Last time we barely got started on the sports alphabet. This time we’re going to pick up where we left off – we’re going to look at Baseball, Basketball and the Bicycle / Cycling groups of games. In other words, we’re going to continue to barely get started on the sports alphabet! Let’s begin by tackling baseball.
Baseball has 476 titles listed in the BoardGameGeek database for this family of games, and it also takes the #3 spot of sports with most game titles listed.
With this sport we can go back to 1819. They list the bagatelle, which is historically a billiards like game that focuses on getting a ball past pins and into holes. Wikipedia says it evolved into bar billiards. There’s some argument about the history, but some time after 1819 the bagatelle was standardized at 7 feet 21 inches. So this original version isn’t exactly the kind BGG is talking about in relation to baseball. But if you’ve ever received one of those absurd little plastic games with a tiny ball and a spring loaded plunger on the right then you’ve played the modern variant. You know, the one that your kid gets in a birthday goodie bag and which stops working immediately. And this is one that was themed with baseball. Or basically anything else. But in this case baseball.
The first “baseball” baseball game that BGG lists, however, is Reed’s Game of Base Ball (1885). The description they give tells us that “Reed’s Game of Base Ball is a dexterity game where players use little wooden bats to whack a dowel seated in a groove on the edge of the game board. The space where the dowel comes to rest indicates which Baseball play has occurred.”
Not super exciting, but this time period sees a frenzy of baseball related games being produced. BGG lists 4 titles for the following year, 1886. Two titles for 1888, two for 1890, and so on. It hasn’t really stopped since.
This explosion of popularity isn’t a coincidence, though. As baseball rose in popularity in America in the late 1800s there were attempts to take an amateur sport and turn it professional. The 1870s brought us attempts at forming a “major league” and saw the birth of the National League. This amateur/professional conflict basically ended through this time period and you end up with competition between the National League and the American Association. This competition, and the eventual first attempts of a World Series between the two leagues, is the time period when boardgame baseball explodes in popularity.
There are so many boardgames trying to capitalize on the explosive popularity of baseball during these early years of the sport, which leads to a lot of variations and eventually innovation in how to represent it in game form. While early games seemed to be either miniaturized physical representations of the bat, field, ball, etc, or just a loosely themed roll/spin and move style game, there were a few big changes. One is the electric baseball game. The other is the use of baseball cards. Big League Baseball Card Game (1949), APBA Pro Baseball (1951) and Harry’s Grand Slam Baseball Game (1962) are a few early examples. Baseball is a statistics heavy game, and cards were a great way to tap into the fans’ love of detail. Imagination replaces literal gameplay in these more detailed simulation.
There are so many games through the 1950s and 60s that its just a blur. One title from this period which sticks out, and which has had tremendous staying power (it still ranks #3 in BGG’s Baseball games) is Strat-O-Matic Baseball (1962). Here’s the description for this living baseball game:
An iconic major league baseball game that is so well known that it is exhibited in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The game is conducted with pitcher and batter cards constructed with statistical probabilities so they realistically reproduce the real-life performance of each player for the season represented. The gamer is placed in the role of the manager and/or general manager of a team and controls the batting order, the choice of a starting pitcher, game strategies (hit and run, steals, intentional walks, bunting, positioning of infielders, pinch hitters, defensive substitutions, pitching changes, etc.). If a full season is played, the game produces amazingly realistic statistics at the player, team, and league levels. The game comes in two versions: a cards and dice version that has been around since 1962 and a computer version that automatically looks up play outcomes and compiles player, team and league statistics. Every year, Strat-O-Matic releases new player card sets based on the previous baseball season, seasons past, and some “greats” collections.
The Strat-O-Matic website also notes:
If you are a board gamer, choose card sets from 1911 to the present. For the most recent seasons, you may expand your rosters with Additional Players – excellent for full-season replays and “What-If?” projects. Here you’ll find “total cards” that combine the statistics for players who were with multiple inter-league teams in a season. Look here to find the players who made a splash as a late-season call-up, or who played key roles before injury cut their seasons short.
You can almost see the sweat, hear the curses, feel the spray of chewing tobacco. If I were a baseball fanatic this game would be heaven. As I am not, well, it’s a bit much. But can’t help but be impressed by the exhaustiveness of it all. It’s games like this and Avalon Hill’s Statis Pro Baseball (1971) which must have appealed to hardcore fans of the game.
A recent attempt of capturing the earlier baseball cards plus simplified gameplay (everything looks simple after I look at Strat-O-Matic) is Bottom of the 9th (2015). Designers Darrell Louder and Mike Mullins bring us a light, fast two player game. The publisher says:
It’s the bottom of the ninth inning. The game is tied. It’s down to the home team to score one run to win it all. Unfortunately, the home team is staring down the league’s best closer.
A dice and card game for two players, Bottom of the 9th brings all the excitement of the final three outs of a baseball game into a compact 5-20 minute game session. With variable player strengths, bluffing/deduction, and die-rolling, only the pitcher knows what’s coming and the batter needs to keep his eyes peeled. Bottom of the 9th is played over the course of three outs, or four hits (for one run scored) — whichever occurs first.
Bottom of the 9th includes tons of variable player powers, myriad customizable line-ups, the possibility of two added expansion packs, and rules for advanced league and solo play to keep gamers wanting to play ball time and time again.
Now that’s closer to my speed and knowledge of the sport. But there’s still one more recent title that might fully make me a baseball convert. If there’s one that can do it it’s the top ranked baseball title: Mike Fitzgerald’s Baseball Highlights: 2045 (2015). Let’s read the flavour text and game description:
American baseball was on its last legs as a spectator sport. Football had become the predominant national pastime — that is until the year 2032, the year baseball decided to revolutionize the game and regain the throne!
Starting in 2032, baseball games were shortened to six innings. Pitchers were encouraged to have bionic arm implants to improve their pitching. These cyborgs, or ‘Borgs as they’re affectionately known, were immediately popular and soon ruled the league. In 2041, robotic players were introduced to get more offense back into the game. These robots were similar to designated hitters in that they were used only to bat and did not field. However, recent reports indicate fielding ‘Bots are on the way.
Now in 2045, human players are still in the game and known as Naturals. They are the best fielders by far but are sorely challenged when it comes to hitting and pitching. Some Naturals have learned to hit by swinging before the pitcher starts his windup, which gives them a chance to hit the ball. Although it’s hard for a Natural to get into the league, those who do are popular. Many Naturals have named themselves after the great players of pre-2032 baseball by taking a first and last name borrowed from different star players of the past. The fans love them, and their presence on the team ensures good revenue!
The stage is now set! The fans are energized and root fanatically for their new favorites, be they ‘Bots, ‘Borgs or Naturals!
Baseball Highlights: 2045 is like watching TV highlights of early 21st-century baseball games, with the gameplay being full of theme with no outs or innings and without bogging down in a play-by-play baseball simulation. In this quick and interactive game, two players build their teams as they play, combining both strategy (building your team) and tactics (playing the game) without any of the downtime. During each “mini-game”, each player alternates playing six cards to simulate a full game’s highlights. The mini-game includes defensive and offensive actions, and your single card play may include elements of defensive and/or offensive plays. Do you try to thwart your opponent’s pending hits, put up strong offensive action of your own, or use your better players to do both? Players buy new free agents after each mini-game to improve their roster, and the team who wins the most mini-games in the series is the champ!
You can see why this game ranks so highly. He took the best bits of the sport, set them in the future and added some interesting game mechanics. All packed into 45 minutes! Even if you’re someone who only understands the game at a fairly high-level like me this isn’t a problem. This is one of those titles that really digs deep into the sport and comes out with something innovative and refined. Also one of the only baseball titles that truly interests me. Maybe its the robots and cyborgs.
As an aside, if you’re looking for another great games podcast to check out, I can’t recommend Ludology enough – Baseball Highlights: 2045 designer Mike Fitzgerald cohosts along with fellow game designer Geoff Engelstein.
Now let’s walk over to our next sport.
Basketball makes it on the top ten list of sports games with most titles. It comes in at number 9 with 182 titles listed.
Immediately I wondered how much boardgame strategy we would see in this sport. It seems like it’s less about numbers and behind the scenes plays and more about super-fast gameplay, but that could just be my childhood memories of watching basketball in the 80s.
The first BGG listing for a basketball game arrives not long after its invention as a sport in 1891 by ex-pat Canadian James Naismith. As Canadians we are required by Federal law to acknowledge this fact any time Baseball is discussed, publicly or privately.
Game publisher Chaffe & Selchow brought us, among various sport games they produced, The Game of Basket Ball (1898), with its great cover of a group of women playing the game. Historian Margaret K. Hofer notes that “Women’s Basketball was introduced on the Northampton, Massachusetts campus of Smith College in 1892 less than 1 year after the game’s invention. In 1898 when this table game appeared, women were playing basketball at recreation centers, YWCA’s, college gymnasiums, settlement houses, and high schools across the country.” I did not know this cool piece of history.
The next BGG listing isn’t until 1921, with the dexterity game Star Basketball.
After this there’s only a few titles again. This makes sense, though, as the sport wasn’t formalized until 1946, as the Basketball Association of America (BAA) which becomes the NBA in 1949 after merging with the other competitive league National Basketball League (NBL).
From this point on there is a steady stream of basketball boardgames.
I have to eat my words that basketball seems less about stats, though, as two of the top ranked BGG titles in this group are Statis Pro Basketball (1972) and Strat-O-Matic Pro Basketball (1973). From our discussion about baseball I think you can guess what these are all about. There’s also the play-decision-heavy game from Avallon Hill, Basketball Strategy (1974).
One other surprise is that there is only a single Michael Jordan themed game listed, Michael Jordan’s Cosmic Court (1996), which must have been a marketing spin-off from the Space Jam movie.
The highest ranking game in this category goes to BasketBoss (2009). Here’s the description:
Each player of this game is the manager of a basketball team.
Draft good new basketball players. With each of these players you see what is his expected value in next 6 seasons. And you see his best field position, his height, and how popular he is which is good for your team funds.
Get assistance from a trainer, player agent, banker or even the referee to win the trophies.
The TRAINER can bring your players on the level they would normally reach next season.
The PLAYER AGENT helps you for getting good prices at the transfer market.
The BANKER gives you a good interest.
The help of the REFEREE makes your team ‘stronger’.
Try to win the most valuable trophies during your manager period. That, and good perspectives for the current season, is all your team fans want!
Bicycle / Cycling
Who would have guessed that Bicycle / Cycling would have more titles than Basketball? Probably everyone but me. With 271 titles listed, it comes in at number 7 on our sports list. And why wouldn’t it, it’s a fairly international sport and it’s essentially the same game mechanics as auto racing.
The early titles in this category come to us from the late 1800s. There are a wide variety of roll/spin and move games, such as Velocipede Wedrennen (1890) with its cool penny-farthing art which represented bike technology at the time (big wheel in front), or Bikee (1899) which shows us the safety bicycle that emerged from the 1880s and 90s (the kind of bike we think of as a modern bicycle). Regardless of technology, this period is considered the golden age of bicycles. It was a great recreational activity and the price of bikes began to come down dramatically. The bicycle craze also brought social change, as women’s fashions of the time were not exactly bike friendly.
And if its in the public consciousness it’s also going to appear in boardgames. As an aside, it’s interesting to note how this trend has never changed – just look at how many Mars themed boardgames we are seeing come out now.
Big hitters like Parker Brothers were of course in on the craze, with The Game of Cycling (1900), also printed as The Merry Game of Bicycling (1900) – both boxes show us a nice cover of men and women both enjoying a country ride together. Milton Bradley joins the party with Bicycle Race (1910), an oval track racing game with a spinner.
From this point the games become more about bicycling as a sport, focusing on winding maps and little racers. There are a lot of European titles listed in the BGG.
The next big innovation in bikes seems to come in the 1970s with the introduction of the BMX. And of course this will be represented by a dreadful looking roll and move called BMX Challenge (1970). But that’s the only BMX game listed until 1985. Raleigh Burner Freestyle BMX Card Game (1985) comes along, and it’s well worth reading the box description for this one:
BMX is one of the fastest growing sports today. Not everyone can get to race on a BMX track but with care and skill can learn many freestyle “tricks” almost anywhere. You don’t even have to own a BMX bike to play this game, but if you do, playing it will show by “stop action” sequence: Wheelies, Endos, Pogos, Buckin’ Broncos, Kickturns and lots more. The winner is the player who “performs” by collecting the most sets of freestyle “tricks”.
The game is back by the people who should know – Raleigh and their BMX Factory Team. Get to know your Pogos from your Endos!
But this isn’t the only radness from publisher Waddington’s that year. They also brought us Raleigh Burner BMX Game (1985). With little plastic bikes, jumps and berms!
Now let’s shift gears a little bit before we get too overwhelmed by all the awesome.
The big title in this category is the 1992 Spiel des Jahres winner Um Reifenbreite (1979). It easily sits in the #1 game rank spot for this family of games.
I’m going to link to a great article outlining the history of the game over at OpinionatedGamers.com – they talked to designer Rob Bontenbal to unravel the story behind this one and it’s pretty fascinating. Teaser: It involves a warehouse fire. They also give a nice overview of their gameplay experience with it.
Here’s a brief BGG blurb of gameplay:
Translating as “By the Width of a Tire,” this game covers a Tour de France-type of bicycle race. Each player takes control of a four-member racing team, and the goal is to score as many points as possible for the whole team. Movement is primarily handled by dice, however a limited card set partially replaces die results. Once you add unique rules which allow riders to draft one another and multiple kinds of road surfaces, this game has much to offer race fans.
At first it sounds like a basic roll and move, but there’s energy cards that affect gameplay considerably. It might not win the SDJ award today, but it still sounds like a game I’d like to try. Some people are turned off by the cartoony art, but I think it fits the time period perfectly. Sadly, it was posted on BGG that designer Rob Bontenbal passed away October 23rd 2015.
Let’s take a look at the #2 title in this category: Leader 1 (2008) from designers Christophe Leclercq and Alain Ollier. This game reminds us of the interesting advantage bike racing has over auto racing for game design – modular hex tiles for the game board. Now, to be fair, 2008 also brought us Antoine Bauza’s contribution to Auto Racing games with Hurry’Cup! (2008), which also uses the modular hex setup. But this design seems somehow more suited to bike races – when we think of Tour de France I bet we mostly think of those brutal, winding hills. Then again, a rally race game with this design could also work really well.
Leader 1 also uses “energy” as a mechanic. Here’s the BGG description of how this one plays:
In each of the 5 teams there are different types of cyclists: 1 rouleur, 1 climber and 1 leader. Different tracks can be arranged with the hexagons reproducing different types of routes: plain, ground rise, mountain pass and downhill.
Every cyclist enjoys the benefits of a free base movement which varies according to his specialty and according to the hexagon at the beginning of his movement. After this kind of movement every racer can add a paying movement. Therefore, the race is based on the riders’ energy management: initially the riders are all inside the peloton, where it is easier to save energy, but then they will have to find the proper moment to break away to open the definitive gap ahead of the peloton.
The slipstreaming rule assures the simulation of the easier breaking away with a fellow, saving energy by swapping places. Cracks, falls and punctures make the simulation more complete.
Leader 1 has a simple yet fascinating mechanism: players decide the placement and energy management of their riders, facing all the elements of a “classic” or “stage” race.
One of the other highly rated titles in this family of games is Breaking Away (1991). This time we leave the fresh air and enter the velodrome. While it seems like player count varied with edition, here’s the basic description:
Breaking Away is a luck-free race game based on cycling. Players control a team of four cyclists. For each cyclist the player chooses one of his available movement allowances and moves that many squares. Once all cyclists have moved, the expended movement allowances are replaced with new ones calculated according to the cyclist’s position in the peloton; being at the back of a group brings a high replacement value, and being at the front a low one.
Sprint points are earned by being among the first eight to cross the sprint lines so there is always a trade-off between slipstreaming (“drafting”) the other riders in order to build up high movement allowances and making a break for the front to be the first to cross the finish line.
This one has a 60-90 minute playtime. The more I see the round tracks the more I like the idea of playing on modular race boards. That said, if you’re a fan of bicylce racing then there are a lot of options out there for you. Some capture the general feel, some get a lot more into the details of the sport. We glossed over some highlights but there are a lot of possibilities in presenting the feel of the sport.
And that’s it for this episode! I thought we might escape the letter B this time! That’s alright, though, we dug a little deeper into the social history that lead to some of the innovations in these sports and explained some of the development of these sports in boardgame form. In the coming weeks we’ll continue digging through the boardgame sports alphabet.