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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Sporting Chance

For many people, the first week of April is the best sports week of the year. There's the NCAA Mens' and Womens' Basketball finals, Major League Baseball opening day, and The Masters. All in the span of a handful of days. There's also the push for the playoffs in the NHL and NBA, and the NFL draft is only a couple weeks away. Formula 1 and NASCAR are in full swing, and I'm sure there's something important going on with Soccer and Tennis. (I quit watching tennis when Bjorn Borg retired, and I'm American, so I don't “get” soccer. Then again, I don't “get” NASCAR, either.)

What on earth does this have to do with boardgaming? Well, if you remember back to when we were introducing ourselves, that's where my roots are. Sports games. A niche market probably more scorned than wargames. (Or at least more thoroughly ignored.)

Periodically over the next few weeks, I'm going to look at a different category of sports games. I've got more experience with baseball and racing games than any others, so those groups will get the most detail.

Baseball Games

First off, let's look at some of the top baseball games with at least 10 ratings. The top games here aren't any surprise at all to someone who's tried more than one or two.

  1. Sher-co Baseball (1971)
  2. Replay Baseball (1973)
  3. Dynasty League Baseball (1994, but a remake of Pursue the Pennant – 1985)
  4. Strat-o-matic Baseball (1962)
  5. Sports Illustrated Baseball (1972)
  6. Statis Pro Baseball (1971)
  7. APBA Pro Baseball (1951)

I've got a copy of Sher-co somewhere in storage. It had a neat gimmick of a grid for each stadium where you didn't get a “home run” result, but instead found out how far you hit the ball. The grid let you know if the ball was in the park or not. Didn't play very quickly from what I recall. As I've mentioned in the past, I was a big APBA fan. Cribbage might be the only game I've played more than APBA Baseball. It doesn't have the most robust statistical model, but it produces good results quickly. I've never played Replay Baseball but there's a large number of fanatics on ConsimWorld, including Richard Berg.

Avalon Hill had three different baseball games. Sports Illustrated (which used “franchise all-star” teams, and was eventually rebranded “Superstar Baseball”), Statis Pro (the more standard game with card sets for each season), and Pennant Race (not listed above – it took a GM's perspective on a baseball season. I think it's an underrated game with potential for redevelopment. I'll have to rescue my copy from storage.)

Strat-o-matic was the third of the “similar system, multiple sports” games after APBA and Statis Pro. It had a rabid following, and most people were either in the APBA or Strat-o-matic camp, but not both. SOM at least gave the illusion of having more statistical accuracy as the pitchers cards influenced events a lot more than in APBA. Whether it did or not is subject to a (lot of) debate.

Interesting that the young turk here is Dynasty League Baseball, and it's 12 years old. Part of this, I'm sure, is due to the computerization of the Baseball Replay market. Diamond Mind Baseball, in particular, is the king here. It was initially released in 1987, and has become the gold standard. In the era of the internet, it's pretty tough to recreate the DMB experience with a boardgame. I believe every game in the list above except for Sher-co and Sports Illustrated Baseball were computerized at some point, with varying levels of success. I know I had the very first APBA Baseball computer versions from Miller Associates. Boy that copy protection blew chunks.

The explosion of statistical research in baseball (and now basketball, football, and hockey) has steadily raised the bar on what these baseball simulation games need to cover to be considered “realistic.” The arms race has definitely displayed itself in the computer game market, but even Dynasty League Baseball shows the results of increased study. The emergence of two organizations, Project Scoresheet (first) and Stats, Inc (later) in the mid-80s made pitch-by-pitch other detailed data available to the public for the first time. This had a direct effect on the games that emerged later. I don't think it's any surprise whatsoever that Diamond Mind didn't come out until Project Scoresheet had been in existence for a couple years.

Oddly enough, I think my fascination with the simulation side of baseball games cost me a job when I still worked at Microsoft. They were working on a baseball game, and were in need of a Project Manager – I interviewed for the position but as my idea of a successful game wasn't really what they were looking for, I didn't get the job. I wasn't thinking “arcade” enough. In the end, I never even played the game.


  • At 9:17 AM, Blogger Chris Brooks said…

    I was heavy into APBA baseball as a pre-teen. My friend Mike and I ran a play-by-mail league of greatest-teams-ever back in 1982. I recall the teams being the 1927 Yankees, the 1906 Cubs, the 1927 Pirates (yes, they got crushed by the Yanks but were still an amazing team), the 1929 A's, 1954 Indians, and a few others. I'm still very partial to APBA.

    I picked up Pursue the Pennant in 1987 or 88 at GenCon. Cool bits and dice (I liked the realistic ballparks) but the game just didn't feel as solid (or fun) as APBA.

  • At 12:33 PM, Blogger Eric said…

    I'm with you on APBA as well. I bought both APBA and Strat-o-matic when I was a kid and stuck with APBA. Even bought five of their other games.

    I went on a binge for a while picking up other baseball games in the early-mid 80s, but nothing ever topped APBA for me. Subscribed to the Journal for a while, got into an internet league, but interest faded away as I got out of college.


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