23 Jul 2009
by Mike Tanier
Long ago, when computer power was measured in kilobytes and John Madden was just another color commentator, football gaming didn't require a console, computer, or controller. It required a sturdy tabletop and dice.
The football games of that era had odd, retro-techie names: Strat-o-Matic, APBA, Statis Pro. They were highly complex, though they were oversimplifications of the sport, and though they had childlike elements they attracted an adult following. Each game had its own elaborate rules, quirky codes, arcane charts. Gamers called plays, rolled dice, referred to cards and charts, sometimes rolled again, interpreted play results, then moved cardboard football and down markers across a gridiron-shaped field. Football teams were bundled into rubber-banded piles or small manila pouches. Gaming sessions lasted for hours around the dining room table, opponents cross-checking each other's cards and arguing rules while being careful not to spill soda, Eric Dickerson's 1984 card still brown-stained and blurry from someone's clumsiness.
There was no Madden video game back then, no high-def graphics, no fantasy football Web sites with up-to-the-second information. Those games were all we had. They were immersive. They were awesome.
And they are still with us.
Tabletop sports games are anachronisms, coelacanths swimming in a sea of sharks.
The first baseball sims were marketed in the 1930s, though primitive ones existed even earlier (baseball legend Christy Mathewson tinkered with one while rehabbing an injury around the turn of the century). In the 1930s, a teenager from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, named Dick Seitz modified a game called National Pastime, playing his new version in a league with his buddies called the American Professional Baseball Association. He played the game in the barracks during World War II, refining the rules and eventually acquiring the expired National Pastime copyright. Seitz released his new game in 1951, naming it APBA after his old league. The game sold well, and Seitz became a full-time game developer. Football gained popularity during that decade, and Seitz introduced APBA football in the late 1950s.
In 1961, Hal Richman developed his own baseball game, Strat-o-Matic, which he sold by mail order from his family basement. He released Strat-o-Matic football in 1968. His games, particularly baseball, quickly became market leaders. Spike Lee and George W. Bush both played Strat-o-Matic when they were young.
In the late 1970s, Avalon Hill Games, leading developers of war games, commissioned sportswriter Jim Barnes to create a line of sports simulations. Barnes, who started sports gaming when he was 12 years old, named his Statis Pro line after a column he wrote for the Daily Record in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Statis Pro Football hit hobby store shelves in 1980. Other games appeared and disappeared over the years, most of them available only by mail order and advertised through Sports Illustrated or Street & Smith's annual publications.
Tabletop games enjoyed a few decades as the only game in town. "At one time, there was nothing but this," said Marc Rinaldi, current president of APBA games. "Then the market became fragmented." By the mid-1980s, console and computer games became available. Rotisserie baseball reached the national consciousness in the middle of the decade, with franchise football (the forerunner of fantasy football) on its heels. The football fan looking to recreate the coach/general manager experience suddenly had options.
Initially, the tabletop games competed on equal footing with the newcomers. Early video sports game were crude and had no simulation value. Franchise football rules were simplistic (early leagues only counted touchdowns) and carried the whiff of gambling. The best tabletop games stood up well to the new competition. But as technology advanced, so did video games and fantasy football. APBA and Strat-o-Matic expanded into the computer simulation market, but their games weren't designed to compete with the graphics-heavy offerings available on Nintendo and other platforms.
While new forms of gaming eroded the fan base for the tabletop industry, changes in the retail world made it hard for game companies to reach their customers. Strat-o-Matic was available for years in major retail outlets like Kay Bee Toy & Hobby. Statis Pro Football sat beside popular Avalon Hill games like Diplomacy in major hobby shops and carried a Sports Illustrated endorsement. APBA remained a mail-order operation for decades -- "The original president was strongly against entering the retail market," Rinaldi explained -- but finally reached store shelves when Wizards of the Coast became a retailer in the 1990s. As Wizards and Kay Bee went out of business, retail shelf space became limited. Giants like Target and Wal-Mart became the largest game sellers, and tabletop sports companies couldn't afford the huge production runs and high overhead to put their games in megastores.
Tabletop sports, already a niche market, went deep underground. Console games like Madden improved every year. The Internet took the hassles out of fantasy gaming. Tabletop games became 1950s throwbacks; even their rules, built around the strategies and trends of 1950s-'60s football, looked quaint in the era of run 'n' shoot offenses and 46 defenses. "In software on the market today, each year there seems to be a new, updated version," Barnes said. "This is something that tabletop games did not want to tackle."
Barnes and Avalon Hill discontinued the Statis Pro line in 1992. APBA games tried to capitalize on the collectable card market during the Magic: the Gathering fad in the late 1990s. They acquired expensive licensing rights for team logos and player images, but their football games (traditional APBA and a Pokemon-style sports trading card game for children) didn't meet expectations. "The games didn't sell well through the hobby industry," Rinaldi explained. "After that, we cut out all but our bread-and-butter: baseball."
For a while, that left Strat-o-Matic as the only tabletop football game in town, buoyed by the popularity of the baseball game. But technology gives as well as takes. The Internet made direct marketing easier, and they allowed pockets of hardcore gamers around the country to communicate with one another. Loss of retail sales hurt, but they also cut overhead, allowing tabletop manufacturers to survive as a lean boutique industry. "We're still there," Richman said. "They didn't knock us out."
APBA is still there, too. The company reintroduced its football game, with new graphics and a streamlined look (but the same core gameplay) in 2008. A new card set is now available, some all-time sets are in development, and sales are starting to creep up. "We're doing pretty well," Rinaldi said. Our exposure's pretty good now. We're happy. We're not satisfied, but we're happy."
Even Barnes' creation lives on, almost 20 years after the last official box was shipped.
Lee Harris discovered American football on BBC-4 in the mid-1980s. The NFL developed a cult following in England, and Harris became a devoted Redskins fan, watching their games on television while playing football with friends. He was soon introduced to the world of tabletop football. "My friend Garry Dawson got Statis Pro as a Christmas gift, and we would sit and play for hours and hours, simulating every game of the 1984 season. To us, it was just so amazing to play, reinforcing our own connections with this new and exotic sport, and the teams and players (John Riggins!) that we really liked."
Production of Statis Pro stopped a few years later. That didn't stop Harris. "Tinkering with tabletop style games of many kinds has been a passion of mine for a very long time, so once I started to understand how the game worked, I really got into the habit of working out how to create my own stuff." Marty Cole, another devoted gamer, found some of the formulas and documents that explained how Stats Pro cards were created. Harris and Cole began making their own card sets. They then began developing rule variations to keep pace with changes in NFL strategy. Thanks to their efforts and a small but loyal Internet community, Statis Pro still lives.
You can download everything you need to play the game from Harris' site, including some recent card sets. "I missed my first year last year, but I do have a set in mid-progress so the 2008 NFL season should be released sooner or later," Harris promises.
Harris now lives in Sweden, where interest in a defunct tabletop simulation of an American sport is understandably low. He now devotes more of his time to game design and modification -- his true passions -- instead of playing. Cole is still a devoted Statis Pro Gamer, participating in an active league with 12 players and a 10-game season. Harris and Cole are not alone; a Statis Pro Yahoo Group boasts more than 700 members. "There are some lively discussions on the boards," Cole said.
Board gaming takes some ingenuity nowadays. Cole and his league-mates rarely have time to meet face to face. "We're not guys in our 20s anymore who have three hours to get together, drink beer and play games," he said. Instead, they play the game over Windows Live, announcing plays and formations to each other, with one player trusted to handle the "fast action cards" that provide random numbers. Games take place over the course of days, an hour or so every night to play a quarter. "They get played at odd times," Cole said, "like after 10 p.m. when the wife goes to bed."
It's a lot of work, and some of the best elements of the game are lost when opponents aren't face to face. Gamers like Harris and Cole could save a lot of energy by logging on to EA Sports Live and meeting tens of thousands of Madden players itching for some competition. But tabletop gamers aren't looking for the Madden experience. They want something more.
With Madden dominating the world of football gaming, Richman and Rinaldi have to offer something different. Madden games stress graphics and player control, but tabletop games focus on strategy. Most of the action goes on in your head, not your hands. "In Madden, you can physically influence what happens. That's a no-no in Strat-o-Matic," Richman explained. "You mentally have influence. You are constantly in a battle of wits with your opponent." Rinaldi feels his game has a similar appeal. "It's for the player that favors a more cerebral approach."
Head-to-head gaming contains a social element that console gaming lacks, even when your Madden opponent is on the couch beside you. Tabletop gamers must constantly talk to each other as they call plays and consult charts. That slows gameplay down, which isn't always a bad thing. "Software games are developing Type-A personalities where everything is 1-2-3 and you are done," Barnes said. "Most of the fun in table gaming was the development of the card-versus-card interaction, as the pace was just right for personal involvement."
A table full of charts and player cards sounds lifeless compared to a high-def screen full of perfectly-rendered simulacra. But gamers quickly become absorbed in the action. Cards often have a personality that computer avatars lack: quirky ratings, patches of "hot rolls." Dice, a necessity for most table games, provide both random numbers and the thrill of anticipation. "Rolling dice, there's something about it," Richman said. "The dice have a life of their own."
Gamers know the feeling. Madden strives for photo-realism, so when an obviously random event occurs -- the fumble that wasn't forced by a big hit, the tip-drill interception -- it shatters the illusion and feels cheap. Ironically, rolling dice makes the gaming experience feel less random. Roll a "66" in APBA, and Peyton Manning probably throws a touchdown. Ken Dorsey probably doesn't. It's not luck, it's the player's skill, a rating clearly printed on his card for both gamers to see. That "66" roll is bound to happen, so gamers must use strategy to control the circumstances: Manning's coach by calling a medium or long pass to an "A" receiver to get the most yardage when the roll comes, the opponent by calling pass defenses and stacking his lineup with "level-5" defenders.
Game developers worked hard to achieve the highest level of immersion, balancing the complexity needed to make the game lifelike with the simplicity that keeps a game playable. Over the years, they developed ingenious solutions to thorny problems: how to simulate penalties, for example, or account for changes in formations. The compromises of game design can frustrate gamers who want to simulate every detail of the sport, but they also add to the games' charm, and they are no more distracting than Madden "money plays" or fantasy rules too crude to properly reward a 99-yard rushing day.
Richman is proud of the elaborate check-and-balance system built into SOM. "The interaction of the offense and defense is the strength of our product. It's astounding how they combine with each other." In Strat-o-Matic, nearly all the information is built into player cards, which are based upon each player's stats but "massaged" by Richman's staff. "We do things to the numbers. We apply our thinking to them," Richman said, noting that the staff may consult past years or scouting reports to make the cards as lifelike as possible. With so much information on the player cards, gamers can resolve most plays with one or two die rolls. "It's all on the cards, it's not subject to look-ups."
Barnes also stressed the importance of offense-defense interaction, though one of his primary goals in Statis Pro was to get linemen and defenders involved. "Tabletop games never were able to work offensive linemen into playing the important role that they do in the actual sport. Creating players that handle the ball is not difficult, but to bring in the trench warfare and permit it to play a larger role was a challenge." Play Statis Pro, and you'll know exactly when a key Brian Waters block added five yards to a run or the presence of Ed Reed caused an interception.
APBA is more chart-oriented than its competitors, and individual defenders/blockers play the smallest role. But its gameplay mechanics simulate some elements of football -- penalties, special teams, the impact of field position on outcomes -- better than the other games. And all of the strategic decisions gamers love -- play calls, formations, and substitutions -- are available in the advanced game. "You can enjoy how the game unfolds as you deploy your strategy," Rinaldi said.
None of the games can touch Madden, and none try to. "Count the buttons on the controllers these days," Rinaldi said. "You almost have to be able to read and react like a player. Not everyone has that reaction time. Older players, people with more responsibilities in life, can't pick up the nuances of those games." Harris feels the same way about Madden "I do have a copy of it, but don't really play it. Whenever I do, I just get fed up with it, I don't have the patience or energy to practice and understand the controls. It just doesn't engage me mentally in the same way tabletop games do."
Ultimately, tabletop games survived because they were fun. "The play value of our product puts us in a different category," Richman said. Tabletop gamers around the world, no matter which game they prefer, would agree.
APBA aficionados will meet in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for a three-day convention this weekend. It's the sixth annual meeting for gaming diehards. "We promote it as an APBA family reunion," Rinaldi said. More than 100 attendees from the United States and Canada pre-registered: a modest group compared to the 600 or so who attended conventions in the 1980s, but enough participants to encourage Rinaldi. "These are people willing to spend their money, travel hundreds of miles to tiny Lancaster, to play our product."
Strat-o-Matic also has conventions. They take place all around the country, and like the APBA convention, they stress baseball, with football and other sports playing second fiddle. Still, they provide football gamers a chance to interact, play games, and swap information on simulation leagues.
Tabletop gamers are very devoted. For designers like Barnes, that devotion made the difficult game production experience worthwhile. "The rewards were when someone with heart disease turned to using the baseball game as his escape. Or the young boy named Joey in Omaha who died of cancer. His mother said my games kept him going that extra step." That devotion has kept an industry alive.
Tabletop gaming will always be an offbeat hobby. Those of us who gamed for years understand the appeal. It isn't easy to explain to casual fans, but the love of gaming can be passed down. "I think tabletop gaming is something that all grownups should think about for their kids," Harris said. "It really is something worthwhile, I think it encourages and stimulates the imagination and creative thinking in a way that no graphics-heavy game will ever do. It´s something you can enjoy at your own pace, in your own way, it allows you to sit and think about how you can recreate the excitement of whatever game you enjoy."
Think you know your tabletop games? I played all three as a kid, and sat down to re-familiarize myself with the games (and with the Harris update on Statis Pro) over the last few weeks. Some of this information may be slightly out of date, but here's the lowdown on the Big Three tabletop football games: their high points, low points, and plain old weird points.
The Experience: The offensive coach calls one of four runs or three passes. The defensive coach guesses rush or pass while (in the advanced game) sliding cardboard game pieces into blitz or coverage zones. Offensive coach rolls three regular six-sided dice, plus a black die that controls penalties and pass rush situations. Most play results come from quarterback, running back, receiver, or team defense cards, with the defense's Right-Wrong guess having a huge impact on results.
Super Cool Element: The Advanced Defense game board, a multicolored matrix of strategic possibilities that took four years of in-house testing to perfect. Defenders can be assigned to double coverage, short zones, deep zones, blitz lanes, you name it. "When you move those defenders, you make a real specific commitment," Richman explained. "If you double-team a receiver and the opponent throws somewhere else, it could be real trouble."
What's Lacking: The Advanced Defense chart brings zone blitzes and other strategies to life. Why not an Advanced Offense chart to handle formations? Flood three receivers in a trips left, and it makes double coverage a real problem on the right. Place two backs in the backfield and get a blocking boost. In Advanced Strat-o-Matic, the defense has all the fun. Team-based special-teams cards take away from the game's draft-and-play potential: just because I like Devin Hester, I shouldn't have to sign Robbie Gould and Brad Maynard as well.
Player Cards: Handsome and colorful, and as different as snowflakes. Two running backs with 900 rushing yards and 4.1 yards per carry averages often have completely different cards. Receiver cards really matter, with Brian Westbrook's card full of productive completions for flat passes and Devery Henderson's long pass column dotted with sure touchdowns. Team defensive cards make the Ravens feel different from the Colts, and you can improve your defense slightly by acquiring higher-ranked defenders (though you may have to pencil their names and rankings onto the card).
Funky Ratings: Defensive players are ranked on a 0-4-5-6 scale because defensive cards are only referenced on rolls of 4, 5 or 6 on one die. The four-point scale takes some getting used to, and it hurts to see a favorite defender get a low ranking. "I had a former linebacker years ago ask me, 'Where do you get off rating NFL football players as zeroes?'" Richman said. "I told him it was a relative thing."
Funky Lingo: Call "Linebuck" when you want to run up the middle. A short pass over the middle is a "Look-In Pass."
Bottom Line: Use all of the advanced rules, and a game of Advanced Strat-o-Matic can take longer than an NFL game. But you'll feel like you're really coaching, particularly on defense.
The Experience: The offensive coach calls one of three runs or four passes. The defensive coach calls run, base, or pass defense using inscrutable D-S-G letter codes, plus a variation or two (nickel coverage, goal-line defense). Two different six-sided dies are rolled, with a roll of "1" and "3" read as 13, not four. The quarterback or running back's card is referenced, then a play chart, then another chart, then sometimes another ... after a while, the gamers determine what happened.
Super Cool Elements: The huge, unwieldy charts of my childhood have been replaced by a spiral-bound notebook. "Many serious gamers travel to tournaments with their charts," Rinaldi explained. "The new charts travel better." The charts are still somewhat actuarial, with different results for different defensive ratings, quarters, and field position. The charts are hard to master at first, but they pack a big simulation punch: yards are much tougher to come by close to the goal line, and while a great roll on a punt from the 10-yard line yields a 58-yard punt, a good roll from midfield results in a punt downed at the four-yard line.
What's Lacking: Defense is abstracted into A-to-D ratings simply by adding the ratings of individual defenders and comparing them to offensive players. There's never a sense that one defender made a difference on a play. Strategies like three-wideout sets or blitzes are handled by confusing adjustments to already cumbersome charts, though clever modders create "blitz charts" or other homemade solutions to streamline and enhance gameplay.
Player Cards: Sturdy and perfectly-sized to fit in your palm. Every player, even offensive linemen, has a Run, Pass, and Kick rating, so if you decide you want to see Chris Snee punt, you can do it in APBA. Most of the ratings are extraneous (all you really use for a lineman is his base rating), but the extra columns make LaDainian Tomlinson option passes and Mark Simoneau extra points possible. The columns are often co-opted to serve as interception return columns for cornerbacks or kick or punt return columns, so a player like Reggie Bush can be ranked separately in all aspects of his game.
Funky Ratings: Receivers are given A-to-D ratings; like team defenses, they only impact the game at an abstract, check-a-different-chart level. Unless you use the game's randomization rules to determine who the primary receiver is, there's never a good reason to throw to a C or less, which will be bad news for Joe Flacco this year.
Funky Lingo: Pass defense is "D." A wide receiver is an "EB," a tight end an "ET." An "OA-P" means that a player was his team's primary kickoff returner, and his return ratings are found in his P column. No other game feels more like it was translated from Klingon. One code that every APBA player dreads: j*, which means the quarterback just got injured.
Bottom Line: The first football game I ever played has its weak points, but it's very modifiable, and it simulates things like penalties, turnovers, and special teams very well. There's no better feeling than rolling sixty-six on a great player's card, and no worse feeling than seeing that precious roll wasted on the penalty chart.
The Experience: Gamers slide offensive and defensive player cards around a formation chart, then call one of seven plays and seven defenses, plus augmentations in the form of Strategy Cards (like play-action passes or double coverage). They then flip Fast Action Cards to determine results. That's right, "no dice, no childish spinners," as the advertising copy used to say. The FACs provide random numbers, but they also single out particular blockers or defenders who influence a play, so a sweep right might be affected by the right tackle's run blocking rating and the rating of the defender(s) in box E. Completion results are found on the quarterback's card, rushing results on the running back's card, and reception yardage (or a dreaded blank for a dropped pass) on the receiver's card.
Super Cool Elements: The FACs are no less random than dice or spinners, but they unpack a lot more information, allowing one or two non-skill players a chance to shine on every play. "Fast Action Cards are probably the greatest creation I ever thought of in my various careers," Barnes said. "I started thinking how much people could use a deck of cards for a variety of games and the first attempt was for basketball because they could be used as an automatic timing device." The FACs also lent themselves to solitaire play: Each card comes with a handful of opponent's plays for appropriate down-and-distance situations. Statis Pro was the only game with a Play Action Pass, and the Strategy Card overlays gave the game some play-calling depth. The formation charts, though not as cool as Strat-o-Matic's, gave gamers the chance to blitz or vary formations.
What's Lacking: Cards were built from basic stats, like completion percentage and yards per carry, and lacked variety; all running backs with 4.1 yards per carry looked essentially the same. The simplified player cards allowed gamers to focus more upon strategy but took away some of the excitement of controlling unique players. "I always felt that there was never enough character about the teams, locations, weather and dynamics of a particular matchup," Harris said. Results for interception returns and other unusual plays came from default charts, taking some of the thrill away from having an interception fall into Ed Reed's hands.
Player Cards: Flimsy and perforated; even in the game's heyday, the cards were a weakness. Every player got a card, though defenders and offensive linemen only had a few ratings on theirs. As mentioned above, the cards lacked the pizzazz of Strat or APBA cards, with yardage results listed in descending order and separated by slashes. Since the game now only exists in downloads, you can pick your own card stock.
Funky Ratings: With cards built on basic stats, a backup quarterback with a 70 percent completion rate (on 20 passes) can produce a much better card than a superstar starter. Statis Pro gets around this by giving quarterbacks A to C ratings and 0-to-4 ratings for backs and receivers. The rules basically forced you to start your A quarterback until he got hurt. A skill player with a 0 rating had unlimited touches, a "1" rated player couldn't be used for two plays in a row, and so on down to the "4" players, who had a once-per-quarter limit. It was a bit of a dodge from a realism standpoint, though it forced gamers to vary their offense and strategically deploy "money" players.
Funky Lingo: Once you get past FACs and the various boxes on the defensive formation chart (which have non-intuitive letter names), there isn't much jargon in Statis Pro.
Bottom Line: Statis Pro was the best solitare sim and was the easiest game to modify, allowing devotees like Harris and Cole to keep the flame alive. If you want to make a Tim Tebow card or experiment with a Wildcat offense on your kitchen table, Statis Pro provides a sandbox. "It´s also incredibly easy to adapt and modify rules or situations based on your own experience, and the game is so well balanced in most areas that you will immediately spot when things are not working properly and you need to modify something again" Harris said.
Brett Favre: He will tell us if he's going to play again on July 30. Let's all drop our pencils as soon as he starts talking.
J.P. Losman and Jim Fassel in Vegas: All we need now is a baby and a tiger.
Ben Roethlisberger: Don't want to get into the allegations, just the semantics. "Ben has never sexually assaulted anyone -- especially Andrea McNulty," his attorney said. How do you especially not assault someone?
Dolphins Ownership: She's still Jenny from the Block, but now Jake Long is one of the blockers.
The Commish climbs Mount Rainier: Then adds Powersauce Bars to the league's banned-substance list.
Michael Vick: He's teaching Newport News teens to stay out of trouble by playing some of his favorite childhood games, like dodgedog.
The Kicker and the Gondola: Go easy on the kid. Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood were shooting at him, and he couldn't figure out which side Burton was on.
Repetitive NFL Network Promos: Eli Manning teaches a little girl to throw a fade route. She then teaches Losman. Drew Brees hosts a picnic on what looks like the surface of Mars. Darren McFadden jogs from the Combine to the draft to camp to the field, which is great, except that happened last year. They should have re-shot the ad with Knowshon Moreno running from the Combine to the draft to the field to Josh McDaniels' doghouse.
Derrick Mason considers un-retirement: Favre makes everything look easy.
Graham Harrell in Canada: If I say something nice will Mike Leach stop threatening me?
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