Sports Simulation Board Games

What Will The NEXT PLAAY Game BE?...

(By Keith Avallone, PLAAY Games)

Now that the heavy lifting has been completed for the golf game, I guess it's inevitable that I would start thinking about what's next on the PLAAY Games design board. I've mentioned before that I would really like to re-do COLD SNAP, giving it the same update that I gave SECOND SEASON a couple years ago: a new "One and Done" game book, extracted special teams and turnover game boards and an Instant Results deck. (I'd also like to create a new Canadian Pro Season with which to celebrate the new game materials, maybe...1995!?)

Truthfully, the "ideation" for the new COLD SNAP is already done. It's not like I'm doing any creative designing here, it's just a matter of plugging the COLD SNAP results into the SECOND SEASON templates. So, after THAT is done—what's next?

I keep coming back to two possibilities: horse racing, or basketball.

It's interesting to me that APBA still sells baseball, hockey, etc., but long ago gave up on its horse racing and basketball games. When you look into it, there are some very good reasons. Both are fast-paced sports, difficult to replicate in a board game. But I also think that the general appeal of these sports—even with the "perfect" board game treatment—would see lower-than-average participation among our crowd.

With an "off-brand" sport, a designer has basically two possible approaches.

The first approach is to go for the "hard core" fans of the sport by creating a detailed, accurate simulation with great depth and a high level of accuracy on numerous fronts. On the positive side, this makes the die-hards happy, and they will spread the word through the community. The big drawback is the time involved in play-testing and engineering, producing to that depth. As a distant and rather lukewarm fan of hoops and a fan of horse racing only as a bettor, the R/D time would be triple or quadruple for me compared to that of someone who knows the sport already.

The second approach is to go for the peripheral fans, folks who enjoy sports games in general who might be willing to give an off-brand sport a shot on their game table if it's easy to play and fun. The upside to this is that there's less development time, and a bigger potential audience. On the downside, such games tend to generate less enthusiasm among the die-hards, which means less excitement and a short(er) product life-cycle.

In my consideration of the two sports, horse racing gets an edge in that I already have a solid, workable game engine in RED WHITE & BLUE RACIN' Stock Car Action Game. In RED WHITE & BLUE HORSE RACING, I would probably would create horses, jockeys and tracks with individual cards. The races themselves would be exciting and fun, and there would be a betting component to add to the drama. However, there's no denying that horse racing is far more limited in its appeal than basketball. Also, when I floated my vision for a horse racing game a couple years ago, one in which the emphasis was on the betting aspect rather than recreating historical horse performances, I got a couple of responses that were, um, shall we say, "chilly" to the idea.

So, that leaves basketball. The fact that it has a bigger potential audience—the last of the "big four" US pro sports to get the PLAAY treatment—makes it an obvious target. But there's a pretty significant downside, too: it's extremely difficult to hit the sports board game "sweet spot" with basketball. By this I mean, 45 minute game time, strong narrative, reasonably accurate stats, fun to play. Let's discuss each of these individually...

45 Minute Game Time

Reverse engineer this and you begin to see the problem that has confounded basketball game designers from the start. Four periods of play, that allows you 10-12 minutes to complete a period. Let's assume 12, since there are 12 minutes to a period in pro basketball. So, that gives you a minute real-time to resolve a minute's worth of action. Yet a minute's worth of action will include a number of shots, a number of rebounds, some ball-handling, play-making—easily a dozen separate "aspects" of action. To re-create ten actions in a minute's worth of real-time only allows six seconds per action.

Some have suggested using the "BLAST" method of abstracting extended periods of action, perhaps having "runs" of two to four baskets. In one of my (many) prototype engines, I tried to implement this approach. I incorporated two different colored decider dice to make this happen, purple and orange dots. I spent probably a couple weeks putting together some rules, basic charts, a couple of test teams, and I have to tell you it was with great excitement I sat down to conduct my first play-test. I think I played all of five minutes before I realized, "UGH! this is horrible!" It totally lacked the feel of pro basketball. Totally NOT fun. What a bummer!

So, really—in my mind—I think the only way to do capture the action of pro basketball is to have fast-action cards, with only perhaps 25% of the cards having a connection with the players on the court. The rest of the results could be "genericized" for the sake of speed of play. Card...card...card...card with player check/roll. Assuming the "card" readings take three to five seconds to resolve (i.e., "basket," "miss," "dribble," etc.) and the player check takes ten seconds ("STAR at center? He scores! Otherwise, missed."); such an arrangement would fit the "twelve actions in a minute" model, albeit very tightly—and with a minimal amount of time allowed for recording stats.

Which brings me to another difficulty with basketball games: the stats. Many folks in our crowd feel like keeping track of comprehensive stats is where the fun is. Totally get that, totally appreciate that. But all that book keeping REALLY inflates the time required to play. There's just no way around that. It makes me think that, for the stat-keeping segment of the hobby anyway, computer games like Replay PC Basketball may be the best option for pro hoops. For a PLAAY board game, I envision a game engine that generates results similar to what HOCKEY BLAST does, where common, generic action is abstracted and the game centers on re-creating the "difference-making" stuff, with provisions for re-creating the missing stats, if desired.

Strong Narrative

All games have to have narrative, but the difference between sports games and other board games is where the narrative comes from. In "regular" board games, the narrative comes from choices made and not made. In sports games, which are often played solitaire, the narrative comes from the interplay of the athlete ratings and the game framework which brings those ratings and hence the player abilities to life. This is why, I think, many board game fans find sports board games rather boring: in their mind, there are no "choices with consequences" to be made. However, for us sports board gamers, this ratings/performance framework the key to the "fun." In a basketball context, we want to see the great shooters make difficult shots (and lots of them!), the big rebounders to dominate the boards, the top defenders make plays that deny shots, and so on. We can live without a lot of choices: in fact, we PREFER it because more choices means more time required to MAKE choices, which turns a 45 minute game into two hours.

Regarding narrative, the nature of the game of basketball can present a perception that there really ISN'T much narrative. A lot of folks I've talked to don't follow pro basketball because they see it as a shooting contest with no real narrative, at least not until the final couple minutes of the game. This is rather unfair (although, if I'm honest, I have voiced such an argument myself), similar to dismissing the game of soccer on the rationale that "they play 90 minutes and maybe somebody gets ONE goal—how is THAT exciting?" Such an impression misses all the subtleties that make soccer great. Same with hoops, I think. So the challenge is to identify the aspects of the "inner" game of basketball which create narrative and find ways to bring them to life on the table top. That in itself is challenging enough, but doing it in a 45 minute time frame makes it an even bigger challenge.

Reasonably Accurate Stats

This is usually the easy part. True, it's often difficult to meld gamer decision-making with statistical precision. That is to say, the more strategy choices you give the gamer, the more opportunity there is for him/her to deviate from the norm and hence generate deviant statistics. Game designers have two choices to counter this: 1) don't give the gamer many choices, or 2) create a system of penalties and/or restrictions by which the gamer must abide. Generally, more choices means a richer experience, but more restrictions must then be created to counter the decision-making factors that can send the stats askew. I usually try to find middle ground here, giving up some statistical precision for the sake of a thinner rule book and more "fun factor." Over the years, PLAAY Gamers have come to understand this, and that's why I say it's not so difficult to get within the margin of statistical realism without the expectation of precision.

Fun to Play

If generating reasonably accurate stats is the "easy" part, then making a game that's fun to play is definitely the "hard" part. What makes a game "fun?" There are many answers to that question, and none that are set in stone. To me, it's probably an acceptable mix of the first three factors (game time, narrative, and stats) that makes the fourth factor—"fun"—happen.

So, basketball. OK.

I'm always on the lookout for sports games in odd places, I bought this basketball game (pictured at right) a few bucks at a used bookstore in Phoenix. It's a very simple game. It uses three custom-made wooden six-sided dice: one for play-making, one for shooting, one for free throws. The game instructions are less than 400 words in length and are contained on a single-spaced scrap of paper! Amazingly, It creates a reasonable approximation of a basketball game, albeit with generic players/teams of exactly equal ability. It plays very fast, and feels like basketball with ebbs and flows, teams going on runs, ill-timed turnovers and fouls! But—it's shocking how quickly the game becomes boring! I can play a quarter, but that's about it, because I know in the back of my mind that the teams are identical and any variance in performance is purely random. There are no strategy choices at all—just dice rolling and results. Also, as an aside, the game board and pegs for this game serve no purpose. The rules stipulate that the pegs are used to mark where the ball is, but the shot is the same regardless of where the peg is. So the entire game is generated from the dice.

Boston PLAAY Gamers

BTW, you can approximate this game engine with a single six-sided die and this simple grid, which I have altered somewhat from the printed results on the wooden dice so as not to violate anyone's intellectual property. In fact, I added the rebounding element myself, the game did not come with a fourth wooden die for rebounding. I also altered the foul reading on the play-making die to make it more balanced.

Now, I've spent some time trying to figure out a way to bring narrative to this simple game engine, but it's interesting and, I think, enlightening to note that adding narrative slows down the game play, which negates the one thing that makes the game "fun." I did make a change (reflected on the grid) that allows for varying reaults based on team strength. Thus, you should be able to see a "A" team gradually pull away from a "D" team.

Here's another hoops "meta thought." In my research on pro basketball, it appears that the difference between the top and bottom teams is not that great—five or six points per game. In other words, the league's BEST team outscores its opponent by 6-10 points per game on average. The league's WORST team gets outscored by 6-10 points per game, on average. That's a swing of 20 points, top to bottom, or the equivalent of ten baskets. So, you could make the case that when you crystallize the action and drill it down, an NBA game really comes down to perhaps ten key possessions. A typical NBA game has about 180 possessions. If we accept the previous point as correct (ten key possession), logic would suggest that seventeen of eighteen possessions have standard, "generic" results, and the ONE possession of eighteen really is where the "nitty" meats the "gritty."

You could approximate this idea with a standard deck of playing cards, removing the face cards (K, Q and J). Leave the two Jokers, they'll be our "key" cards—all other cards are "generic results" cards. Black cards mean baskets (2 points), red cards mean misses or turnovers (no points). For visualization, you can use basketball cards or team logos. Alternate cards for the two teams, keeping track of the score. When a team draws a joker, it's a "key" result, and you'll draw another card awarding that many points for the "run." (For a real game, the points would be adjusted based on the team's relative strength to its opponent.)

This very BASIC game engine gives a decent approximation of the back and forth flow of a basketball game, and allows for bursts of team advantage. A full "game" can be played in about 15 minutes. Now, it's NOT that I'm saying this is by any means a desirable game as-is. What I'm suggesting is that with 15 minutes of base game time, there are 30 minutes left over for engineering into the game other aspects like rebounding, shooting, defense and so on. It's easy to see how there could be a quick individual player ratings check or two on each card that would trigger a card into being either black or red by the presence/absence of a quality or the integration of a success range.

The point of discussing all this is simply to throw some ideas out there of what—in MY opinion—a hoops board game would have to look like in order to meet the criteria by which I think games find an audience. I haven't mentioned the more-developed hoops idea that I alluded to about a year ago in the "PLAAY Games Laboratory" newsletter article, which uses player qualities and a four-sided FAC deck. I still think that idea offers great promise as well, but I'm not ready to go all-in on it yet, either. To be continued!...