Bat Flip will be available on kickstarter on the 18th
You’d think there would be more sports board games, with both sports and board games being, you know, games. But while there have been many attempts, few (outside of the “racing” category) have made any meaningful impact. Back in the day there were a number of simulation-focused attempts, and by all accounts some of them were quite good. But that’s definitively become the realm of digital gaming, with computers handling all of those incessant calculations. In the modern gaming era you’ve got Blood Bowl, with its violent fantasy take on American football, and Mike Fitzgerald’s Baseball Highlights 2045 which has the distinction of being a good game. Every other attempt I’ve seen has fizzled out.
Bat Flip, the debut game from Scott Courlander, probably isn’t going to usher in a renaissance of new sports games, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. On the contrary, it manages to evoke some of the managerial charms of baseball despite hardly resembling the sport in operation at all.
A few months ago I wrote about the difference between what I call micro-theming and macro-theming. Bat Flip is a great example of a game that works much better on the macro level than the micro. The fundamentals are there, with runs and outs and batting and pitching, but batting hardly resembles actual batting and pitching is more or less nonexistent.
Instead we get what most closely resembles manager-level decision making, where you’re shifting around lineups and pitching matchups in an attempt to get any competitive edge possible.
I have to admit I adore this aspect of baseball. I’ve spoken before about my love for Out of the Park Baseball on PC, a game more or less entirely comprised of spreadsheets. From the high-level perspective, baseball is exceedingly random. You throw batters at pitchers, mix in some defense, and get a broad spectrum of results. But this randomness, with great effort, can be manipulated by keen decision-making into a series of marginal gains that make up the difference between an 85-win disappointment and a 95-win playoff berth. In attempting to corral that chaos stories emerge. You’ll note I’ve not yet spoken of athletic performance.
Bat Flip doesn’t care about athletics either. The great psychological and physical showdown between batter and pitcher (baseball’s other great game-within-the-game) will have to be explored elsewhere.
Fundamentally, Bat Flip is about hand management. It’s quite simple. Both players have a hand of cards, and the person on offense plays a batter card from their hand, announcing if they want to try to hit or draw a walk. The player on defense can then play a card from their hand to act as opposition to the batter. You compare hitting skill to defense or walking skill to a pitcher’s control. If the defensive value meets or exceeds the offensive value, you’ve gotten an out. If it doesn’t, you can diminish the power of their hit. (Play a 2-defense card against a 4-batting one and the batter records a double instead of a home run).
Those are the basics, and by themselves there’s not much of a game–whoever has the higher numbers will eventually outpace the other person. The game comes to life, however, when you factor in each of the 11 different teams. Borrowing from the (inexplicably) popular Smash Up, each player takes two team decks and shuffles them together to form their full roster. Each of the teams has their own unique mechanism or feature.
Getting the right combination of teams is incredibly important, and the last time I played I stumbled across a pairing that resulted in Amber powerless to stop my offensive power. We called it after I scored 20 runs without a single out. I’ve been told that they’re working on tweaking power levels before release.
The best games of Bat Flip I’ve had are not when one side had a lot of synergy, but when synergies were scarce and hard-fought. Conceding an out in order to generate card advantage doesn’t sound fun, but wrestling over that sort of decision is perfectly evocative of actual baseball strategy. Firing off combos works when you’re playing dueling wizards, but in a baseball game it feels out of place.
That said, while I did encounter situations that reminded me of pinch-hitting heroics or a well-executed safety squeeze, in equal amounts I wondered how much of an impact my decisions had on the outcome at all. In a game so much about trying to compare the contents of your hand to what you think is in your opponent’s hand, there’s sure a lot of card draw. Even if you do, for instance, have the ability to peek at your opponent’s hand, that information is only going to be relevant for another turn or two. If you don’t have such knowledge the primary tension is over the question of if you’ll use a given card for offense or hold onto them for their defensive value.
Even if that one moment creates an interesting tension, you begin to wonder if it matters at all when, at a minimum, you’ll be drawing three more cards (one for each out) before you return to the defensive side.
I suppose what I’m saying is that the more Bat Flip resembles the real-life chaos of baseball management the less fun it becomes. It works best when you feel in control; when you have a card in hand that you’ve been successfully hiding, waiting for the perfect moment to spring it on your opponent; when you successfully grok that your opponent does not have any ground-ball defense cards in hand and utilize that knowledge to squeeze out another run. When you feel like you’ve outmaneuvered your opponent rather than out-drawn them–that’s when Bat Flip shines.
Every time I play Bat Flip I get the sensation that it’s perched close to greatness. I don’t know how it could get there, but it feels close. There are such great individual moments interspersed between the ho-hum. I wish the game could focus in further on those moments and get rid of the in-between. Maybe that’s an impossible task. Maybe baseball isn’t meant to have a great board game adaptation. But at least Bat Flip gets close, and for that I have to applaud it.