Before I even commence with this review, I need to make clear that I have a vested interest in this game. I have been attempting to keep this game alive for the better part of two decades. And I have released updated charts and will soon release a new version of the All-Time All-Star game. So, while it is true that I rate this game at the very highest end of the scale, some may take that with a grain of salt saying "oh, he's the guy who's always pushing that old game." True enough. I an an unabashed fan, as well as the person putting more charts on the market. Onward with the review.
Sports Illustrated released thier baseball game back in 1970, and those charts are available right here at tabletop-sports.com. The game is very basic in flow. Pitchers roll specially-constructed dice to generate a number between 10 and 39. If the pitcher's chart does not indicate a final result of the play (walk, strike out, ground out, or fly out), then the batter rolls on their chart to determine the ultimate outcome. It's a simple structure which mimics the flow of real baseball incredibly well, while allowing ace pitchers to exert some control over the outcome without dominating, as is the case in some other baseball tabletop games.
The results which can occur are actually quite realistic, ranging from base-to-base advancement and double plays to hits and outs with runners already on base advancing an extra base or two. This is a shorthand way to simulate special baserunning advancement (e.g. hit-and-run, grounding out behind the runner, getting a good lead, agressive running) without allowing the system to get bogged down in extra dice rolls and charts. The designer was obviously concerned with distilling the essence of baseball down into as few rolls as possible while still keeping all the statistical accuracy (and the designer has authored detailed sabermetric statistic books on the subject). There are supplemental charts to allow for bunting, stealing, and advancing bases on some fly outs and base hits, but these are all covered with one-roll efficiency. An average game can be played with somewhere between 100 and 190 rolls of the dice.
And with the results of each dice roll clearly shown on the charts, there is no cross-check, reference-chart-flipping needed (as is the case with SherCo, Replay, and several other systems I've also enjoyed). A game can easily be completed in 15 minutes. Even slow players who like to "flavor" their "gaming experience" with color comentary have a hard time taking more than an hour to play.
Of course, this still-realistic streamlining does come at a cost. The original game simply resulted in hits, outs, and errors. There were no specifics about each of these outcomes--no directional hitting, no fielding putouts, and no notion of which player makes each error. While defense is still a significant part of the game, it too is distilled into an overall team rating (each player has a +/- defensive rating at their position which represents their ability to make extra outs--not their ability to avoid errors--and the total of this defense may add extra outs to the pitcher's chart). So, the results are accurate, but individual fielding statistics are not available.
To most players, this isn't a huge hurdle, what with the ability to play a dramatic and fulfilling game so quickly. But to the person who wishes to recreate a season, it can be frustrating. So, in my most recent update (also available here), I have included charts and rules to allow managers to determine the fielders associated with all putouts, determine errors, and even override chart errors if a fielder is particularly sure-handed. Needless to say, incorporating those extra dice rolls will extend a game's length, so it is offered only as an optional rule.
Other optional rules which have come about over the years are pitcher fatigue ratings and pitchers' gopher-ball tendancies. These two options are becoming a standard, particularly because they are enforced at the yearly World Boardgaming Championship tournament in Baltimore (www.boardgamers.org). These are two non-intrusive additions to the basic game.
In the original game, pitchers had no limitations upon how often they could start or how long they could pitch in each game. This option provides a single "Tire" rating which is consulted prior to each inning in which a pitcher appears (roll the dice, if less than the "Tire" number, the pitcher's outs are negated, if not, they stand). When a pitcher does tire, his "2nd Wind" rating is likewise consulted each inning instead, to see if they "regained their stuff." It's a simple rule which makes the use of relievers a more chancy strategy, whereas in the original game, any starter could complete every game and no reliever ever had a bad day and could always pitch for five innings, regardless of their historic usage.
Also, the original game included no difference between a pitcher who allows many home runs and those who do not. The optional addition here simply includes a rating for some of the "batter swings" results on pitchers charts (so that they can still be interpreted as "swing" for those not incorporating this addition). If the "swing" is accompanied by the letters "HR", then any hit by the batter will be a homer. If the "swing" result is accompanied by the result of "(HR)", then a homer result on the batter's chart will be reduced to a single. It's a subtle change which adds no extra dice rolling, but allows for much finer differentiation between pitchers' charts. Whereas in the past, there might be little difference between Walter Johnson and Randy Johnson, there is a little more difference with the HR tendancies thrown in.
So, the classic game is still there, but with a few modern advancements--even allowing the most meticulous of players to track all fielding and even "time travel" to different eras and ballparks to simulate the conditions of past teams (this is not an optional rule for the faint of heart, and the reader is referred to the "Teams of the Past" downloads for further details).
But back to the history... After three seasons of team charts, Sports Illustrated released their All-Time All-Star teams, comprised of all-time great players from each of the 16 "original" franchises. This way, players no longer had to play Chico Salmon or Earl Williams in their SI Baseball games. They could have Ernie Banks and Cap Anson in the same lineup. What they created was an all-star game which kept team identity, so that Giants fans could pick from the best the franchise ever had to offer to take on the Dodgers best of the best. This set quickly became the standard, and no more individual seasons were ever released. After all, who wants to deal with only one "good" pitcher on the staff, when an all-star team includes nine guys with outs on their charts? Ultimately, this set was pared down to just 96 all-time greats and renamed "Superstar Baseball."
But this innovative and original rendering is still popular, particularly the all-time greats (though they haven't been updated for thirty years). Hopefully, the upcoming All-Time All-Star renewal (with modern players, too) will encourage even more gamers to discover this gem.
Bottom line--this game is quick and realistic and, most importantly, brings out the "feel" of a real baseball game--that laid back, sing-song rhythm which is simulated by players alternately rolling dice, but punctuated by a few moments of sweaty-palmed excitement when something big could happen. You just feel like you're there, hot dog in hand. There's no doubt that this game should get the highest rating afforded. But, of course, this comes from a very long-time fan who happens to also produce updates. Give it a try to see how your opinion meshes with mine.
Added: Wednesday, June 25, 2003
Reviewer: Randy Cox