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Peter Upton's

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Playing Instructions and Rules.

Page 1: Elementary Instructions and Spin! 1940s - early 1970s.

Any game needs a good set of rules if it is going to be successful. The best games tend to be those that are initially easy to pick up but become more complex and tactical as you become more experienced. This is certainly the case with Subbuteo. The "flick" itself is straightforward, and most new players will be familiar with the rules of real Association Football which is a big help.

However, whilst Subbuteo tries to stick closely to real Association Football, it obviously needs its own rules and regulations too. Like any long running game or sport, these rules have been subject to various tweaks and changes down the years. That said, the core of Peter Adolph's original elementary rules do survive intact. 

Even in the early days, Peter Adolph's rule books are full of illustrations and photographs, which make them interesting items in their own right. So the purpose of these pages is too show the different books that have been produced, and to chart the changes in the rules. 

Whilst the original edition came with a single sheet of assembly instructions and brief rules, by the 1950s the Subbuteo instruction books were split into three leaflets, two of which were supplied in the boxed edition. The key booklet was the "Elementary Playing Instructions and Rules", which was all you needed to play the game at home. Then there was "Spin!", which simply provided four different exercises to help perfect the spin and swerve of players. The final book was the thicker "Advanced Rules", which included all the rules needed for serious tournament play. This was Set C (and later C116) in the accessory range, and is covered in more detail under those entries.

This situation continued into the late 1970s, when all three books were amalgamated into a 20 page Subbuteo Handbook. This was a little off putting for beginners, so the Elementary rules was again separated in the early 1980s, before being re-written to a new standard (and in several languages) on the familiar "green sheet" rules.

Elementary Playing Instructions and Rules

These instructions were in the form of simple four page A5 booklets and were supplied with every edition of the game from the 1940s until the mid 1970s. As there are no rules on the front page, and the interior has large illustrations, and (in the earlier books) adverts for the advanced rules, you can see that the rules did not take up much room. They were deliberately kept simple, and thus it was easy to pick up the game and start playing. None of these rule books have a date mentioned anywhere on them, so my dating here comes from the catalogue supplied in the sets from which these books came. This means that I don't know the full date ranges of these booklets.

I'm going to start this section by quoting the 1947 rules at length, and after this I'll just mention the changes that take place in each subsequent reprint. As usual for this site, all quotes are in italics.

1947 Rule Book.

The original rule book was a very basic A5 leaflet with just four pages. It had no photographs to show how to play (these arrived in the next book). The plain front page is shown above. The second page had an introduction, and the assembly instructions. The third page was mostly details on how to chalk out the pitch and set out the figures. It then covered the movement of the player figures, before finishing with eight simple rules of play.

The Introduction is larger than it is in the later books, mainly because it has to stress the care needed in cutting out the original card teams. I've quoted it in full here.

"Introduction. When you have assembled the parts of "Table Soccer" you will have a Football Game that is unique. It will give you hours of amusement and at the same time on your own indoor table you will be able to reproduce the skill, tactical thinking, and thrills of real Association Football. Do not hurry over the assembling of the various parts of "Table Soccer": in particular take great care in cutting out the Football Player Figures; short even snips with a pair of small sharp scissors is the best way of accomplishing this. Read the instructions under "Movement of the Football Player Figures" very carefully, as the amount of skill that you put into the game will largely depend on how you "control the ball" by the "flicking" of figures against it." It has to be said that 75 years later this is as true as it ever was.

In true Blue Peter fashion, Adolph also adds "IF YOU ARE VERY YOUNG, SEEK THE KIND ASSISTANCE OF A GROWN UP".

The book then moves on to assembly instructions for this very basic version of the game. Cutting out the team sheets, fitting the players to the bases, bending the goal frames, cutting out the paper nets, and finally marking out the pitch. This later section is the only part that remains in the rule book after 1947, so that is the only part I'll cover on this page - see also the Subbuteo in the 1940s page.

Playing Pitch.

"Place a smooth, but thick cloth on a table, and chalk out a design to the dimensions printed below..."

The hand-drawn illustration here is actually from the 1949-50 rule book. The original lacks the player numbers. (It didn't seem worth another scan to show this!). This was clearly part of the assembly instructions in this first edition of the rules, but stayed in the rule book when those instructions moved onto their own sheet.

The playing area was 48x32 ins, and so it remains to this day (except that it is now given in metric). Of course, the obvious thing about the above illustration is the semi-circular shooting areas. These "start 9ins from the centre spot, with ends meeting the touch lines 15ins from halfway".

The other measurements refer to the letters on the picture above - "Goal Area (B) 2.5 ins each side of posts and the same distance forward. Penalty area (A) 7 ins each side of the posts and forward: Penalty kick spot 5 ins from goal line: Centre Line (C) is half-way between the two goals (you'd be surprised if it wasn't): Centre Circle 5ins radius.

"Use a ruler for the straight lines, and tie a length of string around the chalk in order to draw in compass manner the two large semi-circles.

This section also mentions "line up", which tells you how to set up the goalkeeper, and advices numbering the team.

"Line Up - Place the wire of the goal-keeper under the goal so that the figure may be worked by the handle. Place the remaining ten men of a team on the field in exactly the same manner as an Association Football Club does line up before commencing to play. Number the team with the numerical circles as directed with the the sheet which is enclosed. Your opponent lines his team up on the other half of the field and numbers his men in exactly the same way."

Movement of the Football Player Figures.

Balance. The figures are balanced scientifically so as not to fall flat when propelled against the ball.

I thought that the "scientifically balanced" line might refer to the introduction of Peter Adolph's own "super flattened" bases in Autumn 1947, but no here it is in the very first rules and referring to the Woolworths button bases. I'm not sure if Woolworths had done the science here...

The book then sets out the famous flick (err, but not for left-handed people like myself).
"Propulsion. The Football Players 'kick' the ball by the following method. Place the first finger of the right hand immediately behind a figure, with the tip of the nail just touching the table. Use the table slightly as a spring, and gently flick the figure against the ball. "Do not use the thumb as a spring. The thumb does not enter into the propulsion", and so crucial is this, that the line is highlighted. "Practise will enable you to control flicking the figure so as to hit the ball in the exact direction which you require it to travel." Okay, so if you are left handed, or you bite your nails, the instructions might be slightly different... but I think this is about as clear as it can be. 
"Goal-keeping. Gently hold the left side of the goal with the left hand, and manipulate the goal-keeper itself with the right hand. Here again, practice will reward, and you will be able to save the most difficult shots."

Play - A section that describes the fundamental part of play, starting with the kick-off.

"Kick-Off. A coin is tossed for 'ends': losing team 'kicks off'. The centre forward (figure numbered 9) is propelled gently against the ball by the method described.  If the ball has not touched an opponent figure, the team which 'kicked off' is still in play. A nearby figure is aimed at the ball, and so long as the player of the team is hitting the ball with one of his figures, and the ball does not touch an opponent figure, he is still in play.
"Immediately he misses the ball with one of his figures, or if the ball is 'kicked' against a figure of the opposing side. it is the opponent's turn to play. The figure which last touches the ball represents the team which is in play, unless the ball is 'kicked' off the playing area itself by that figure. Then the other side takes the goal kick, corner kick or throw-in"
Clear ? Good.

Finally we come to the proper rules section, which in this first edition are all on the back page. There are just nine rules, and the order seems a little random. It reminds me of the way the rugby rules were laid out in the late 1960s.

Rules of Play (Play to the rules of Association Football in conjunction with the under mentioned)

The rules finish with the following comment. "Although the game is best suited to two players, any number can join in and play, but an agreement should be reached before commencement of play as to who shall handle the various figures." We did try team events with more than one player a side at the Worthing Club many years ago. It was generally bedlam. This may or may not be a good thing...

After that, Adolph simply advertises the advanced rules booklet, and membership of the player's association.

The 1948-49 and 1949-50 Rule book.


The earliest set of rules I own were supplied in an Assembly Outfit from 1949-50. Ashley Hemming kindly provided a photocopy of the 1948-49 version, which is similar, but has an earlier version of the game photographed for the cover (1948-49 is shown on the left). This is covered in detail in Subbuteo in the 1940s, but essentially the later book shows the deluxe assembled goals, and printed pitch. These items came in the new "Assembled" edition of the game, and explain why the assembly instructions were moved away from the rule book.

The cover picture of the game in action, and arrival of an attractive logo show the game production getting more professional. The word "Subbuteo" has a bigger profile, and the cover advises that patents have been granted, the bases are protected by "British Registered Design No 851000" and that the playing rules are copyright - registered at Stationers Hall.

The booklet is now more neatly divided into five sections.

1950s Rule Book.

A picture of PA Adolph and Reg Allen of Manchester United is the new front cover illustration. The "goal" picture from the earlier version is now placed inside - partly replacing the illustration of how the pitch needed to be set up. The rules themselves are set out in the same fashion as the 1949-50 rules, with just a couple of minor alterations to bring in the new shooting area rules thus:

Alternate 1950s Rule Book - Stanley Matthews cover.


Rules-wise, this alternate rule book from the mid-1950s is identical to the standard version shown above. However, what makes it an important and unusual booklet is the cover picture. In this photo, to quote Peter Adolph, "Stanley Matthews utilises Subbuteo Table Soccer to explain Hungarian tactics to a friend". This seems harmless, but was actually a cheeky confrontation in Peter Adolph's battle with rival Newfooty. Richard Payne, in his book, "Fifty Years of Flicking Football" (1996) explains how Newfooty had enlisted Stanley Matthews as part of its advertising campaign, saying "Stanley Matthews plays Newfooty". When Adolph saw this photograph in the newspapers of Matthews using a Subbuteo set (to show how Hungary had beaten England in the famous Wembley defeat of 1953), he decided he could use it to counter the Newfooty claims. It turned out that actually he wasn't allowed to do this, so he had to destroy the leaflets involved. I had always understood this episode to be relating solely to "advertising leaflets", but this booklet shows that actually he was using the picture more widely. The picture of Peter Adolph and Reg Allen usually on the front of this rule book was relegated to the back cover

1960s Rule Book

This version still has a flat game on the front cover (with metal flags and goal grips just visible). However, the two "flick" illustrations are now using OO scale figures, and the back page shows a game with the red fence and short-sleeved heavyweights - so this must be an early 1960s version booklet. I also know that this was the booklet supplied in the 1967 editions of the game.

There are some slight grammar changes in this book (e.g. 'does line up' to 'lines up'), but the main rule changes are as follows.

1969 Rule Book.

The date for this one ('69) appears in the printing company's details on the back page. This also seems to tie in with the fact that it has the 1970s logo but mentions 1960s money (one shilling). My version of this book came from a 1972 club edition, and it may well be the final version of the "elementary playing instructions" in this old format.

Although Subbuteo Sports Games Ltd are mentioned in earlier books, this is the first book that is ©SSG, rather than Peter Adolph. As with the Advanced rules of the late 1960s Peter Adolph's name has been completely removed, and SSG have therefore felt the need to rewrite the rules, changing Mr Adolph's prose, and adding some promotional guff and spin to the leaflet. For example:

"The figures are balanced scientifically tending not to fall flat when propelled again the ball" becomes:

"Only Subbuteo miniature football figures are scientifically designed and balanced to swerve and spin at the player's will and recover their upright position when played."

Some of the changes are for the better though. For instance, the book still has the five rule sections, but the "Movement of the Football Player Figures" heading has been simplified to "Playing the Football Figures", and "Play" is renamed "The Kick off and After" - both clearer titles for their sections.

The rules are moved around a little, and a few changes do occur within them.

In the mid 1970s the Elementary Rule book is amalgamated into a big handbook containing the Advanced rules, and the Spin! booklet. This is looked at in detail on page 2 of this trawl through the rule books. To finish this page off, I'm going to have a quick look at Spin!

Spin! Booklets.
"Flick and spin to weave and win"


This was the second rule book given in each box set, and is basically just a few exercises to try with the figures. As with the rule books there are several versions of this leaflet, however the cover only seems to have two main versions, and the contents do stay pretty much the same. The main difference is in the promotional photographs that are used. The versions I currently have are:

1940s version: This one sets out the format of this leaflet, with a front cover explaining the concept, a couple of promotional photos inside, followed by the four exercises, complete with explanations. The two photos from this one show some football stars playing the game at the Schoolboys' Own Exhibition. The players in the first picture are Fred Ramscar (QPR), Ivor Powell (Aston Villa and Wales), Reg. Allen (QPR), and George Smith (formerly QPR, Brentford and Charlton - now coaching). The second picture is later used on the front of the elementary rules, and has Reg Allen saving from Peter Adolph. (Note: Mr Allen is QPR's goalkeeper here, whereas he has transferred to Man Utd by the time of the 1950s booklet).


1950s version: In this one, the promotional pictures are Sir Stanley Rous and prominent referees watching a game, plus Joe Harvey, Captain of Newcastle Utd celebrating winning the 1951 FA Cup with a cake decorated with Subbuteo figures in the colours of Newcastle and Blackpool.


1960s version: The referees photo is still in place, while the second photo is of some OO scale continental figures in action (original short sleeved heavyweights)

1969/71 versions: These are the Subbuteo Sports Games Ltd versions, and see a cover change - with a little colour added. The "How to Spin" bit is now inside the booklet. The pictures are the referee one (now on the back) and a OO scale match with the standard heavyweights. The 1971 reprint adds "England" to the Subbuteo address, and loses a text banner and the words "new type" for the continental stuff.  Again, the text is rewritten from the Peter Adolph version - sometimes pointlessly. This is also where a big error creeps in. The "Left Boomerang" is renamed the "Left Boomerang Shot". It clearly isn't a shot folks.

The Exercises.

For those of you with 1980s Subbuteo, here are the four exercises in the Spin booklet. It's worth realising that these are far tougher with OO scale figures than they are with flats. Anyone who can do a boomerang with a OO figure has my respect (ditto the ability to do ANY of these spins with a Hasbro base!)

"The bases should be flicked very lightly with either the hand itself upright, or on its side, according to the position. When you wish the figures to spin to the left, you flick on the right side of the base; when you wish the figure to spin to the right, you flick the left side.


  1. Reverse Turn: This is of assistance when you are facing your own goal and desire a quick turn with minimum of flicks.
  2. Anti-Foul: This enables you to touch the ball without fouling the opponent figure.
  3. Long left swerve: Your figure will reach the ball, provided the correct amount of propulsion is given, and 'carry' it at its 'feet' for a short distance.
  4. Left boomerang: A difficult spin, but very spectacular when successful and of great assistance in awkward moments.

I've always found spin flicks to be a bit like "doubles" in snooker. They look impressive and are great fun to do, but they go wrong more often than not - usually leaving a chance for your opponent. This means that many serious players prefer to play a figure that is further away, but in a straight line, rather than swerve a player from a difficult position. Which is why flat based Hasbro figures are popular.

That's all for this page, but more rules can be found on Page Two, as we look at the rulebooks from the late 1970s onwards..

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