[K-ban, aka Steve Kurzban, has been an active gamer for decades. Always a fan of sports games (with a strong affinity for baseball and race car simulations), K-ban has always been a strong influence in spreading the joy of gaming, from running backgammon and Strat-O-Matic Baseball leagues in the 1970s and early 1980s, to reporting on the New York International Toy Fair for GA Report, to voicing on internet forums his always intelligent opinions about games and gaming, to playing host to fellow game enthusiasts from around the world (providing these lucky folks with food, lodging and a venue for game playing), to being one of the founders (AND the main organizer) behind weekly game sessions of the Long Island Gamers, one of the longest running and active gaming groups in the United States! K-ban made his first appearance in Gamers Alliance Report with his review of a computer version of Strat-O-Matic Baseball in the Fall 1994 issue. To launch our 25th year, Steve is doing something a little different: the first ever multi-part series to appear in GA Report. Steve returns to his baseball game roots in Part I of this, his 59th review.]

Baseball on the Table-top

by K-ban

   Thousands of baseball fanatics, mostly kids and teens, supplemented their love of the game of baseball with playing baseball board games during the off-season and on rainy days. The games created a fantasy escape from school and the pains of growing up. Baseball fanatics follow their game and favorite team through statistics that go back over 120 years. No other professional sport has the history or love of number as Baseball. Whether replaying an entire season, having an elimination tournament to determine baseball’s greatest team or drafting a new team, the baseball fanatic can try his skills as a Major League Manager and/or General Manager. As a 17 year old, I remember replaying the entire 162 game NY Mets season with my kid brother, Gary, and manually keeping full statistics to compare with the actual.  

   Prior to 1931, commercially produced Baseball games were generic in nature, either pitcher versus batter guessing games or physical reaction games hitting a disk or marble. All batters and pitchers were created equally. 

   In the early 1920’s Clifford Van Beek of Green Bay WI, invented a new genre of baseball board game, where each ballplayer’s results statistically mirrored their actual on-field performance. Van Beek’s National Pastime was patented in 1925 but didn’t get commercially printed until 1931, based on the 1930 MLB season. It used 2 different colored six-sided dice read as a 2-digit number from 11-66. For each ballplayer, National Pastime had a result number next to each of the 36 possible dice rolls. The result number was then cross-referenced using charts indicating the situational runners on base. The results were easily memorized, with a 9-inning game taking 15-20 minutes to play. There is no evidence that pitching or fielding was represented in Van Beek’s game. NP was produced for one year and died in the midst of the Great Depression when the printer went bust. 

   In 1941 a former major league player, Ethan Allen, invented All-Star Baseball (Cadaco). All-Star Baseball was played with disks representing each batter and pitcher’s hitting card. Each disk had numbers (separated by lines) that represented various hits, outs, walks and strike-outs. The disk would be placed over a spinner to achieve a numeric result, translating to an out or hit. (See photo left.) The game targeted boys through teens, with new sets of 40-63 disks being issued annually through the early 1990’s. As in National Pastime, individual pitching and, defense was ignored. All-Star Baseball was my first exposure to statistical baseball games as a 10 year old. My friends and I swapped sets of disks, drafted teams and formed leagues. ASB was our introduction to using math for gaming…I still remember that Babe Ruth had 182 degrees of getting on-base and using a protractor to make the calculation.

   One of the teenagers playing National Pastime, Richard Seitz of Lancaster, PA, formed a league with his friends called "American Professional Baseball Association" (APBA). Seitz added pitching grades/ratings, defense and base-running to National Pastime. Seitz brought hand-printed versions of his baseball game with him to the 2nd World War. Shortly after the Wiz Kids won the National League Pennant in 1950, Seitz decided to commercially produce his game in 1951 as APBA (photos below). The same 11-66 dice format from NP was used (see photos right) but modified by pitching grades which turned certain hits to outs and fielding ratings (added up for one of 3 team fielding ratings). All 16 MLB teams were printed on cardstock with 20 players per team. By 1957 additional pitchers ratings for walks and strikeouts were added as well as double column cards for some players. In the mid-70’s a Master Edition of APBA was added for those desiring more statistical accuracy.

   In the late 40’s a young man from Long Island, Hal Richman, devised his own “Dice Baseball” game that used regular playing cards and took it with him both to summer camp and to Bucknell University, playing among friends. When APBA was released, Richman went back to the drawing board and revised his statistical baseball game, eventually re-named Strat-O-Matic Baseball.

   The first printing of S-O-M Baseball was in 1961 and was an All-Star edition based on 1960 statistics. The first full season was released in 1963 based on the 1962 season. S-O-M used three d6, one to determine whether the result would come from the batter (1-3) or pitcher (4-6). The other two dice were added together to form a sum from 2-12. (See photos left.) The beauty of Richman’s design was that most results came directly off the cards in plain English. An occasional outside chart was needed to resolve base-runner advancement on outs, bunting, hit & run and for fielding ratings.

   Both APBA and Strat-O-Matic Baseball are currently in print. APBA added a Master Edition to improve base-running, fielding with throwing ratings, HRs allowed and additional advanced strategies. S-O-M added righty-lefty splits for both batters and pitchers, pitcher endurance ratings and fielding that differentiated between range and error propensity to their game in 1971 with the ‘Advanced game’. The player cards were now 2-sided, basic on the front and advanced on the back.. A Super Advanced edition started in the nineties and included clutch ratings, ballpark effects and better stolen base procedures and provided symbols on the advanced side of the cards.   

   There have been many statistical baseball games released over the past 60 years. Quite a few are no longer in print for a variety of reasons, most notably the licensing costs from MLB and the MLB Players Association. Gone but far from forgotten are: All-Star Baseball, Negamco Baseball, Big League Manager Baseball, Extra Innings, Sherco Grand Slam Baseball, Sports Illustrated/Superstar Baseball, Statis-Pro Baseball, Clubhouse Baseball, ASG Baseball and Pursue the Pennant. Recent publishers of note who are actively producing statistical baseball games include: Replay Baseball, Dynasty Baseball, Ball Park Baseball, Time Travel Baseball (resurrected by Downey Games), Statis Pro Advanced and Dice Baseball

   The efforts of baseball statisticians through Project Scoresheet, Retrosheet and many reference web-sites devoted to historical baseball stats has made it easier for game designers and replayers to more realistically capture our national pastime.   

   Several of the baseball board games also have text-based computer editions that mimic the board game version and also keep statistics, schedules and can auto-play for simulations. Some allow the addition of player photos and pictures of the stadiums. APBA (Baseball for Windows), S-O-M, Replay, Dynasty and SIBB (Dombrov) all have fine computer versions. My favorite among the computer games, however, is Diamond Mind Baseball, which started out as the computerized version of Pursue the Pennant but veered off into its own enterprise around 1995. DMB creator, Tom Tippett, is now IT Director for the Boston Red Sox. As reported by the Boston Globe, Tom can run "what if" scenarios prior to Theo Epstein pulling the trigger on a trade or free agent signing.

   Asking a baseball board gamer for his favorite game is like asking about his religion or politics. Whatever you were brought up with is the likely path you will continue to follow. I’ve played almost all of the games I’ve mentioned at one time or another…either as a child or as a board game critic who mostly plays games of European origin as an adult. I’ve recently been waxing nostalgic about my gaming roots as a child and teen. I’ve been having a blast applying most of what I’ve experienced in game mechanics over the past 20 years of adult board games to statistical baseball games. 

   Not so surprisingly, I’m firmly in the camp of a preference for ‘elegance’ and simplicity in design for both Euros and Baseball. Rules complexity and/or too many charts to obtain a result make my brain explode. From my perspective, a game has to first and foremost be FUN. I’m willing to sacrifice some realism for quick and easy play. A baseball season is a 154 or 162 game marathon, not a sprint. A dice baseball game should take 30 minutes to complete with scoring. Anything over that half hour means sacrificing playability for accuracy. If it takes too many steps to resolve a single at-bat in a board game, then it should have been a computerized game in the first place. 

   Ironically, I usually find something to like in almost all the baseball games I’ve played. I’ve also found one or more annoying facets to most games. I continue to try and play most published efforts in the elusive search for the perfect game. I’m old enough to realize I won’t find it, but each new (to me) release tried clarifies the compromises each author/designer chose. 

   In comparing Baseball games I have used 9 criteria, which sounds fitting, as 9 is a key number for baseball…number of players on the field and number of innings in a game. The nine criteria are not equally weighted…but since I’m the judge and jury here, I will assign each a % weight in parentheses adding up to 100. 

1)       Pitcher – Batter confrontation (20) – how is a basic result (hit/out) determined to take into account the influence of both the pitcher and batter?

2)       Flow/Fun (15) – Does the game feel like baseball and play quickly yet realistically?

3)       Realism and Statistical accuracy (10) – Do the results mirror real life? Can you game the game?

4)       Fielding (10) – How are both range and error propensity taken into account? Team vs. individual? Throwing arm for C and OF?

5)       Running (10) – How are both base running and stealing treated, does a fast team alter your managerial moves? Jump for steals vs. automatic? Is taking the extra base determined by the game or manager?

6)       Strategy (8) – How are bunting, Hit & Run, infield in/double play depth/back treated?

7)       Advanced Features (10) – How are righty-lefty splits, ball park effects, odd-plays, power, clutch hitting, pitching jams handled?

8)       Components (10) – Will the box, cards, charts stand up to repeated play? Are the rules clearly written and organized to play the game right out of the box?

9)       # Seasons rated (7)   

Baseball Game Comparison                  
Game       S-O-M     APBA     Replay       SIBB    SP Adv  BallPark      Dice  Negamco
Pitcher-Batter 20 18 13 19 16 20 20 19 12  
Fun-Flow 15 15 15 13 12 10 7 11 11  
Realism - Statistical Accuracy 10 9 6 8 7 8 9 8 5  
Fielding 10 9 4 8 4 6 6 7 5  
Base Running - Stealing 10 8 6 7 6 8 7 8 6  
Strategy 8 6 7 6 5 7 8 6 5  
Advanced Features 10 10 6 8 7 9 10 9 1  
Components 10 8 10 10 6 6 2 7 4  
Seasons rated 7 6 7 3 1 2 7 1 3  
Total 89 74 82 64 76 76 76 52  

Coming Up Next: Part 2 – Detailed comparisons among the games currently in print