Azarius The Great had faced many formidable obstacles in his years of wizardry, from obnoxious students who couldn’t control their fireball spells to portals from the Dungeon Dimensions to the backstabbing politics of the university itself, but now he was facing his greatest test; winning a fantasy baseball league. It was the final matchup, and he’d sent Chipper Azog of the Brave Orcs to the plate, swinging his axe. It was a tough test, though, as the opposing team had Zombies’ pitcher Petitite Zandy, who mowing down batters like he was eager to dine on their brains.
Zandy started off with a down-the-middle fastball Azog took for strike one, then missed the corner with a curve. He then tossed a changeup, and Azog swung and missed. Azarius wasn’t worried about the 1-1 count, though; he had Hammer Orcson on the bench, and could summon him to boost Azog’s RBI potential. His team really needed to win that stat in order to take home ultimate victory. But, disaster! Before the attempted summoning, treacherous opposing manager Zariel The Learned activated the Hibernate ability of fierce second basebear Ryno Berg, causing Orcson to take a nap. With Azarius unable to further affect the outcome, it was all up to Azog, and as the pitch came in, he swung…
Designers: Daryl Andrews and J.R Honeycutt
Publisher: CSE Games
Thanks to CSE Games for providing a review copy!
Board and card games with a fantasy theme are pretty common, and we’re seeing more and more games with a baseball theme recently (Baseball Highlights: 2045 and Bottom of the Ninth are a couple of good examples), but about a fantasy sports game? With fantasy creatures? That’s a much more unusual mash-up, and if it sounds appealing to you, you should check out Fantasy Fantasy Baseball. The game’s currently on Kickstarter (through Dec. 23, 2015) and has already shot past its $7,500 U.S. goal. You can find the project info and its video on the Kickstarter page here.
I’ve only played this on a pre-production prototype CSE Games was kind enough to send my way, so it should be noted that nothing here is necessarily as it will appear in the final game, but it looks like there’s lots in Fantasy Fantasy Baseball that will appeal to both gaming fans and baseball fans. What’s neat about this one, and what makes it stands out from the other baseball games currently on the market, is that it’s not so much focused on an inning (as Bottom of the Ninth is) or an actual game or series of actual games (as Baseball Highlights 2045 is), but rather, the experience of playing fantasy baseball. (And that’s before the orcs, pirates, elves and so on add the second level of fantasy.) Let’s explain.
Fantasy Fantasy Baseball plans to ship with 60 character cards (30 hitters and 30 pitchers, also broken down by skill level into 30 rookies, eight pros, eight specialists, eight all-stars, and six Hall of Famers), a game board (which includes both a rotisserie/stat tracking section at the top and a waiver priority section at the bottom), a rule book, 30 scoring markers (six per participant, used to indicate the level of each of that team’s stats on the rotisserie board) & Waiver Priority, bottom), 45 win cards, 30 event cards and five team cards. It’s an impressive collection of components, and one that should produce a game with substantial variability from play to play.
The rules are still being refined and updated, but essentially, this is a game where you act as a wizard manager building a team of fantastical players and competing to win scoring categories over three months. After that, the top two managers face off in a championship series. Each manager starts with six player cards (there are going to be several ways to assemble initial teams, from drafting to just dealing hands with the appropriate number of players at each skill level). The player cards are orcs, dwarves, elves, giant cats, zombies, pirates and dark angels, and they’re beautifully illustrated by Rob Lundy.
These cards represent either pitchers or position players; they have strengths in five categories, and they also have a skill level, ranging from rookie to hall of fame. Each month sees a global event that affects all competition drawn from an event deck. Then, managers compete for four win cards, each of which will target two specific categories, by secretly playing a player card to each. (In four- or five-player games, there are two win cards available per week; managers choose which of the two their team will compete for each week. In two- or three-player games, all managers compete for the same win card each week.) Those cards are then revealed for the first week, and the player with the highest combined total of the desired stats will take the win card home to his team barring magical intervention.
Magical intervention? Yes, that happens in this game; it is Fantasy Fantasy Baseball after all, and you are playing as a wizard. Each of the types of players has a distinct magical ability, and these abilities can be used for the two players on your bench each month. They range from orcs’ ability to add their stats to the current week’s contest to giant cats’ ability to return an evil player to its owner’s bench to dwarves’ ability to affect the rotisserie board (which we’ll discuss more later). After a bench player’s ability is used, they’re flipped to their exhausted side, so each can only usually affect one of the four contests per month. However, the dark angels’ blessing ability lets you use an exhausted player’s power. It’s also possible to counter other players’ bench abilities with the bears, who can exhaust unexhausted evil players. After managers have used bench abilities or declined for a given week, whichever team has the remaining player with the highest combined stats in the target categories will take home the win card
However, the other players can still help their teams. Each win card has two coloured stats that it relies upon for winning, but also two other colours that indicate the central rotisserie board. The winning player doesn’t get to influence this board, but each losing player can move their team’s corresponding rotisserie stats up one space each if they have that stat. Doing well in these stats can provide extra wins for your team at the end of the game, as first place in each track is worth a number of wins equal to the number of players, second is worth that number minus one and so on. You likely won’t be able to match up players with the appropriate category to win all four weeks, so the rotisserie board offers another option; for times you can’t win, you can play a player who will further your cause there. This board is what really gives it the feeling of a fantasy baseball league, particularly the old-school ones where it isn’t all about head-to-head matchups.
After the first month, the team-building side of the game comes into play. The waiver priority (randomly picked to start) is redetermined, with the player with the most wins going last. A new event is flipped up, as are four more win cards (or eight for a four- or five-player game). Then, there’s a free agency period; cards equal to the number of managers plus one are flipped up, and whoever’s first in waiver priority gets to pick first, then others follow in waiver priority owner. If you add a free agent, you discard an existing player, so you’re always at six players (and will always have access to all of them in a given month). Then, teams compete for the second month’s win cards.
The process is repeated for a third month, and then the top two teams move to a best-of-seven championship series (after a wild card game if there are 4-5 players, or if there’s a tie for second in a three-player game) where one win card is flipped at a time and players compete for it. A cool feature here is that players used in the first game can’t be used until three further players have been played, giving it the feel of pitcher matchups and offdays during the regular World Series.
From what I’ve seen so far, there’s a lot to like about Fantasy Fantasy Baseball. The artwork is tremendous, and the theme shines through on both of the fantasy fronts, making this very different from other baseball games out there. There are plenty of great jokes in the player names that will appeal to both baseball fans and fantasy literature/gaming fans. The magic abilities are interesting, and how/when to use them adds some cool decisions., Designers Daryl Andrews and J.R. Honeycutt are both established presences in the gaming community, and they’ve found a way to create a neat game that builds on some of what works elsewhere but feels unique. They have a passion for baseball, too, as Andrews discusses in this Canadian Baseball Network interview. You can see them explain the game to Board Game Geek‘s W. Eric Martin at GenCon here:
The highlight of the game for me is the rotisserie system, which not only reduces the frustration in having players that don’t quite align with the win targets for a given month, but also makes this a solid multiplayer game. That’s another area where Fantasy Fantasy Baseball stands out; most baseball clashes are head-to-head, two-player-only games (with larger play only possible through team variants or tournaments), but this game can accommodate up to five quite effectively and have you all competing for the same wins. It is notable that it’s shorter with fewer players (CSE estimates it takes 10 minutes per player, so that’s the 20-50 minute playing range), and that the championship series format does mean only two players will be left at the end, but that series goes pretty quickly, so there isn’t a huge amount of downtime here.
This game may not be a perfect fit for everyone. For one thing, iit does seem to be on the lighter side of the strategy spectrum; there’s strategy involved in which players to put where, when to activate bench abilities, etc, but it’s not on the plotting moves and countermoves level of a game like Baseball Highlights 2045, and the deck-building here is limited. This won’t be a problem for many; this is a relatively easy game to teach and a quick game to play, and it didn’t overstay its welcome to me, but it should be noted that some experienced gamers may not feel there are enough decisions here. The planned drafting variants may help with this, bringing more strategy into lineup construction, but even as it is, this is pretty good as a short fast-and-fun game.
It’s also worth noting that the feel here is very much fantasy baseball and not in-game baseball. Thus, it’s not so much narratives of hitter-pitcher matchups, but rather which hitter won the crucial categories. This will feel natural to those who have spent time playing fantasy sports, and it may work well even for baseball fans who haven’t, but don’t go into this expecting a detailed accounting of specific pitches, hits and runs. Beyond that, too, some may not be satisfied with the current published rules, which do have some confusing parts and don’t fully clarify everything that can happen. I’ve been told the rules are still being revised and will be much more clear for the final edition, and Andrews and Honeycutt have been very open to clarification questions, so this shouldn’t be a huge roadblock for most, but if you insist on a fully-laid-out ruleset before backing, this may not be the game for you.
Overall, though, this is a very cool project, and one it’s great to see already funded. The intersection of fantasy themes and fantasy sports is a unique one, and CSE is already planning future titles Fantasy Fantasy Football and Fantasy Fantasy Hockey (which can also be pledged for via this Kickstarter). This is an interesting game with some new ideas, great artwork, a quick playtime and a fun theme. For the right crowd, it might just be a big hit.
If you want to back Fantasy Fantasy Baseball, the base game can be yours for just $19 U.S. plus shipping. The Kickstarter runs through Dec. 23.