Board Game Gumbo: Baseball Themed Board Games
In cities across the country, the long, cruel winter is coughing its last gasps, and finally, another glorious baseball season is in full swing.
When I was eight years old and playing on my first youth league baseball team, I was fascinated by stories from my dad of his own father playing Sunday league baseball. In tiny towns around Louisiana, there were very few other options for organized entertainment.
As I grew up, my love for baseball never wavered, no matter the limitations of my ability to hit a curveball. I loved the history and was entranced by the numbers, because more than any other sport, the tapestry of baseball history is weaved with statistics.
But reading about the history and studying the numbers was never enough. I still longed to play.
When I discovered computerized baseball simulations like Microleague Baseball and Glenn Waggoner’s guide to fantasy baseball, I was hooked. Suddenly, it did not matter that I could not throw a split finger fastball because I could study the numbers and the players and try to field the best team.
Fast forward to the 2000s, when my lifelong love of card and board games met my discovery of the world of hobby board games. Years removed from playing any serious baseball computer game (but now in my third decade of playing fantasy baseball), I rallied back to playing baseball board games.
Does your game group like baseball simulations? Are your friends interested in drafting, fielding and managing the best baseball team?
Let’s spice it up with baseball themed board games!
LEADING OFF: BASEBALL HIGHLIGHTS 2045
Let’s say at the outset that Baseball Highlights 2045 is not truly a simulation. Instead, it is an attempt to recreate the excitement of the highlights of baseball action. The game is set years in the future when the sport has gone through radical changes. The premise is that the sport was fading and attendance dwindling when technology had caught up enough to allow robots to hit and humans could add mechanical body parts to enhance their ability to pitch. Because of this, the heads of baseball changed the game. Games were shortened to six innings, and robots and “cyborgs” were allowed to join the league.
HOW TO PLAY:
Players will begin with a starting deck of rookie and veteran cards, each with abilities produce hits and runs, or to defensively stop plays. Some of the cards generate money at the end of each game which allows you to buy more players from the free agent pool. Players will play a best-of-seven World Series (after either a mini game series that results in purchasing free agents) by playing their cards one at a time in bataille fashion resolving each ability and moving the appropriate runners around the own game board (their field).
(For a more detailed review of the mechanics of the game and our thoughts, check out our prior review and coverage of Baseball Highlights 2045 back in May of 2017 here.
I have the big box edition, which comes with enough cards for up to four people to stage a grand playoffs and World Series. It comes with beautifully illustrated cards, sturdy cardboard tokens and playing fields, and batter / runner meeples. Eagle Gryphon has released a starter edition which has fewer cards but can get two players up and running for about $20, which is a great value for a game of this caliber.
BUT IS IT FUN?
BH2045 is in my top ten games of all time. But, what do I like best about BH 2045? First, I love the quick gameplay. Each game only takes 5-10 minutes, because each side is only playing six cards. And the game is versatile - you can play a full three game mini-series, then a full seven game world series. Or just run a quick three draft and buy opening, and then get right to a three, five, seven, or even historically accurate nine game world series.
Second, I love the Fantasy Baseball thrill that it gives me. You only have a couple of minutes between rounds to buy one or a few cards with the ticket sales you earn by playing your players, but it is a tense few moments. Do I buy big hitters or offensive stoppers? Do I react to the player my opponent just bought with a counter, or do I change my own strategy? Have I bought too many of any one type of player, leaving myself vulnerable to a cheap genre targeting startegy? All of these are delicious decisions that feel like the game gives you agency over your deck.
Third, the components are very good. The card board playing field is very functional, and the excellent rule book revised by Paul Grogan of Gaming Rules! fame is one of the best I have seen. (The previous rule book...not so much). And I for one love the art on the cards, as I love that time period depicted. Plus the fun names on the cards are also a bonus for baseball fans. The pawn shaped baseball players are maybe the weakest area, but there are third party sites that sell actual baseball players (including runners versus hitters) if you want to bling out your game.
Fourth, the game has been very well supported by the publisher and designer. There are a ton of cards in addition to the base game, with fun expansions with plenty of new teams to play (United Kingdom or the Caribbean anybody?) and themed decks that add more cards to particular types of players. I’m not a fan of the manager cards, so I’d stay away from that expansion, but everything else so far has been great.
If you like deck builders but want a strong theme as opposed to the vanilla Dominion, you will love Baseball Highlights 2045. It actually feels like a baseball simulation instead of a math fest. If you are not a fan of two player games, or do not like a lot of interaction (the defensive cards are very take that in BH 2045!), then this might not be the game for you. And let’s face it, it is not necessary to love baseball to also love BH 2045 -- but it sure helps. All in all, Baseball Highlights 2045 is a home run.
NOW BATTING, BOTTOM OF THE 9TH!
Next up in the hitter’s circle is a fun little filler plus game from Dice Hate Me Games called Bottom of the 9th (“Bot9”). Bot9 is designed by Darryl Louder and Mike Mullins, and is a little different from your typical baseball simulation.
The only simulation is the epic tension of a tied ninth inning. The home team has three outs to score one run to win the game. But if the visiting team throws a shutout half inning, then the visitors win (because from a thematic angle, the visiting team has a monster hitting line up coming up and would win in extra innings. Just trust us.)
HOW TO PLAY:
Bot9 is for two players, and takes about 15-20 minutes. Each player will choose either a starting pitcher and one relieves if they are the visiting team, or a line up of six players if they are on the home team. Then each player will grab their two pitch tokens which describe the characteristics to be thrown: high, low, inside, outside. Players will secretly set the parameters of the expected pitch, and then reveal.
The pitcher will try to sneak past the hitter pitches that can bring certain special powers. For instance, the pitcher may be adept at throwing high and inside, and sneaking in one or more of the attributes will allow him to get bonuses like re-rolls. The hitter is intent on guessing the pitch because if he can, he also gets bonuses. Complicating these decisions is the fact that the pitcher can only pitch each type of pitch a certain amount of times before getting that pitch exhausted (making it easier on the hitter to guess the pitch).
Next up, the players roll dice, and compare the results to see if it is a hit, or if it is just a ball or a strike. If a hit occurs, then there are two modes to resolve the question: either frenetic rolling to see who rolls a certain value and yells safe or out, or my favorite way, to take turns rolling six sided die without worrying about the dexterity part.
This is just a quick overview of the game but the game is fairly simple to teach, and once you get the hang of a few resolution rules, can easily be picked back up with a quick review.
As is typical for Dice Hate Me Games -- where the production value and aesthetics are always amazingly top notch -- this is a stellar production. The box is the little rooster size, and somehow fits a small sturdy board to represent the playing field and balls/strikes. Plus, the wooden pitch tokens are large and depict baseballs. But the best part is the actual baseball player cards, which are all shaped and printed to look like bubble gum baseball cards, complete with colorful pictures and names on the front, to the typical stat laden red type on the back. This is a fantastic production.
BUT IS IT FUN?
Bottom of the 9th has been a surprise hit in our playgroup. At our local con last year, the game was played non stop for two days by tons of different players, and we’ve played it from San Antonio to the Swamp and back since then.
What do I like best about Bottom of the 9th? There is a part in the game called the “staredown” that recreates when a batter digs into the box, and the pitcher is staring into the catcher waiting for the next signal. In Bot9, each player holds their pitching / batting tokens in their hand and stares at each other, trying to guess what the other player is going to do.
My least favorite part is the real time rolling of the dice to simulate the batters running the bases and the fielders throwing the runners out. Yes, it is very thematic and fits the game, but it is jarring after being focused on the tiny charts and stats in the game, and breaks up that fantasy baseball feel. Also, the pitching and hitting outcome rules are a little fiddly, but Dice Hate Me Games included a handy dandy little chart to help you along.
Everything else about the game is very intuitive, the game plays quickly, is easy to teach, and is a blast to play and looks great on the table. Bottom of the 9th is a clear hit off of the outfield wall past Tal’s Hil in my book -- a solid double that the speedy runner legged out into a triple.
AND FINALLY, NOW BATTING: FANTASY FANTASY BASEBALL:
Our final contender is a relatively new game called Fantasy Fantasy Baseball. It may have one of the more awkward names in board gaming, but it is definitely has an unusual theme and interesting components. But the real question, can it compete on the diamond?
Fantasy Fantasy Baseball is published by CSE Games and is designed by Daryl Andrews and JR Honeycutt. Daryl designed one of my favorite games of 2017, Sagrada. (We wrote about Sagrada here.) The game plays 1-5 players and takes about 30 - 60 minutes to play.
FFB is much different than the first two games in our lineup. Here, players also have the same theme of running a baseball club more in line with fantasy games than the actual play, but instead of your generic human baseball teams, each player will draft teams from pools of players from all kinds of fantasy races.
HOW TO PLAY:
Let’s look at a quick overview of the game. FFB simulates a short season of baseball, with players playing as wizard managers drafting players to field the best team. Players have to take into consideration the type of player, the stats that he can produce, and of course, any special effects he may have. A 7 Wonders style draft will take place, followed by face down plays of the four starting players of each team trying to match the stats required at each base. (For a great overview of the play, see Dane Trimble’s excellent review of the game which includes a short rules summary.)
Here is where Fantasy Fantasy Baseball shines. If you are a baseball fan, you will appreciate all the touches included. First, there’s the “Monster” a giant green scoreboard that looks suspiciously like a certain scoreboard fans will be familiar with on the Eastern seaboard. Plus, the stats are tracked with little bats, and the player boards all form little diamonds.
It took some getting used to, but I appreciate the art on the cards, too. There are obvious references (and some not so obvious) to famous historical players, and even a little wink of the eye to long time baseball card collectors. (Billy Ripken, anyone?)
The wizard meeples themselves are a little less well defined then I would like. They are almost hazy representations of the managers, but they really are used very little in the game and they do help remind you of the color team you have chosen.
BUT IS IT FUN?
This is a fantasy (as in orcs and dragons) version of baseball fantasy (as in wins, saves, HRs and steals) leagues, so if you have ever enjoyed drafting a team of baseball players against your buddies over a cold Abita root beer while chomping down on Olde Tyme Grocery fried crawfish po-boys, then you will definitely want to check this game out.
Note that Fantasy Fantasy Baseball is a brain burner, which is kind of surprising for a fantasy creature of baseball. You have four bases each with different win conditions to consider, with six cards all with tons of different stat attributes. Plus, each wizard can use the cards to play their special powers instead of using them just for the stats. Throw in the included extra event cards, and your friends with analysis paralysis just may be caught in a run down between third and home on a failed double steal. But for those players who love multi-use cards and out thinking their opponent on strategy, this could be a big plus.
On the other hand, if you are a baseball purist looking for a simulation, then Fantasy Fantasy Baseball may not be for you. Yes, you will appreciate the artwork and components, but not all of the basic and familiar elements of baseball -- strikeouts, steals, fielding, etc. -- are on display. At least that's been our experience.
So the good points: I love the artwork, and the zany names, and especially the inside baseball references to favorite players. The quick playing time (only about 10-20 minutes per player) is a plus, too. On the down side, the game is little bit more complicated than the theme suggests, and my plays with non-baseball fans have not gone as well as I hoped, which I guess looking at the theme and the play style makes sense. Fantasy Fantasy Baseball is a solid double, but with a chance at an extra base if you play with baseball fans who enjoy fantasy leagues.
So that’s my experience with baseball themed table top games. Are there any that I missed? Let me know in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter or Facebook. I love baseball games and would love to hear from you!
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!