Subbuteo Rugby Review

From Football to Rugby

Flick to kick: this is the core concept of the Subbuteo game. Tiny players – some even hand-painted in their beauty – being flicked around a green board that simulates a football field, engaged in a match that can be quite a skilful and well-balanced affair. After the rise to fame and success of Subbuteo however, it was only a matter of time before people began to feel like football just wasn’t quite enough for them anymore. For these people, it became painfully apparent that Rugby was rather underrepresented in the Subbuteo world. It was down to this (or certainly very similar) reasoning that Subbuteo Rugby came to exist. Here’s a little review of its worth, or indeed the game’s lack of it when it comes to actually playing a match.

Subbuteo Rugby

How it Works

On the one hand, explaining how Subbuteo Rugby works isn’t a complicated affair. Anyone that has played traditional, football-based Subbuteo will know that it plays much like a real football match, only with a few changes due to the game’s unique spin: the flicking of players in order to pass and shoot with the ball.

A full set of rules can be found at, but explained briefly, Subbuteo Rugby is played out on the board much like it is on the pitch (this was in fact the main reason for its downfall as you’ll read in the next section). You’re treated to the usual features of the sport such as scoring a try, making a conversion, kicking off by propelling the ball forward at the outset of the match, throw-ins, and of course, tackling.

Of course, anyone that knows anything about Rugby and even a little about Subbuteo will know that translating the sport onto a small tabletop surface with flick-to-play mechanics is going to be problematic. In fact, the farcical nature of the resulting games became somewhat of an in-joke in the Subbuteo community.

Why It Doesn’t Work

If you look at some of the Subbuteo Rugby sets available online, you’ll see that even some of the second hand examples are in fine condition – the in-joke in the Subbuteo world is that these sets are in such good condition because they were played once and then retired due to the game simply not working. Whether or not this joke is true or not, there’s a good point hiding beneath it.

The main reason Subbuteo Rugby doesn’t work – and likely why it really didn’t take off like traditional Subbuteo – is that the sport of Rugby just doesn’t translate well as-is to the miniature board. There are too many players on the field, there is a lot of passing to be done between these players, and scoring a try in itself is different to scoring a goal in football because a player needs to be present with the ball when the try is made.

The problems with the translation of the real sport into its Subbuteo likeness are such that a number of revisions were made to the rules throughout the decades following its release, though with little success. These revisions basically existed to circumvent or even blatantly ignore the official World Rugby laws in order to make Subbuteo Rugby more playable. With the above problems, it is no wonder that you don’t often hear Subbuteo fans talking lovingly about Subbuteo Rugby.

Subbuteo Rugby

The Sets

Even though the game itself didn’t really take off because of pitch-to-fake-pitch translation problems, there were still a large number of Rugby sets produced. You’ll find a number of teams available for purchase online, including the Italian, Canadian, Irish, Romanian, South African, Tongan, Australian, French, and New Zealand teams. These existed as 15-player sets and presented in boxes that reeked of 1970s/80s styling. You can still find even some of the more obscure items like this England Player.

Subbuteo Rugby

Many of the Subbuteo Rugby sets you will find in mint condition on websites like the aforementioned Subbuteo World, perhaps because playing with them was too complicated, or perhaps because they are quite collectible in themselves. Each set consists of 15 players and you can even find the original 1970s Welsh teams, which will be of particular interest to any Rugby fan that lies West of the English border. You can also tell that these sets are from a bygone era because of the length of the shorts, or should it be said the lack of length displayed thereof.

Remember, these sets were all hand painted and although there isn’t much facial detail to the degree of Rugby Dubs, sets like this Barbarian Team have a certain charm about them due to the striped detailing on the shirts and the variation in the hairstyles of the players.

And this is what Subbuteo Rugby is all about in the end: charm over functionality. Since the game itself isn’t the most playable affair, the legacy of Subbuteo Rugby is in its collectible nature. The 1970s/80s sets are still largely available today for any Rugby fan to collect, and these sets possess a great deal of charm and, failing that, a retro appeal that is still very much sought after in this modern day.