Idea Workshopping: Building a Different Baseball Card Game

Let me first say that I am in no way an authority on baseball cards, or even baseball for that matter. I don’t even really like baseball, I just like traditions that facilitate the wearing of high-socks. I never collected baseball cards and I never wanted to; I thought baseball was dumb when I was young, plus my youth didn’t really overlap with the time that most people loved baseball cards. Also I spent much of my youth in Germany, where baseball is considered “blöd.” Why do I write for Notgraphs. (I kid, baseball “ist kool”).

What I do know about baseball cards is that they are not what they used to be! As a non-baseball card person it seems like they’re not worth much unless they’re Honus Wagner and were discovered in an attic in Germantown, PA by someone’s great aunt. Which is to say, they have historical significance and are probably a worthwhile interest to those who were interested when they were big, but to me, a brazen, uncouth, possibly anti-American youth, baseball cards hold no interest outside of being a record of moustaches throughout baseball history. Which—that’s pretty valuable, I’ll admit.

However, being a nerd, I love collectible cards. Cards like Magic cards, or the Pokemon cards I so desperately coveted when I was 11. The appeal of those games is not just in the collecting, but in how each card adds a key strategic piece to one’s deck. Acquiring a rare card doesn’t just mean it gets stored in a plastic sleeve, but that it could have potential to benefit you in competitive play. In that sense collectible card games (CCGs!) like Magic or deck-building games like Dominion and 7 Wonders are more similar to the task of a general manager in baseball than cards that are simply made to be collected.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t any baseball card games. In my admittedly hurried research it seems like most baseball card games are some combination of 1) baseball simulations (i.e. do not involve strategy after a set of cards is assembled) 2) involve only individual games (i.e. not the strategy of winning over the course of a season or seasons) 3) antiques and do not fully resemble modern baseball. Most of these card games involve managerial strategy, but none involve general managerial strategy. Which is what I’m interested in. Playing pretend that I’m Billy Beane.

In other words, there is probably no card game whose aim is to create the experience of being a Major League general manager. If it does exist, do tell me. Also, I realize that fantasy baseball accomplishes a lot of what I’m talking about without the hassle of cards and direct human interaction (ugh!). But fantasy takes a whole season to play out and… just isn’t the same. What I want is to be able to gather some friends  for an evening and act as general manager of a fake baseball team. To my knowledge, I cannot yet do this.

So I want to workshop what this game could be. I’m going to brainstorm some ideas and questions, and if you have any thoughts or suggestions please do leave a comment. If we come to something worthwhile I’ll make a follow-up post detailing a draft of the game’s rules.

First, what do I want from this game? You might want different things! That’s okay!:

1) Cards. I LOVE cards.

2) Competitive strategy.

3) A distinct parallel between one’s goals and actions in the game and the goals and actions of a Major League general manager.

It’s this last point that I want to start with. What are the goals of a Major League GM?

1) Construct teams that can make the playoffs and have a chance to win the World Series  (i.e. construct a team that is better than most other teams).

2) Promote long-term success.

OR, another way of thinking about it:

1A) Invest/spend/occupy resources to gain wins immediately and over time.

So what are the resources from 1A that a GM can spend? And how can he spend them? What possible actions can a GM perform to gain wins?

1) Spend money. Money is involved in almost everything a GM does, including the next few actions.

2) Draft players.

3) Sign international players.

4) Make trades.

5) Influence and/or decide roster moves.

6) Interact with media and promote the team.

7) I’m forgetting things–please tell me what they are.

A card or board game where one acts as general manager would have to be much simpler than real life, duh, but still involve the same goals and actions. Many popular strategy games from Starcraft to Monopoly to Settlers of Catan involve the economic idea of: Spend Resources to Gain Resources. Build SCVs to harvest minerals to build expansions in neighboring areas to harvest more minerals. Buy hotels on Boardwalk to earn cash from your opponents when they land on it. Spend a wheat, sheep, brick, and wood to get a settlement to gain resources adjacent to that settlement. You get the idea.

Here are some possible simple strategic progressions along those lines that this game could follow. Red arrows indicate an investment and black arrows represent a return on that investment. (This, by necessity, is a gross oversimplification of how the economics of baseball work).

Money Wins→ More Money More Wins→ Even More Money Even More Wins→ Glory Eternal

OK, simple as can be, right? The idea being that more wins make more people like your team and give your team more of their money. Over-simplified. I know. You can’t just buy Wins. If you could, this would be a boring game. You have to invest in the components of Wins and hope they add up to more Wins than your opponent. Which might look more like this:

Money Players and StaffWins→ More Money Better Players and Staff→ More Wins

You can even remove Wins from that progression and it’d make sense. But keep in mind that Wins are the ultimate goal for a GM. Deciding which players and which staff to invest in, and in what proportion, can make for an interesting game. We could also add different investment options outside of investing in wins:

Money Stadium and Team Promotion→ More Money

And more ways of gaining wins besides investing Money:

Trading players Better players→ More Wins

Drafting players+time+money+luck Better, cheaper players→ Wins

Roster moves→ Optimized a roster More Wins

OK. Does that all make sense? Let me briefly recap: I want a strategy game about baseball team construction where the player’s goals mirror the tasks of a general manager or front office. At it’s core, the goal of the game is to earn Wins by investing resources. The resources and means by which they are spent to earn Wins are highly diverse, which gives the game strategic complexity (and makes it fun). Cool?

Now, every action I described above require an in-game mechanism to accomplish the action. There has to be a way to spend money and keep track of the money you have. There has to be something that represents players or group of players, and a mechanism by which those players can be signed and traded. If you think about learning and executing this card/board game, there are A LOT of things that have to be accounted for, and each of those things has to have an order in which they occur. The sequencing of a game is very important, otherwise it leaves room for ambiguity and confusion, but the more one has to remember, the more difficult and daunting it can be to learn and play. Also, most people don’t have hours to invest in a game (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones: The Board Game!!!!) With that in mind, how would you design this game? What would you use to represent money? How would the passage of time/baseball seasons/offseasons be accomplished? How would one win this game?

I have a few ideas of how it could work, but every idea is complicated. It’s difficult to find the balance between simple rules and compelling gameplay. I don’t have anything really satisfying to give you here at the end because this post is meant to explore the topic. So I want to know what you think. Maybe we can conceive of this game together! Like real, useful humans. Or maybe I’ll just go back to writing posts that reference the movie Cocoon. Or both!

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Zach is an egregious malcontent whose life goal is to literally become the London Tube. @itszachreynolds.

34 Responses to “Idea Workshopping: Building a Different Baseball Card Game”

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  1. Chris says:

    You could just use old MLB Showdown cards and create a value system from their value system and add your proposed team building mechanics to them.

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    • Zach Reynolds says:

      Right, something along those lines could work.

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      • Chris says:

        I do really like your idea of making a tabletop card game about baseball in the vein of Settlers though. As much as I enjoyed games like Magic and MLB Showdown in my youth, something that could be played from a general management standpoint by utilizing financial resources and roster construction could be fun.

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        • here goes nothing says:

          As an avid FanGraphs reader and ex-local Showdown champion, I would say that a modified Showdown game is a pretty easily-constructed way of doing this. *pushes glasses up*

          I made an MLB showdown set based on the 2012 season and plan to do the same for 2013. I’ve employed a couple of nifty tricks. I stopped using steals for Speed and use FG’s Bsr metric. Fielding is based on Def (in the future I think I’ll use 3-yr averages). Pitchers are no longer just WHIP. My brother and I have talked about playing using actual player contracts rather than points.

          It shouldn’t be too difficult to get this game to piggyback off-the-field elements into the game–for example, needing to win to build a better stadium, having operating budget (whether in points or based on actual salaries) be dependent on which ‘city’ you select, doing dynasty-style drafts, etc.

          Nerd out.

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  2. Chris says:

    Or you could spurn the cards and buy a copy of OOTP.

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  3. RunTeddyRun says:

    There is definitely the skeleton of an epic board game here. Every player starts out with X-number of dollars to bid on population centers in which to build their stadia and generate revenue. A stadium in NY will generate much more wealth than one in Milwaukee, but will cost you more to purchase! You can boost your stadium’s income stream by spending $$ to build parking lots, hold promotions, increase sophistication of concessions, etc.

    Once you have a home settlement (ie, stadium!) established, it’s time to draft. You can sign kids with little established talent but high upside for cheap, or you can spend more on already-strong guys. We could even determine their development with dicerolls at the end of ever season! Because prospects are hard.

    Ok, now you have a 25-man roster. You can buy bonuses and upgrades to apply to your boys. I equip my #2 hitter with .400 OBP! I equip my closer with a ++slider! It’s up to you to decide where to focus your team’s strengths. Then, to battle. I imagine you Magic players out there can figure out the strategy and nuance of individual games versus various opponents. Factor in home field advantage, offensive vs. defensive strength, etc. You can only play your ace every few games, you have to take your catcher out every now and then, you know the drill. While deciding these mini-battles, you may get unlucky and roll an *injury* and lose a guy for a while. Anywho, there’s your other income source, wins give you lots of dollars to spend either on improvements for your players or what have you.

    I imagine this to be a seasons-long game, so at the end of every “season” round you cash in on the wins you earned and the money your stadium has generated. We’ll have to come up with a contract system so that flush teams can sign players away from broke-ass teams.

    I just realized this is much more of an “owner” game than a “GM” game. Also, that all this bullshit is much too long for an internet comment. This is entirely your fault, Reynolds.

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    • Chris says:

      Could work as a Diplomacy style game that can last for months, but moves can be made at the players leisure.

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    • Zach Reynolds says:

      Right this sounds awesome, but very extensive. I’m struggling to figure out how to simply the game to be played in less than two hours. The obvious trade-off is detail, but the benefit is… you can actually get people to play with you. Plus shorter games are also more fun if you’re losing. Imagine falling behind early in a months-long game… hard to stay interested.

      But I like the idea of equipping players or lineup spots with skills, rather than having players with pre-determined skills. One way to simulate “aging” might be that equipped skills degrade over time.

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      • RunTeddyRun says:

        Definitely. And you can no longer improve guys once they’re 28 or something. You could probably cut out the whole first half of the above idea by just randomly assigning stadiums and save a bunch of time. I struggle with divorcing the big-picture awesomeness of building a franchise with the small-picture awesomeness of countering someone’s Flamethrowing Eovaldi with a Dunn of Immense Power. You probably can’t do both and still have a game your friends are willing to put up with.

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  4. Mike Kurtz says:

    The problem with trying to build a game top-down like this is you always end up with The Cones of Dunshire.

    If you want simple but diverse resource management, look at the Legend of the Five Rings TCG. To use a quick and dirty analogy, personalities are players, territories are your draft, family honor salary cap/luxury tax, holdings are staff, fate hand are things like ‘bilk the Phillies.’ Quick games with multiple strategies while keeping the basic wins/cash dynamic.

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    • Zach Reynolds says:

      Interesting. I will take a look at the Legend of the Five Rings.

      And the Cones of Dunshire bit is hilarious. It’s true that starting top-down tempts one to make something far too complex. Many successful games begin with a unique game mechanic and build a premise around it, which keeps the game simple while still having something to make it interesting. The challenge with a baseball GM-ing game is that we’re starting with ALL OF BASEBALL *trumpets blare* and have to cut bits until we have a game that doesn’t take a thousand hours. But you can’t cut so much as to make it completely unlike real baseball. So, yes, my problem right now is I want to make the Cones of Dunshire, or The Pennants of Cashman maybe? but I don’t want Go Fish, either.

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      • Mike Kurtz says:

        Plot out your mechanics, then. Ask yourself some questions: are you JUST doing GM stuff, or is there going to be simulated baseball involved? If the former, then all you care about is abstractions for the personnel, some kind of resource for drafting, trading and salary. Then you have a grading system, like total WAR, to declare a winner after the “offseason” has ended. If the latter, then you have to have a roster mechanic on top of that personnel abstraction, an additional resource for in-game tactics, and a modified grading system from something like ‘first to x’ to ‘best of 7 games.’ Added time for a game with a game-simulation component would probably mean a more simplified GM component.

        To go back to the L5R example of a complex game made simple, there is a ton that goes into playing a personality. They have a gold cost, but it’s reduced if he belongs to your faction, but you can pay full cost to get some extra family honor (a victory condition), and your family honor needs to be higher than his honor requirement, and if you want to attach followers their honor requirement must be lower than the personality’s personal honor.

        Those are a lot of checks when you turn it into a flowchart, but the practice is that there are about 5 rules with 3 inputs that apply to every transaction, so it becomes rote. You look at the numbers and it all makes sense, but the multiple inputs allows you to make complex decisions based on it (do I play guy x, who can’t attach my legion of angry cheeseheads, or do I play guy y, who I can’t afford full price for and therefore set myself back on a victory condition?)

        So the trick is finding satisfying mechanics that satisfyingly abstract what you are attempting to represent and making them simple enough that they can be both automatic but also form the basis for more complex and satisfying high-level mechanics. That’s the problem with the Cones of Dunshire and their ilk; it’s a set of very complicated, unrelated and overlapping systems instead of a set of specific, low-level systems that interact in a serendipitous.

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  5. Daniel Betancourt says:

    I think with the glut of deck building games that are being created, you could find the creative ways to build a baseball themed version. All of them have been developing new mechanics and could translate to baseball. If you haven’t heard of/played Ascension, I would definitely take a look.

    The cards that are available to purchase could be semi-random. There could be prospects you could buy for cheap and they later turn into other cards that represent better players. Or prospects that can be traded for more expensive costing cards. Each card could have a value of wins.

    Just some thoughts.

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    • Zach Reynolds says:

      The Ascension model is a good one. But I’d want to make sure there was a sense of the baseball timeline involved, i.e. season/playoffs/offseason. Prospects could still be bought for cheaper but might have to be put aside to “develop” or could only be exchanged for a better card after X amount of time. In fact, a game that’s only about drafting and developing could be fun.

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  6. olethros says:

    Start with 5 years of Topps sets. I recommend 85-89, because the Expos were in Canada, the Brewers in the AL, the Astros in the NL, and all was right with the world. Plus mustaches. Sort each year by position. Assign the actual WAR accrued and salary earned by the player in the relevant year. Randomly assign stadia/revenue/etc. Draft/sign, staying within budget. Add up WAR, highest total wins season, revenue distributed accordingly. Change cards for the following season, losing retirees/adding rookies. Repeat. Player with most season wins achieves Glory Eternal. Maybe throw in some sort of playoff crapshoot round for the top two finishers each season.

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  7. AC of DC says:

    I thought about this a bit while I ate dinner and have a working skeleton of an idea, but progress would depend on your preference on a few items. I am an outsider to gaming, but my understanding is that there is an ultimately bogus and overstated dichotomy that pits “Euro”-style games, which rely exclusively on fixed pieces and emphasize strategy, against “American”-style games, which incorporate some random functions (e.g. and especially, dice) to reflect probabilistic considerations. The degree to which you sought to include chance (from the blind draw (star or bust?!) to rolling a die (playoffs!)) would impact direction.

    In any case, I am conceiving of a competitive game for 2-6ish players (ideally 4-6); that operates from a set of pieces sold as a complete unit (that is to say, non-collectible, though potentially expandable); to service gameplay taking a couple hours in which are simulated a few seasons in the lives of franchises of dynastic aspirations (though one could certainly string together multiple play sessions as continuation). The focus, drawing from the original post as well as comments, would be to manage a team — drafting, trading, signing, etc. — in terms of on-field personnel and money, and against checkpoints subject to the vagaries of play (breakouts, injuries, and so forth) accumulate a record such as will allow one to compete for the championship (more money!) or try again next year (better draft!).

    I suppose then I am asking for clarification: Do you like the flip of the coin and the clatter of the die? Do you find distasteful the management of poker chips and sliders? Don’t fret overmuch about complexity at this point; many successful games feature simple core rules and tangled advanced rules to satisfy both casual and intense play — but do let us know how ignorant one can be of baseball and still have fun, as this will affect the starting point (in addition to finer points).

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    • Zach Reynolds says:

      I dislike games that are too much of either “Euro” or “American” styles. Chess I find boring because I’m bad at it it’s all strategy. And dice-roll games (like Yahtzee) I find frustrating because I have little to no control.

      That said, the game should mirror real life if possible. Every player acquired by a team is a risk or a hidden asset. It’s the GM’s job to weigh those risks and take advantage of probabilities to get ahead consistently. The game should be a mix of careful strategy with heavy elements of chance.

      To address your last question, someone who doesn’t know much about baseball should still be able to understand and enjoy this game, provided they take the time to learn the rules.

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  8. Kevin Towers says:

    Here’s your baseball card game for you:

    1. Each player builds a house of baseball cards
    2. If you don’t like the way one of the baseball players is looking back at you on his card, yell to the other players “does anyone want to take this candy-ass #@$! off my hands”
    3. After someone offers you a spare card and a stick of gum to be named later, yank the offending card from your house of cards and give it to the other player.

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  9. Kris says:

    Once someone talks about capers and sea salt, we’ll have successfully turned notgraphs into Keith Law’s blog.

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  10. Mac says:

    LOVE this idea.

    I think a key mechanic not yet addressed is success over long terms. I would see a card game evolving around say a decade of GM running.

    To that end, I could see several phases of gameplay:

    The Season
    1st half
    Mid-season trade phase
    2nd half

    The Off-Season
    F.A. Signings

    GM’s draft players, get 6 years (this may need adjustment?) of cheap service, then the players hit F.A.

    You have to build a team each year with some combination of drafted players through their first 6 years and rounding out with free agents.

    Your team somehow needs some metric to determine seasonal success and playoff push, somehow based on the cards themselves – WAR makes sense as a simple starting point.

    I would see the main challange then as a balance between investing heavily in one season trying to go for it all and winning the playoffs (with a bonus of money/wins?) or building a long-term success that may never quite compete for the championship series.

    The closest model for this, if your REALLY want to see how a baseball simulation could go, is over at It’s a really fun baseball simulation game in general, and the progressive theme league is something you should really check out as one the closest experiences I’ve ever seen toward the idea of playing fake Billy Beane.

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    • Brandon Firstname says:

      Or you could play OOTP, which is likely even closer. Not that I’ve played WhatIfSports, but OOTP is just an excellent sim. It’s not perfect, but it’s excellent and I reccomend it highly (unless you have some reason for disliking it or something, in which case disregard this suggestion).

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  11. TheFuzziestKitty says:

    There’s a board game in the works, Lords of Baseball, that I’ve been tracking the development of after numerous attempts at finding a baseball game that I’ve enjoyed (Pizza Box Baseball was manager-oriented, so that didn’t last long). The rules are rather complex, probably past what I’d enjoy, but it does seem to meet many of the criteria you have listed here. Or maybe it’ll be a real life implementation of The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

    Here’s the boardgamegeek entry for it –

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    • TheFuzziestKitty says:

      Sorry, tag troubles. Lords of Baseball

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      • Max Jamelli says:

        I’m one of the designers of Lords of Baseball – thanks for the plug here. From reading the original post, Lords of Baseball does touch on a lot of these mechanics. We’ve just created an expansion that allows for trading of real players vs. just abstract superstars and all stars. It’s made for an interesting twist on the game.

        We’ve got some Youtube material online if you’d like to see it in action – search Lords of Baseball and you’ll see a lot of them.

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  12. Kevin says:

    there is a game called ‘Lords of Baseball” that sounds like what u r describing

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