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Subbuteo has been bringing Soccer Action to Enthusiasts’ Tabletops for 70 Years

by Michael Barnes (07/17/14).

Here they are, the 2014 U.S. Men’s National Team, in Subbuteo form, as they appeared recently in Brazil, featuring their home kit (uniforms). This set is custom made and currently sells for about $40 direct from the manufacturer.

Here they are, the 2014 U.S. Men’s National Team, in Subbuteo form, as they appeared recently in Brazil, featuring their home kit (uniforms). This set is custom made and currently sells for about $40 direct from the manufacturer.

So, the 2014 FIFA World Cup has ended and the Germans—undeniably the most organized team in the tournament—have been christened the World Champions. It was a great World Cup, full of drama and fever-pitched emotion with tremendous upsets and surprises.

Tim Howard, the U.S. goalkeeper, stopped (almost) everything, Argentina’s Lionel Messi sulked and Brazil virtually self-destructed before the eyes of the world. Early on in the tournament, back when the U.S. was still locked in its “Group of Death” facing matches against Germany, Ghana, and Portugal, I reported here on The World Cup Game, a great game that I believe is the best sports board game I’ve ever played. And now, to close out this World Cup year, let’s have a look at another great way to bring soccer to the tabletop.

The game is Subbuteo. It’s barely known in the U.S., but in the United Kingdom and other more football-friendly parts of the world, it is something of a cultural institution and a classic way for families and friends to enjoy some 11-on-11 excitement without the bruised shins.

From the first advertisement of “Table Soccer” appeared in English boy’s magazines in 1946.

From the first advertisement of “Table Soccer” appeared in English boy’s magazines in 1946.

The most recent edition of Subbuteo. The history of Subbuteo spans almost 70 years.

The most recent edition of Subbuteo. The history of Subbuteo spans almost 70 years.

Subbuteo is a dexterity-based game wherein players flick miniature players around a tabletop pitch, mostly in accordance with traditional association football rules. The figures—which are typically molded after real players and painted to match their real-world kit (uniform)—are mounted on rounded bases and the idea is that you keep possession as long as your men make contact with the ball and no other players. Also, you can’t flick the same man more than three times in a row; he’s got to pass the ball. Once you make it to the scoring line, you can make a kick on the goal. The other player gets to maneuver the keeper with a rod to try to block your shot.

Subbuteo’s history goes all the way back to 1946, when an Englishman named Peter Adolph advertised the game in a popular boys’ magazine. The game wasn’t patented or made available until 1947. The original sets came with generic players made out of cardboard attached to lead washers. There was no board provided. Instead, there was a piece of chalk included in the box and the players were expected to draw the pitch on a blanket or piece of cloth. The goals were crude contraptions of wire mesh that were probably a tetanus risk.

By the 1950s, Subbuteo started to take off as its production values increased. Players were still two dimensional, but they were changed to a celluloid plastic material. Boxed sets started to include boards and better equipment. A Subbuteo Players’ Association was founded and, by 1953, three versions of the game were made available, as well as numerous optional accessories in an expanding product line. In the 1960s, the three-dimensional plastic figures were manufactured and by 1967, “heavyweight” figures were introduced. During the 1960s, the game experienced a huge boom in popularity in the U.K. in particular and was widely available in the mass market. “Table Football” was big enough to warrant international tournaments and events. Subbuteo versions of cricket, rugby and hockey were also made available, but none were as popular as its football game.

Hand-painted heavyweight figures from the 1960s.

Hand-painted heavyweight figures from the 1960s.

Subbuteo “zombies,” were machine-made and painted figures. These proved to be quite unpopular among fans of the game who valued authentic kit and finer detail.

Subbuteo “zombies,” were machine-made and painted figures. These proved to be quite unpopular among fans of the game who valued authentic kit and finer detail.

Despite the increased availability and sales of the game, the original figures were handmade (according to the official history of the game they were assembled and painted by “housewives in Tunbridge Wells”). In 1976, Subbuteo Sports Games introduced what are known as “zombie” figures, machine-made players that all looked the same. Nobody liked them. By 1981, a more detailed (but still machine-made and painted) figure was created, called a “lightweight,” and it remained the standard up until 1996.

So much of the history and appeal of Subbuteo are really in the figures, which remains one of the biggest draws for fans today. In some ways, it’s almost like model railroading. Collectors may build collections of certain teams, favorite players or clubs of a particular era. Even the 2014 World Cup teams are available, and there is a market for custom figures and even custom stadium set-ups that can get quite elaborate, including terraces, Astroturf surfacing and lights. Enthusiasts will go as far as to set up crowd barricades, security figures and authentically detailed grandstands. There’s a sense that the Subbuteo hobby has as much to do with building a diorama than playing a game.

But it is still a simple and effective soccer game that feels and looks like the real thing. Over the years it has been produced by Subbuteo Sports—the estimable British game manufacturer—Waddington’s and Hasbro, who were producing the game up through 2005. Mom and pop shops, like TablesoccerUSA, sell custom work and provide forums for traders and collectors.

An illustration from a 1960s catalog shows some of the accessories that were available, including lights and figures for the coaching staff and officials.

An illustration from a 1960s catalog shows some of the accessories that were available, including lights and figures for the coaching staff and officials.

A modern Subbuteo pitch with electric lights. Fancy!

A modern Subbuteo pitch with electric lights. Fancy!

Speaking as something of an outsider to the world of Subbuteo collection, valuation is really quite difficult, given the wide range of editions, teams and accessories that have been made available in its nearly 70 years of existence. However, as a U.S.-based game player, collector and tradesman, I would regard any Subbuteo products to be locally rare, since the game has never been produced for the U.S. market and the only items available from U.S. makers and sellers (such as the 2014 US Men’s National Team) are in very limited quantities strictly for a collector’s market.

In my game picking, buying, trading and selling, I’ve actually never come across any Subbuteo equipment and I would be quite excited to happen across even one of the more recent sets at anywhere less than a premium, exported price.

Perhaps I could pick up a set of the 2014 Brazilian World Cup squad on deep discount.


Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.

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