Published Jan. 20, 2018

On any given night on my kitchen table, it could be a crisp fall afternoon in 1972 with two NFL teams about to go at it; it could be a warm July day in 1950 with baseball being played; it could be a cold winter night in 1957 with two Original Six NHL teams skating; or it could be two ABA teams with their red, white and blue basketball, hitting the hardwood.

I’m 54 years old and I still play games. Sports games, to be specific. Cards and dice, to be even specific-er. No video games here. In my gaming world, the only thing electronic is the lamp that illuminates my playing surface.

I’ve been enamored with sports board games since I was eight years old, when my parents, er, Santa Claus, got me Sports Illustrated Football, which since was renamed Paydirt. From that time, I’ve been hooked.

This isn’t really true confession time; my Facebook friends have often seen me post photos of my gaming exploits, in which my tabletop has been adorned with a gamut of games: Strat-o-Matic; APBA; Replay; 4th Street; Second Season; and on and on.

There’s magic in cards and dice

You can keep your fancy-shmancy video games, with their state-of-the-art graphics, multitude of buttons and wireless controllers. I know they can look almost like the real thing when projected on a 50-inch HD screen.

But I don’t have the hand-eye coordination for such an endeavor, and beyond that, those games leave nothing to the imagination.

I can hold dice in my hand, surrounded by player cards, and I can use my mind to “see” the gridiron at old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland as the Browns entertain the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1972 (APBA Football). If Leroy Kelly sweeps left for eight yards, I don’t need graphics and 1080 pixels to fill me with the roar of the crowd or hear the crunching of pads. I have my own little highlight reel playing, live, in my head.

I can practically hear the hot dog vendors at Ebbets Field in 1950 as the Dodgers take on the Giants (APBA Baseball). Duke Snider is alive again, and a young man patrolling center field for the Bums. And I’m Burt Shotton, the Dodgers manager (who was one of the last to wear street clothes in the dugout), deciding when to pinch-hit, when to hit-and-run, and when to bring in a relief pitcher (and it’s not a parade of pitching changes, like in today’s game). But I’m also Giants manager Leo Durocher, because I’m a solitaire gamer and thus I make decisions for both teams.

Just about every night, the kitchen table gets transformed. Long after dinner is finished and the dishes are cleaned and put away, I have a nightly decision to make: which game to play tonight?

I’ll go on jags, like someone might do when they binge watch a TV show. For a couple weeks I might play nothing but baseball, using my ample stable of games and season cards that range in eras from 1938 to 2010. Lately I’ve been on a pro football kick. But last night it was hockey (I had watched some old YouTube hockey videos this week and that was the trigger).


The Projects

Gamers like me use the word “project” a lot, only we’re not talking about remodeling a kitchen or anything DIY in nature. To a sports board gamer, a project kind of means “campaign.”

For example, some projects involve taking a particular team (say, the 1972 Tigers), playing its entire schedule, and comparing how your cards and dice fare against the real team’s performance. I did that, by the way, with the ’72 Bengals a few years back and while the real team edged the Red Sox for the AL East pennant by a half-game, my Tigers did the opposite, losing the flag to Boston on the season’s final weekend.

Another type of project is to play a league’s entire season (all the teams). That takes time. Lots of time. In fact, I’m almost ten years into replaying the 1959 National League schedule (616 games) and I still have 366 games to go. I’m in late-May, 1959. The 1950s were known for being a lazy, slow era in the United States, but this is ridiculous.

You can also replay just the playoffs, or play mini-seasons, or get really creative, like I’m doing with the 1972 NFL season.

What I’m doing is selecting two games from each week of the ’72 season, involving at least one team that either made the playoffs that year or that came close, and where the games were close in score. Using Pro Football Reference, I look at the close games’ scores at halftime to help me choose candidates. Then I play just the second half of those games. The idea is to see, by the end of Week 14 (seasons were 14 games in 1972), how much my results could affect the playoff picture. So far I’ve played five weeks’ worth (10 games) and four of my games have “flipped” the winning teams around and one match has turned into a tie game.

Stat keeping is another allure.

With the exception of the “second half project” described above, I keep copious stats of all games. And sure enough, runners like Barry Sanders will end up with 20 carries for 117 yards or some such thing. The .300 hitters will mostly be the .300 hitters, but because we’re talking dice and sometimes “fast action cards” (FAC) here, there is that element of chance that can skew things. So your nifty .320 hitter might struggle to reach .265 in your project.

But anomalies are good.

I’m doing the 1961 White Sox with Strat-o-Matic, and inexplicably the Pale Hose are 22-9 for me, despite being 13-18 in real life after 31 games. This project has now given me the added enjoyment of seeing how long the White Sox can keep this up. They did finish the season 86-76 in real life, so they’re not chopped liver. But 22-9 is an anomaly, and that’s intriguing.

I probably have, being conservative, over 50 projects ongoing among the four major sports at any given time. Rare is it when a project actually gets completed. In fact, it almost is more fun to start a new project than it is to actually see that project through. Fellow gamers will agree with me: the process of brainstorming a new, creative project, setting that project up, and playing its first game provides a high that simply can’t be matched for the duration of the project. That’s why we start so many projects and finish so few.

But there is definitely something to be said for completing the process of the project, to borrow an NFL term.

I’ve finished many in my “career,” and the feeling of finality mixed with accomplishment and wistfulness that the project is over, is an emotional cocktail that only the gamer can fully appreciate.

A filled basement, a famous kindred spirit

My basement shelves are filled with boxes (actual game boxes, shoe boxes and shipping boxes) of unfinished projects, games, cards, dice and scoresheets (filled in and blank). My wife, God bless her, has been rolling her eyes almost as often as I’ve been rolling dice. But she knows that being hooked on cardboard, paper and bones is much preferable to a similar obsession with bars and other women. Translated: my games keep me out of trouble, though they do keep me up late at night.

That’s when the games are usually played: after the house has gone to sleep. Every night is like watching the Detroit teams on the West Caost: the action doesn’t really get going until after 11 p.m. And heaven help you if you get stuck with a 14-inning baseball game as the clock edges toward 2 a.m. on a work night. No gamer wants to go to bed with a match in progress. Even if I have found myself nodding off in my chair—which I have on many an occasion.

Thankfully I discovered, many years ago, a bunch of like-thinking fellows on Delphi Forums who share tips, post game recaps of their projects and basically function as a support group for each other.

The gamers on the forums are generally an older bunch (40 years old and beyond) who never warmed to video games and who, like me, have been rolling dice for decades.

I’m proud to include among those ranks the actor Jeff Daniels.

I interviewed Daniels back in 2006 for a magazine article and my final question was “Tell us something about Jeff Daniels that we might not know.”

I about fell off my chair when Daniels related his love of APBA baseball, and that he played during breaks in filming of “Terms of Endearment.” He also said that he has an audio recording of Robert Merrill singing the National Anthem and before rolling a game, he stands, with his cap off, and plays the recording before rolling the dice.

“To this day my wife gets an eye twitch whenever she hears dice rolling,” Daniels told me.

Of course, I immediately confessed my love of gaming and without prompting from me, Daniels summed it up.

“It’s the cards, isn’t it?”

Yes, Jeff. It’s the cards. And the dice. And the imagination.

So, what to play tonight?