By Keith Avallone, PLAAY Games
Saturday July 1, 2017 was a red-letter day for PLAAY Games, as HISTORY MAKER BASEBALL was featured at the 47th annual SABR conference in New York City. I shared the podium at the Games and Simulations Committee meeting with none other than Hal Richman, the esteemed founder of the Strat-O-Matic Game Company! We addressed a conference room full off baseball board game fans from all over the country. It was an incredible honor, and something I'll always remember.
Here's how the weekend went down...
My Friday afternoon flight from Denver was uneventful and I arrived in NYC only a few minutes late. From Laguardia Airport, I took a cab to Citi Field and met local Mets fan Richard Kaufmann for the Mets-Phillies game. Jacob deGrom pitched a great game, had a no-hitter through four, eventually gave up three hits and the Mets won 2-1. Richard and I visited the food court for some authentic New York ball park fare, including a couple of Brooklyn Lagers and the last Pastrami sandwich they had that night! It's really cool how the multiple New York NL baseball influences—Dodgers, Giants, Mets—have been melded into a unified experience at Citi Field. Mets fans are certainly passionate about their team, as evidenced by the number of folks wearing team attire. After the game, fans sang the Mets team song as we streamed out of the park. Really fun!
The next morning, it was the Big Day! Not wanting to be late to the party (that's my radio dee-jay career path kicking in!) I arrived about an hour early to the Grand Hyatt, mid-town Manhattan. I met up with SABR member Joe Runde, who had arranged for me to speak at the meeting. We headed up to the conference room to get my PowerPoint presentation plugged in and get the feel of the acoustics for the room. About a half hour before the event was to begin, Hal showed up. Joe and I got to visit with him for about a half an hour, talking about the "good old days" of baseball board game sims and also his take on what it looks like today, and tomorrow. He had some great stories to share about the rivalry between APBA and Strat-O-Matic, including a hoped-for face-to-face meeting with Dick Seitz that was thwarted when Mr. Seitz refused to come out of his office to meet Hal. He also talked about the early days of Strat-O-Matic, when he would personally collate ALL the cards in EVERY card set, himself—by hand. Wow. Talk about "labor intensive."
Our meeting was one of several SABR meetings going on simultaneously at the Grand Hyatt, and turns out we were up against Keith Olberman's presentation on baseball trading cards—talk about tough competition!! Still, we had a good-sized group of tabletop baseball fans in attendance, I'd guess the room was about three-quarters of capacity. In listening to the pre-meeting buzz, it seemed like fans of most every game was represented.
Hal's presentation was about the difficulties Strat-O-Matic had to overcome in creating its Negro League cards, a task that he felt was of critical historical importance and something he was not going to leave un-done. The amount of research that went into these cards was astounding, especially considering that some of the records were incomplete or inaccurate. It was a great presentation.
Then it was my turn. My presentation centered on "how HMB is different from other baseball simulation board games." As my starting point, I suggested that the "how" is really rooted in the "why." I related how, in the early baseball game design process, I had mused about whether the world really needed another baseball board game and how my honest conclusion was "no"—unless the game did something better or different. I felt like it would be pretty difficult to be better than what had come before, so my focus became creating something "different."
I explained HMB's qualities-based system, ran through a sample sequence between the '69 Mets and Orioles. I explained that while it may look very different, the qualities-based game engine actually does have numbers behind it, and in that regard the game is not so different from Strat or APBA. Different—but not different enough.
So I then went through the introspection of what ELSE might be done to differentiate the game. Having played sports board games myself for almost 50 years, I knew that the main focus has always been on re-creating stats. I used an old APBA magazine ad to illustrate the point, in which a 1972 card of Johnny Bench is displayed along with the text, "this card will produce a record so similar to Bench's actual 1972 performance, you will be literally astonished. So it will be with every single player in the game." This statement, I believe, sums up the founding premise of baseball board game simulations.
I explained that this approach is sort of like looking in a rear-view mirror at something that already happened with the idea of re-creating it. I emphasized that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. However, in my search for something different, I thought about what it might like if I took the OPPOSITE approach, looking ahead rather than backward. I came up with a name for this approach: "Blue Sky baseball." The premise is that you're starting a NEW season, with the potential for different outcomes. The kind of range of possible outcomes a real-life manager thinks about at the start of a new season.
I pointed out that I was looking for reasonable variance from real-life numbers. not variance for the sake of variance. Then I explained the features that fuel the Blue Sky approach: Intangibles (Chemistry, Hot/Cold, Experience), and the Game Day process.
I wanted to keep the presentation under twenty minutes, so I spoke only briefly about some of the other things that make the game different: expanded manager strategy, umpire cards, the "how-to" guide, and so on.
I felt like the presentation was very well-received. It was interesting to watch the body language as I made my presentation. Some folks were nodding eagerly, VERY happily animated at the idea of an open-ended baseball board game sim. Others were understandably skeptical, given the amount of time they'd invested in games that presented the classic approach. I'd say virtually everyone was at least intrigued by the concept of a "blue sky" baseball board game.
At the end of the presentation, I fielded questions from the group. Hal had to leave the meeting early, so had done his own Q&A prior to my segment. There were many questions—our meeting was scheduled to end at 11:30 AM, but we were still talking at 12:15 PM!
Some of the post-presentation comments centered on how much variance was reasonable. I had proposed that a 20% variance was reasonable, and while the case could be made that more variance was certainly POSSIBLE, that 20% variance was certainly REASONABLE. I referenced Bill James' piece from the late 1990s, "2000 years of Willie Mays," which some folks were already familiar with, in which the same statistical batting profile produced surprisingly different results, based purely on random factors.
A number of questions were about how the game handled things like lefty-righty, pitcher fatigue and fielding.
While some in the crowd were naturally more intrigued by the game than others, pretty much everyone seemed to appreciate the idea that if a new baseball board game was going to be introduced, it needed to do something different. Also, it was really satisfying to hear comments about how HMB seemed to be a game engine that "Millenials" could perhaps embrace. Everyone seemed to be on the same page that anything that served to engage younger generations—kids, especially—was a good thing for baseball.
By 12:15, we realized that we had better clear out of the conference room! For me, it all ended too quickly. I had lunch with Joe and SABR member Mark Ruckhaus at the Grand Central Station food court (awesome), and we talked about SABR, baseball games, and life in general. I caught a shuttle bus back to Laguardia for my flight home, got their way early to a mostly-empty terminal (Saturday afternoon). So I figured I'd knock out a few games of my 1974 Brewers play-though with a three-game series against the Yankees. The Yankees won two of the three, but I DID have a memorable moment, my first-ever triple play! Milwaukee turned it in the Yankee sixth inning, two on, no one out (Red 1 Black-5 Blue 3, dice roll 16).
What a great way to end a memorable weekend!