The tiny little game of the Gathering
One of the joys of the Gathering is the rare game. The prototype (though I no longer play those) or the obscure or Out of Print. I haven’t paid much attention to Japanese games, excepting the ones that get republished in the US. Japanese games are tiny morsels, the one delightful bite and finished. The amuse-bouche of games. If you examine Japenese games, you find efficiency. Short games in minimalist packages, not necessarily deep but not as shallow as a dozen or two cards and perhaps a few cubes would lead you yo believe. Sail to India squeezed a Euro into two dozen cards and some cubes. Love Letter is a replayable gem with 16 cards, and it’s not alone.
The Japanese also play baseball, and they shrank the strike zone and game length. The Japanese, perhaps due to resource constraints or cultural differences, make things small.
So it surprised me that it an American compressed baseball down to six cards.
Baseball Highlights: 2045 imagines the American pastime as an ESPN highlight reel played by cyborgs, robots and the rare unaugmented human (“naturals”). Each type specializes in expertise (pitching, hitting, and fielding) but some are all around players. Each mini-game consists of six cards out of your fifteen card roster. (Each card is “one inning” the game having been shortened due to increasing pressure from so many forms of entertainment).
In those six cards you have knuckleballers, hits, stolen bases, walks, intentional walks, double plays, diving catches, pinch hitting, pick offs, leadoff hitters and smallball and robots going yard. My first mini game, my very first, featured a six extra inning affair that ended on a bases loaded walk.
The mechanics are elegance itself. You play one of your six cards (or pinch hit for it, if you can). If it has an immediate effect it takes place, then you threaten one or more hits. (Such as “Single, then Triple.”) Your opponent plays a card, resolves his immediate effects, then any hits you played resolved. The most common immediate effects are to cancel one (or more) hits, perhaps conditionally. So if I played a “Single, then Triple” and my opponent played “Cancel a hit” card I’d get my single (the triple being cancelled). And my opponents card may also threaten hits I have to deal with.
There are twists (pinch hitting, the on deck circle, runner speed, extra innings after a tie) but the core is simple. Elegant.
After your game, your six played cards produce revenue and you hire a free agent. You send one player down to the minors, put the free agent on top of your deck and go. BBH2045 is a deckbuilder; but the decks always stay the same size.
Amazingly, it captures the feel. I’ve seen a series with a pitcher’s duel (0-0 in the fifth with a runner finally getting in scoring position!) and a shellacking worthy of an aerial bombing campaign (9-7). I’ve seen close games and hopelessly lopsided affairs. The starting teams subtly differ but even 1-2 free agents give a team character. Do you get robots and go for offense, but leave yourself open to cyborgs who can blank any robot? Do you focus on pitching and defense and sneak a few runs through?
I suspect that the futuristic theme was to preserve the purity of baseball while allowing the designer (Mike Fitzgerald) to dodge all of the “But how can X get two at bats in an inning that only produced two runs, and maybe zero?” Claiming to be a highlight reel (and cyborgs, and all that) allows for an end run around those who would argue for mechanical purity over feel.
It must be admitted the ‘capturing the feel’ of baseball means sometimes having a rough go of it. But to me that’s part of the charm. Better management will help you win more of the winnable games, but somedays they’ve got all their pitchers lined up and you shrug. I played a 20 game season of Bunco for Boys and I enjoyed it despite making no decisions for most of each 45 minute game. So dealing with some bad hands for a five minute game doesn’t bother me. (Incessantly complaining about rotten luck more than compensates). If you demand that better skill translate to a win and not just a better percentage of winning, this is not your game. Stick to chess. I think I’m pretty good at this (and intend to get better) but some days you just pray for rain.
The full game is configurable from 30 minutes up to hours, depending on how long you play. If you have enough copies in your group, you could play a tournament with dozens of players. A 26 person league ran in 5 hours, and that’s with 8-12 new players and some delays. (Obviously it required 7 sets). It even plays three, which has historical precedent. There are already five mini expansions which I haven’t even opened and plans for more (including new base teams). There’s even a solitaire game, which I haven’t played. I’m going to analyze the hell out of it (which fits the theme). If you have a glimmering of interest in deck builders, sports games, and big things in small packages, you should try it.
Rating — Wildly Enthusiastic. I hope my son is as well.
Caveat — I am friends with the designer and developer, and many playtesters. I won a copy of the game in a tournament, although I would have purchased it instantly if I hadn’t.