Back in the Days of Typewriters and Rotary-Dial Telephones, before Al Gore invented the Internet and the concept of Electronic Arts hadn’t even formed as a first kernel of thought in Trip Hawkins mind, there existed a Sub-Culture of dedicated Sports Geeks who lived for the Shake, Rattle and Roll of colored dice upon the kitchen table.
It was the realm of The Gangly, The Doofy, The Hopelessly Square, the pasty and pimply-faced Persons of Such Uncoolness that they lived for the Imaginary Roar of the Crowd every time Them Bones were tossed and clack, clack, clacked their way across whatever counter-top was handy.
Every stringy punk-assed kid who loved baseball but always ended up batting last and playing deep right field, every frustrated Dandy Don Meredith who couldn’t throw a spiral and every sports statistics fanatic who knew what Willie Mays fielding average was the season before the Giants moved to San Francisco could take solace in the decks of sports game cards printed out annually by Strat-O-Matic or APBA, win the World Series against all odds and be named the big leagues Manger of the Year.
Before Computers Ruined The World, there were dozens of dice-activated tabletop sports games to keep the young and young at heart occupied on many a sunny afternoon.
The ascendance of tabletop sports gaming can be traced back to Hal Richman, a Bucknell University mathematics whiz kid and creator of Strat-O-Matic Baseball, and Dick Seitz, the mastermind behind the American Professional Baseball Association or APBA , as it is better known. The pair were the first to mass-produce and mass-market their tabletop baseball simulation games in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
There were other games as well, football, basketball, even a few attempts at NHL hockey, that could be found advertised on the back pages of Street & Smith’s sports annuals and like magazines. But the baseball games made by Strat-O-Matic and APBA were the Gorillas in The Room when it came to hard-core tabletop sports gaming.
Sports Illustrated (!) rolled out a line of pro and college football games in the 1970’s – Paydirt (pro football) and Bowl Bound (college football). The original games and charts were produced by Thomas Nicely, a PhD statistician who later moved the franchise from SI to Avalon Hill Games, who were at that time almost exclusive makers of the early war, strategy and fantasy-type tabletop games.
SI also tried their hand at chart, rather than individual performance card, baseball gaming, but without the success of their twin-football franchise. After a couple seasons though, SI threw in the towel on baseball.
STRAT & APBA continued to dominate the market until the mid-1980’s, when novice game designer Mike Cielinski, with financial backing of several major league ballplayers, debuted what would become the King Kong of Tabletop Baseball: Pursue the Pennant! Cielinski’s invention took baseball replay gaming to undreamed of heights: lefty-righty player performance, ballpark effects, crazy plays and, to frost the cake, PTP came with an actual mini-baseball filed, complete with stadium outfield walls for all of the major league teams of the era.
It became possible to play a home & home series between the Red Sox and the Yankees that took in all the quirks of Fenway Park one night, then take a road trip to The Big Apple and experience the majesty of Yankee Stadium for the next game.
It was nirvana for baseball boardgame geeks of all stripes.
In addition, not only did PTP blow the doors off of APBA and STRAT, it ushered in what would become the “Golden Age” of tabletop baseball.
From SHERCO Baseball to Replay Games to Winning Inning! to Statis Pro Baseball to Solitaire Tabletop Baseball and Pennant Race! just to name a few, at one time in the late 80’s there were over a dozen separate dice baseball games in the marketplace.
Ominously though (cue JAWS music here), at the same time PTP was revolutionizing tabletop dice baseball, the Creeping Poison of computerized simulations began to infect The Sports Gaming World.
The days When Dice Were King were numbered.
After the major league player’s strike in 1994, all sports memorabilia and baseball gaming took a hit. Many of the smaller, quirkier games from the 1980’s went belly up, unable to hold profitable market share.
In the early 2000’s Electronic Arts began their scorched earth campaign with NHL Hockey, Madden Football and the rest of the EA portfolio.
Even Pursue the Pennant, that mightiest of the dice world’s King Kong’s, was toppled from its perch atop the Empire State Building.
PTP designer Mike Cielinski was one of the successful few who made the transition from the tabletop to the laptop. Rebranding PTP as Dynasty Baseball, DB premiered as a computer game with a companion tabletop version for the Dice Purists.
APBA and STRAT also followed up with computer versions of their products while continuing to churn our dice games as well.
But for the rest of the pack, the die was cast and the Little Games That Could couldn’t faded into oblivion.
You can still find APBA, and STRAT publishing and selling annual updates. And the Never Ending Debate between APBA fans and Strat-O-Matic fanatics continues unabated to this day.
But King Dice Is Dead. The sound of bones skittering across the tabletop has quieted. Console games and agile thumbs now rule the sports gaming roost. Something is lost, and something is gained.
(Originally published June 5, 2016)