Just in time for baseball playoffs and with our Rangers leading 2-0 in the ALDS, The Bearded and friends celebrated the postseason by gathering to play a rousing 10-person tournament of Mike Fitzgerald’s Baseball Highlights: 2045. Our good friend Brian, who hosted the extravaganza, pulled out all the stops to make this a memorable event. We gnoshed on traditional ballpark fare – grilled hot dogs, nachos, peanuts and snacks – under red, white and blue streamers as everyone settled in for the start of our tournament. As this was everyone’s first experience playing Baseball Highlights: 2045, Brian organized it so that we began with a few practice rounds first before getting started in earnest.
Representative teams were selected at random (I drew the St. Louis Cardinals) and then corresponding starter team decks were issued to all managers. It should be mentioned that in order for ten of us to play with unique teams for this event we used two boxes of the base game of Baseball Highlights: 2045 plus additional expansion team packs. These expansion packs plus the ability to combine two boxes is a nice feature of the game to allow for large group tournament play and/or to accommodate personal preferences to play favorite teams. We picked an opponent to sit down against and spent about 20 minutes running through games to learn rules, understand the mechanics and familiarize ourselves with the players on our team. Since each game of Baseball Highlights: 2045 only takes 5-7 minutes, it didn’t take long for everyone to play through a few rounds and get the hang of the game. In order to build our teams into formidable ballplayers for the tournament it was decided we would play a series of mini-games next to represent the regular season with a buy round in between games to sufficiently improve our team beyond their meager starting rosters of rookies and a handful of veteran players. Before I proceed to the mini-games it might help to explain a bit about the game itself to better understand why it’s so important to improve one’s team leading up to tournament play.
True to its name, Baseball Highlights: 2045 does away with outs and innings to instead present a very thematic highlight reel of the outcome of a baseball game as imagined in the year 2045. It’s a card game played by two people acting as managers who track the outcome of running the bases and scoring runs through the efforts of their team’s line up. Baseball players of differing abilities, represented by a small hand of cards, are played one at a time alternating between the visiting team’s manager and the home team’s manager to quickly determine game highlights and ultimately the final outcome of a match up. This back and forth playing of cards mimics the ebb and flow of an actual game surprisingly well to provide the possibility for impressive offensive hits and equally stunning defensive plays, building tension and suspense along the way in a brief simulated game experience. It’s a remarkable system that captures the spirit of a baseball game rather well.
Besides the cards, components in the game include individual player boards known as Player Stadium Mats which display a baseball diamond, pawns to place around the bases as runners and a few chits to keep track of runs scored and games won in a series. The heart of Baseball Highlights: 2045 is the cards though. Each card represents one of three types of players in this futuristic version of our national pastime: humans known as naturals, part man and part machine cyborgs and advanced hitting machine robots. The strength of naturals is that they are still the best fielders in the game despite all the mechanical improvements to other players, and they are highly valued by fans thus generating better income for managers. Cyborgs are built to outperform their human counterparts in pitching in order to dominate from the mound. Robots are finely tuned hitting machines which generate plenty of runs from the batter’s box, but generally provide little income for managers when it comes to paying for improved players.
While everyone starts with a similar mixed squad of rookie and veteran players, after each game a recruitment stage allows managers to improve their roster by buying new players from a Free Agent Deck to add to their team. Based on the revenue generated by cards played, managers purchase available free agents who are presented as star players with much improved abilities and powers who will have an immediate affect on the next played game. Since each new player added to a team replaces an existing player to maintain a 15 card roster of players, buying free agents after several rounds will quickly improve a team beyond its humble beginnings and transform it into a more customized team for coaches to shape as they see fit to match their intended game strategy. For example, managers can load up on strong pitching in an attempt to thwart opponent’s hitting, or perhaps recruit players who provide good income in hopes of generating enough funds during a buy round to afford a really special and expensive free agent. A variety of options exist for customizing one’s team with these free agent purchases.
Now back to our mini-games. For our event we divided up into AL and NL leagues and then paired up to play each team in our league twice with a bye round for the odd man out each round. By following this format, we completed a regular season of eight played games with buy rounds after each plus additional buys for each team during their bye round (using the top six cards of their deck to determine revenue for making a purchase). This provided us with a greatly improved team going into the tournament. Plus by tracking our wins and losses (and point differentials) we used our records to seed our teams for places in the tournament bracket. While we would have liked to have played best two out of three against each opponent, for the sake of saving time we limited it to just two games apiece. Obviously, any agreed upon number of games can be played during such a series leading up to the World Series tournament.
Now that our teams were improved, our skills were honed and our enthusiasm was stoked it was time to enter the tournament where winners advanced and losers were left to finish off their lukewarm beer, half-eaten bowls of peanuts and congealed nacho cheese snacks. It was all or nothing from this point forward. No further buys would add players to our roster. We played with the deck we’d formed and hoped it would do well against the other teams we faced. For our tournament it worked better to do away with the AL and NL division from the regular season and just play head to head based on the rankings of our record, regardless of league affiliation. This meant that some of us played new opponents for the first time, pitting our decks against untested teams; and that made for some interesting match ups.
Our tournament was a best of five series with teams alternating home and visitor in the same manner as modern day Major League Baseball games – one person’s team was the visitor for the first two games, switched to the home team for the 3rd and possible 4th game, and then reverted back to the visitor team if a 5th game was necessary. My match up was one of the interesting ones as I drew Aaron who’s AL team was unknown to me since I had no knowledge of his deck or his playing style. I was going into the tournament blind. My opponent’s strengths and weaknesses were a mystery to me. We shuffled our decks and drew our initial six cards. It was time to play.
Each game of Baseball Highlights: 2045 plays as a series of card actions which provide a possible immediate offensive or defensive action as well as a possible future offensive action based on the ability of the player each card represents. A game finishes after both managers play just six cards. From a Lineup deck of 15 cards a manager draws the top six cards to form his hand – his team of six players who will be used in this round of the competition. Cards played are not replenished so once a player’s actions are committed to the highlight of a game, that manager has one fewer player in his hand to use for the remaining turns of the game until each manager plays down to their last remaining card or player. If played correctly, that lone card will represent a player who can win you the game or save it for you depending on the current score.
Trusting on the power of my balanced deck of fast hitters to see me through to the next round, I lead with my best efforts to score runs but failed to get anywhere in my first game of the tournament. Almost as quickly as it had started, the game ended in a loss. It wasn’t even close. Aaron and I discarded our played cards, thematically sending our spent players to the dugout, and drew a fresh hand of six players from our deck with which to start game two. I fared much better this time and with the help of some heavy hitters notched my first win to even the number of won games to 1-1. After two games we had played 12 of the 15 cards in our decks, so by now I’d seen the majority of his players. Despite winning this second game, one thing troubled me at this point: he was robot heavy. Aaron had put together a deck of efficient home run hitting robots and powerful cyborgs with hardly any naturals on his team at all. While my balanced mix of players produced a comparable amount of runs, several of my players’ abilities didn’t match up as well defensively against his team since their powers only triggered against opponent’s natural players. This left me at a slight disadvantage.
Allow me to explain further by describing a typical turn in the game. I play a card to my mat, placing a player into the center of the diamond. That player may have a special effect on the state of the game which would resolve immediately. In my case the card I play has no immediate effect. Next the player’s main action usually represents an ability to place one or more runners on base. For instance, my player threatens to hit a double. Also, players may be regarded as slow, average or fast in terms of how quickly they will later advance around the bases as base runners. To mark my potential double I place a blue pawn in the batter’s box. Blue denotes that if that pawn reaches base as a base runner it will later advance at the speed of an average runner. Now to determine whether my potential hit occurs or not we must see what card is played by the opposing team’s manager. Specifically, we must see whether it represents a player with an immediate defensive ability to thwart my hit. For instance, an opponent’s player may be a natural with excellent fielding to catch hit balls. Therefore, my potential double would not occur and the pawn I hoped to place on the base paths returns to the supply at the side of the table. However, if the opponent’s player doesn’t thwart my efforts, then I resolve my hit by placing a base runner at second base and also advancing other runners already on bases according to their speed around the diamond, possibly scoring runs for my team.
Continuing with my example, the opposing manager plays a card without a defensive ability so my blue pawn moves safely to second base. I already had a white pawn, a slow base runner, sitting at first base when my turn started so when the blue pawn advances to second base my white pawn also moves around the base paths. In this case it moves over to third base. Had that white pawn instead been a red fast base runner, it would have moved all the way to home plate and scored a run. In my case I must be content with getting another pawn on base and advancing one of my runners closer toward home. My opponent would then complete their turn by placing on their own player mat any potential hits designated by their played card. Each manager keeps track of their base runners on separate mats throughout the game.
Every play of the game continues in this manner such that each card waits for the play of an opponent’s card to determine it’s success or failure, repeated over and over while advancing base runners around their paths to score runs until the last card is played. Cards can represent players who hit singles, doubles, triples and home runs; players who offensively advance runners on the base paths or defensively pick players off bases; players who walk batters and turn potential home runs into singles or players who perform in the clutch to create some real excitement for base runners. One caveat to all these abilities is that some of them only work when played immediately after an opponent has played a certain type of player, a cyborg for instance. And this is where I found myself. I had some great defensive abilities when played against natural players, but I found myself up against a team of mostly mechanical players for which my defensive wiles were of little use.
After I won the second game, Aaron and I only had a few cards left in our deck from which to draw our six cards for the next game. Therefore, we drew what we could and then shuffled our played cards together to form a new draw deck to complete drawing our hand for the third game. I drew well and finally got my expensive cyborg card which specialized in leading off, so I got out to a quick start in our third game with some early runners on base which helped me to win that game, too. I was now ahead 2 games to 1 in our best out of five series. I only needed one more win to advance to the next round of the tournament. I held my breath.
Game four went Aaron’s way and he got the best of me with his hand of players. Once again I was stymied by being unable to fully utilize all my players’ defensive capabilities against his robotic hitters. With a 2-2 tie we now went forward into our fifth game in order to determine who would move ahead. Talk about building up tension. We went the distance in this game and when the dust settled I lost a nailbiter to Aaron, losing by only one run in our final game. I shook my fist at how close I’d gotten, I laughed at how frustrated I’d been with his deck, I smiled at how much fun I’d had. Aaron got to write his name on the next level of the winners bracket, but I still couldn’t keep from smiling. Baseball Highlights: 2045 was such fun that I even enjoyed myself despite losing. I enjoyed every minute of the games I’d played. I wasn’t alone either.
Another player who was out of contention and I played over half a dozen more games just for fun while waiting to crown an eventual champion in the tournament. We both just wanted to put our teams through their paces and enjoy more game play. Baseball Highlights: 2045 is a tad addictive that way. It plays quick enough that it begs for repeated plays, especially after you add cards to the deck which will have an immediate impact next round. You just can’t wait to see how well your team will perform. Plus in a tournament setting like the one we created, there’s such a variety of teams utilizing different strategies and players to test one’s own team of players against to see how well they stack up. There are so many draws to this game, it really makes for an exciting game play experience.
After a few more rounds our friends “The Fedora” Stephen and Shawn made it to the final round. A bit more than bragging rights were on the line as our host Brian had offered a board game from his collection to the winner. Truthfully, I didn’t watch the final game myself as I was still playing games just for fun with others who had lost out in the tournament. From a side table I watched casually as the two of them duked it out back and forth. After going the distance, Stephen’s New York Yankees came out on top to claim the top spot. We all cheered and congratulated him on his win. Then we all agreed we should get together to play another tournament soon. I think I know how I’ll be spending part of an afternoon with friends at BGG.CON next month.
Baseball Highlights: 2045 is one heckuva good baseball game. Thematically, it plays close enough to the real sport to make it accessible. Mechanically, it recreates the struggle coaches experience as they position their players in the lineup and then must wait to see what happens as they send them to the plate. What really makes the game shine is the simplicity of its actions paired with the creative results one is able to manage while reacting to an opponent’s threats. Setting the game in a mechanized alternate reality adds a whimsical air to the sports’ proceedings, fueling the imagination about what could be one day. As Yogi Berra so eloquently put it, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
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