Dungeons, Dragons, and First Downs: The best sports tabletop games
Maybe you haven’t noticed, but there’s been something of a board game renaissance lately. Since the release of Settlers of Catan back in the ‘90s, tabletop gaming has slowly but surely worked its way into mainstream American conscience, gently uprooting ancient, long-box standbys like Clue and Life, replacing them with smarter, better games. Maybe you’re the type of person who thinks the notion of Taking Board Gaming Seriously is misguided on a fundamental level, and that’s fine, but you’ll be missing out. The best board games use the table as a medium to reveal certain tics and tendencies of your loved ones, taking them on a journey into deep space, or R’lyeh, or maybe just a plot of land in a harsh pre-industrial world. You’ll never know for sure who’s the best Starfleet commander, or cowboy, or farmer, or monarch, or city contractor, but board games gives us the best conduit we have. It’s always nicer to socialize on a wild adventure.
I digress. This is a sports website, after all; so let’s talk about sports. Or rather, sports board games! Yes, there are a number of tabletop odysseys that focuses on America’s most profitable pastime. Maybe you’re a seasoned veteran looking to pick up a few recommendations to add to your already unsightly collection, maybe you’re a tabletop virgin just now getting in touch with your long-incubated geekiness, and need something ostensibly “normal” enough to push you over the edge – either way you’ve come to the right place. Here are our favorite sports board games!
1st & Goal
Publisher: RnR Games
In terms of pure simulation, you’re not going to find a board game that does football better than 1st & Goal. It’s a relatively cheap investment – 30 bucks gets you a board, a handful of dice, and a couple decks of cards – but the strategy, nuance, and straight-up gridiron acumen that lives in the box is almost Madden-like in terms of meticulous simulation.
The core gameplay is quite simple. The offensive player has a hand of “play” cards, things like screen passes, post routes, half-back pitches, etc. The other player has the same, except with defensive schemes. Both put a card facedown, and reveal it on the count of three. Let’s say the offense chooses to play a quick slant, while the defense is running a cover two. The players would then check a chart to see what “yardage dice” need to be rolled in this specific situation. This obviously changes depending on the matchup, so if an offense is running a dive play into an all-out blitz, you’ll be rolling dice with some low numbers. The board is essentially just a miniature football field, which makes tracking the gains and losses as easy as, well, moving a tiny magnetic football up and down the hashmarks.
But the real beauty of 1st & Goal is all the circumstantial stuff. After each play, you roll a “play die,” which could mean nothing, but it always has the chance to trigger a penalty, or a turnover, or any of the other random stuff that can make football so difficult to predict. There are specific rules for QB sneaks, fake punts, or game-breaking Hail Maries. It’s all in there, and all exceptionally easy to play. It’s a game specifically designed to bring football to the table with all its nuance and complexity intact, and frankly, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better.
And there's great news for those of you who are awkward at parties! The new 1st & Down app gives you another thing to do on your phone while everyone else is mingling.
Formula D has become something of an icon over the last couple of decades. Originally published all the way back in 1991, it’s one of my go-tos for translating people out of the Monopoly-core trash and into some actual good games, mostly because it’s so simple. This is a racing game through and through. You roll dice, move along the board, and the first person to reach the end of the track wins. It taps into a very fundamental understanding of what board games are, with just enough nuance to keep things interesting.
The game relies on one fairly simple mechanic that stops it from being Candyland with racecars. Each player has a gear shifter which determines what dice they’re allowed to roll to progress through the track. At your lowest gear you’re rolling a 3-sided die (yes those exist) and at your highest you’re rolling a 30-sided die (yes, those exist too.) So why wouldn’t you stay at the highest gear through the whole race? Well, there are certain areas along the turns that you need to stop in a certain number of times to keep your car from turning into a giant fireball - so it’s bad news if you roll a 30-sided die, get a 27, and blow through the checkpoint. It adds a great push-your-luck element to something as simple as rolling and moving, and thematically it makes a lot of sense – the slowdown in the turns are where races are won and lost.
So yeah, if you’re brand new at board gaming and you want something that resonates with something as everyman as “who can cross the finish line first,” Formula D is your game. It is a little pricy at $60, but that’s pretty much the asking price for modern board games these days. It also comes with a beautiful, double-sided board, and some strong, finely-painted miniature cars. It’s also been exceptionally well supported since its latest reprinting, with Asmodee supplying a ton of expansion tracks and other goodies. If you’re looking for something that can bridge your knowledge into designer gaming, you really can’t go wrong here.
Blood Bowl: Team Manager
Publisher: Fantasy Flight
The original Blood Bowl is a classic – a 2-player game of fantasy football. By fantasy football I don’t mean the “Calvin Johnson is out who should I start” variety; I’m talking about the sort where you pit orcs, elves, dwarves, and humans (netted from the Warhammer universe) against each other in a battle of total domination. It’s pretty great! And it’s still being played to this day (at least, we have our own vibrant league down here in Austin, Texas). Unfortunately the original board game is out of print, and the copies you can find are going to be pretty expensive.
But luckily, the good folks over at Fantasy Flight swooped in back in 2011 with Blood Bowl: Team Manager, a card game that captures the essence of the miniatures, but without the barrier of entry. Team Manager doesn’t focus on the actual gridiron action, and instead has you build your team over the course of a season. You’ll draw a hand of players, all equipped with a base value and some additional situational bonuses, and take turns assigning them to the different “highlights” available. If the value (or “star power” as it’s called) of your cards is higher than the other player’s on a specific highlight, you win the matchup and earn whatever “fans” (points) the highlight was worth. The player with the most fans at the end of the game wins.
That’s just a basic snapshot of the mechanics, there’s a lot more going on where you can play cards to “tackle” other players’ cards, force fumbles, and grab ball control, at the start of each week there are special abilities to purchase and tap – it all adds a lot of weightiness to the comparative lightness of simply placing a card on the table. The game is packed with a ton of theme, and the components are predictably great. It’ll probably take a group of friends who think the idea of fantasy creatures playing football is awesome, but if you’re reading this column that shouldn’t be too hard to find.
Publisher: Cool Mini or Not
Price: $72.65 (On Amazon. I’ve seen it more expensive at my local game stores.)
I mentioned earlier that the original Blood Bowl is out of print, and how that’s a shame because there’s a certain type of person who finds the idea of fantasy creatures playing sports to be profoundly awesome. But fret not! There are a number of likeminded designers who are bringing that same thunder. I give you Eric Lang’s KaosBall. KaosBall came out earlier this year, but it’s already become my favorite iteration on the violent, nihilistic alternative-reality sport genre. Unlike the way Blood Bowl apes pro football, there’s no concrete, obvious inspiration here. Instead, Lang nips ideas from soccer, capture the flag, dodgeball, and even a bit of basketball to create something entirely unique. It’s very spatial, you move your team of orcs (or pirates, or aliens, or werewolves, whatever) to try and grab the ball in the middle of the playing field and bring it back to your side. You’re dodging the other player’s hit squads, as well as his hand of cards and his ability to bribe the referees. There’s something incredibly satisfying about playing a card to phase in two impassable walls to force your opponent out of his inside lane. The best board games present some complex technical choices in great, funny, thematic manifestations. In that sense, I don’t think KaosBall has any peers in fantasy sports.
Unfortunately, this game is a little bit pricy. I’ve seen it near a hundred bucks in my local game stores, and that obviously throws up a barrier of entry. But if you love board games and want something that brings out the strategic and spiritual side of our corporate pro sports universe, I don’t think there’s anything on the market quite like KaosBall.