Baseball on the Table-top – Part IV
Games of the 1980’s and 90’s
If the 70’s were the time for table-top baseball game designers to explore, in new and different ways, the confrontation between pitcher and batter (see Part #3 of this series in the Spring 2011 GA Report), the next generation of statistical baseball games to hit the market sought to add accuracy and authenticity to simulating our national pastime. The utilization of readily available, detailed baseball statistics and the PC have made the game designer’s life easier in certain respects but more complex in others.
As with the European designer games usually reviewed by GA Report, there is a tightrope to walk between simulation and a game that is fun to play. Getting that balance to actually work and allow for gaming ‘fun’ is a tricky proposition.
Pursue the Pennant (and successors)
In 1985 Mike Cieslinski decided to take the 50/50 concept that Hal Richman pioneered in the 60’s for Strat-O-Matic and expand the concept to simulate the finer points of baseball. Pursue the Pennant (PtP) was based out of Brookfield, WI and was very media savvy, parlaying endorsements (and investments) from Milwaukee Brewer players (including Hall of Famer Paul Molitor), as well as sports writers and broadcasters.
Instead of three d6 (with 216 possible outcomes), Pursue the Pennant used three different colored 10-sided dice with 1,000 outcomes. The red, white and blue dice were read as a 3-digit number; from 1-499 results were read from the batter’s card and 500-999 from the pitcher’s card. Full righty-lefty splits were utilized for both batters and pitchers. Defense included ratings checks for both range and error propensity with outfielders and catcher rated for their arms as well. Ballparks received their own charts and were rated for foul territory, fence height and distance, playing surface (grass/artificial turf), wind and weather. There is a chart for deep fly balls to determine location and then another chart that cross-references the batter’s power rating.
What fans of PtP absolutely love is the uncertainty on a deep fly ball of whether the ball goes over the fence or not depending on the ballpark characteristics, weather and batter. Sets made from 1986 thru 1994 had inserts for the playing field that represented each MLB stadium fence. Cards changed configuration from very tall ones for the inaugural set that allowed piggybacking of baseball trading cards to cards the same size as trading cards. 1984-85 cards are incompatible with those that followed. The cards were all full color on thick coated stock.
My take on Pursue the Pennant is that it was a very accurate advanced simulation of baseball but at the expense of numerous re-rolls that result in playing time of 45-60 minutes for a typical 9 inning game. My personal preference is for a game to take 20-30 minutes and I am willing to sacrifice some realism for playability. Your mileage may obviously vary.
Pursue the Pennant was fully licensed by MLB and published card sets thru 1994 before going out of business. Original designer Mike Cieslinski formed Design Depot and started publishing Dynasty League Baseball (DLB) in 1997 with the 1996 card set and is still publishing 3 versions (cards & dice, on-line and Windows PC). In addition to card sets for 1997-present, ten full seasons scattered from 1957 through 1994 have been carded as well as 64 greatest historical teams, done as 3 separate sets. The DLB Windows game lacks a computer manager with artificial intelligence for solo and auto-play. Design Depot has, for better or worse, put most of their eggs in the “on-line game basket”, attempting to attract the younger Fantasy Baseball audience.
Dynasty League Baseball streamlined some of the charts and ratings from Pursue the Pennant and added a “situation key” that has different colors (or shading for monochrome card sets) that change results when a pitcher is tired, in a ‘jam’, clutch, has runners on base, hit & run or the infield is ‘in’. As a result there are less charts for referral in DLB and more results that come directly from the cards than PtP, but DLB still relies on re-rolls for deep flies. Color Ballpark charts are issued, at additional cost, for each season. Three percentile dice are still used (red/white/blue) and anyone who played PtP should pick up the nuances and improvements of DLB easily. Gone, however, is the wonderful game box, great both for storage and for the dice stadium (with cardboard inserts for all MLB stadiums). Basic game parts with 3 percentile dice cost $19.95 but don’t include a card set. Card sets go for $49.95 for older season to $59.95 for recent seasons.
After the demise of Pursue the Pennant, two different established PtP leagues decided to continue creating cards so their leagues could continue play. Triple Play Baseball (TP) www.TPBaseball.com is the continuation of PtP as conceptualized by Lance Simon and his group in St Louis. Cards were laser printed in black & white annually since 1996 with almost no variety of fonts, making them difficult to read but very faithful to the Pursue the Pennant lay-out. TP took the basic PtP concept and added salaries for drafting and some control ratings to minimally handle outliers to 50/50 norms. Over the years TP finally re-designed their cards to include both printed and pdf files both in color and monochrome. The color cards are even easier on the eyes than the monochrome. (The re-designed Albert Pujols and Brian Wilson cards are shown at left and right, respectively.) A complete game costs $49.95 including one card set and the charts as PDF docs.
The Internet Baseball League, has been web-publishing monochrome card-sets since 1996, was faithful to the original Pursue the Pennant and, best of all, is FREE. The IBL cards have evolved over the years but are difficult to read, as they are very busy due to the fonts and white space used. There is a price for free in terms of cardstock, toner and your eyesight. (http://www.ibl.org/)
Clubhouse Baseball was published from 1989 to 1991 with die-cut color cards for the 1998-1990 seasons. The game had MLBPA licensing and very attractive full-color components, including 4 two-sided full color boards that covered the 8 situations from bases empty to loaded.
The pitcher-batter confrontation results from throwing three D6, one white die numbered 1-5 and blank and two standard red 1-6 dice. The 3 dice are arranged in order from low to high. The two lowest dice are read as a 2-digit number off BOTH the batter’s and pitcher’s cards. The two result numbers are compared with the lower one being referenced on the appropriate base situation board. There are some exceptions with letter symbols that override. The third die is used to help determine types of groundballs and fly balls as well as fielding and base running. Sound confusing just to get a simple result? You bet it is. I found this the most convoluted way to resolve die rolls in over 20 baseball games that I’ve tried over the years. On baseball game message boards, those who have attempted to play out a season with full stats reported that the batting averages were way too high. My verdict here is beautiful production with poor execution…a must to avoid and fortunately, out of print.
George Gerney originally designed and self-published ASG Baseball in 1973. One of the gamers who took a fancy to ASG Baseball, Gerry Klug, partnered with George in 1989 to make some design improvements to the game and licensed it to wargame publisher 3W Games. 3W got MLBPA licensing and wrote an instruction manual that reads, unsurprisingly, like one from a war game. Before ceasing publication, card sets were published for the 1988 and 1989 seasons.
What makes ASG Baseball worth a look is the pitcher-batter confrontation mechanic. The pitcher rolls a d20 and reads the result off his ‘P’ column. If the result is a ‘K’, ‘W’, ‘DP’, ‘F’, ‘PO’, ‘HB’ or some special symbols, the process ends there with an immediate strikeout, walk, etc. If the result is a column # from 1-6, the batter rolls his d20 and reads the result from the appropriately numbered column. Similarly if the result on the pitcher’s P column is an ‘X’ there is a re-roll with a new result from the batters ‘X’ column. The results on the batters cards are mostly intuitive: HR7 (homerun to leftfield), S, D, T (single, double, triple with designated location), W, K, etc. There is need for few outside charts and the majority of results will come from either one or two d20 rolls.
The die-cut player cards (a sample of which can be found at right) are monochrome but on coated stock and well designed to be easy on the eyes. Batters have ratings for SB, Jump, base running, bunting and injuries. Fielders are rated for range, error propensity, arm and DPs.
Due to the existence of only 2 seasons of card sets, I’ve not taken ASG for a serious test drive as the rules manual is a difficult read, even for an experienced rules lawyer like this reviewer. ASG feels like it is from the 70’s but required the professional printing from 3W to reach a wider audience in the 80’s. ASG Baseball is worth a look as its pitcher-batter confrontation mechanic works quite well and assures that the pitcher has a direct influence on the batter for almost all rolls. Copies of ASG, like many hard to find OOP titles, were selling for close to $70 on eBay until the author temporarily flooded the market with a dozen or two remaining copies last summer. ASG is worth a try for its unique interface.
Ball Park Baseball
In 1957 Fullbright Scholar and Kansas State University Professor Charles Sidman designed a unique baseball game called Ball Park Baseball (BP) that was played exclusively by his collegiate circle of friends. That group included noted baseball statistician Bill James. The game has been available to the public since 2000.
Ball Park Baseball is a 50/50 game played with 2 special dice that produce random numbers from 1-50 or a scientific calculator programmed for random 1-50 results. Rolls of 1-25 are read off the batters card, 26-50 off the pitcher. Batters and pitchers have separate columns when facing right-handed and left-handed opponents, for both bases empty and men on base. The only other game that made the distinction for performance depending on whether or not there were men on base was Big League Manager and they did it only from the perspective of the pitcher (and as a +/- modifier), BP does a superlative job of handling outliers by adding controls to the bottom of both hitter and pitcher cards to handle the exceptions like low batting average, strikeouts or walks.
BP has carded every team in MLB history from 1894 to present and teams can be ordered individually as they print to order on color-coded (by team) over-sized heavy-weight card stock. Each Ball Park (sold separately) has its own 2-sided letter sized chart that affects doubles/triples, foul pop-ups, weather, fielding for various types of batted balls and homeruns. For example a deep line drive to left field is a homerun on a roll of 1-31 at Fenway, but only 1-6 at Yankee Stadium…you can feel the difference a park can make.
Most table-top games are geared for solo play and try to automate stolen bases, base running and infield positioning. Ball Park is better suited for 2-player face to face action as there is an emphasis on strategy decisions…even catcher conferences that can settle down a pitcher in trouble. There is a wealth of depth in Ball Park but at the cost of playing time. The learning curve is relatively steep and the ‘play book’ could be better written and organized.
Ball Park Baseball is an advanced, richly textured simulation of our National Pastime …. but expect 45 minutes to an hour to play a game. I was fascinated by its attention to detail but deep down wish they would create a separate “basic game” set of rules with simplified charts and playing aids. That would allow accessibility to those who value playability over advanced strategy yet allow the gamer the freedom to add advanced features at his own pace. I strongly suggest buying a base game with a handful of teams and their respective ball parks before ordering entire seasons. (http://www.bpbaseballgame.com/)
So what really changed from the relatively simple fare of the 60’s and experimentation with new pitcher-batter confrontation/interfaces of the 70’s to this peculiar mix of baseball fare?
More readily available baseball statistics including full righty/lefty splits, ballpark factors, fielding range and other exotic stats by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) crew were utilized by game designers. SABR notables like Bill James, John Thorn and Pete Palmer were the inspiration for the current Brad Pitt movie, Money Ball and created awareness for the cause and effect relationship between certain baseball statistics and the creation of “wins”. The recruitment of players who met certain statistical criteria that could easily be quantified with the use of powerful computers and elaborate databases allowed Oakland General Manager Billy Beane to succeed, on a limited basis, despite not having substantial fiscal backing of A’s ownership.
The advent of inexpensive polyhedral dice – 8-sided, 10-sided and 20-sided especially – became staples in allowing more randomization than standard 6-sided dice and were far less annoying than the finicky spinners of the 50’s and 60’s.
When I play a European designer board game for the first time, I am highly critical of excess “chrome”, needlessly complex rules and lengthy playing times that suck the joy out of a game. When a game author/designer distills his mechanics to just the essential ones that retain the “fun factor”, I call it “elegant”.
A table-top baseball game is elegant, in my eyes, when a healthy majority of the results are readily apparent on a single roll of the dice. The fewer re-rolls and reliance of charts the better. When it takes 4 or 5 rolls and +/- modifiers to obtain a result, then the game should have been done as a text-based computer game. As baseball fans we DO want to “see” how a player caused a particular result but we shouldn’t have to make interim calculations, apply modifiers or consult encyclopedic rule books to recreate a 9-inning contest.
The final installment of Baseball on the Table-top will appear in the next issue of Gamers Alliance Report and will include recent games including Dice Baseball, Inside Pitch and a few statistical baseball games that I haven’t yet had the time to play but nonetheless have some interesting ideas. I will be checking under the covers of Box Seat Baseball, Baseball Guru (the game is free; the cards are downloadable for a reasonable cost), Ballhalla (free game and rated teams) and Cardboard Baseball (played with your own trading cards, their charts and a few decks of standard 52-card playing cards).
I’ll also reveal my personal favorite statistical baseball games for both head to head and solo play and discuss which games offer the best balance between playability, components and realism, without taking things to the absurd. See you next issue!
Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.
Fall 2011 GA Report Articles