What has three six-sided dice, a card for the pitcher, another for the hitter, a few additional charts and eats hours?
Strat-O-Matic baseball, a table-top simulation of Major League Baseball, celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2011. The game has been cited as an influence by Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins, Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield and rotisserie baseball inventor Daniel Okrent and appears in a Spike Lee movie (Crooklyn). Armchair Arcade’s Matt Barton says of Strat-O-Matic, “Paper-based games like this paved the way for D&D and CRPGs.” (Computer Role-Playing Games).
In the broad world of gaming, merely surviving for 50 years is quite an accomplishment, especially considering that Strat-O-Matic is still owned by founder Hal Richman and has never had Hasbro-level investment behind it. Strat-O-Matic is remembered warmly by many players who later moved on to other activities and is pursued avidly by self-styled “Strat-O-Matic Fanatics,” many of whom have played for 30-plus years of the game’s 50-year life. The old guy over here started playing in the late summer of 1967 and has maintained his love of the game, if not quite the initial passion of the honeymoon, ever since.
Thousands of youngsters have learned about baseball strategy and history and been introduced to probability by Strat-O-Matic. (See, Dad, there’s six possible combinations that make seven, so a home run on seven is worth six times as much as a homer on two or twelve.)
But is it art? The easy answer is no. In fact, the table-top game could almost be accused of deliberately avoiding aesthetic appeal. While some fans have created elaborate stadiums for their games, Strat-O-Matic has stuck to a basic, “Just the facts, ma’am” approach.
Even the game’s computer version, which necessarily includes more graphic elements, is pretty plain. A few ambient sounds and photos of Major League Baseball stadiums as a backdrop for the action are about as far as the game goes. The stadium photos aren’t even part of the base package, but must be purchased separately, as if Strat-O-Matic is telling its customers, “If you really want this kind of frippery, we’ll cooperate, but only so far.” One of the more popular features of the computer version is the ability to roll “dice” and look up results on cards and charts — just like the board game!
But while Strat-O-Matic may not be a master’s completed canvas, so to speak, I submit it can be a paintbrush. Like a pen-and-paper fantasy role-playing game, Strat-O-Matic provides the tools with which a player’s imagination can build a world. As the RPG draws its raw materials from the rich resources of fantasy literature, Strat-O-Matic’s raw materials are baseball’s myriad possibilities and rich history.
So, Major League Baseball plus Strat-O-Matic plus the player’s own creative energy can produce a baseball game or season with all the tension, possibility and flavor of the real thing while excluding steroids, contract disputes and the like. (I should note that some Strat-O-Matic players go to some lengths to include such off-the-field factors.)
Just as the depth and playability of an RPG’s rules impact the quality of the world the player(s) can build, the detailed statistical research underlying Strat-O-Matic combines with its playability (30 to 45 minutes or so for a 9-inning table-top game) to optimize the verity of the created baseball world.
If the RPG player has never read Fritz Leiber or Katherine Kurtz, then the possibilities suggested by the Gray Mouser or the Cult of Camber will likely not be included in his game. Similarly, if the Strat-O-Matic player doesn’t know Connie Mack from Connie Francis, the world his game creates won’t be as rich as it might otherwise be.
But Strat-O-Matic gives the player the tools to build his own baseball universe, perhaps as close as possible to “real life” or perhaps based upon some wild speculations. What if George Herman Ruth had somehow been split into his pitcher self and hitter self by an unexplained transporter accident in 1917? Would the great left-handed pitcher have outshone the slugging outfielder as time went on? What if the reprehensible “Color Line” had never existed and Joe DiMaggio and Satchel Paige had been teammates? Would Satchel have gone on to wed Marilyn Monroe?
Not every game or season of Strat-O-Matic is a work of art. Many players would scratch their heads in confusion at the very notion. But Strat-O-Matic Baseball, like other less-than-obvious tools, can be used by the imagination to produce some majestic, if highly ephemeral, works of art.