’t as fun as the standard two-player version of the game.

To learn more about Hand-Off, visit the game’s web page.

Prediction

I think this is a game that is going to take some time to teach and to play with our groups. Just about everyone I can think of knows the different Poker hands used in the game, but I don’t know if everyone knows football. Knowing which team to cheer for on the television is not enough. Players need to understand football basics because the cards use football language.

Additionally, players who know Poker are not going to have an advantage in this game. A Poker hand only determines the winner of the play, not what the results of the play. Each play is listed on the player’s cards. The top-most card played (or last played in the sequence) determines what the player’s team does. Players not only need to know what they are capable of playing, but what each card is telling them.

Thank goodness football isn’t that complicated of a game to begin with, but after looking through the cards, there are a lot of choices to make. Players are going to have to balance their hand with the plays described and vice versa. That’s very interesting and challenging. As such I predict the Child Geeks will give Hand-Off a mixed approval at the very best. The Parent Geeks and the Gamer Geeks who like football, should approve the game, if they feel like they have control of what their teams are doing.

Teaching Hand-Off is not easy. I suggest you play an entire quarter open-handed if playing with new players. That is the only way you can help them get to know the game, point out possible things to do, and alert them when they are about to make a mistake. You must learn Hand-Off while playing to understand how everything works together, much in the same way that tossing the football is the best way to learn how to throw and catch it.

And so, after teaching the game to my oldest little geek, I asked him his thoughts on Hand-Off so far.

“This is a complicated game, but I know I can play it. Let’s give it a try.” ~ Liam (age 10)

Try it we shall! Let’s get this game started and see if it scores big points or we need to run it off the field.

Final Word

All but the oldest Child Geeks struggled with this game. They became frustrated with their cards and too many times attempted to make strong hands instead of smart plays. This costed them yards and points. It was also apparent that a player who knows more about the technical game aspects of football does better in Hand-Off. According to one Child Geek, “I don’t know what I’m doing other than just trying to move the ball into the end zone with the highest card possible.” Another Child Geek said, “I’d rather just watch football or go play a football video game.” When I asked why they didn’t like the game, they said it was too boring and too long. When all the games were over and the Child Geeks returned to their locker rooms, they all voted to reject the Hand-Off. A very small number of the Child Geeks liked the game, but not nearly enough to tip it to “mixed”.

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Third and five yards to go. I think I can do it, but my opponent looks pretty confident…

The Parent Geeks were evenly divided, but not down the line you might be thinking of. Those Parent Geeks who really liked watching football didn’t care much for the game. According to one Parent Geek, “It’s interesting, and I like what it’s doing, but I don’t think it’s a game I want to play again.” Those Parent Geeks who enjoyed games, especially card games, really enjoyed Hand-Off. According to one of these Parent Geek, “I know enough about football to play the game, but what is really needed is smart hand management and timing. This is one of the better football tabletop games I have played.” Another Parent Geek who identified himself as a “football enthusiast” and “lover of games” said, “This is almost the perfect marriage between football and tabletop games. Almost. It doesn’t feel as intense as a football game, but nor have I ever thought so hard to move the ball.” When all the Parent Geeks were done, the vote resulted in a mixed level of endorsement.

The Gamer Geeks recognized that this was a football themed game and were impressed with how tightly wound the game’s theme was to its core mechanics. One Gamer Geek said, “You could play this entire game with only ever playing one card, but I see why you would want to play 2, 3, or even all your cards. This is a very interesting game.” Another Gamer Geek said, “I sometimes think this is just Poker with a moving target, but you can’t help but enjoy the many different moves, plays, and crazy penalties that can be called. This really does feel like a football game at times and at other times, just a really interesting card game.” All the Gamer Geeks voted to approve Hand-Off, finding it to be an intriguing game of smart hand management, tactical timing, and strategic planning. Their biggest disappointment was that you couldn’t make your own team. “Now that would be cool”, said one Gamer Geek. Yes. Yes, it would.

This game taught me two things whilst playing it with family and friends. First, I knew surprisingly more about football than I originally thought. Second, I would make a horrible football coach.

I am very impressed with Hand-Off. It surprised me how deep and strategic a game it really was and how much I had to think through my card plays in hopes of moving the ball forward. Players only have 5 cards to work with for each down, which seems restricting at first. Players can take a “Time-Out” to get some new cards, but those are also limited. This means that most players kept their Time-outs to a minimum and only used them when they were close to a very strong hand. But it’s not enough to simply get a good hand because a good hand only allows you to win the action for the play. And on that point, card order is everything. Last card played determines the play. Players are never harshly penalized for picking the wrong play, but it hurts to know you could have scored a touchdown if you ordered your card plays better.

What we have here is a fantastic football card game that really does feel exciting, nail-biting, and exasperating. All the emotions I get when I am watching a game on the television. The game is tactical, strategic, and best of all, complicated. Not complicated in the sense that it’s impossible to understand. It’s complicated in a way that makes you feel like there is much more going on that you can really put all together. That’s pretty neat, but will also keep this game off many game tables. It’s not light and it’s not easy to master, but for those who love playing games and really enjoy football, Hand-Off is the perfect marriage of the two.

This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children and wife the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....
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