Over the past few years, we've gotten an increasing number of queries about whether or not we have plans for developing a basketball game. It's the obvious gap in the PLAAY sports line-up, for sure. One of our goals for 2019 was to spend a little R&D time on basketball, and that's how the PLAAY Games "HOOP-LA" Event came about. We intentionally scheduled it to coincide with the selection weekend for March Madness, with the hope that all the basketball buzz might prompt inspiration to strike. We made arrangements for game space Saturday, March 16th at Grognard Games in Roselle, and booked a weekend block of hotel rooms at the Courtyard Marriott in Schaumburg.
I was the first to arrive, touching down at O'Hare Airport around 9:30 Friday morning. The other out of town guests started arriving after noon: Bob Hansen and Travis Jansen made it down from the Milwaukee area, Paul Salzgeber drove in from Cleveland, Laurence Davis from Indianapolis, Tom Kerwin from Oklahoma. Al Wilson flew in from Phoenix. It was kind of a mini-convention! In all, we had eight PLAAY Gamers checked in as guests at the Courtyard Marriott Schaumburg. At 5 PM we met up with a half-dozen locals and walked around the corner to Giordano's for some authentic Chicago Style deep dish pizza. What an awesome way to start the HOOP-la, with basketball on the big screen TVs and deep dish pizza on the table!
After pizza, it was back to hotel for our hoops game tutorial. We spent about an hour talking about the lead-up to our basketball game design effort. A valid question is, "WHY are you making a basketball game?" Truthfully, it's NOT that the hobby is without a quality basketball game. It's not that people are calling out for the definitive hoops board game. My sense is that everyone already has a favorite tabletop basketball game, whether it's Statis-Pro, SOM, Replay Basketball or whatever. The reason they don't play it more often, though, is the block of time required to play, 90 to 120 minutes. I explained that that's where I believe the window of opportunity is positioned: if there's a place for a new basketball game in the crowded sports game landscape, it would be for a game that plays in a much shorter time frame and still provides a satisfying "full game" experience of watching individual players perform to their real-life abilities.
But can this be done? I think this is where the interest is in the community, perhaps better described as curiosity (or skepticism!). I believe the answer is NO—and, YES! No, a game that plays 40 minutes AND generates full stats can't be done with paper and pencil. Depending on the gamer, the level of stat-keeping can consume 40 minutes all by itself, aside from any card flipping or dice rolling. Frankly, if you want a fast (i.e., 40-45 minute) game time and full statistics, you should be playing a basketball computer game. That's the hard truth.
But yes, I do believe that a card and dice board game can meet the standard of entertaining, realistic, fun, and playable in 40 minutes. To get there, though, you have to give up having the full complement of statistics at the end of the game.
So if you're still reading, then I count you among those (like me) who just don't want to play sports games on a computer. Or, you're among the the curious or skeptical who wonder what a 40 minute hoops board game could possibly offer that would keep you coming back to play it again.
Back to the HOOP-la! We talked about a couple of game engine ideas I'd come up with or had been proposed to me, and their benefits and drawbacks. One engine was fast, but not fun—too repetitive. Another idea, clever and detailed—but it took 90-120 minutes to play.
Then I turned the discussion to a game engine I feel holds the most promise. It's something that's been on the drawing board for a few years now. For me, the design process for this engine has been much like that scene in the movie "The Martian," where Matt Damon's character has to keep discarding parts of the booster rocket in order to make it light enough to reach the rendez-vous point with the rescue ship orbiting the planet. Stuff had to be ruthlessly blowtorched off and left on the planet surface, yet the rocket still had to be flight-worthy. A seemingly impossible challenge. Similar thing with this basketball game. The 40 minute run time was not negotiable, in my mind. But the game still had to feel like basketball and be fun. Tough to do.
To get there, I had to marry multiple time-saving game mechanics that I've implemented in other games over the years. The game borrows some of the flow of HISTORY MAKER GOLF's progress from tee to green, and some of the BLAST game ideas of abstract action. It's pretty good at getting from point A to point B, but out of necessity to save time, sometimes employs some fuzziness getting to points C and D. It uses a fast-action card deck, so as to save look-up time. The deck employs a half-dozen specific card categories, most of which either represent or have the potential to represent more than one possession, in order to save time. The action is generated by qualities, three different sets of them. The use of multiple qualities sets reduces the number of dice rolls by around 80%. Most of the time, no dice roll is needed (compared to, say, HOCKEY BLAST, where the shots are all resolved by dice rolls.) Again, this wasn't done because I dislike rolling dice (I actually love rolling dice), but rather to save time.
I explained all this to the group, and then went through a detailed walk-thru of the rules. Answered some questions. Then we played some sample sequences. Answered some more questions. Then set up a pair of demo games, alternating coaches, or coaching cooperatively. Then—since it had been a long day!—we called it a night.
Saturday began with an impromptu morning bull session betweeb hotel guests over what we'd looked at and tried out the night before. We talked about how we thought the event would go down, and came up with a couple of scenarios for finishing the event dependent upon the response. Rather than run through the rules again, we decided it would be best to just start playing with the Friday Night "veterans" matched up against each other while the newcomers watched and learned. Then we'd plug the newcomers in and let them try out the game themselves during round two.
Around 11:30 we shuttled over to Grognard Games. A nice crowd of PLAAY Gamers was waiting for us when we arrived, including Dom Nicorata, Charles Moon, Art Campana, Scott Johnson, Dan Janezick, Curt Bartel, John Kirk and Brien Aronov.
We spread out across a trio of 3 x 8 game tables, set up materials for a half-dozen games, and let 'er rip!
Our plan worked great. It really helped that we had a group of folks who not only already knew how to play, but several of them had teaching/mentoring backgrounds. The newcomers watched and learned as the vets explained. I hovered from game to game in order to be able to answer questions and gain feedback. From time to time, people would switch seats and move from spectating to coaching, or vice-versa.
There's probably not much point in recapping the games, as we were using fictional colleges and players, recognizable to no one. There were some close exciting games and some blow outs. We didn't have any buzzer-beaters but we did have a couple games that went down to the final seconds. (The game switches to an "end game" mode if the game is close when the last fast-action card is played.)
After two full rounds were completed, we had a discussion wind-down. I encouraged people to talked about what they liked and what they didn't like. Over all, I felt the responses were very encouraging.
Positives: Game times were about an hour start to finish—pretty good for total newcomers to the game! Easy to learn, especially for those who are familiar with the PLAAY style. Felt like basketball. Realistic scores. Substitutions were Simple and fun. (This, I learned, is a huge plus: one of the most-often-voiced drawbacks to hoops games is having to track fatigue.)
Negatives: The abstract nature of the game required extra thought in some places. Most pronounced was during "Lightning Status," which is roughly akin to "momentum" but presented in a different way. Where it needs focus is when one team has LS but the other team has the ball. Also, some of the FACs are presented in a cascading style, similar to the golf game engine. If a quality is met, you continue down the card to another conditional reading. if not, you go to a default "non action" result. Some folks had trouble knowing when exactly the default reading was to be triggered. These are things that I'll need to work on as the game moves forward.
I also was reminded about one of the things I personally dislike about basketball—the "Foul-a-Palooza" that takes place late in a game that's bordering on being out of reach. I was thinking I'd like to come up with a way to resolve and ending like that with ONE dice roll on a "Foul-a-Palooza" chart. However, several HOOP-La attendees specifically mentioned the end game back-and-forth foul resolution was their favorite part of the game! (Go figure!)
One of the things that I was most interested in was the group reaction to the above mentioned action abstraction required fit the game into the 40 minute window. Points, free throws and fouls can be fully tracked, but the game provides only intermittent snapshots of players making blocked shots, steals, assists and rebounds. Here too, I thought the play test was a success. I felt that the consensus was that there was enough detail in each of these areas that you could get a sufficient sense of players making/not making these plays, without the game spelling out every instance. A number of gamers suggested that a stat-line generation method could be concocted which could fill in the blanks for those who want stats, much like the LULL shot and penalty mechanism in the hockey game.
After our de-compress, which took about 40 minutes, we got back to the tabletop and finished our tournament. College of the Bronx turned out to be our champion, defeating Kentucky State in the title game 94-87, Martavius Talley leading the way with 32 points. Erie State won the consolation bracket against St. Aloysius 78-57, Alec Torchy had 26 points for Erie State. Congrats to our two winning coaches, Brien Martin and Andy McEvoy!
Basketball action complete, we thanked Todd Warren at Grognard Games and headed over to an iconic local diner called Portillo's for grub and gab. We rehashed the tournament, kicked around some game play ideas, and generally just had a good time. Afterwards, many of the group headed home while the die-hards headed back to the hotel to stage another impromptu hoops tournament. We also played some Fury Football, HMB and RWBR. Sunday morning, we visited a bit more, said our goodbyes and dispersed.
So what did we learn from all this? The stated objective was to jumpstart development of a possible hoops game with a unique selling proposition, and in that regard I feel that it was a rousing success. Everyone had fun, which is crucial. Nothing was unearthed that would suggest the game is broken or should be scrapped—quite the contrary.
Still, there's plenty of work to do. Some rules DO need to be clarified or revised. I believe that I can find a way to add some more statistical definition for those who'd like a few more numbers. I think it's possible to capture rebound stats in the existing game engine, while not requiring people to track them, similar to the way the golf game allows for realistic GIR percentages even though the majority of gamers don't track this statistic. I'd like to trim another five minutes or so from the game's run time, if possible. I know that if it takes me 40 minutes to play, it will probably take the average gamer 50 minutes to an hour. I think there are some interesting coaching options that can be added. Chemistry is baked into the game, but right now there's not much to activate it. There are no UNUSUAL or RARE results charts yet, and those have to be researched and created. Just some of the things that still need to be hewn out, worked in and polished.
Even if the game were finished, though, there remains major hurtle to overcome: the question of which teams would/should be offered. I have in mind a pro option that would be seamless and simple and best of all would not add to the game's run time. But with college AND pro cards, real-life and fictional—that seem like too much to prepare. Probably it would be best to focus on EITHER college or pro, but which one? Fortunately, I don't have to make that decision—yet!
Where do we go from here? Uncertain. There are many other projects fixed on the PLAAY schedule that have to be completed. We'll probably set this aside for a few months to percolate. We discussed having a hoops tournament at the convention: that will probably happen. It will likely be with the same version of the game that we just play tested. But, the bottom line is that I feel PLAAY hoops still needs a lot of work. The next stage would be to create cards based on real life players and see how reasonable the results turn out to be. This might be a reasonable goal for the convention.
To be continued!
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