Baseball Strategy (Avalon Hill) -- interview with Tom Shaw

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2:27 PM - Sep 08, 2015 #1

Baseball Strategy is well known as one of the most sophisticated yet most playable and popular generics in
the spectrum of tabletop baseball -- a solid entry in the field throughout the 1960s and '70s, still widely played,
and still selling regularly now on the second-hand market. It was, of course, produced by Avalon Hill -- the
Baltimore company, founded in 1958 by game designer Charles S Roberts, that redrew the map for the
board game industry with its innovative military and historical strategic games. Toy industry behemoth Hasbro
currently owns the rights to most Avalon Hill games. The designer of Baseball Strategy -- as well as the
designer of Football Strategy and many other classic strategic board games, the man who went on to oversee
Avalon Hill's operations for decades, the founder and editor of The General magazine, and the 1977 winner
of the von Clausewitz Award for excellence in the historical wargaming hobby -- is Thomas N Shaw, and
we're privileged to have him participate here as our interview guest. Thanks to Bruce Whitehill, Alan Moon,
and, especially, Don Greenwood -- all major names themselves in the game industry -- for helping us track down
the elusive Mr Shaw, who's graciously agreed to stand by for any of you who have further questions for him.
Your front office pinheads here at Baseball Games threw our usual set of inane questions via e-mail to Tom Shaw,
and without further ado, here are his replies...

Baseball Games: Your resumé in the game hobby is hugely impressive, but even as a mover and shaker in the
industry, you're something of a quiet giant. If you don't mind, we'd like to start out by making sure we're providing
a full list of your major credits and chronology. As designer: Baseball Strategy, 1962; Football Strategy, 1972?;
C&O, B&O, 1960; Air Empire, 1961; Le Mans, 1961; Bismarck, 1962, with Charles S Roberts; Waterloo,
1962, and Stalingrad, 1963 and '74, all with L. Schutz; Battle of the Bulge '64, 1964, and Blitzkrieg, 1965 and
'75, all with L. Pinsky; and Kriegspiel, 1970. Vice-President of The Avalon Hill Game Company, 1962 through ...
at least 1973, and we're uncertain how much beyond that. We've read that you doubled as art director at AH
through the 1960s, as well. Also, founder and editor of The General magazine. Anything in error there? And
please add any credits we've left out!

Tom Shaw: Thank you for your kind words. ... I shall answer your questions in the order of your e-mail where
possible although given my penchant for being longwinded I may digress occasionally. Here goes... The full list
of designer credits and their dates of publication: Baseball Strategy and Football Strategy first appeared ... in
1958. C&O, B&O: a redesign of C. Roberts' Dispatcher, published in 1969, not 1960. Air Empire: my 1961
redesign of Roberts' Management. LeMans, Bismarck, Waterloo, Stalingrad, Battle of the Bulge: not involved
in design, but had minimal graphic input. Blitzkrieg: provided graphic help and provided names for various map
locations such as the Great Koufax Desert because it was so sandy. (We never took ourselves too seriously at
Avalon Hill.) Kriegspiel: one of my least serious games done in panic in order to meet a Toy Fair deadline in 1970.
Credits you did not include: Verdict II: 1961, developed additional cases. Afrika Korps: 1964, expanded on
Roberts' original design. Word Power: 1967, created a board game version of the Reader's Digest column of
the same name. Outdoor Survival: developed a simplified version of the brilliant James F. Dunigan creation.
The Stock Market Game: 1970. Publishing an in-house gaming magazine was Roberts' idea, but it didn't get
implemented until the take-over by the two major creditors, The J. E. Smith Paper Box Company and Dott's
Monarch Services. In effect, then, I was the "founder" in May 1964 and continued as editor through 1972,
giving up the reins to Donald Greenwood whose hiring was my greatest decision as an Avalon Hill executive.
My career at AH began in 1960 after seven years as an advertising agency copywriter. (Claim to fame here
was being author of many commercials aired on the "Muppets" TV show.) Retiring in 1992 as Executive
Vice President, not 1973... I stayed on as a consultant through 1996. During this span I was involved in all phases
of game development, art direction, rules writing, personnel hiring, advertising, marketing, sales, and player-manager
of the baseball team.

BG: The earliest editions of Baseball Strategy we've seen were produced in 1962, but we've occasionally seen it
dated to 1960. Could you give us a little on the timeline of the game's production?

TS: Earliest editions of Baseball Strategy were published by The Strategy Game Company, 1958 to 1960.
Baseball Strategy and Football Strategy first appeared in tube versions... in 1958, $2.98 each. A printing
salesperson, and tennis partner George Culbertson, produced and sold them in the Baltimore and Philadelphia
markets. I was paid a royalty on approximately 7,500 games total. Don't know how many were Baseball Strategy.
In 1960, Culbertson sold the rights to Avalon Hill on a royalty basis for both of us from 1961 to the last sales through
January 1999. A total of 134,244 Baseball Strategy games had been sold. Football Strategy in that time sold
233,904. Hasbro declined to continue their publication and has returned the rights to Culbertson and myself.
My timeline is vague except to say that AH first published it in the traditional box form in 1961 (sample on your
web site), later repackaged it in the bookcase format several times.

BG: This is as personal as we'll get, but what's your background in actual baseball -- as a player and/or as a fan?
And which "real-life" team can count you as a fan?

TS: My personal interest in baseball was as a good amateur player, playing three times a week on various Baltimore,
Maryland teams until age 40. In 1953, while a corporal in the army stationed at White Sands Proving Grounds,
New Mexico, I was voted most valuable player with a .409 batting average as an outfielder and a 5 & 0 record
as a southpaw junk pitcher (I never threw my fast ball for a strike). I was player-manager of the Avalon Hill
baseball team created to prove that real-life strategy was designed into the board game. Our team won the
Baltimore Unlimited League title twice and came in 2nd during the years 1967, '68, and '69. Okay, so I hired
really good ballplayers who, at that date in time, could be had for crab cakes and beer after every game. It made
for great promotion. Although I've been a Floridian for five years, I'm still a die-hard Oriole fan. My computer
homepage is the Baltimore Sun paper. Until moving from Baltimore in 2001, I'd been in touch with Oriole legend
Brooks Robinson who worked for us as a sales ambassador in 1977.

BG: What was your experience with tabletop baseball before you designed Baseball Strategy -- which games
did you play, what was your impression of how they performed, what did you like or dislike about them?

TS: Before designing Baseball Strategy, the only baseball board game I had played was All-Star Baseball.
I believe this is the one where players were on discs with their offensive skills apportioned as in real life. I spent
many an hour making up my own players based on stats that were available.

BG: Do you collect vintage board games at all, particularly baseball?

TS: I do not collect vintage board games.

BG: What games, in any genre, do you find yourself playing and enjoying these days? Do you yourself still play
Baseball Strategy? Do you play any other tabletop baseball now, and if so, which games?

TS: These days are mostly spent outdoors given our weather. I do occasionally play Sequence, Mexican Train
Dominoes, and Phase 10, none of which are cerebrally challenging. But they are good social games. Rarely do I
play a one-on-one game such as Baseball Strategy and Football Strategy. With 19 golf courses and a myriad
of recreation vehicles at my disposal, not much time is spent inside over board games. When indoors, Tukodu,
Bridge, and cartooning take up much of my time. My outdoor passion now is Pickleball, a deck-tennis-like game
that's become the rage among active senior citizens in Florida. It has become a Florida State Seniors Olympic event.

BG: What other baseball games, if any -- past or current -- do you rate highly? or poorly?

TS: Since I haven't played any baseball board games, including my own recently, I can't give a rating.

BG: What was your background in game design at the time you devised Baseball Strategy?

TS: I had absolutely no game design background when creating the two sports games. Of the two, FS came first.
But I could write. Good games don't get off the ground unless the rules are clearly presented.

BG: If we understand correctly, you joined Charles Roberts at Avalon Hill around 1960 and then took over
operation of the company when the Dott family and Monarch Services bought it up in '62. We'd like to hear the

TS: Roberts and I graduated from Catonsville High School, one year apart. We also labored at Van Sant-Dugdale
Ad Agency but at different times. But it was Roberts' production manager Bernard Schramm who discovered me,
not Roberts himself. Schramm, also a Van Sant-Dugdale alumni, had fallen in love with my sports games and
advised Roberts to make an offer. I joined them in August 1960. FS and BS were immediately brought on board.
Both Roberts and Schramm were wonderful people to work with, fair minded and above board in every respect.
But Avalon Hill was ahead of its time. These were the depression years; only the well known and highly promotable
toys could sell. Roberts was all set to throw AH into bankruptcy on Friday, December 13, 1963. I didn't want to quit.
At this juncture I had been privy to all of the customer mail praising our products. I knew there was a future for AH.
At my urging over some early morning breakfasts at the local White Coffee Pot, Eric Dott was also convinced. The
start up began in January 1964 and I had to rush the completion of Afrika Korps in time for the New York Toy Fair
in February. There is much more to this marriage but this is about baseball, not Avalon Hill so let's move on to your
next query.

BG: What inspired or motivated you to design and market a tabletop baseball game -- especially given AH's focus
on wargaming?

TS: Weather was the motivation for my design of FS and BS. Seriously! 1958 was a particularly rainy year. I lived
for the weekends and evening sandlot baseball games. Numerous rainouts so frustrated me that I figured if I can't play
the real game then do the second best thing and play inside. But what was there to play. All games up until that time
were intrinsically luck-element games. None outside of All Star Baseball had even a hint of strategy. And it didn't
take a rocket scientist to figure best lineups in that game either. With me it was "defense, defense, defense." As an
outfielder I had an uncanny ability as to where to play each hitter. My success as a sandlot pitcher was in knowing
what the batter would be expecting from my arsenal of junk. Simply put I wanted to incorporate this thinking into
a simple-to-play board game where luck plays a minor role. Voila, the matrix system. It was necessary the number
of options be limited. The more options there are to choose from, the more it simply becomes a guessing game.
With limited options, the percentage of correct guesses is high. And the more often you are right, the more enjoyable
the game.

BG: Why cards, charts, and two standard dice, instead of a spinner and/or percentile dice or any of the other
formats and combinations of game mechanics seen in other baseball games? What were your priorities in designing
the game? Which elements were most important, and how did you weigh the crucial issue of complexity vs playability
(simplicity vs realism)?

TS: My decision to go with cards and charts instead of spinners and random luck elements was simply to be different.
The design priority was to place emphasis on educated guessing, thus was born the Offense/Defense matrix. As in
the real game, which basically is a confrontation of catcher vs. hitter, it is all educated guessing. The hitter is thinking,
"the count is 2 and 2; what does the catcher normally call for in this situation?" But the catcher may be
thinking the same thing and simply try to cross up the hitter. In the simplest terms I reproduced this mental bi-play
into the matrix. And the matrix had to have an imbalance. For example in the matrix the "Pull Swing" (early edition)
has the least chance of success. The "Normal Swing" provides the best chance of success. Which do you pick?
It's a game of think and double think. Weighing... simplicity vs. realism, I opted not to do a pitch-by-pitch version
because it minimized the effects of the double-think. It would have stretched the length of play well beyond accepted
norms of the time. Games should be one to 1 1/2 hours in length. Of course there have been exceptions.

BG: What was the process of creating the game like -- were you close with the first try, or was it a lengthy process
that saw it change radically along the way and over a long period of time? How much different was the version of
Baseball Strategy that hit the market in '62 from the earliest (design-stage) versions?

TS: Because of the success of Football Strategy which was developed first, I was pretty close to proper
play-balance on the first try with BS. However, over time there have been four versions I believe. The tube version
in 1958 by the Strategy Game Company included two identical team rosters on Index cards. An early AH version,
1962 in flat box, went with small die-cut counters for team rosters and coded much in the manner of the traditional
die-cut battle game counters. When revised in bookcase format in 1973, we reverted to individual Index cards.
In addition, changes were made to the matrix charts. Somewhere in the 1970s, I can't recall exactly when, I changed
the Offense Charts from "Power, Hi-Average, and Weak" to headings showing hitting averages such as "0 - .200
Hitters," ".201 – to .250 hitters," etc. In addition, I altered the semantics of the Pitch Cards to read type of pitch
(Breaking Pitch, Off Speed, etc) instead of location of pitch (high inside, low outside, etc.).

BG: What was the most difficult element to get right -- that is, what gave you the biggest problem in making the game
both realistic and playable?

TS: The most difficult element to get right was making sure that the matrix results would match the actual averages
indicated on the player cards. For example, on the chart headed by ".251 - .300 hitters," I had to be sure that the
game results matched those advertised in this category over the long haul. My priority in designing the matrix was
to keep the variables to a workable yet realistic minimum. Much prototype testing went into getting this resolved.

BG: There's a lot of emphasis in Baseball Strategy on baserunning (speed) and fielding (defense) -- unusual
in tabletop baseball of the time. Could you tell us a bit about your determination and efforts to incorporate
those things as major factors in the game?

TS: In order to have a game that stood out from the crowd, it had to be unlike any other on the market at the time
(I'm amazed at the number of baseball games listed on your web site.) My research showed a lack of baseball
board games, and football for that matter, that placed any emphasis on speed and defense. Having been a player
and manager until age 40, I knew too well the importance of these elements. This was the Paul Richards' school of
thought and while it never brought him any pennant as manager of the Baltimore Orioles, it did bring respectability
to an awful team before the farm system began to bear fruit. And while Earl Weaver is best known for his "hitting
3-run homers" philosophy, he was resolute in strong pitching and defense. He believed in "strength up the middle."
And fleet-footed centerfielders, including the underrated but flaky Jackie Brant whose antics included driving a car load
of players 30 miles north of their Miami spring training site to an ice cream parlor that boasted 99 flavors. Upon arrival,
Jackie orders vanilla.

BG: Was there any discussion at the time of making Baseball Strategy an MLB-replay type of game, recreating
real-life players on the cards a la APBA and Strat-O-Matic?

TS: We did indeed discuss including player cards using actual MLB players. However, we weren't in a position
to pay the licensing fees. Unlike the APBA and Strat-O-Matic systems which were based solely on MLB performances,
we felt ours could stand alone on its own merits. We did, however, take on Jim Barnes' Statis Pro Baseball game
and Sports Illustrated Superstar Baseball to compete in that market. As a viable alternative, we included blank
Player Cards and the "formula" so owners of Baseball Strategy could incorporate any real players of their choosing.

BG: Did you have complete creative control over "your baby," or were you asked or obligated to make modifications
to it at the request of Charlie Roberts or the Dotts? Don Greenwood made some alterations to the final edition of the
game in 1977 -- what were your thoughts on that?

TS: From day one I had complete control over the game's design, artistic and production formats and revisions.
In retrospect I would not have done the die-cut version. I forget what alterations Don Greenwood had made, and
whatever he did I was in complete agreement with because Greenwood was such an outstandingly hard-working
developer and consummate gamer.

BG: What kind of feedback have you had from people who've played Baseball Strategy?

TS: I no longer have copies of feedback from people who played the game. On many occasions I would get letters
with box scores, league standings, tournament results, etc. They often made my day.

BG: Are you still working on any game projects currently? We'd expect you'd be in substantial demand as a
consultant to the hobby and the industry.

TS: I am completely out of the board game loop. I was, however, one of the guests of honor last year (2005)
at the Origins Convention held in Columbus Ohio. I am periodically in touch with Don Greenwood and have been
known to show up at one of his annual board game conventions to reminisce with some of the "old timers."

BG: Thanks immensely for taking the time to sit down and talk to us about your career and Baseball Strategy!


file 2006 May: Butch & Co.

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1:06 AM - Feb 09, 2016 #2