Championship Baseball -- interview with Bruce Whitehill

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2:06 AM - Sep 15, 2015 #1

No one takes a back seat as a games historian to Bruce Whitehill, popularly known
as "the Big Game Hunter" and rightfully known as "the world's foremost authority
on American games." Founder and past president of the American Game Collectors
Association (now the Association of Game & Puzzle Collectors at ),
author of the landmark volume Games: American Games and Their Makers, 1822-1992
and of a thick portfolio of game-related magazine articles and encyclopaedia entries,
Mr Whitehill's career as collector, researcher, writer, lecturer, and game designer
would fill a page by iteself (actually it does, right here: ... 10763.html at his own website,
which is still recovering from a devastating server crash some time back).

Almost a footnote among those credits is his design for Championship Baseball
(Milton Bradley, 1984), a fine concept that never quite took off as it should have.
One of the dice-driven game's most notable features is its use of special-edition
Topps baseball cards that individualize results for each batter. Bruce has been
a friend to this site in helping your front-office crew with our own research into the
history of tabletop baseball, and over the last few years he's steered a few of you
and your own questions in our direction. Currently working in Germany as a
consultant to the European games industry, Bruce recently took the time
to answer our usual array of inane questions...

Baseball Games: Among your many other credits as a designer, collector, and
historian of games is your work on Championship Baseball, first produced by
Milton Bradley in 1984. If you wanted to explain, in a nutshell, how Championship
works and why it's a good game to play, you'd say...

Bruce Whitehill: The game uses the actual stats -- outs vs hits, and the relationship
between singles, doubles, triples, and home runs -- for each baseball player. So,
over time, the way these individual stars played would show up in the game.

I began by working it out manually, using the individual numbers on the dice to
represent the various outcomes during a time at bat. Then one of the computer
programmers took my system and developed a program so that we could enter
the stats of a particular baseball player and wind up with a list of outcomes for
that player depending on the dice roll. After that, we checked all the records and
re-did those that seemed too strange or were too close to the same dice rolls of
another player. By the way, the one thing that makes the game less realistic than
many players would like is that the pitcher has absolutely no effect on the outcome!

The system worked so well that I suggested to the marketing department that
they offer buyers of the game the chance to send in a list of stats and a head shot
(for a fee), and we would be able to provide a baseball card with the person’s picture
on it and the dice rolls that fit those stats, allowing anyone to make up a dream team
or add their own player’s card to the game.

Bb Gms: 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 MLB team can count you as a fan?

B W: I was a Yankee fan in the 1950s and ‘60s, and became even more of a fan
when the Brooklyn Dodgers left New York (signaling the beginning of the end of
baseball as we knew it!). I enjoyed playing baseball. I would usually pitch -- because
it was the only place on the field from which I could reach all the bases on a throw
without the ball bouncing. I wasn’t a good batter, and I couldn’t catch very well,
either. And you know what they do with players in school who aren’t very good:
they stick you in the outfield (sometimes there were four or five of us out there!).
The longest moments of my life while growing up were those spent waiting in the
outfield for a high fly ball -- that had just been hit -- to land, trying to figure out
where it was going to land, and getting my mitt under it in the right place at the
right time; I often miscalculated. It wasn’t long before I realized I was much better
at swimming and soccer.

Bb Gms: We know you're an avid collector of vintage and antique games. Does that
include any antique baseball games at all? Which collectible games, in any genre,
would you consider the gems in your collection?

B W: Over the years I had Ethan Allen’s All-Star Baseball, of course; Aydelott’s
baseball game from 1910; The Great American Game - Baseball, from Henry Peck
of Boston, from the early 1900s; Parker Brothers’ very popular Peg Baseball;
St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Card Game (Ed-u-Cards, 1964; I graduated from
Washington University in St. Louis, where I lived for four years); and a host of
unusual and generic and small paper pocket games. My favorite was McLoughlin
Brothers’ Game of Base-Ball, from 1886.

I had the Jim Prentice Electric Baseball (Electric Game Co., 1940s). I met Jim Prentice,
and that was far more exciting for me than meeting a professional baseball player
would have been.

I’ve sold most of those games, and I’m not even sure what I have left. I still have
an early- to mid-1900s game from Milton Bradley called Baseball & Checkers. Not
a very interesting game, but I kept it because the two halves of the board divide
the baseball diamond right through home plate and second base, but my game has
two left halves, one of which was turned upside down to form the right side of the board.

Bb Gms: What was your experience with tabletop baseball -- as a kid or as an adult
-- before you designed Championship? Which if any other tabletop baseball games
had you played, what was your impression of how they performed, what had you liked
or disliked about them?

B W: All the baseball games I had were games I collected -- as a collector, not as
a player. I may have played All-Star Baseball a few times, but that’s about it.

Bb Gms: What other baseball games, if any -- antique or modern -- do you now
rate highly? or poorly?

B W: Personally, I like the odd games, and the ones that have interesting illustrations
and such. There have been a lot of graphically wonderful baseball games produced
since the late 1800s, but unfortunately, the generic ones don’t seem to attract much
attention -- only those games that mention teams or actual players.

I forgot to mention [above] one of my favorite baseball games: Bambino. This is
a wonderful game with a fascinating mechanism that actually lets you wallop a ball
with a real -- though tiny -- wood bat.

Bb Gms: Have you played any other tabletop baseball since you designed Championship,
and if so, which games?

B W: I haven’t even played Championship Baseball since I invented it! Always too busy,
and looking to move on to other things.

Bb Gms: What was your background in game design prior to developing Championship

B W: Championship Baseball was one of my first games. I had been working at Bradley
only about a year.

Bb Gms: What inspired or motivated you to design and market a tabletop baseball game?
Did Milton Bradley approach you to have you design a baseball game for them, or did
you approach them with your own idea?

B W: I was a full-time employee of Bradley at the time, in the R&D department. All
the games I invented were in response to assignments I was given, for which I was told
the theme and age range.

Bb Gms: 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)?

B W: Very simply, I wanted to devise a game that reflected how players would normally do
in a real game.

Bb Gms: What was the process of creating the game like? Did you have a clear vision
from the start of how the game should work -- or once you sat down to do the game-testing,
did you find that some things needed a lot more work than you'd anticipated?

B W: Yes, to the first part, and no, not really, to the second.

Bb Gms: Why did you go with dice and cards as the game mechanic, as opposed to
spinners, an action game, or some other method? Topps produced a special set of
player cards for Championship -- was Topps involved prior to your designing the game,
or were they brought in later because of your design concept?

B W: The game idea was to use all the combinations that would occur when rolling
two dice. Simple elements, low cost to produce. The negotiations had already
taken place with Topps, which was the reason Bradley was doing a baseball game
with cards. Then there were negotiations with the teams association and the Players
Association, or something like that. I went to one of those meetings. Unfortunately,
they couldn’t reach an agreement. Bradley wanted to make 200,000 and up for the
major cities that had baseball teams, like New York, but the Players Association,
I think it was, wanted an equal number of games produced for each city. Something
like that. Bradley didn’t think it could sell 200,000 copies in some of the smaller
team cities. In the end, the negotiations broke down and Bradley was not allowed
to use any of the team logos on the clothing of the ball players. So we had real
names, real signatures, and then real uniforms -- but with all the striping and
identifying emblems and symbols rubbed out! I thought this would make the cards
highly valuable after a while, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case -- collectors
want the identifying marks on a player’s uniform.

Bb Gms: 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?

B W: The most difficult thing was developing a way in which the pitcher could
affect the outcome, but then the game became too complex, and I couldn’t come up
with anything, so I just left it out.

Bb Gms: Did you have creative control over Championship, or were you asked or
obligated to make modifications to it at MB's request?

B W: I think it worked the first time through.

Bb Gms: Please tell us about your experience in the production and marketing
of the game -- how involved were you after the concept/design phase was complete?

B W: As I said, I was an employee of Bradley at the time. Once I was done, I was
on to other things. I checked the final box copy and instructions, and that was about it.
I had no say on the graphic elements or 3-D design of the game.

Bb Gms: Were you satisfied with the way the game was packaged and promoted?

B W: Packaged, yes; promoted, well….

Bb Gms: We've heard some tabletop gamers say they really liked the concept,
the mechanics, of Championship, but were frustrated by the short run of cards,
by the small rosters. Was there ever any thought or plan about Topps or MB
adding more cards down the road?

B W: I thought that was the plan. But I guess once the negotiations with the Players
Association went awry, that killed any new editions. It was a shame, too, considering
what we’ve seen with the collectible card game (CCG) craze.

Bb Gms: What kind of feedback have you had from people who've played your game?

B W: They like it -- unless they’re avid fans looking for more pitcher involvement.

Bb Gms: On what other game-related projects are you currently at work?

B W: I’m living in Europe now -- Germany -- and my first game for the European
market, Change Horses, is due out at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in February (2008).
It’s just a coincidence that it’s also a sports game. But in this game, the horse that
comes in last, wins! Players don’t know who owns which horse, and if your horse
gets too far ahead, you can always change horses. Hopefully, the game will be
released in the U.S. as well.

The idea came from an old verbal puzzle in which a wealthy merchant decides to
do something special for his village, so he holds a horse race -- with only two horses.
He finds two riders and, just as the race is about to start, he announces that
in order to make the game more interesting, the horse who comes in last wins.
He fires the starting gun and, naturally, the horses don’t move. Nothing happens
until one of the spectators walks up to the two jockeys and whispers two words.
A few moments later, the horses are off and running. What did the man say?
“Change horses!”

Also, I thought it would be fun for players who feel they lose too many games
they play, to have a game they could win if they lose. Each player has an identical
set of cards, with two horses shown on each card. The idea is to play your cards
onto the board so that you help propel the other players’ horses while yours moves
slowly. Players don’t know who owns which horse, and there is always at least
one horse that is not owned by any player.

I also have about nine prototypes of very different types of games that are being
playtested now by about eight European companies. The game business is a very
friendly atmosphere over here, and not at all paranoid and secretive as it is in
the U.S. Inventors even help each other by playtesting each other’s games.

Will I ever invent another baseball game? Sure -- as soon as baseball becomes
popular over here!

Bb Gms: Thanks very much, as always!

file 2007 December: Butch, Kerm, Win