An Overview of Baseball Games

Mike Siggins, July 1988.

This is a short article in which I hope to cover some details of the various baseball games and simulations currently on the market. The main idea of these games is that you can break them out at any time you fancy a taste of baseball, even in the depths of December. While it is not imagined that this subject will appeal to all the readers, there will almost certainly be a few who find it of interest. Anyone requiring further information should feel free to contact me. The coverage falls neatly into three areas: board games, computer games and Play by Mail (PBM) or postal games.

My interest in the area is long standing, I have been following baseball for nearly 10 years now (the Phillies for my pains) and have been involved on the gaming side since 1980 when I bought my first copy of Avalon Hill's Statis Pro Baseball. Since then I have acquired most of the baseball games available, played many extensively and have run some of them as postal and face to face leagues. From 1985 I have been editing a baseball column, Inside Pitch, which runs in Ellis Simpson's Sensation! magazine.

The first area, where it really all started, is the traditional boardgame whose formative years were in the 1940s and 50s and baseball card mania. Most of the games simply allow you to take charge of your favourite players, to call the plays and see if you really can out manage Whitey Herzog or whoever your opponent is. This 'role playing' element is their real appeal. The games usually come in a box containing a playing board, rules, scorecards, counters or similar, player cards and either dice or 'fast action cards' - more on these later. Almost without exception the games are designed and printed in the States and imported into the country by UK agents or enterprising shops. Prices vary from around 10 to 30 pounds depending on the size of the company and content. The contact list at the end lists some distributors.

Boardgames fall into three main groups: a) Basic, tactical games which offer the flavour of playing a single baseball game. Players are often anonymous fictional players or historical All Stars. b) Statistic based, replay games which seek to simulate a real game or season as closely as possible using real-life performances from a given season as a basis. c) Macro level league management games where the player runs a team through an entire season playing the full 162 games. Tactical detail necessarily gives way to more strategic possibilities.

In any discussion of board games, the Avalon Hill Game Co of Baltimore will always have centre stage. They produce the licensed range of Sports Illustrated games and are the most readily available baseball games in the UK through TM Games - their very capable agent. They cover around half a dozen baseball titles among the whole sports range which also covers gridiron, basketball, golf, boxing etc. The titles cover the whole range of types mentioned above.

A good starting point is Baseball Strategy. This has player cards with differing abilities and allows all the tactical decisions of a baseball game such as steals, bunts, stretching hits etc. The game revolves around a tactical matrix where the pitching player chooses a type of pitch and the batter a type of swing. The result is read off which indicates an outcome somewhere between an out and a homer. The simple rules, complex outguessing and tactical scope of this game make it one of the best face to face games around. Another basic level game is Superstar Baseball which allows you to match up Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle against todays superstars. It again uses a approachable system which results in a fun game.

Avalon Hill also produce the Statis Pro range which use the past season's statistics to generate a single player card for every player in the majors, over 700 cards in all. This enables the more dedicated player to play entire seasons where the stars will play with their real-life strengths and weaknesses as each one is rated for speed, power, arm strength, fielding, injuries and batting. So McGwire will hit towering home runs, Gooden throws strikeouts while Blyleven throws gophers. The game does not use dice but fast action cards which are needed to generate random numbers to decide the multitude of results the game offers. Everything is covered from injuries to rain delays. Players can even be ejected or injured. Each game takes approximately half an hour including selecting your lineup so in an evening you can cover three or more games. The game requires some effort to get into and a knowledge of baseball is assumed but for me it is still one of the best. New player cards are made available each year.

Pennant Race is typical of the third category of games in that you play the general manager of a major league club. The level here is of selecting your pitching rotation and drafting rookies rather than calling the double squeeze. The emphasis is on the front office and not the dugout. Players are rated numerically for power, batting, speed and fielding but are simply factored into a team figure which enables games to be resolved by six dice. The system is fast, enjoyable and is admirably suited to solitaire play.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that Avalon Hill are the only suppliers of baseball games, it is simply that they are the most likely to be generally available. For the more adventurous, there are many other companies offering baseball games and simulations among which are those from Strat-O-Matic which use dice and similar cards to Statis Pro to produce a quick, accurate game. In the same way that I am a Statis Pro fan, there are equally ardent fans of Strat-O-Matic. Each to his own. Other companies include SPI Baseball (now only secondhand), Baseball Challenge from Tri-Valley, the SherCo baseball simulation, Spikes High, Big League Manager and the massive APBA system. Each has its merits and avid followers but to find these more unusual games may require some digging or special imports. The best UK source is probably Games Unlimited who offer excellent phone advice and postal service on most of these games.

Lastly, and by no means least, is the boardgame currently regarded as State of the Art at the moment. It is called Pursue The Pennant and is really summed up as a combination of all the best parts of the above games. It is a sumptuously produced game and the box cleverly converts, using graphic inserts, into any one of the major league ball parks. The game system is statistic based and covers just about everything. It is available in an introductory set with some recent Allstar players or as the full fledged 26 team version. If you can run to the expense, this is the game to get. As for the future, I still believe we haven't yet seen the ultimate board game - perhaps given the growing knowledge base over here the design may come from the UK?

The early 80's have seen the growth of home computers and logically, given that much of the software derives from the States, there have been a fair few baseball computer games appearing. These split into arcade and strategy games, with some programs offering both options or a mix of the two. The arcade games equate neatly to the basic tactical boardgames except instead of using dice or cards to resolve an at bat, it is down to eye-hand coordination and timing. The strategy games require no such dexterity and are very close to the stat based games in that they simplay require the player to decide lineup, tactics and to call the plays or pitches.

The earliest games were all of the arcade type and often had rudimentary graphics. Numerous games of this type are still available and have come a long way in terms of graphics and sound effects. Over the years, most styles have been used. Aerial views, split screens, behind the pitcher, behind homebase etc. Most work, though your choice will be machine dependent.

I do not intend to write much on this area as it is so admirably covered by a game which is available for most of the major machines. In my opinion the excellent Hardball! from Accolade has this area sown up. This one has superb graphics, the sound has the click of ball on wood and it allows all the tactics you could reasonably expect. Basically, it plays better than all its rivals. The key to my liking the game so much is the excellent handling of pitching and fielding. Each pitcher (the players have fictional names) has a range of four pitches that he has mastered. These cover everything from sliders, curves and change-ups to the rapid fastball which really does beat the batter for speed. Once the pitch is selected, it can be aimed at nine separate areas in the strike zone. The beauty comes when the pitch is actually made as it curves and breaks to give the real feel for having thrown, say, a slider low and away. Unfortunately my favourite pitch, the knuckleball, isn't catered for. The end result is a close simulation of the out guessing and faking that goes on between batter and battery. Just because the pitcher has thrown smoke for two straight strikes, will he come with another or go with the curve? Excellent stuff. Other games worth looking at include Championship Baseball, Earl Weaver Baseball's arcade option (see below) and for a light hearted approach - Streetsports Baseball which makes sliding into second dangerous because of the potholes and old bicycles of an American wasteground.

On the strategy side, we are really looking at a whole group of basically similar games which mainly use a statistical base, offer menus of tactical options and have either a text or graphics display showing what is going on. The earliest contender was Computer Baseball from SSI which quickly established a massive following in the States and was for years the de facto standard. To sum it up quickly it is Statis Pro on computer but offers a very usable interface which speeds play mechanics up allowing more time for tactical options. You have to, for instance, warm up your bullpen before using it. The graphics are basic but utilitarian and the main attraction of the game is the ability to play games quickly and the automatic production of boxscores and stats at the end of each game. Avalon Hill bought out a computer version of Statis Pro which sadly enjoyed little popularity and thus little support from the publisher.

The second generation of strategy games developed in two fields. The first types are improvements on the Computer Baseball format sporting improved graphics and options. These include the excellent Micro League Baseball, Monday Morning Manager, World's Greatest Baseball and Star League Baseball. The other area is basically a move to even more complex statistical coverage and often are text based games that provide just about every stat you could hope for. These games generate their own atmosphere for those who simply love the game and the figures it produces. The best of the bunch are Lance Haffner's systems and the expensive APBA Baseball. Also mainly text based but covering the same ground as Pennant Race is Avalon Hill's Pro Manager. This, like many of the other games here, is a straight conversion from boardgame to computer and offers all the same options.

The computer baseball area would still have been at the above levels were it not for the latest design leap represented by Earl Weaver Baseball from Electronic Arts. This, like Pursue the Pennant, is state of the art in computer baseball. When reviewing the game in Inside Pitch recently, I summed it up by saying that it has everything I could possibly ask for and I hold by this view. There are options to play at several levels, as arcade or strategy, against the computer which is ably run by Earl Weaver's tactics or against other players. The animation of the players has to be seen to be believed, they run, catch, slide and turn the double play. There is even a slow motion replay. The player stats cover every possible angle and can be easily edited. There are a couple of drawbacks - the game has a couple of niggling bugs and it is only currently available for the Amiga. This is being rectified.

The final section covers postal play and league play which can either extend the scope of the above games to encompass several players or uses a unique system which usually traces its history back to The Rotisserie Baseball League. This is a clever system where 10 or so players each bid for a squad of major league players within a set cash limit (usually $260). The drafted players combine to form a fictional team and then perform as their real life counterparts do in the majors. Their statistics are added up over the season covering areas like RBIs, stolen bases, wins, saves, home runs etc and the team with the best composite score wins the title. The value of consistent, high average players like Mattingly, Boggs, Puckett, Jack Morris etc is obvious. They consequently attract very high prices (in real dollars) in the pre-season auction and as salaries. This sort of league is very popular in the States and there are hundreds of games running every baseball season, all for prize money and often using micro-computers to run the complex stats analyses.

I play in a modified version called Gonzo Baseball which has rather lower fees and works on a game by game basis rather than the season long trip of true Rotisserie. The games take place on a set day (usually weekends) and the boxscores for that day are used to determine the results. So, if Mike Schmidt goes 3 for 4 and has 2 RBIs, a stolen base and one error, that is exactly what he will contribute to my team - The Marineville Titans. The pitchers work in a similar way. The players are totalled up and a winner is decided. The best teams make the playoffs and the Gonzo World Series.

In both the US and UK are numerous leagues which play boardgames or sometimes computer games by post. They often involve up to 20 players who will run a team and will either play the games solitaire using their opponents instructions or the games will be adjudicated by a central game controller. Some leagues use real teams and their players, like my recently completed 1982 Pennant Race league in Sensation!, others just use the players combined into fictional teams by draft. In either case trading and drafting of players is a vital part of the game. Managers are free to offer players in trade with any other manager so Valenzuela could easily play for the Tigers. The leagues can carry on for some time and the main attraction is that full statistics are kept, often religiously.

Sumo - Mike Siggins - Legal Notices and Other Information