First up is a game I think of as being about as boardgame-able as badminton: Billiards. Or Snooker. Or Pool. What I mean is that it might work in miniature form as a dexterity game. But it’s a game that begs for literal representation. We don’t have Snooker the RPG or Billiards the bluffing game. We have a wooden table, long pointed sticks, chalk and some small, solid spheres to knock around.
The only game in this family with a rank in the BGG database (which means it received enough people giving it a vote to be ranked) is 1970’s Paddle Pool (also known by its later street-wise name Battle Ball). Milton Bradley put out this title which feels in some way to be a larger, inverted version of Hungry Hungry Hippos which had been published in 1966/67 (and was later also picked up by Milton Bradley). In terms of having anything to do with Pool/Snooker/Billiards – well, there’s a ball and a pocket. There’s also a hinged paddle at the pocket for shooting with and up to four players, so essentially nothing like pool.
Is there a way to represent this in boardgame form in a more abstracted way? How do you capture the essence of the game, the smell of spilled lager, the stench of fear over being thrashed by that shark you mistakenly placed a hefty wager with?
Wait, this just in – 1988 brought us Snookcard. The rather incredible description tells us that it’s:
A card game based on the table snooker ball game. Each player starts with seven card(ball)s. The top cardball from the deck is turned over and becomes the ‘option cardball’. A player then takes either the option cardball or the top card from the deck and then places a card on top of the option cardball. A player may then make a break. A minimum break consists of a white cardball, a red cardball and a colored card ball (following the rules of snooker). As the red cards are played they are placed in the pockets in the snookard box. Later the colored balls will also be played into these pockets. A player replenishes back to seven cards. A scoreboard is also provided. The winner of the frame is the player with the highest number of points when the final black is potted. There are also special cards: miscue, snooker, foul, safety shot and free ball.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t understand a word of that. Something about players and points. There may or may not have been cards involved. I’ve read it several times and it’s just not sticking. To be fair I’m not sure I understand snooker, either. Point being, I’m impressed that someone came up with something that isn’t a dexterity game or a pale imitation of the actual thing. It isn’t rated very highly, but I like that it exists.
I wonder if the falling cost of billiards tables over the decades affected attempts to boardgame this? A beautiful billiards table will set you back a few dollars but I’m sure you can get a used one inexpensively. If you’ve ever been asked to help a friend move a billiards table you know how cheap a billiards table can go for. “Hey, anyone want this thing? Like, 50 bucks?”
So, boardgame billiards or the real thing? A small plastic toy or the heft of the real deal? Maybe back when adults hung around the pool table next to the well-stocked bar in the wood paneled basement you had to yell at the kids to go back to playing their inexpensive plastic billiards upstairs. Since this version of reality branched off into it’s own timestream back in the 1970s this is no longer a concern.
Let’s move on to another sport and see if it makes the leap into cardboard form any smoother.
Already I’m skeptical. This seems like another sport that isn’t so much boardgame-able as it is easy to turn into an cheap plastic toy. But let’s reserve judgement.
The top ranked game in this category belongs to games legend Sid Sackson – Bowling Solitaire. This game appeared in his 1969 book A Gamut of Games. The game is played in ten rounds. There are ten places for Pin cards, and two places for Ball cards. The Pin cards are layed out like an inverted pyramid ten pin bowling setup. The Ball cards are placed in piles below the draw pile.
The challenge in this game is that there are only ten Pin placements and thirteen card ranks in the deck. You will place cards from smallest at the bottom to largest at the top. You’ll then try to fill in the remainder of the Pin piles. This means that three the card ranks will not fit in the Pin piles.
To get a strike you need to fill all Pin piles before placing any cards in the first Ball pile. To score a spare you need to fill the Pin piles before placing any cards in the second Ball pile. The round will end when you have filled each of the Ball piles with three cards.
I really like this. It’s a simple but thematic variation that makes Solitaire a little more interesting.
Which means my theory that there are no good Bowling games is immediately tossed into the gutter.
When we look a little closer at tabletop Bowling games we immediately come to realize that modern Bowling is based on a very old game known as Skittles. It originates in the 1700s and goes by many names – Devil Amongst the Tailors, Bar Skittles, Table Skittles or Indoor Skittles. Originally it involves nine pins standing up in formation and the player would swing a little ball tied to a string in an attempt to knock them down. A newer variant seen in pubs is Hood Skittles where players attempt to knock down pins, set up on a table surrounded by leather cushioning, with cheeses (which I assume are either wooden or rancid).
Games that go under the title of Skittle-Bowl rank number 2 in the BGG Bowling list.
This diversion was interesting and a nice buffer from the number 3 rank Bowling game, Bowl and Score.
The description reads as follows:
This very simple game consists of ten regular dice with a picture of a bowling pin on one side and blanks on the other five. Players roll all the dice. Any blanks are set aside and represent the number of pins knocked down with the first ball. The remaining dice are rolled and scored the same way. This represents one frame. Players take turns for ten frames. Score is figured just like regular bowling.
At this point I blacked out for a while from the overwhelming number of dice based or miniature pin Bowling games. When Jeff woke me up with smelling salts I screamed loudly about not wanting to have to talk about games like Bowling For Zombies!!! (and yes, it has three exclamation marks presumably to differentiate it from the less shouty Bowling Zombies). Or versions like Nun Bowling. Or Bowling Dice. Which means I immediately began swinging at Jeff which he mistook for wild aggression but which I used as an indicator that it was time to look at Boxing games.
What’s the best way to simulate a sport where the objective is not getting cauliflower ear? With cards, of course!
All the top ranked games in the Boxing family of boardgames use this in various ways. JAB: Realtime Boxing (2011) is the leader. This is an interesting attempt at capturing the feel of the sport:
JAB is a skill-centric strategic boxing card game. In JAB, you get direct control over your boxer’s fists, providing an experience as close as possible to real boxing without getting punched in the face. JAB is played in real-time, meaning there are no turns.
JAB attempts to innovate the real-time genre by challenging a player to be constantly making decisions, rather than simply recognizing patterns or performing calculations. The game also measures your ability to calmly manage your focus in a chaotic situation.
This chaotic real-time game seems to capture the spirit of the sport.
Avalon Hill’s card-driven sports game of Professional Boxing. Play with over 500 current (as of 1979 and up to 1990) and all time great Boxers for each weight division. Create tournaments, arrange fantasy matchups and title bouts. Ali vs Marciano? That can happen in this game. The game can simulate a bout of 10,12, or 15 rounds. There are TKO’s, injuries, and KO’s. Different card strategies can be employed to influence each bout as well.
Instead of driving through a pile of variations on this, let’s talk about one of the nicest looking Boxing games: Knockout (2014), from designer Fréderic Moyersoen. The card art by Brett Mitchell is phenomenal. While it’s another card based game, it uses a gridded board with little boxers to represent the match. I’m not sure how the mechanics of this game play out but it has an evocative visual appeal well above the rest. It looks more graphic novel than boxing game.
And now that I’ve sustained yet another boardgame related head injury, it’s time to move on to a less violent sport.
Combat Sports / Martial Arts
Wait, I said less violent. Sigh. Alright, Jeff, pass me my headgar. We’re going a few more rounds.
But wait again! The first game up is not about me getting kicked in the teeth, it’s a fencing game! And because this has so far been a Reiner Knizia free episode we must also now remedy that. Top ranked game in this category is Knizia’s En Garde (1993). The description promises that we will:
Experience the thrill of fencing— board game style! In this two-player game, tactics, skill, and a little bit of luck will determine the best fencer. Teach yourselves the concepts with the basic game, test yourselves with the standard game, and challenge yourselves with the advanced game. Cards fly back and forth as the fencers attack, and parry-riposte.
Who will be bold enough to attack first? Is it possible to win with that initial attack or has your opponent beguiled you into an attack while waiting to mount a parry-riposte?
En Garde is a very dynamic game— strategically rich yet easy to learn and play. Three levels of rules are included in the game.
This is a really light card game with a small board representing the spaces between the players as they jockey for ground until they finally attack, but it looks like fun. If you’re looking for it now note that it was re-implemented as Duell (2004).
Yet it’s not all absurdity. Games like Dojo Kun (2015) even employ worker placement as a mechanic for training, with dice used for combat. At 60-90 minutes it’s certainly no dexterity game.
Since this category shows us that it has much more to offer than a bunch of racial stereotypes (though I’m sure there’s plenty buried in here), let’s move on.
If top ranked Cricket game Armchair Cricket (1981) is the finest this sport has to offer then I think we need to talk to the ministry of innovation. Despite how thrilling it sounds, I’m suspect:
Captures all the excitement of the real game, whether Limited Overs, Test Matches, or knockabout “Beer” matches. Players take turns batting and bowling at each other, using a unique scoring system based on the specially designed playing cards.
I do not have a clear understanding of Cricket, and I also do not have a clear understanding of what makes that game fun. But that is most likely my loss, and generally indicative of my vast sporting ignorance.
I would wager that Cricket aficionados find themselves more engaged by International Cricket (1985), which is described on the BGG as:
A great replay cricket game in the same spirit as Strat-o-Matic. The game is still produced under license from Owzat Games and new sets of play cards are created to supplement the game, from recent years to historical series. Without doubt, it is the best ball-by-ball replay cricket game available, and unlike many of the bigger name quickies over the past 30-40 years, it has astounding replay value, an active online community and a host of great addons (including weather and pitch packs, domestic teams and the above mentioned yearly updates).
With 120 minute gameplay time listed I believe they are not bluffing on this one.
If you’re tired of detail, though, you may be more inclined to play Subbuteo Cricket (1949), a dexterity game based on Subbuteo which was originally about football/soccer. Little minis, finger flicking!
While a lot of these titles seemed fairly similar to me, which is a commonality with every sport we’ve looked at so far, let’s go back to the first Cricket title listed in the BoardGameGeek. With a title of How’s That (1900), and a bunch of counters and dials, I wasn’t even sure it was a cricket game until I zoomed in and saw the two tiny bats on the box cover. It is one of the most modest looking sports games I’ve seen so far.
Although Cricket might not be a massive North American sport it’s popular worldwide which leads me to believe there’s probably some other interesting and innovative Cricket boardgames hiding out there somewhere. Or everone’s simply outdoors enjoying the sunshine and playing Cricket.
A sport I definitely only expected to see in finger flicking dexterity form is Curling. Now while the top ranked Curling game in BGG does hold true to this, it also employs the unexpected theme of prehistory: Caveman Curling (2010). Because, obviously, right? I guess if you thought about what sports cavemen would play it would make sense they would use frozen ice and stones. But this one has nice art and looks like a fun dexterity game.
The remainder of this family of sports games looks like very subtle variations on a theme. Until you get to Hurry Hard! The Curling Card Game (2012). Here’s the description:
Hurry Hard! The Curling Card Game is a fun, fast paced card game suitable for curling fans of all ages. Grab your teammates and take on your fiercest rivals to decide once and for all who really rules the ice. Or go head-to-head against a fellow curler to determine who will be King of the Rings.
Playable by two, four, six or even eight players, Hurry Hard! recreates all the action on the ice in a fun, easy to learn card game. Players take turns throwing guards, draws, or takeouts. Your teammates can then improve the impact of your throw, including through the play of the powerful Hurry Hard! sweeping card to help get your rock a little closer to the button. Watch out though! Your opponents can also affect your throw. The timely play of a Miss the Broom card can ruin an end, unless you have a Plan B card in reserve. After the player with The Hammer throws the last rock, the score for the end is calculated the same as in real curling, based on whose rocks are closest to the button. Then a new end begins.
For non-curlers, the rules explain not just how to play the card game, but also the basic terminology to help you understand the game of curling itself.
For curlers, the game has been well balanced to reward real curling strategy. Deciding when to throw a guard or when to come into the rings can make the difference between scoring a big end or giving up a steal. Just as with real curling, though, no matter how good your strategy, you still need to make your throws.
Every time there is a major sporting event in Canada I am forcibly exiled from the country for my lack of curling knowledge. So I cannot gauge this game. Here’s the publisher’s game play video, I suggest you be the judge on this one:
Fishing / Angling
Sadly, there have never been any Fishing / Angling games ever designed. Except the 150 plus titles that place it in the number 10 spot of sports with most boardgames.
The top ranked one, Fleet (2012), even has a non-fisherman and all-around vegan like me intrigued:
In the northwest corner of Nunavut, Canada, a formerly inaccessible bay off of the Arctic Ocean has become reachable through a secret inlet. Untouched by the hands of time and fed by both the ocean and warm fresh water springs, Ridback Bay is teeming with sea life. A remote, timeless bayside village is now being inundated by entrepreneurs awaiting the influx of the world’s greatest fisherman to harvest this plentiful bounty. The docks and warehouses are being revitalized, and now it is time to begin the real adventure. Go build your Fleet and become master of the high seas!
Fleet is an exciting, strategic card game with in-depth decisions and thrilling game play that new and experienced gamers can enjoy! In Fleet, you’ll acquire licenses, launch boats, and fish the great briny blue. The player who best manages his resources and acquires the most VP via fish, licenses, and boats will build the strongest fleet and lead his crew to victory!
Any game that involves bureaucratic elements like licensing has me hooked. But if that sophisticated sounding title doesn’t interest you maybe you’d prefer something with hexagonal tiles or penguins? Hey, That’s My Fish! (2003) gives you both!
In Hey, That’s My Fish!, players want to catch as many fish as possible with their waddle of penguins. Each turn, a player moves one penguin in a straight line over hex-shaped ice tiles with 1, 2 or 3 fish on them. The player then collects the hex from where the penguin started its movement from the table, thereby creating a gap which penguins can’t cross on future turns. When a penguin can’t move, it’s removed from play with its owner claiming the tile on which it stands. The player who collects the most fish wins.
The games listed in this category are diverse. There are dexterity games that are about the literal act of fishing with magnets and such, and more complex games about the management of resources on a boat or about taking fish to market. Because this sport has these two elements, the physicality of fishing and resource management, it means you get a wide array of approaches to games in this category. It also means that I’m not sure how many of these games should even be tagged in this sport family. What is the definition of Fishing as a sport? Should this only include recreational fishing or is ok to include commercial fishing (which are where the more complex fishing games seem to fall). If it’s about sport should we only talk about games that are based around the number or size of fish a player catches? Probably. But then this category would be a lot less interesting I think because we are suckers for resource management games. It’s no surprise, then, that the only fish related game in my house is Fresh Fish (2014), a Friedemann Friese title about building market stalls close to delivery trucks. Interestingly, this game is only listed under the City Building category – which is probably appropriate because it has nothing to do with Fishing. In other words, I’ve realized there are loads of fascinating games listed under Sport: Fishing in BGG, but I don’t know how many of them should be there.
I like that the oldest listed game in this family is The Improved Game of Fish Pond (1890). In this game each fish has different values and your objective is to catch as many as possible. The fish are cardboard and the hooks are metal. I’m going to presume they are not sharpened, although it was the 1890s so who knows. After a hard 14 hour day at the factory maybe kids liked to relax with a little dangerous game of cardboard fishing.
It’s interesting that the oldest game here nails the idea. Catching the most fish. That said, this is a family of games that’s worth browsing through because you’re bound to find some interesting resource management games.
Instead of ending this episode now as reasonable people would, let’s take a giant gasp of air to begin the nonstop running required to cover our next, and final, sport for this episode.
Football / Soccer
Of course it’s no surprise that the sport with the most boardgame representation would be one of the most popular sports played around the world.
With over 750 titles (and there were several added since I began this series, probably dozens since this morning), boardgame Football / Soccer is massive.
At an overall rank of 960 in the BGG database, our first title is pretty big: Subbuteo (1947). Here’s the BGG description which identifies why it’s so popular:
Subbuteo is a classic finger-flicking football-simulation action game. It is played on a large cloth playing field called a “pitch”, with teams of players that are represented by miniature men mounted on smooth round bases. The men are made to kick the ball by flicking their bases, which causes the men to slide around on the pitch, hitting the ball. The rules simulate nearly all details of a soccer game including ball possession and passing, throw-ins, goal kicks and corner kicks. There is even a large section in the rules devoted to fouling.
Far more popular in European countries than in the United States, this game allows collectors to buy teams of men representing dozens of teams and countries from around the world, along with soccer stadium enhancements such as stands filled with cheering fans, referees that stand on the sidelines, even stadium lights.
Now, you’re saying to yourself “that’s fine and well, but tell us more about the oldest titles.”
Other than bagatelle or old maid, the oldest Football / Soccer games in this family are tied for the year 1900. There’s Piktee, which is a set collection card game. Your aim in Piktee is to collect at least five of one team. The player to score 500 points wins. The most interesting part is a penalty card that costs you 25 points if it’s in your hand when “Piktee” is called – no idea what that means.
Then there is Flipkick (1900), which is a dexterity game. Whoever added it to the BGG wrote:
The board is anything you can find to act as a board, maybe an old blanket. The wire supports fasten the goals and the blanket to the table. Up to 4 can play. With your finger, you literally flick the ball, hopefully goalwards. There are no player figures so I expect the game got quite frenetic, especially with four players.
The most goals wins.
And so ends innovation in the Football / Soccer category.
Alright, just as with all of these sports games there are always interesting quirks added. I suspect the reason this category has so many titles is because of the number of countries/languages supported. Sure, there might be several hundred-thousand finger-flicking dexterity games designed for Football / Soccer, but when you break that down regionally it’s not that many. Like 3 per country. And next week we’re going to do an episode about Maths / Math games.
Let’s return to recent years now, though. Although Subbuteo has the highest rank, there is a recent game that has had more votes and has rank #2: StreetSoccer (2002). It’s a title from the Netherlands, and here’s the description of gameplay:
In this game 2 StreetSoccer teams play a 25 ‘minute’ match.
The soccer field is 10 spaces long and 6 wide (plus spaces outside the lines).
The 2 players of this game both are coaches of one team.
Both coaches have 5 StreetSoccer player figures (incl. the goalie).
A die determines your number of spaces to move one of your figures. If you reach the ball you shoot the ball by the unused number of pips on the die plus one, and can make passes between players of your team.
The die makes luck a part of this game. But your choices, like which player you move to which field and where to pass the ball are very important. For the following turns you calculate chances for your opponent and yourself and you try to have your players in good positions for later situations.
It’s worth noting that the designer of StreetSoccer re-implemented the game as Champions 2020 in 2011. “While StreetSoccer simulates soccer with five players on a side on a small square, Champions 2020 simulates stadium soccer, so the field is bigger. As coach you select 11 players as a starting line-up (goalie, defenders, midfielders, forwards), while the rest of your team starts in the dug-out for possible substitutes (after warming up).”
And while I’m not a huge fan of roll and move games, I suspect the 8 year old soccer fanatic in my house would love this game and I probably would too.
If you are looking for something slightly heavier, something less about finger-flicking simulation of the sport and more about the high-level competition, then The World Cup Game (2006) might be for you. The game accommodates 3-16 players and takes about three hours to play. It looks like an economic euro game but seems to play more like a party game. This title ranks #3 in the Football / Soccer listings and looks like one of the more interesting titles out there. As well, there’s heaps of expansions covering world cups, so it looks like a fun game you can break out while you’re in the midst of an intense World Cup fever.
It doesn’t look like there’s a FIFA corruption scandal expansion, which is unfortunate. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any games covering this topic at all. I for one am excited for a Panama Papers board game with a FIFA expansion. Now that I’ve said it out loud I will spend a sleepless night designing this in bed. I think this would pair well with the Snowden board game that needs to be made.
Before we conclude this week’s episode we should give the answer to the question you all have: Tor (1995, re-implemented 2012). Also Kick (1995). These are, of course, Reiner Knizia’s contributions to Football / Soccer games.
If you want to mention any titles we undoubtedly overlooked please leave a comment below. You can also find James on twitter @epicgumdrop.