A long overdue review of Baseball Highlights 2045
Let's get this out of the way right off the bat (excuse the pun): I love baseball. I love going to the ballpark on summer evenings with friends and relaxing with a beer or three. I love watching on TV and paying minute attention to every pitch and every pitcher-batter duel. I love that baseball is definitely a team game, but is also definitely a series of one on one battles. I love that baseball is both relaxing to have on in the background, and hang-onto-every-pitch-for-four-hours nail biting (see: me watching the playoffs this year for the first time in 22 years). Baseball Highlights 2045 nails that one on one duel feeling of baseball. Since it also condenses a 2 hour, 45 minute game down to six cards and five minutes, each individual game is always nail biting!
BH2045 is set in a future where baseball teams have started to employ cyborgs with enhanced arms to throw crazy fast, as well as robots who can hit those crazy fast pitches. There are also still some fully human players kicking around (called "Naturals"), who tend to be fan favourites and the best defensive players, as apparently it is hard to program a robot to do anything besides hit home runs.
In BH2045 you manage your 15 player team through a quick "season" followed by the World Series (best of 7 series, for anyone unfamiliar). I put "season" in quotations, because at three games it is basically just a warmup that determines home field advantage in the World Series and gives you three shots at improving your roster before you get to the games that matter. The individual games consist of players alternating card play over six rounds, or longer if tied. Each player on your team threatens a certain number, and quality (single, double, triple, home run), of hits and possibly an immediate offense or defense action. If your opponent cannot remove the threatened hits on his/her next play, they occur. Offensive actions might give you a benefit based on the state of the base runners on your field, or what card your opponent played last round (for example a Robot hitter with the "Quick Eye" ability can get immediate, unpreventable hits if your opponent last played a Cyborg card). Defensive actions can reduce the number or quality of the hits threatened by your opponent, sometimes removing all of them if the type of hitter matches up with the type of card you play (a Natural batter cannot hit a blazing fastball from certain cyborg pitchers, for example). Over the course of 6 rounds you have to manage your hand to score the most runs. The final wrinkle is the Pinch Hitter ability and On Deck location. At the start of a game, you can place one card aside, face down, as your "on deck" card, drawing back up to 6. If you have cards in your hand with the Pinch Hitter ability, you can discard them to instead play the On Deck card, giving you flexibility if you have situational offensive or defensive cards. You can also take a stab in the dark (or a calculated risk as I like to call it) by discarding a Pinch Hitter card to play the top card of your deck, if things are very dire. Finally, the visiting team gets one final, last ditch "save" attempt after the home team's last card - if they still have a card On Deck with a defensive ability they may use it, or they may flip over the top card of their deck and use that defensive ability (if the player has one!) to try and prevent winning or tying runs.
Baseball Highlights isn't a full simulation of baseball, like Strat-o-Matic or similar games. It simulates the highlights (hey it's even in the name!) - players hitting multiple singles and doubles doesn't make sense from a real world perspective, but if you think of it instead as that player kicking off a big rally in an inning, or that pitcher coming in to get out of a big jam by striking out the side, then you get where the game is coming from. In my opinion, it does a fantastic job. You can play a full, tense, individual game with 6 cards in 5 minutes instead of slogging through every at bat by every player.
Things would get boring fast if everyone only played the same 15 cards over and over, and where the real strategy starts to come through is between games when Free Agents are purchased. In addition to the hits and abilities, every player has Revenue and Cost stats (the starting decks don't have costs as they cannot be bought). At the end of each game, you tally up the total Revenue from all your players and have that amount to spend on extra cards for your deck. When Free Agents are bought, a card has to be removed from your deck to keep it at 15 players. The player who earned the lowest Revenue can either pick Free Agents first, or defer to other player. Not only do you have to worry about winning games, but you also need to keep in mind how much money your 6 players can bring in, and if you will be able to afford better players after that game! Of course, even if you rake in ticket sales you might not be able to pick up the player you want if you overshoot the cost and your opponent gets first stab. So there is a balancing act. I've had many games where I've gone for the win only to have it mess with my "accounting" and either put me a dollar short of the player I wanted, or too far over and lost out to my opponent picking first. Do you pick players with high revenues in order to try and get that really expensive guy in a few turns? Or do you go for players with very little revenue but a ton of offense? Choices. A lot of the robot hitters are this way - they tend to have multiple good quality hits, but don't give you much revenue. I guess fans don't want to pay to watch machines hit balls? Skynet does not approve.
The deckbuilding aspect is different from other deckbuilders I've played in that the cards bought go to the TOP of your deck, guaranteeing that you will see them next game. Of course, this also means that your opponent knows what you will have access to as well, and here begins the "will he or won't he play it" thought process. If you have been paying attention you will remember that one card from your hand can be placed "on deck" and possibly not even played that game. So do I have the guy I just bought who hits two home runs in my hand, or waiting on deck if I need him? Are you willing to hold onto your better defensive players to find out while I score some runs with my other cards? This also makes the choice of whether to pick first or second in the Free Agent Frenzy not completely straight forward. If there are cards that can counter each other in the available player row (there are always 6 that are refreshed after each purchase), you may want to go second to see what your opponent selects and try to counter him. But then you might lose out on the better overall card. And don't forget about players with the Pinch Hitter ability - if you don't have many of them your flexibility in using the On Deck card is severely reduced.
There is some luck of the draw involved in the game. If you get saddled with too many defensive cards, or too many offensive cards when your opponent ends up with all his counters (of course you should have seen that coming and not kept picking the same types of players!) you can get beat down quickly, but over the course of the seven game final series it generally works itself out. Skill and memory is definitely rewarded and can be used to plan around luck, however, and I would say a more skilled player shouldn't lose to being unlucky too often. I've played with my girlfriend a ton (it is the game she most wants to play, as a baseball fan herself) and it was a long time before she finally beat me, but as she has learned more strategy I have lost more often. My other friend I've played a lot with still hasn't learned to pay close attention to what Free Agents I buy, and I continue to crush him.
I need to get multiple people together to play and try the rules for more than 2 people, specifically the 4 player tournament. Yes, there are technically rules for 3 players, which I haven't tried, that revolve around the three players all being in the "warm up" games together and the two teams with the best record at the end playing a best of three to determine the winner, but that doesn't sound like real baseball to me (three teams in one game? Come on!). The 4 player rules have each team playing each other team three times, with wins seeding everyone for a two round playoff, with no chance to buy new players once the playoffs start. This could take away the "build your team to counter what your opponent is building" aspect of the two player game, which is one of my favourite aspects of BH2045, since you don't know who you'll end up playing against, but it could also lead to people trying to build more well rounded teams. You might even be able to house rule this so that everyone sees what everyone else is buying, but that might slow the game down a bit. But I really like the idea of being able to go through a season, with standings, and playoffs all within 2-3 hours. Really need to try that.
One thing that I know will irk some people is the fact that yes, this was a Kickstarter game, and yes there were already five expansions at release that don't come with the base game, and yes there are already two more expansions just released in addition to 12 more starting teams. Are the initial expansions necessary? I played the base game probably 15 to 20 times before adding anything in, and I was only then starting to notice the same combination of free agents coming up. With the four free agent expansions added in you get a 105 player pool to pick out of, and I don't see that getting stale anytime soon as the expansions add multiple new interactions and synergies. The fifth expansion is a coach expansion that allows players to draft 4 coaches at the start of the World Series, each coach being a one shot use giving you a benefit for that game. I haven't tried that one out yet, I think there is still more than enough meat with just the free agent buying additions. The most recently released expansions include some "luck of the draw" abilities that require you to flip over the top card of the free agent deck and have the type of card match before the ability works - I can safely say I will be avoiding buying those ones as I think introducing randomness like that to the game could break it a bit. I know I would avoid those cards if they came up as Free Agents since I don't want to leave cancelling hits up to chance if I can. As for the 12 extra starting teams - there are only four truly "new" teams. Four of the teams are just "reskins" of the four that came with the base game, and four more are reskins of the four new teams. I could see buying one of each of the new teams if you wanted a bit more spice, but since all of the starter share 10 cards (5 "veteran" players per team are unique) I don't think it is worthwhile unless you REALLY want a specific team because you are a crazed fan or something. There is more than enough game with just the initial expansions to last the dozens of plays I've put in, and I'm nowhere near "bored" of the card mix.
You can get a "deluxe edition" that includes the base game and the five initial expansions (this is what I bought) for $65, while the base game is $40. The price is a bit on the high side for what you get in the box: 4 double sided player boards, rules, one punch sheet of markers, a bag of pawns to represent base runners, and 120-240 cards (base game/with expansions), but let me talk about the quality of those cards for a second. I don't think I've ever played a game where the quality of the cards has been this high. They look, and feel, like a deck of high quality playing cards, right down to the texture as you run your thumb over them. I haven't played many other deckbuilders, so I'm not sure if this is standard or not, but compared to any other game with cards I've played (including Netrunner) the cards in BH2045 are head and shoulders better. For the amount of plays I have gotten in with it, the price was well worth it.
A note as well that the rulebook is not quite clear on certain things (like what to do with a "walk") and I think it assumes you have played/watched/have general knowledge of baseball. If you do, pretty much everything is as you would expect based on the rules of baseball and will probably make complete sense on the first read through, but people who don't have much baseball knowledge might need to re-read it a few times or venture online for some clarifications.
Anyway, that was a long ass ramble, and well overdo, but I promised it and wanted to share my love of the (board)game! Like I mentioned earlier, my girlfriend has a blast with this game, so even non-gamers can get into it, but an enjoyment of baseball might be required for that.