I’ve never written a video game review before. I’ve played games, sure. I once would have called myself a “gamer” above all else. In recent years, a game I’ve played extensively has been EA Sports’ NHL series of games. They’re the gold standard of not only hockey games, but sports games in general. EA has truly mastered the translation of hockey into a virtual format. But that’s not enough.

After so long, EA’s series gets repetitive. You figure out the AI after a couple of days and you learn how to beat it. So I looked for a new challenge. Enter Be-A-GM mode. I know how to beat the hockey AI. But can I build a team that the AI can use to beat itself? I’ve been at the helm of every team, made trades, drafted players, and signed free agents, all the while trying to build a roster that the computer thinks is good enough to win a Stanley Cup. But again, that got stale. I’ve seen the Cup-winning sequence more times than I can count. Draft classes are so familiar that I already know who sleepers are with EA’s minimal randomization. After a while, there just wasn’t enough to do to feel like I was controlling a real hockey team.

Enter, Franchise Hockey Manager. Made by the fine folks at Out Of The Park Developments, makers of the 14-year-running Out Of The Park baseball simulator, FHM seeks to immerse you further in the management of a team than you ever thought possible. Years of experience simulating the stats-heavy MLB led to an extremely realistic, well-designed hockey simulator.

I’ll pause on that. FHM is a hockey simulator; not a hockey game. If you’re looking for somewhere to deke and dangle, to score the big goal or make the big hit, just stick with EA’s franchise. FHM is more akin to managing spreadsheets, and while that sounds like a complaint, it’s anything but. The game is so immersive that it really feels like you’re working with a hockey team, tinkering with your lineups, negotiating trades, and trying to keep your players happy, among a slew of other things to do.

Let’s get the bad side of things out of the way. Franchise Hockey Manager is deep. Really deep. Maybe too deep. The first time I fired up the game, so many options were presented to me that it was almost overwhelming. I’m not terribly interested in what my team’s average ticket price is, but that’s something a real general manager has to be concerned with as he allocates funds to pay his players and pursue free agents. Now, you can let the AI handle a lot of the menial tasks you aren’t interested in, but it’s still a lot to digest and figure out on your own. A tutorial mode, of sorts, would do this game a lot of good.

The other problem presented by a game this complex is the time it takes to get through a simulation. Simulating an individual hockey game is a crisp, clean experience, but moving day by day can be a difficult task for a lot of computers. I have a reasonably high-quality desktop computer, and sometimes when going through the offseason, enough things were happening that I wasn’t sure if the program had frozen. To its credit, it only actually crashed on me one time, and for a beta program that I spent a few days exploring, that’s pretty good. It’s still unfinished though, and I assume a lot of the little technical things will be polished off by the development team, as they actively are releasing patches.

So, with the things that make me uneasy out of the way, can I talk about how much I love this game? And the fact that it exists? I love being an armchair-GM, and FHM offers me a world of opportunity EA sports would never even sniff. In addition to basic skill-related stats on every player, you also want to keep them happy, and your organization’s standing is reflected in their profile. I demoted Harrison Ruopp to the ECHL; he wasn’t a big fan of that move. But I called up Scott Harrington and promoted Beau Bennett to the second line; both of them were quite pleased. That’s a dynamic that really helps immerse you in the walls of charts and stats.

The individual game simulator is a really well-crafted piece of software. At full power, it gives you play-by-play calls (as text) for every faceoff, shot (including rebounds!), penalty, etc. You can sim in real time or speed it up to get through in a hurry, but the shot and goal totals always seem like a realistic result for an NHL game (e.g. the Penguins and Flyers nearly matching each other in shot total but the Flyers losing because their goalies are seriously Steve Mason and Ray Emery). You can edit lines freely and adjust your player deployment and attack strategies mid-game. Fleury getting lit up? Switch him for Vokoun. Is the third line getting hemmed in their own zone too much? Change their breakout strategy. Again, you can let the AI do these things (I did, I admit it), but there’s close to nothing you can’t control if you want to.

As busy as all the tabs and screens and charts were when I first started the game, after an hour or so of poking around, I got a much better feel for what I was doing. It could still use a tutorial utility, but it’s intuitive enough that you can figure it own on your own with a little effort. Honestly, I’ve only simulated about a month’s worth of hockey between school, work, and my other job covering the Steelers, so I haven’t even seen how the playoffs, draft, or free agency is done. I can tell you this much though: I am really looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to everything in this game. If you’re the micromanaging GM type, you will too.

Twenty minutes with this game will show you how much OOTP really cares about this product. They’ve scoured leagues across the globe to find data on every hockey player. They have complete profiles for everyone on every team’s scouting staff. They have full NHL rosters dating back to 1947. The loading screen gives you humorous little quotes by hockey players throughout history. If I listed every feature this game has and why I like it, we’d be here all month. I really like this game, and I’m really glad I have it on my computer. Major thanks to OOTP for getting in touch with me and getting me a copy to review. If you’re into the managerial side of the NHL (or AHL, or CHL, or SM-Liiga, or whatever), I very highly recommend giving this game a try.