Young Coaches, gather round. This here Old Timer has a tale to tell. Now, it’s not a complete story. And it ain’t a yarn that’s meant to rib ya. But it’s something y’all need to know, because understanding the past helps manage the present. And sometimes, the past can help predict the future. I have here a recollection of the bones rolled from an Ancient Grognard.
This BreadDoll editor is the Grognard.
I’ve played a lot of fantasy sports board games. To be clear, I stress the distinctions. 1) Fantasy. 2) Sports. 3) Board. 4) Games.
There are a lot of board games about sports. Strat-o-Matic, anyone? No. We’re talking fantasy. Strat-o-Matics don’t count, nor do any of the sports titles prior to 1961. In fact, this history lesson begins in the late 20th century. 1982 to be exact.
Grav-Ball was ground breaking. Literally. It was played in zero-G! A science fiction setting, a robotic referee, and a ball made of metal! WOW! FASA published L. Ross Babcock and Fred Bently’s design with a lot of zest for the early eighties. There was so much zest, FASA had to outsource the thirteen metal miniatures to Martian Metals. Of all the games recollected in this history lesson, the fifteen dollar Grav-Ball is the only title that eludes me. So I’ll punt. The best description of this long forgotten title is certainly from the game box itself.
Grav-Ball is a sporting event of the future reequiring skill and courage. Played in a zero-G court, the two six-man teams try to score with a five kilogram steel playing ball. Anything can happen in the meantime! Leagal actions include body, ahnd, and foot checks, passes, and actual goal shots. Illegal actions, or actions requiring a penalty check, include striking with the ball or elbow, shooting the player with the ball, and all out assults. The usual result of such body contact is a high player tunover rate. The player’s body armor does not guarantee physical safety from opposing players or from the ball itself. If the game gets too rough or a fight occurs, Heartless Huey is released. This invulnerable robot will incapacitate the nearest player. He then moves on to the next, nearest player until all are terminated or the fighting stops. All of these factors make Grav-Ball an exciting and action-packed game of the future.
What’s old is new again, yeah? Keep Grav-Ball in mind you whipper snappers. We’ll come back to it.
Monsters of the Midway, 1983.
Released in issue 65 of Dragon magazine, I declare this gem of an insert the first fantasy football sports board game. Draft monsters, create teams, and beat the hell out of one another on a board that looks a lot like a football field. Occasionally, efforts would be made to handle the ball and carry it into an end zone. Designer Gali Sanchez was on to something. Monsters of the Midway was unique and cheeky. Under an hour to play, it was fast. Considering is was included in a magazine, it was free. Win win.
Blood Bowl, 1986.
I don’t know if designer Jervis Johnson was influenced or inspired by TSR’s first effort. I suspect he at least read that issue of Dragon. Blood Bowl took everything Monsters of the Midway had, and elevated it. Everything except the game play, which was a peculiar translation of Warhmamer onto a football/rugby field. Clunky play aside, 1986’s Blood Bowl did raise the bar for creativity: evocative illustrations, funny writing, and strong world-building kept imaginations on fire.
Blood Bowl, 1988.
Games Workshop found itself in a transformative state in late 1980s. GW began shifting from Games into… Miniatures. Blood Bowl had found enough traction in their modest cardboard standee version to merit a second edition. This time, with toy soldiers! A plastic human team and a plastic orc team would now block and blitz on a three-part styrofoam pitch. Colored team inserts for end zones were a great touch. A full colored rulebook with new and revisited illustrations made for an excellent read. The mechanics were still a little cumbersome, but it was visually superior to the 2-D players that preceded it.
Blood Bowl, 1994.
Three times is a charm! Jervis Johnson retooled his parody of American football into something… more. Rerolls, sand timers, and Coaches screaming “ILLEGAL PROCEDURE!” in the face of cheating (or forgetful) opposition. Games Workshop retooled their efforts as well. In the eight years since the first edition, GW was now in full blown mini-mode. Blood Bowl still had a staple human and orc team, but now there were individual sculpts for positions. The third edition was a culmination of what preceded it. Refined miniatures. Refined rules. Robust league play. Robust tournament scene. But just as Blood Bowl found loyal Coaches far and wide, Games Workshop began using a different compass. GW moved in a curious business direction, leaving their ‘specialist’ games (Blood Bowl’s categorization) on a back burner. Eventually, that burner’s light would all be but snuffed. [hee hee, “butt snuffed.”]. Fortunately for the previous metaphor, the legion of Blood Bowl Coaches around the world would keep the game’s flame of relevance for two decades during publisher neglect. It’s what I like to call, “GW’s dark years.”
Milton Bradley. They’re a huge game publisher that works for the lowest common denominator. The bean counters insist on easily accessible toy-games that look attractive on the shelves of big box stores. Every once in a while, their disposable and instantly forgettable catalog has something that shines. Stephen Baker and Craig Van Ness were MB game designers with fondness for the gaming of the British Isles. Baker himself was a Brit, and was responsible for such epic MB / GW crossovers as HeroQuest, Battlemastes, and Space Crusade. What if? Just WHAT IF? Milton Bradley could distill the majestic mayhem of Blood Bowl into an affordable and attractive toy? It had been done before; Warhammer = Battlemasters. Space Hulk = Space Crusade. MB went for it. Battleball was great! If you were eight. Twisting the fantasy of Tolkein tropes to Heinlein tropes was a clever shift in theme. The dice were pretty and plentiful. The miniatures were diverse and dynamic. But the game itself was just too simple. It didn’t capture the height of it’s giant grandfather, despite starting on it’s shoulders. MB tried, and the rulebook hinted of future expansion* teams. It was not to be. Battleball did not move enough units, and is now a mere fantasy sports board game curiosity. The best development from this experiment was the strengthening of Baker and Van Ness’ design aesthetic. They would team up again for perhaps the greatest war game of all time – Heroscape. It didn’t hurt that Heroscape had the same sculptor from Battleball.
*Expansions? Oh, yes. Yes yes yes. No fantasy sports board game can survive this cut-throat hobby business unless there is always something to sell. If a publisher doesn’t have something to specifically sell for a popular fantasy sport game? There will be a vacuum. And a vacuum will be filled.
Come back in three weeks for ‘One History of Fantasy Sports Board Gaming part two.’ In the meantime, leave a comment below. Tell the BreadDoll about some sporting footnote between 1982 and 2004 that should not have been ignored.