Playing Card Basketball Designer’s Diary

Why do tabletop sports games so often fail? That’s the question we asked ourselves when we began designing Playing Card Basketball (PC B-Ball from here on out). We think it’s because designers so often lose sight of what makes a game fun.

The Challenge: A Game About a Game
It seems almost ridiculous to make a game that simulates what amounts to another game. Yet, so many have done just that. Every year, a plethora of basketball, baseball and football card games hit the market — most of them doomed to obscurity and  mediocrity. The biggest challenge, and the probable root cause of this failure is that at first glance, nothing could be farther away from than the excitement of basketball — catching a ball, dodging your opponents as you dribble up the court, running, pivoting, finding an opening for your breakaway, taking aim, jumping, shooting, and then hearing that glorious swish as the ball falls through the basket — than placing a glossy paper rectangle onto the table.


Not included: actual fast breaks.

Yet, we design them. Our unpublished book of card and dice games is chock full of sports titles. You’ve already seen baseball and basketball. Unsurprisingly, we also have designs for football, soccer and hockey. If we believe everything we just said about sports simulators, why the hell did we do this? Are we gluttons for punishment? Secret fans of 50 Shades of Gray? Is it the fact that we cannot resist a challenge? Maybe a little, but mostly we just like sports, and like making games themed to things we like. Sorry if that reveal was a little anti-climactic, but there you have it. We find fun wherever we can, and try to distil it into something you can play in your kitchen (or, at the time we designed these, dorm room).

What’s in a Game?
One of the biggest traps sports games tend to fall into is that they try to be good simulations of the games they borrow inspiration from. The designers naturally love these sports, so they want to get every aspect of them into the game. Take Fast Break, a 90′s basketball CCG we had the misfortune of playing. Fastbreak was loaded with everything you could want in a basketball game. Players had detailed skill sets, complete with free throw ability, height and more. You tracked their fouls, simulated every pass, rebound and dunk… and it was  pretty dull game. The game became a long series of complex conflict resolutions. You track the ball across the court, painstakingly resolving each and every pass, steal attempt, shot, block and rebound based on the very specific capabilities of your team. It takes forever to drive the ball to the basket and take a shot, because you’ve essentially played a dozen mini games just to do it.

That’s not what we love about basketball. When we adapt a sport into a game (or anything really) we ask ourselves, what is the heart of this game? What is the central tension? And what does it do better than any other game?

For baseball, it’s the pitcher / batter showdown. So that’s what we focused on when we designed our baseball port. For basketball though, it’s speed. The thing that basketball does better than any other game is fast, constant action. Each and every play, something exciting happens. Either A) Somebody will drive and score, or B) the play leads to a turnover. And unlike hockey or soccer, this happens fast, usually in a few seconds. There’s even a shot clock to ensure that this is the case. Why? Because the people that designed basketball knew that it wasn’t fun to watch players sit there with the ball, stalling.

Fast action. Fast breaks. That’s what it’s about. And that’s what most card games fail to do.

Ergo, that’s the only thing we tried to do with PC B-Ball.

In each play of the game, there are a few short passes and one shot, which always results in a score or a turnover. The central conflict for the player is one of risk management — one that basketball players face: Do I take my shot now (and risk missing or getting blocked) or do I pass and try to set up a better shot (knowing that every second I hold onto the ball is time spent not scoring, and giving my opponent more time to steal or disrupt my drive)?

Arch Rivals
Last week, I compared PC B-Ball to Arch Rivals, an arcade game from the early 90s. It was a joke, but I believe the analogy actually holds up. Arch Rivals is not a good simulation of NBA basketball. First off, it’s a two-on-two game,

Welcome to the NBA circa 1991.

not full-team. Secondly, it allows absurd moves, like pulling your opponents’ shorts down, and punching players in the face. Every backboard-shattering shot is bombastically over-dramatized with slow motion delays and funky animated cut scenes.

If what you’re looking for is a direct NBA basketball simulator, it fails miserably. However, like PC B-Ball, it distils some of what’s fun about the sport into a short, fast-paced abstraction. Driving, shooting and stealing are at the forefront, not player management or team dynamics. The physicality and individual showmanship of the sport is overemphasized — a direct echo of what was happening to the NBA in the era of Dennis Rodman and the ascended Michael Jordan’s “Archangel Offense.” The NBA was more popular than ever, so game designers asked themselves why? They found the answer, and distilled it into a game, one of the most memorable and successful basketball ports of the era. Jordan Vs. Bird and NBA JAM! are other great examples of this phenomenon (“He’s on fire!“).

What do these games have in common with ours? The end result is fast-paced action, that might not be a perfect simulation of basketball, but distills something fundamental about the game, letting players experience part of what makes the sport interesting and entertaining in the first place. We think this is the most essential rule of top-down design.

 Interested in giving PC B-Ball a try? The rules are right here.

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