Baseball on the Table-top

Part II: Comparing Baseball Boardgames

by K-ban

   Everyone remembers their first one. Anticipation for Spring Training, roster cuts, exhibition games and then the marathon of a full Major League Baseball season begins. For me, it was 1961 and the only team in New York at the time, the Yankees. I was heartbroken by Mazeroski’s walk-off 7th game World Series HR that ended my first mini-season of baseball. So is it any wonder that my litmus test for judging baseball games is in the context of a 1961 Yankee season replay? Ironically, these days my two favorite baseball teams are the NY Mets and whoever is playing the Yankees. 

  1961 was an interesting season, the first with expansion from the original 16 teams and a resulting increase in schedule from 154 to 162 games. The chase, by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, to break Babe Ruth’s single season homerun record of 60 held this then 8-year old's attention for a lifelong obsession with our national pastime. 

   The baseball games that existed in the 60’s were limited to the statistics that were available at the time. There was no Internet to provide lefty/right splits, ballpark effects, and other drill-down stats that are commonplace today. Considering the data that Dick Seitz, Hal Richman and the group from MN had to work with, they did a pretty decent job of simulating baseball on the table-top. 

   When I was in my teens, replaying an entire 162 game season for a single team with full statistics was a labor of love. Today I just don’t have the time for keeping the stats but still enjoy playing the games and seeing the statistical output generated.  The solution to replaying the 1961 Yankee season with a variety of games and keeping accurate statistics was discovering a piece of software called Ballstat/Ballscore (http://ballstat.com ). This $20 download allows me to replay the 1961 season with actual lineups, keep score, compile stats and roll dice on-screen while I keep the game cards and charts in front of me and see why a particular result happened. Using Ballstat/Ballscore, I can have my cake and eat it too. The only caveat is that it will take those with moderate computer skills a few games to start thinking like the program does, as the learning curve is substantial. 

   So my plan (and I’m close to half way done) is to play at least 2-3 complete series with each game that has a rated 1961 card set. Most baseball games are intuitive and after a couple of games the reliance on charts lessens as result numbers are memorized. My thoughts on each of the games follow (in order of their original publication).

APBA Baseball - Basic 

   The strength of the Basic version of APBA Baseball is the simplicity and the speed of play. Roll a red and white d6, read the dice as two-digit # from 11-66. Find the result off the batter's card next to the # rolled. Possible results give you values ranging from 1 to 42. If the value is 1-11, it is modified by the pitchers grade (A thru D) on the appropriate chart. If the value is 12-42, the result is modified by team fielding and the pitcher's propensity to allow walks and strikeouts. There are 8 separate result charts depending on base runners. (bases empty through full)

   By the end of your first game you have already memorized that ‘13’ is a strikeout, ‘14’ is a walk and ‘1’ is a Homerun. The learning curve on APBA is short and the game moves along at a brisk pace.

   My main problem with APBA is that the effect of pitching is trivialized. A pitcher’s grade will turn some singles into outs but have no control over HRs allowed or any extra base hits for that matter.

   Fielding is accomplished by adding up the ratings of the starting line-up (under 35 total=’3’ (worst fielding), 36-40 = ‘2’, 41 or over =’1’ (best). There are variants to individualize certain result numbers to particular individual fielders.

   Base running is also very generic. Players are either ‘S’ for slow, nothing, or ‘F’ for fast. Base running and stealing are done automatically for you by the 8 base situation boards.  

   To its credit, APBA has card sets available for almost every MLB season and the cards are very attractive and colorful with effective use of red and black and rounded corners. APBA purists scoff that the current sets actually have player stats and season printed on them.

   APBA introduced their Master Game charts and symbols in 1976. The Master Game provided pitcher ratings expanded to 30 Grades, ‘GHLM’ ratings for HRs allowed, Balks & Wild Pitches, and for durability. Outfielders and catchers were given throwing ratings. Base running speed was further graded for base advancement. Batters are given a generic platoon rating. The cost of these improvements, however, is that many plays now required additional die rolls and complexity is increased. For experienced APBA players, this extra level of detail was most welcomed.

   APBA has more spin-offs and alternate card set producers than any baseball game. The challenge seems to be making APBA more realistic/accurate without adding complexity and charts (and to playing time)…the search for the mythical ‘tweener’ game. (the most successful of which is Bill Staffa’s Skeetersoft). Trade offs, of accuracy for playability, is tricky business, indeed.

   The computerized version of the APBA Master Game is Baseball for Windows, which hasn’t been updated since 1998 but does feature the voice of the late Ernie Harwell as ‘Broadcast Blast’. 

   APBA celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2001. It popularized statistical baseball games and still has hundreds of thousands of admirers playing versions of its games including a recent US President. 

Negamco/Big League Game Co.

   In the late 1950’s thru the early 80’s there were two brands of baseball games produced by the same company in Duluth, MN. I cut my eye teeth on their budget line, Negamco Baseball. It was a quantum leap over All Star Baseball. Negamco took the opposite tack from APBA and started with the pitcher. Players were not individually carded but appeared on team rosters. Each pitcher had a ‘P’ rating of 1-7 (based on batting average against, lower being better), a ‘W’ rating for control and a ‘K’ rating for strikeouts. Thus Whitey Ford was a 3-3-13 (P-W-K) for the ’61 Yankees.

   The basic play procedure started by spinning a number from 1-50 and checking it on the appropriate ‘P’ chart against the pitchers ‘W’ rating. If a ‘W’ appeared, the batter reached base with a walk. If not, you moved on, comparing the batters hitting letter (A-Z) to the spun number. That could result in singles, strikeouts or blank spaces. Mickey Mantle in 1961 would be rated an ‘It5’, but light hitting Bobbie Richardson would be an ‘Nt13’. If a hit is indicated, then a homerun chart is consulted against HR ratings from 1-13. If a ‘d’ or ‘t’ is indicated after a single and the batter has the matching rating, then the single becomes a double or triple. If blank spaces are indicated, then a separate out chart (by base situation) is consulted with possible fielding rating checks. The process is simpler to demonstrate than describe and actually works fairly well and quickly.

     The drawbacks to this system were that batters were not rated for walks and strikeouts and pitchers were not rated for giving up gopher balls. Batting average was accurate to within about 20 batting points. Fielding was a single number based on fielding percentage.

     A Negamco Fan in Halifax, Canada (Steve Miller) created remedies for most of Negamco’s shortfalls recently by adding individual cards with ratings modifications that he aptly calls ‘Negamco Plus’ and uses the game’s original charts.  For example, Bobby Richardson would lower a pitcher’s walk rating by 3 levels but Mantle would raise it by 4 levels. Several seasons were rated and can be downloaded on the tabletop-sports.com site in the baseball downloads section.

   The Duluth crew had a deluxe game called Big League Manager that my childhood best friend Sal D’Agostino (now with the Elias Sports Bureau) played regularly. BLM featured individual player cards and huge colorful play result boards with a spinner that went from 1-100 as the randomizer. Unfortunately there were no percentile dice in 1960. BLM did break new ground in rating pitchers separately for bases empty vs. men on base. Both companies were effectively put out of business in the early 80’s by licensing requirements/royalty payments from MLB and the Players Union. Their newsletter, All Sports Digest (ASD) provided interesting features that enhanced game play and provided bonuses to young fans. ATC still exists as an eBay store, selling off remaining inventory of Negamco, BLM and Pro Table Games. (PTG were the publishers of some excellent NBA and NHL games using cards that looked a lot like APBA and using a 4 dice system. I played a lot of PTG Basketball solo from 1968-1974, during the Red Holtzman days of the New York Knicks.)

Strat-O-Matic Baseball 

   Stat-O-Matic took a different approach to the batter-pitcher confrontation, one of 50/50. In S-O-M, three d6 are thrown. A single die directs the gamer to the batter's card with a roll of ‘1-3’ and to the opposing pitcher’s card with a roll of ‘4-6’. The remaining two dice (a contrasting color to the ‘column die’) is added as a sum from 2-12. The results are in plain English (SINGLE, groundball, Strike Out, etc). The charm of Strat is that 60 to 75 % of all at-bats are resolved by a single roll of the dice with chart look-ups needed mostly for fielding plays. This allows the game to move along rapidly. Cards are far more unique in S-O-M than in any other baseball game (leading to second guessing of one’s managerial decisions) and provide season stats on the bottom of the card. A pitcher’s propensity for allowing extra base hits instead of just opponent’s batting average makes each pitcher quite different and forces one to manage a staff carefully.

   Basic fielding is a combination of range and errors into a single number from 1-4, with the best fielders getting the coveted ‘1’ rating and the worst a ‘4’, with most rated in between. Base-runners receive a letter grade from AAA down to E and base running ‘splits’ from 1-8 for a base-path clogging catcher through 1-17 (out of a possible 20) for a fleet-footed runner. Initially, the result draw was accomplished with orange ‘split cards’, later with a d20. Split numbers make for a finer gradation of results and IMHO add suspense to results like ‘HOMERUN 1-14, DOUBLE 15-20’. It’s subtle but all positive results in Strat are in CAPS (drawing one’s eye to the result) with negative batting results in lower case.

   Hal Richman’s first fully carded season was 1962 as 1961 was essentially an expanded all-star collection, reprinted in advance format many years later. Cards were one-sided Basic-only through 1971 when the advanced edition was introduced. The innovation of S-O-M advanced cards were that they are now 2-sided, with the basic 3-column format on the front done in portrait orientation while the back was done as landscape with 6 columns, half vs. right-handers and half vs. lefties. The advanced game also split fielding ratings into both range (1 thru 4) and error propensity (e0 – 50). Homeruns allowed by pitchers when facing weak batters are limited by the addition of ‘W’ (weak) and ‘N’ (normal) Power ratings for batters. The advance game adds 10-15 minutes to the Basic game but is well worth the extra effort.

   The super advanced game added symbols to the Advanced side of Strat’s cards including ballpark effects, clutch plays, pitcher endurance and base-stealer ‘jump’ ratings.

   On-line debates concerning how 50/50 games (Strat-O-Matic, Pursue the Pennant/Dynasty, Ball Park) handle statistical anomalies called "outliers". Since the pitchers and batters, in aggregate, will perform at the league average, there is a limit on how high or how low a player at the extremes can possibly go. Hitters like the Yankees Bobby Richardson (who rarely walked) or Atlanta Brave pitcher Greg Maddux (who rarely walked batters) will have trouble reaching their true stats because of the league average being used in 50/50.  My take is that there has to be a trade-off between playability and absolute statistical accuracy. If the object of playing a game is to have fun, then playability should take precedence. If your personal objective is having the absolute most accurate stats, then Strat may not be your favorite. I’ve played baseball games that handle the stats a tad better than Strat but have found them to feel more like work than play.  (For a fascinating read on the history of Strat-O-Matic, pick up a copy of the book Strat-O-Matic Fanatics by Glen Guzzo.) Strat-O-Matic will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary in Manhattan this February. 

Next GAR Issue – Part 3 – Baseball Games of the 70’s …a look at Replay, SI/Superstar and Statis-Pro Baseball…how all are surprisingly alive today.