Card and Dice Game As Art?

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.

Tom Coberly is the editor-in-chief’s father, and calls himself the Gerontological Geek when he’s feeling clever.