Whenever I write about tabletop sports sims, I envision a mob of potential readers marching toward my house, led by an angry pitchfork-wielding villager shouting "For god's sake, somebody tell him NOBODY CARES about tabletop sports sims!! GAAAAHH!!!"
I get the message. Just bear with me for a few minutes. A video game connection is on the way. Lay down that pitchfork, take a few breaths. ... And hey, maybe if you just tried Strat-O..."GAAAAHH!!" ... Okay, Sorry. Forget I said anything. Moving right along.
I received the new Strat-O-Matic Negro League All-Star cards for Christmas. Ten years of research and stat gathering went into building these cards, which accurately reflect the hitting, fielding, and pitching characteristics of 103 players that Major League Baseball excluded from the 1910s until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
As I noted when the set was announced last October, these cards open the door to fans like me, curious about the impact players like Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell might have had on Major League Baseball. Was Johnny Bench a better catcher than Gibson? Sim a few seasons and let's see what we learn.
But these cards possess an even greater value. They afford a father like me the opportunity to teach my son about an illustrious chapter of baseball history (and a shameful part of our nation's past) by engaging him with individual players. Gifted men with names. Forgotten men resurrected through statistics hailing their individual feats. Each card full of numbers tells a story. The trick is deciphering those numbers and coming to understand the full measure of that man as a baseball player.
When you devote yourself to this effort, there's a very good chance you will come to love, in a way, the men behind those numbers. If you're like me, you will hold in your memory every member of the 1978 championship team you assembled from flimsy two-color perforated cards. You learned all their strengths and weaknesses; you protected them from injuries; and you knew Vida Blue would be true when he threw. These were your guys, and they won for you. So you loved them.
Revisiting Strat-O Baseball with my son (we've played the game together for 10 years now) helped rekindle my appreciation for a fundamental aspect of playing other kinds of games, including video games. Much of the fun we derive comes not from playing, but from preparing to play.
The affinity I described above grew mostly from studying, evaluating, assembling and otherwise getting ready to play a simulated version of baseball. The game itself - 9 innings of rolling dice, employing strategies, and determining outcomes - is terrific fun, to be sure. It's the vital test of one's preparation. But, ultimately, the deep fun and real brainpower required to succeed emerge in the moments when you ask yourself, "Should Musial hit 3rd or 4th?" or "How much money should I spend on a 35-year-old pitcher?"
Reflecting on it, I realize that similar deliberations have always driven my interest in games, including recent video games like Demon's Souls, Dragon Age, and Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. I loved the incredibly evocative environments and deep combat elements of Demon's Souls, but I also derived fulfillment from deciding which stats to level-up and fiddling with equipment upgrades, souls, and spells. Creating a character in Dragon Age occupied me for an entire evening. Spirit Tracks had me mentally grinding on environmental puzzles in the shower.
Conceptualizing play; weighing alternatives; visualizing possibilities. Getting ready to play is, of course, play itself. But I think the preparations a player makes in advance of formal 'gameplay' can sometimes bind that player to a game more deeply than anything occurring elsewhere 'in the game.' That's certainly the case for me and my son with a tabletop baseball sim, and I suspect it's true for many of us with video games too.
Incidental fun fact #1: 27 million people play fantasy football every week, devoting countless hours to preparing their teams for games over which they have no control or input mechanism. Incidental fun fact #2: Madden '09 sold 4.5 million copies. Apples and oranges? Certainly. But still interesting.