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Varsity Geek

November 18, 2008

Athletics and geeks donít usually mix, but when it comes to board games anything is possible. There are board games about every corner of the globe and every historical time period so why not a few about sporting events. Board games based on sports are an odd breed because theyíre an exercise of the mind that simulates an exercise of the body. You can partake from the comfort of your living room without hardly moving a muscle. While itís not a particularly common theme for modern board games, it does have its advantages. First and foremost, a sports theme can appeal to fans of that particular sport who wouldnít otherwise be interested in playing a board game. So the sports theme can be used to draw in otherwise reticent players. Second, complementary to the first point is the fact that the rules of board games dealing with sports can be easier to learn for people who are already familiar with the underlying sport. Knowing the rules of soccer will make StreetSoccer easier to learn, just as knowing the rules of football will make learning Battleball a snap. Third, board games simulating sports are just plain fun. Thereís something about the sports theme that seems to make the gameplay more wild and frenetic with more exciting moments and twists of fate. Collecting resources to contribute to the construction of a Renaissance castle is all well and good, but canít possibly result in the same ooohís and ahhhís as a goal or a touchdown.

Gold Medal Game

There are a variety of sports board games out there, but my personal favorite has got to be StreetSoccer, designed by Cornť van Moorsel and published by Cwali. This Dutch game is deceptively simple and seems completely random and silly to new players. Having played it 54 times now, I can say that this is a game that grows on you (in the same way that I found Blokus indecipherable and fairly random at first blush and then learned to appreciate it more with further plays). The more I play StreetSoccer, the more I enjoy it, and the more I realize how much strategy is involved. Despite the major role that luck plays, the better player will almost always win a game of StreetSoccer because smart spatial positioning of your athletes on the pitch is crucial.

StreetSoccer is an extremely simplified version of soccer (or football for those of you outside the United States). It distills soccer down to an almost abstract format. The pitch is a 10 by 6 grid. Each person gets 5 meeple athletes. The game lasts 25 rounds with players taking turns rolling a six-sided die, then choosing any one of their athletes and moving the athlete the number of spaces equal to the die, and finally if the athlete runs into the ball then they kick the ball the remaining number of spaces (i.e., the difference between the die roll and the number of spaces that the athlete moved to get to the ball). There is no dribbling, just kicking to pass and shoot. If you kick the ball into a teammate then that teammate can change the direction of the ball and move it one additional space beyond what it would have otherwise moved. There are a few more minor rules, but thatís pretty much it. Despite its simplicity, this game is actually a fairly accurate representation of soccer. The scores generally range from zero to three with the games usually being very close and tense. There are the same sorts of emotions as in soccer as the ball works its way up and down the field, switching sides every so often, and the players try to setup an opening for a key pass and resulting goal. Itís got everything you could want except the slide tackling and red cards.

You can try StreetSoccer online at a variety of sites, such as real-time play at BrettspielWelt and turn-based play at Little Golem, but the game really excels when played face-to-face. The excitement of the die rolling, crucial goals, and down-to-the-wire matches just doesnít translate to the computer. This really is the pinnacle of sports board games in my mind and perfects the idea of capturing an athletic competition in a mental one.

Second Place is more than just the "First Loser"

My second favorite sports board game is Um Reifenbreite, designed by Rob Bontenbal, published by Jumbo, and winner of the 1992 Spiel des Jahres. This game can be a little difficult to track down, but itís well worth it. Um Reifenbreite is a bicycle racing game for up to 4 players where each player controls a racing team of four athletes. This makes for a chaotic race of 16 cyclists! Itís especially chaotic when one of those cyclists crashes, causing a chain reaction that takes down many other riders too. The wonderfully illustrated game board actually provides for a variety of different courses as you can choose to mix-and-match different twists and turns to design a course to your liking. Unlike many other racing games, itís not a first-past-the-post game so you canít just concentrate on getting one of your cyclists to break the finish line tape. All 16 positions are scored and you add up the point value associated with the placement of all 4 riders on your squad.

A round in Um Reifenbreite is composed of 16 turns where each rider has the opportunity to move once (assuming he hasnít been knocked over already by a crash). Turn order goes from front to back (just like in Mississippi Queen) with the furthest ahead racer moving first and ending with the last place racer. Movement is principally determined by rolling and summing two six-sided dice (and the most frequent result of 7 forcing you to draw a chance card that causes much fun and chaos). However, players can mitigate the luck by playing one of the precious movement cards that start in their hand and have the numbers 5 or 6 printed on them, and can be used in place of rolling one of the dice so as to effectively pretend that you rolled high. Due to the limited supply of these cards, you have to use them wisely. In fact, they might belong in my Patient Isnít Always a Virtue article, come to think of it, since I always seem to have a handful of them left once itís all said and done.

One particularly nice aspect of Um Reifenbreite is that it offers a large selection of optional rules so players can tailor the gameplay to their liking. Some of these options include rules for drafting, different terrain, yellow jersey, and even cheating (although your cyclist has a chance of being disqualified as a result). Thus Um Reifenbreite can range from a very simple game to a fairly complex affair, depending on how many of the optional rules your group chooses to incorporate (which is reminiscent of the flexibility of the Dune rule set). I may not be much of a cyclist in real life, but I definitely enjoy the fun of a pleasant, if a bit vicious, bike ride in this game.

Rounding out the Podium

The bronze metal goes to Milton Bradleysí Battleball for itís XFL-style recreation of football. Battleball is a no holds barred football board game in which each players controls 11 athletes/combatants as they try not only to score touchdowns but also to fight and eliminate their oppositionís units. Within a few minutes, the enormous Battleball board will be strewn with ďcarnage tokensĒ where the athletes once stood.

The clever mechanism of Battleball is that the 11 units on each team are divided into 5 different color-coded classes based on size. The smallest athletes are the fastest and roll a 20-sided die for movement, whereas the largest athletes are the slowest and roll a 6-side die for movement. In between there are units rolling 8-sided, 10-sided, and 12-sided dice. However, the units roll the same type of dice for combat as they do for movement, and combat is resolved by each combatant rolling their specified type of die, and the lowest roll winning. Thus, the slow 6-sided die unit canít run very fast, but is likely (although certainly not guaranteed) to win most of its fights. The losing combatant is eliminated and replaced with an impassable carnage token, which eventually turn the field into a maze of carnage.

Itís a light, silly, and very fast-paced game. Itís an amusing simulation of football with heavily armored participants and brutality like youíve never seen on Sunday television. Battleball rounds out a trio of dice-rolling sports games that are all more about the lively experience than the result.

Honorable Mentions

Speaking of which, if you want excitement and a game where the outcome is irrelevant, then look no further than honorable mention Stuff Yer Face. While the clowns in this game might just give you nightmares, itís well worth it for the fun time youíll have with this dexterity game. Apparently competitive eating is a sport, just see the International Federation of Competitive Eating website or the Wikipedia page. I gather itís not just trotted out for hot dog contests between Kobayashi and Chestnut, but rather appears to be a year-round activity (albeit not nationally televised in the same sort of spotlight reserved for celebrating the birth of our nation on Independence Day). While we could certainly debate whether competitive eating is really a sport, letís just call it a sport so we can talk about Stuff Yer Face in this article. Stuff Yer Face is a Milton Bradley game from 1982. Two players simultaneously attempt to maneuver the arms of their clown to pick up their color marbles (yellow or green) and put them in their clownís mouth. Once youíve eaten all of your own color marbles then you are allowed to start eating the special red marbles. The winner (not that winning is particularly relevant since weíre talking about a fast-paced dexterity game about freakish clowns engaged in competitive eating) is the player who manages to eat a majority of the red marbles. The oddly shaped clown hands make it tricky to pick up the marbles and even trickier to lift them up to your clownís mouth, especially with your frenetic opponent trying to accomplish the same thing simultaneously. Yes, this game is as ridiculous and wacky as it sounds, and well recognized as such. Just check out its appearance on GeekLists about the wackiest games, scary non-horror games, and the freakiest game components.

Another tenuous game to include in this article is Schnapp, published by Haba in 1993. This is not yet another board game about sports, but rather it is a sport in and of itself. For those truly varsity geeks, Schnapp provides an amusing physical challenge like none other. This game involves a group of four people (or eight people in four teams of two people each) gathering around the table and taking turn launching wooden discs into the air using a miniature see-saw board. Everyone tries to recognize what color was on the underside of the disc and you try to grab the disc if it's your assigned color. As you can imagine, a lot of bumping and shoving results during this raucous game. You may end up destroying your living room in the process, but I guarantee youíll have fun doing it and get quite a workout too. So if youíre sick of just playing board games that simulate soccer, cycling, and football, then stand up, push back your chair, and start launching Schnapp discs into the air. It may be the geekiest sport, but itís truly a sport in a board game rather than just another board game with a sports theme.

Missing in Action

I would be remiss if I didnít close by mentioning a few sports board games that I havenít tried yet but am eager to try sometime. First and foremost are Pizza Box Football from 2005 and Pizza Box Baseball from 2008. As you might imagine, both of these games come in boxes shaped like their titular pizza boxes. I gather they both use a rock-paper-scissors mechanic (like Adel Verpflichtet and Basari) as each player tries to outguess their opponent when selecting their move (like Piranha Pedro). Secondly Iíd like to try a pair of soccer dexterity games. These are Subbuteo and Weykick. The former is a flicking dexterity game (ŗ la Crokinole), while the latter appears to be more like air hockey as players move their footballers around to knock a marble into their opponentís goal. The particularly unique feature of Weykick is that players control their footballers by moving magnets beneath the playing surface, which moves the magnetic footballers around the pitch. Both of these soccer dexterity games would seem to contrast nicely with the abstract thoughtfulness of StreetSoccer. With that being said, Cornť van Moorselís StreetSoccer still reigns supreme in my mind and takes home the gold in this varsity geek battle for best board game about sports.

(See Boardgame News for an edited version of this article plus additional comments on it)