Triple Threat Baseball -- interview with Doug Spohn

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September 8th, 2015, 4:48 pm #1

Triple Threat Baseball

Due largely to its limited production run, Triple Threat Baseball may not be as recognizable a name
as those of other recent or current tabletop baseball offerings -- but it would be hard to name any other
game ever produced that exceeds it in terms of either sumptuous production values or the enthusiasm
and passion for detail evidenced by its designer. That man is Douglas Spohn, and Doug was good
enough to sit down back in June and answer via e-mail the usual array of inane questions posed to him
some time ago by the pinheads here in the Baseball Games front office. Our apologies again for our
delay in bringing this to you, but without further ado, here at last is our interview with Triple Threat
's Doug Spohn...

Baseball Games: Triple Threat Baseball was first produced in 1999, is that correct?

Doug Spohn: Yes, we officially launched our game to the marketplace at a local art show in Olympia,
Washington, in October 1999. The day before the art show, we were still getting printed materials
off the press and shrinkwrapping games! It was a total adrenaline rush and we loved it!

BG: We understand your inventory is currently sold out. Was it continuously in production until last year?

DS: We commissioned one production run of 1,000 games. These games are branded as "Our First
Season," Limited Edition. No other games were ever produced. The final "complete" game was sold
during the Christmas season of 2005. A blemished set of component parts was sold to a very interested
buyer in mid-2006.

BG: And could you give us a little on the production, packaging, and marketing history of the game
over the years for those of us less familiar with Triple Threat?

DS: Actually, I began working on the game in 1962 at the age of ten. My friend and I were addicted to
real baseball and we wanted to play year 'round, even during basketball and football seasons. So, we
came up with the rudimentary mechanics of the game and played it endlessly! The idea sat idle in my head
and heart until 1994 when I was encouraged by two friends to finally finish it! We formed a company
(we all had day jobs) and away we went at fully fleshing it out. Five years and thousands of play test
sessions later, we launched it.

Our vision was to create a fun and realistic simulation game that reeked "baseball." With this in mind,
we made a number of guiding decisions early on: 1) it would be tangible -- it had to be something you wanted
to touch and feel and hold, 2) it would be a visual treat -- real photos of real professional players would be
included and it would come packaged in a wood box branded with a baseball bat-sytle logo, 3) it would have
authenticity -- had to be exciting, cerebral, like baseball.

I sat in local coffee houses for hours working the mechanics of the game. We kept the simple traditional
two-dice feature (batting dice) of the original 1962 version. We added hundreds of play variations with the
use of 14 different offensive / defensive cards and situational playbook scenarios along with the inclusion
of a third fielding die. To add tension, even the cut of the dice was important. The green batting dice are
straight-cut, and the red fielding die is round-edge-cut. This gives an extra moment of anticipation as you
wait to learn the outcome of a "great catch," "hangin' curve," "hit & run," "great throw," and the many other
strategic plays both game players can attempt.

Triple Threat Baseball is packaged in a wood box with a removable logo-branded lid. When flipped
over, the lid reveals a full-color silkscreened image of a professional baseball field (Mariners' AAA team field
with a few modifications). Has an attachable wood scoreboard as well. Fourteen offensive / defensive play
cards resemble baseball cards with images of real players in action. I finagled a two-year press pass with the
Mariners' AAA team. For two seasons I sat on the field taking photos, trying not get ejected by the umps!
A traditional scorecard method is used in the game, so a pad of 100 scorecards is included. The dice,
wood player tokens, and pencils are contained in a cloth rosin-type bag.

Other than the dice and the pencils, all game components were produced in the South Puget Sound region
of Washington State. My two partners and I assembled the game and our printer shrinkwrapped them for us.
Our downtown Olympia storage space was in a US Bank building at a prominent intersection. I had a
Triple Threat Baseball neon sign made for our window that lit up downtown like a beacon!

After our art show launch in October 1999, we were immediately successful at getting game placement
at several local specialty stores in Olympia and Seattle. We were also lucky to get placement at Ebbets Field
Flannels, an authentic baseball clothing store during our first Christmas season in 1999. In a two-week period
they sold 48 games! During our first year, we participated in the New York Toy Show and this yielded deals
with several national game catalogues and specialty game stores in Pittsburgh and Maine. During a family visit
to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in New York, I was mesmerized with how awesome it was. Upon
returning home, I contacted the merchandising manager. She reviewed the game and then arranged for it
to be featured in their annual Christmas catalogues for two years -- I finally made it to the Hall of Fame!
(But not as a baseball player -- bummer.) Still, it was very very cool.

In 2001, we arranged a deal with the Seattle Mariners and subsequently sold about a hundred games
through their team stores and website. They even allowed us to do game promos during several weekend
day games. We set up a display on the main concourse and had a giveaway raffle.

The following year, we met personally for an hour with Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks.
We pitched the game to him, even gave him a personalized autographed copy. After working four months
with his product manager, it was decided that the timing wasn't right, so our "Starbucks grand slam" never

For the next several years, we continued to sell the rest of the 1,000 games through our
website and several other on-line catalogues. Tom Goldstein, the editor of The Elysian Fields Quarterly,
was a strong supporter and seller of the game. We even sold twenty to a county transition prison system
for inmates. Right now, 1,000 Triple Threat Baseball games are being played throughout the US --
with a few in Canada and Japan.

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 MLB team can count you as a fan?

DS: Beginning in 1959, I started playing organized baseball -- Little League, Pony League and then
high school. Like many kids, I had hoped to become a pro player. I grew up as a fan of the early
LA Dodgers. The first major league games I went to were in the LA Coliseum. Duke Snider was
my favorite Dodger and I attended "Duke Snider Night" near the end of his career. My parents and
grandparents helped me be a Dodger fan all through all the years with Maury Wills, Willie Davis,
Tommy Davis, Wally Moon, Frank Howard, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey,
et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

My grandfather took me to an LA Angels game at the LA version of Wrigley Field when they were
a minor league team. I sat behind a freakin' pole the whole time! But I loved it.

BG: Do you collect vintage baseball games at all, and if so, what do you have that you'd like to tell us about?

DS: Nope, but I used to collect baseball cards as a kid. I'll share a funny story about that. My best friend
-- Buster Arrelanez -- and I would collect and trade cards during the baseball season. Once the season
was over, however, we'd go to a local orange grove (when Southern California used to have them) and
we'd bury our cards in a shoebox. We'd make a treasure map and return to dig them up five months later
for the start of a new season! Very weird, very ritualistic, very fun! And very normal for a kid who was
a baseball fanatic.

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

DS: As a kid, the only commercial baseball board game I had was Electric Baseball. It was fun, but
I liked Electric Football better.

During the five-year development of Triple Threat, I purchased several tabletop baseball games --
APBA, Strat-O-Matic, Roll 'Em Baseball, Dice Baseball. While I was amazed how detailed the
real-player / real-stat games were, I found I had to make a major commitment in order to learn them
and enjoy them. They are amazing! I also discovered that there are thousands of people out there who
love these more complicated types of games. As such, I decided early on to not compete against these
great games with my game. And yet, I still wanted to produce a game that would leave you mentally
exhausted and very happy or sad depending on which dugout you were sitting in. I believe we succeeded
in doing that.

BG: Do you play any other tabletop baseball now in addition to Triple Threat, and if so, which games?

DS: I play no other baseball games right now. I am still a student of Triple Threat Baseball. The more
I play, the more skilled I become at it. I learn new things about it every time I play it.

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

DS: No real opinion here.

BG: What was your background in game design at the time you devised Triple Threat?

DS: I had never fully designed a game before. In my professional life, however, I've developed a number
of products that required detailed instructions for the layperson and I think that helped me with my game.

BG: What inspired or motivated you to design a tabletop baseball game in the first place? There are already
plenty of them out there...

DS: As I said before, it was a childhood dream from 1962. I picked back up on it in 1994 in an effort to
make something of enduring high quality that showcased a sport that I loved. Honestly, I didn't do it to make
any money. It also symbolized all the other projects in my life I had never finished.

BG: Why three standard dice and -- sorry, charts? Is it charts? -- instead of, say, four d10's, or cards,
or a spinner, or a grid, or a spring-bat action game, or any of the other formats and combinations of
game mechanics seen in other baseball games?

DS: Triple Threat Baseball includes two levels of play -- "Rookie League" and "Big League." Again,
I wanted to keep true to a basic feature of my 1962 version -- two dice that make up 21 different dice
combinations. Essentially, this simplicity makes up the Rookie League version of the game, which is
perfect for kids or adult fans new to baseball. Then, with the addition of a situational playbook and
fourteen offensive and defensive plays, the opportunities for just about anything to happen in a game is there.
This makes up the Big League version of the game. The average Rookie League nine-inning game takes
about twenty minutes to play. A Big League game takes about ninety minutes. One of the draws to the
Big League version is the strategy and timing of the optional offensive and defensive plays both game players
can choose to implement. Much mental energy is used as opposing players try to outwit each other. It's a
game of both chance and strategic decision-making. And it's totally mental. And thrilling! Just like in real
baseball, a final score can be 3-2 or 12-4.

BG: 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)?

DS: Aesthetics were huge for me. I wanted to make something I'd be proud to keep out in full view. It had
to be nice and tidy, too. And playability was just as important. I didn't want the players to get bogged down
with large charts. That's why I decided to make things work within the dimensions of larger-sized baseball cards.

Of course, at a certain point in the design phase, I had to say, "Okay, that's it, that's the game!" -- meaning
I couldn't continue adding every little nuance. Like, a beachball being thrown on the field, et cetera.

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 is the
current version of Triple Threat from the earliest (design-stage) version? Has it been entirely a solo effort?

DS: The process was painstakingly arduous. Little by little I was able to make the mechanics of the plays
work together. Little by little I was able to find the right printer, box maker, graphic artist, dice supplier,
and so on.

It's fun to do guest speaking at local schools when teachers conduct units on inventors. I bring in my
early prototypes -- from cardboard pizza boxes to very heavy jewelry boxes! And the original game pieces
are very boring looking. I am very comfortable with the current level of complexity. Like I mentioned earlier,
I continue to learn more about the game the more times I play it. You can truly develop skills.

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?

DS: I had to be very careful about not assuming a lot about the players' current baseball knowledge. When
I assumed too much, the playability got confusing. If I spelled "everything" out, it got too cumbersome.

I worked to resolve these issues by hands-on playing, and especially by playing with others who did not
know the game. I made hundreds of minor corrections even when I thought I was just about done with it.

BG: Getting any board game into production, and then into consumers' hands, is quite a challenge in terms of
both logistics and expense. What's the experience been like for you, especially without having a big game
manufacturer behind you, and using what appears to be some pretty ornate packaging and graphics?

DS: Truthfully, I wouldn't have traded the experience for anything. I met so many amazing people in the
process, including a number of big profile professional players. I even played several innings of Triple
with Jose Cruz of the LA Dodgers. Yes, it was a hands-on labor of love. I designed it, wrote
everything, took most of the game-piece photos, and sat side-by-side with my graphic designer for hundreds
of hours. My priority was to make a game I would like myself first and foremost. I was my most important

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

DS: I've received a number of unsolicited e-mails from game owners. All were positive, some unbelievably so!
Like the father who wrote to tell me that his son played it non-stop while on an extended road-trip. And like
a mother who said her daughter doesn't like playing baseball but loves playing Triple Threat.

One time I met an adult game-owner who worked at the Olympia Beer brewery. He said he and his
co-workers developed a league and even added more complexity to the rules. Another time I just happened
upon a couple who were playing it in a restaurant. I stopped and stared and then I told them I was the inventor.
They invited me to sit down with them to teach them the finer points of the game. I left the restaurant an hour
later and they were better players.

BG: What other game projects have you worked on or are you working on now?

DS: I've begun an educational version of the game that teachers could use as a teaching unit on baseball.
Will include an emphasis on math, history, science, language, and art. Have field-tested it in about eight
upper-elementary classes so far. Currently considering grant funding to support continued work on it.

BG: In 25 words or less, and without dissing the competition, tell us why we should try Triple Threat

DS: If you are looking for a game that's satisfying to hold, share, and play, then it's the game to have.
It's a game that can be played with your kids and with your baseball-savvy adults. It grows with you.

BG: Thanks immensely for taking the time to sit down and talk about Triple Threat Baseball with us!

DS: One last thing -- we currently have no plans to produce more games on speculation. Since we took
five years to sell all 1,000 (remember, we had day jobs!), we ended up in debt. I'm okay with that -- it was
a great experience!


file 2007 August: Butch & Co.