This episode Jeff and James go long and swing high as they race to tell the story of boardgame sports. This is the first of a multi-part series and covers Aerial Racing, American Football – Gridiron, Athletics – Track and Field, Australian Football, Auto Racing and Badminton.
This week we are wading into the very deep end with a multi-part series on boardgame sports. The BoardGameGeek database has family category pages for various sports. There’s 35 individual sports listed, each represented with their own section, totaling 4898 boardgames. While there has been a lot of evolution in the way sports are represented in boardgame form, a lot of what we are going to focus on are the more classic or direct simulations and representations of the sports. In other words, a game like Blood Bowl: Team Manager – The Card Game (2011) won’t fit neatly into talk about American Football boardgames. That said, we’ll do a wrap-up episode at the end that looks at the evolution of sports boardgames into these newer forms.
As well, we’ll probably skip over a bunch of interesting entries with battery powered games as we looked at these in our Electric Cardboard episode (#27).
Let’s start out this madness with some top ten action:
Top 10 Sports (# of titles)
Football / Soccer (754)
Auto Racing (572)
American Football / Gridiron (382)
Horse Racing (316)
Bicycle / Cycling (271)
Ice Hockey (197)
Fishing / Angling (150)
I’m not sure there are any huge surprises here. Perhaps that Auto Racing beats both American Football and Baseball? There are good reasons, but we’ll get to those in a bit. And the top slot for Football/Soccer certainly makes sense considering its global reputation and accessibility.
Let’s go A-Z, or A-W as the case may be here. First up to the plate:
The first game with a date listed in BGG is 1910’s The Aerial Derby (1910). The description is interesting:
Pre-WW1 game, featuring the relatively new world of aviation.
The game is not very ‘new’ in the sense that it is a Goose-type race game. Move according to the die, obey instructions of every special square and the first to ‘fly’ around the world, wins.
As a side observation, space 20 foretold events that would happen 100 years later “New York, collides with a skyscraper, back to 8”.
The box cover art for this one is great – it was put out by Chad Valley Games in England, and the illustrations are of various early flying machines buzzing around the tops of famous buildings. The plane/building collision mentioned in the description seems like a certain game outcome when you look at the cover.
It doesn’t surprise me that almost half of the 54 titles in this category appear before the 1970s. While recent years have brought us Zeppeldrome (2014), the steampunk racing game, or Dragonriders (2005), the dragon racing game, I imagine it can’t be long before we see a drone racing game in this category. It is worth noting that Aviation/Flight does have its own BGG category, so only games that are specifically about racing are listed here.
As for which Aerial Racing game has the highest rank in BGG, the honour goes to The Great Balloon Race (1991) from Parker Brothers:
This is a light game — lighter than air, one might even say — in which each player starts the game with a card assigning a secret interest in three different balloons. The balloon markers are lovely little brightly colored plastic gadgets, and on your turn you roll a die and choose which of the eight you want to move. Some spots you land on give you a free roll; from some you can only go backwards. With much shucking and jiving the balloons gradually float and bump up toward the finish line whilst players feign disinterest in their own colors in hopes they’ll be promoted by others. When all three of your balloons reach the finish, you can claim victory.
Before we get carried away with Aerial Racing, let’s move on to some heavier territory. [CACOPHONY OF 100,000 RIMSHOTS]
American Football / Gridiron
There are a lot of titles here (382) so let’s take a look at some of the top contenders and see what makes a good American Football /Gridiron game. Top BGG rank goes to 1st & Goal (2011), Stephen Glenn’s take on the sport. It’s mostly about dice here, but let’s give the publisher’s description:
1st & Goal pits two football teams in a classic gridiron match. Players call plays using the cards available in their hands. Yardage gained or lost is determined by a roll of the dice, and strategic play-calling makes all the difference as to which dice you get to roll for each play. The right offensive play might gain you a lot of yardage – unless the defense sets up correctly to stop it. After that, it all comes down to the roll of the dice…
Fumbles, interceptions, sacks, penalties, deep passes, breakaway runs – it’s all here. 1st & Goal comes with three Running Dice, three Passing Dice, a Defense Die, a Play Die, a Referee Die, and a Penalty Die. The card decks include 60 Offense cards and 60 Defense cards. Six “division” packs, each with four unique DFL (Dice Football League) expansion teams, are sold separately.
The only close runner up to this game in terms of game rank is Pizza Box Football (2005). Reviewer Tom Vasel really likes both these games but felt that the need to consult tables knocked this one down a bit. In terms of gameplay, it sounds similar. Dice are used throughout.
The next two in the rankings are much older games. Strat-O-Matic Pro Football (1968) comes in at rank 3 and Paydirt (1970 – originally called Sports Illustrated Pro Football and published by Time, Inc.) right behind it. I’m probably missing some nuance here, but these two also largely rely on dice. In terms of how they implement the results, I’m at a complete loss. The main difference with these two games, though, is their attempt to utilize actual stats from the NFL in gameplay.
But it’s not all dice! More recently there is Masters of the Gridiron (2014), an attempt to create a 15 minute 2 player card game version of the sport that is aimed at all players – even those without intimate knowledge of the sport. The publisher gives this little history of how this game is different:
Clay Dreslough, the game’s lead designer, wrote his first dice-based sports simulation in 1976. He later discovered similar games from companies like Strat-O-Matic and Sports Illustrated, but he didn’t enjoy them very much. It’s tedious to spend several hours picking plays, flipping them over, rolling dice, looking up the results on a chart, rolling more dice, moving counters on the “play clock” and so on, just to resolve each play.
Instead, Clay created the award-winning Baseball Mogul and Football Mogul computer games, capable of simulating entire seasons in just a few minutes. We used this technology as the under-pinnings for Masters of the Gridiron — to create realistic player ratings for over 680 current players, and to create realistic playbooks for all 32 teams.
Over the last four years, we have boiled down 26 pages of rules to the bare essentials, creating a head-to-head card game that feels like football.
With its fast play-time and easy to learn gameplay this one is interesting. Here’s a little bit about the gameplay:
Each player starts the game with 3 offensive player cards, 3 defensive player cards, and 4 playbook cards. To mount a scoring drive, you match a playbook card to an offensive player with the appropriate skills (such as “passing” or “run blocking”) and lay them down on the table, announcing the player rating that your opponent needs to beat in order to stop your attempt to score. Their ability to stop you depends on a combination of their strategy decisions and the luck of the draw.
Players alternate possessions until “time runs out” (when each team has no more offensive player cards to draw). Along the way, you enjoy all the aspects of a real football game, from goal-line stands and two-point conversions to game-changing interceptions and last-minute field goals.
The playbook cards themselves are used to track your score. So the only thing you need to play are two decks (one per team) and 15 minutes of time.
Given the high complexity of plays possible, I’m kind of surprised not to see a heavy Euro style game out there for this sport. It may still be in design due to the complexity of it. Until the year 2358.
Athletics / Track and Field
The first game listed in the 61 title strong Athletics/Track and Field page is Hurdle Race (1900). The box is another oldy timey beauty. The subtitle declares “IT IS GREAT SPORT” in huge font and the art contains all kinds of mayhem. Is that starched collared elephant kicking that guy in the butt? Are those police hauling that person out of water? Will the dog eat the rest of that guys’ pants? It’s a Milton Bradley spin and move game, with the description noting that it contains: “Milton Bradley inhouse art depicting Buster and Tige, Foxy Grandpa, one of Katzenjammer Kids on lid.”
Outside of celebrity titles like Bruce Jenner Decathlon Game (1979) from Parker Brothers, with its dice rolling and dexterity mechanics, it’s hard to see a lot of differentiation in this group. There are some Olympics or marathon based games, but most involve dice, spinners or dexterity.
It’s worth noting the highest ranked game on BGG in this category is Reiner Knizia’s Decathlon (2003), a print & play dice game that achieved a 6.2 average rating (it’s not the highest rated game but had enough votes to be included in their page ranking system).
In terms of mechanics, it’s intriguing that designer Eduardo Crespo is trying to publish a game called 1500m. Instead of using dice it states it employs Euro mechanics. At 70-90 minute gameplay and 3-8 players it sounds ambitious. Here’s a little description – it’s interesting to see a different approach using “endurance points”:
Players always choose in every moment the distance they go forward in each turn. But you´ll have to manage your 100 endurance points all over the race.
Each turn has 2 rounds where players move:
1. Cards round. Each player chooses a movement card and there`s a simultaneous auction (in endurance points) for an advantage action.
2. Rate round. Each player can keep, increase or dicrease his current rate (spending endurance points).
Using your strategy correctly and knowing when to risk, you can become the next 1.500 m champion.
While I have a limited understanding of the differences in sports, Australian Football is much less represented on BGG with only 26 entries, and 9 of these being Monopoly variants. In terms of gameplay, though, this sport seems similar to its American counterpart: Dice. Lots of dice. And action cards.
Unless you’re playing Aussie Footie (BGG indicates it came out in the late 60s), which uses a Tiddlywink mechanic and whose gameplay length is set by pre-determined points or a chosen amount of time.
My main note here is that if you are a fan of Australian Football games, the BGG needs your help. A lot of games are missing a lot of info. I’m guessing there are a lot more games from this sport hiding out there that we don’t know about yet.
Only 572 entries in BGG you say? Hardly any games at all about Auto Racing then. Let’s move on to our next category! Well, perhaps, if you insist, we can look at a FEW Auto Racing boardgames.
Let’s go back in time a bit to understand why there are so many racing games out there. One possible reasons could be when you look for the oldest BGG entry for this group you end up at Bottle-caps, circa 1900. Someone has provided the lovely description that’s worth reading in full:
Bottle-caps is a traditional game originating from the beginning of 20th century. It’s probably the ancestor of the Pitch Car game. It uses crown bottle-caps to simulate a race. In its early days it was a cart race, now it usually is a car race. It can be played on a table, on a floor or outdoors.
Players start from making the race track. Depending on the environment they may draw it on a big sheet of paper, arrange it using available objects like books, boxes, tools, etc, draw it with a piece of chalk on a flat surface, or even cut it with a knife on the ground. For some game events the tracks were specially designed and made of gypsum.
Then each player takes his or her bottle-cap, and puts it at the start line. To make the caps heavier they are usually filled with candle wax, gypsum, plasticine, clay, or even lead (for outdoor races only). The race begins then and the players – in appropriate order – finger-flick their bottle-caps towards the finish line, avoiding their “cars” getting out the track or stopping on trap areas that require players to go back, miss a turn etc.
Combine this long history of racing games with the relatively straight forward rules of the modern sport and you end up with a lot of designs. Players don’t need to have a deep understanding of strategy or real-life gameplay. Cars move in one direction around a track until someone wins. But there are quite a few ways you can represent this in a boardgame setting, so let’s run through a few.
The game in this category with the highest BGG rank is PitchCar (1995) from Jean du Poël. It’s a finger-flicking dexterity game that takes about 30 minutes to play and accommodates 2-8 players. That’s one nice thing about some of these sports games, they are really flexible in terms of player count. I don’t know how much waiting around you end up with, but with a dexterity game probably not much. And it’s also likely fairly entertaining gameplay as you watch your friends fail miserably. Also this is the kind of game the whole family can be terrible at.
Next up is Formula D (2008), which is an updated re-release of Formula Dé. This one uses some interesting gear-shifting dice-rolling. Also, as the description notes: “Players take penalties if they miss their roll, bump into another car, are blocked by other cars, have to brake heavily, or have to downshift several gears. These are taken off of a car’s attributes (Tire health, Brake wear, Transmission Gears, Body, engine, and Suspension).”
They really attempt to get at the feel of racing with this one:
The rules include the ability to customize your cars, use a pre-generated character, add Slipstreaming (Drafting) rules and road debris, and change tire types to modify your distance rolls. There are also variations for a single lap race, or multiple laps with pit stops to repair some of your damage points. In addition, numerous expansion tracks can be purchased to vary the demands on each driver and car. Each track may also have weather effects (rain) that change car handling and die rolls due to skidding on wet track. This opens up the game for rally rules giving championship points over a number of races.
For our next one, imagine what GMT, probably best known as a wargame publisher for such titles as Twilight Struggle or the Commands and Colors series, would put out in this category? If Thunder Alley (2014) from Jeff and Carla Horger is your answer then you win! Here’s a taste of the publisher’s description:
Thunder Alley is a stock car racing game for 2–7 players with the feel and flexibility of a card-driven simulation. Drafting, teamwork, accidents, yellow flags, pit strategy, working to lead laps, and sprints to the finish are all included and bring the feel of racing to the game. Players control not one car, but a team of 3–6 cars. Thus, each race is not only a run for the checkered flag but an effort to maximize the score for every car on your team. Winning is important, but if only one car crosses the finish line, your team might end up outside the winner’s circle looking in.
The game is strategic and each player controlling multiple cars adds some interesting dynamics – you would probably seldom feel like you’re completely losing. Not sure this would satisfy the Mario Kart fanatic in our house, but it would be worth a try. The longer I’ve known about this title, the more I want to play it.
We’ve now seen not all sports games are dice heavy – Race! Formula 90 (2013) from designer Alessandro Lala is another interesting example that uses cards. In this one, though, you only control one car and the others are played by “robots”. As the description notes, “Race! Formula 90 is a car-racing game simulating all the typical elements of a motor sport event: car strategies, weather changes, pit stops, tire management, overtaking, doubling, and of course damages and crashes.” Damages and crashes, everyone’s favourite part of auto racing!
But let’s head back to dice for a moment. Do you think we can exit this topic without making note of Formula Motor Racing (1995), the curious combination of “designer of everything” Reiner Knizia and aforementioned wargame publisher GMT Games? This one is uses both dice and cards, takes 20 minutes to play and is for 3-6 players. There is no track, but cards define car advancement and what your car does. Powerful cards require a dice roll, adding luck of the pips to luck of the draw. Also, it’s probably the only way to get a light racing game in 20 minutes without it being a dexterity game. As much as I veer towards heavier strategy games, this is a small game that would be fun with younger kids.
A quick glance tells us there are already going to be several new games in this category this year. Publisher AEG completes their trilogy of Trains and Planes with Automobiles (2016). But it’s more than a lengthily timed joke, it’s a deck builder-ish game of drawing and allocating cubes. Players race around a track in this one and it looks like another racing game for even non-racing fans.
This year we also see GMT and Jeff and Carla Horger bring us another racing game with Grand Prix. I’m not sure how similar this is to their stock car game, but the description tells us that “From 2-11 players can compete in the game controlling either one team of two cars or multiple teams. Players will score in two different ways; individual car scoring where first place is huge and only the top 10 places get any points, and team scoring where the placement of all cars in a race will determine the team score.” 11 players! I’m intrigued.
Finally, if you want to get out of the crowded stadium you can go underground with Street Kings (2016). This one is played in phases and the description says “You’ll start at the bottom using your “D” class cars. As the publisher says:
With the help of your crew, cars, upgrades, and skills, you’ll win races to gain credits and fame. With these credits, you’ll be able to buy parts, hire crew or even advance to the next class. Another way to gain credits is by showing off your ride at local car shows. You’ll also be able to choose locations where the race will take place.
I like that the publisher’s description assures us that “This is not a roll and move, there are no dice in this game.”
NOTE: Now I forgot to mention this one on the podcast itself, but it’s worth noting here as Jeff brought up how Fast and Furious cars can get. Jeff and Carla Horger brought us Fast & Furious: Full Throttle.
But now that our engine’s warmed up let’s shift into looking at a hefty game that combines brutal strategy with incomprehensible rules.
I’m afraid we do not have much to report in the field of Badminton. BGG lists three games. The only two with dates are from 1930 and 1966. All three feature tapping miniature rackets as part of a dexterity game simulation of real badminton. In other words, a pale imitation. Where are the badminton deck builders, the badminton dice rollers, the emerging badminton narratives? Only time will tell what the future holds for this brave little category and this well-intentioned but under-represented sport.
Both sports and boardgames thrive on innovation – as game mechanics evolve and more games than ever hit the market this will undoubtedly have a positive impact on boardgame sports. We can see this already happening in the few sports we looked at here. In the coming weeks I hope to bring you part two of our series, where we’ll continue to explore the evolution of boardgame sports in the remainder of the alphabet.