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Designer Diary: Do You Want to Play Basketball? Play BASKETmind

Miguel (working on TENNISmind...)
(from Valencia, Spain)
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My latest game: Big*Bang, a simple abstract about the first minutes of the Universe
My best-rated game: Tetrarchia, about the tetrarchy that saved Rome
This is a summary of why and how I designed BASKETmind back in 1981, how the game has evolved over time, how I made the most recent prototype, and how things changed during the production process that has lead to its publication by nestorgames in April 2012. I only hope that if I publish a second game it will take less than thirty years!

The title of this diary says "Play" because there are a lot of league management basketball games, but few about playing the game itself, and I found those few either too simple or too fiddly. That's why I thought that, after thirty years, there was still an opportunity for my game to get published.

The Idea

In 1981, when I was 13, I began playing games, mainly wargames, and designing games of my own about WWII battles I could not find (Okinawa) or those that did not exist (a hypothetical Nazi invasion of Iceland), but then I began to think about sport simulations. I started with tennis, but it was too simple for a game, then soccer and handball, but the shots were hard to simulate: The goal was several hexes wide – yes, I only knew wargames! – and the scoring probability depended on both distance and angle.

And then I thought about basketball: The basket is just one hex, and the scoring probability depends only on the distance! So back in 1981 I began drawing hex mats on paper (if only I had thought about the circle alternative...), checking the right court size, and playtesting some rules. The size of the board was dictated by one fact: I wanted shots beside the basket to be missed only on a 1, and beyond the three-point arc to be scored only on a 6. Yes, at that time to me die=d6!

The First Prototypes

The first board was a full basketball court, drawn almost freehand, and mounted on a thick wooden base. The players were pawns, but soon I wanted to introduce players of different heights, so I glued different discs below the pawns. The ball was beside the pawns, however, so the hexes had to be bigger to hold pawn and ball, and it was not visually appealing. I added toothpicks to the pawn heads and a hole to the ball.

Unfortunately, I didn't keep the very first board and players; I offered them to the first friend that played the game with me. Everything was resolved with dice: shots, dribbles, passes, blocks, rebounds, steals... (We were used to dice at that time since we played Risk!) Passes and shots could only go through straight lines of hexes, but this limited action a lot, especially shots, since there were only three lines of shot to be defended. (The three-point arc was drawn only until 60 degrees from the center.) Therefore I extended shots to any hex, always missing on a 1 beside the basket and on one unit more every extra hex away; just beyond the three-point arc, shots were missed on a 1-5.

The turns, score and statistics were written on a sheet. (We were used to that, too.) We tracked even the individual player scores, and number of fouls. There were two replacements with poorer abilities that could enter play when important players were close to their fifth foul, or that did when one player was eliminated. Everything was resolved with a d6, but forwards got a bonus for shots.

One thing hard to implement was counterattacks as players needed two movement values: one for the normal sequence of play and a bigger one for movement from one half of the court to the other. And before the five players came back, attacks were quite easy with such a low density: hard to both cover the perimeter and block a drive to the basket with only two or three players!

Despite these difficulties, I organized tournaments with friends and my brother, and everyone loved them! Matches looked a lot like real ones, with teams exhausting possession when leading, forcing attacks on players with four fouls, decisive shots on the last turn... Luck played a role but not a huge one: the final game was often my brother against me, and I think I won all of them! The games were long enough to reward good play (looking for better shooting positions) over lucky rolls, and we were used to long games at that time (Risk again).

A few years later I got my first computer and drew the board with a program, added colors to the court and key – but then I left to the University and the game found a quiet place inside a drawer. A few years ago I came back to the boardgame hobby and discovered a lot of new games, with more elegant mechanisms than just throwing dice, that lasted less than an hour now that we are always in a hurry, with beautiful components... and I wondered about that basketball game in a drawer, which by the way I had already named BASKETmind. (I played Mastermind in the 1980s...) Could I adapt it to the present generation of board games?

The Mechanisms

The guidelines to follow were to make the game simpler, shorter and prettier! And with fewer rolls...

1) Shots: The only die roll I could not suppress was the one for shots. Players would still miss on a 1 beside the basket and 1 extra unit every extra hex away. This was the core idea of the game from the start. I added two new ingredients: Forwards use a d8 (no need of bonus), and the shot can be taken from any hex around the player, that being the Zone of Control or ZoC. (No bonus needed for easy shots either.)

2) Counterattacks: If transitions from half to half were hard to simulate, why not throw them away? The board was reduced to a half court, which in addition could be expanded and lead to bigger hexes/players. A playtest try (with circles!):

I was afraid that setting up the players at the end of every ball possession would slow down the game, but it did not; it was much faster than counterattacks.

3) Passes: There should be lines of pass but not too restrictive. I had added some "hex diagonals" to the straight lines, but they were quite complex. And then I thought about straight lines only – but from ZoC to ZoC! Passes are easy to perform but still not easy to survey for the defender. Before, any defender along the line could try to roll for interception, but I replaced this roll with one-player-only secret activation.

4) Dribbles: And this activation mechanism could be applied to dribbles at the same time! If the ball handler goes through the activated player's ZoC, the dribble fails. The failing probability was 1/6 and now is 1/5, avoiding one roll (or more). The activation mechanism is definitely modern as it adds a bluffing aspect to the game.

5) Blocks: I replaced the block roll, too. If the shooter secretly chooses the shot hex, then the defender can choose the hex(es) he will block! This is another bluffing element and very realistic. The defender marks the blocking hex(es), then the shooter places the ball for a shot. Fouls are therefore easily introduced: If you block the shooter hex but he can still shoot, you committed a foul.

6) Rebounds and Free Throws: After a rebound in the earlier version, the game continued. Offensive rebounds ended often in a slam dunk, or with all the attacker players having to leave the key, and defensive rebounds started a complicated transition. Now the team getting the rebound re-starts possession, period. Free throws were performed as in real games, with rebounds, etc. Now you just roll the die, without re-setting up players, and miss on a 1-2.

7) Press: When one team was leading and was playing long possessions, the other team could try to steal the ball always with the same probabilities: 1-2 foul, 6 steal. Now I use the secret block mechanism to try to steal the ball. One more roll avoided, one more bluffing element added! And when the ball handler is cornered it is easier to steal. The lower foul probability is compensated by the fact that you lose the activation of those players, so your team gets quite exposed after pressing.

8) Replacements: The counting of individual fouls was realistic but complicated the game, and if one wanted to play a shorter game the foul limit would have been re-scaled. And there was a "center" replacement and a "guard/forward" one, so one player could use three centers by the end of a game. The easiest solution was to eliminate foul counting, and thus eliminate replacements. Special players can still be introduced, see below.

The Components

I wanted them simple/cheap, functional and pretty, and then I found these plastic checkers' pieces:

For about €1 I had the twelve discs per color needed (six for centers, four for forwards, one for guard, and one spare), and they were indented! The ball, a wooden cylinder, would be easily carried with the ball handler. The discs were big enough to get the player movement, shooting and ball abilities printed on them. They are not hard to remember, but the discs being indented, I could add a label below the player and introduce variant players with new abilities that could balance the game against beginners or add variety for experts.

When I first thought about replacing the rolling-dice-for-everything mechanism with secret activation, I used "benches" and screens. It looked good, but it slowed down the game play and made the design incompatible with the nestorgames format. I was trying other publishers, too, but thinking about how to make the game suitable for nestorgames I realized that the dice already in the game could be used to activate players and blocks by just covering them with your hand! Bye, screens...

Aside from being better suited for nestorgames, the game play became easier and faster. You had to remove the screen every turn, and "imagine" the shooter's ZoC on the bench for the block, which was hard for some players; now you just uncover a die: the d6 to choose the activated player (1-5) and the d8 to choose the hex around the ball handler (1-7). The score sheet was replaced by a panel, with two turn markers and two score wheels, with a special d6 (numbered 0-5) to count tens of points:

No more need to photocopy sheets or look for pens! The panel has a block of fifty turns, and you can choose to play a quick fifty-turn game or four quarters of fifty – the 200 turns that we played in the 1980s! I took advantage of my computer skills to make a pretty board, with the key colored in order to remind players that attackers cannot stop inside, and with the two semicircles (decoration only) in light blue. I mounted the board on two thick cardboard panels that fold at the center. All the components would fit in a very small box.

The Game Play

Finally, the game became simpler, shorter and prettier...and with fewer rolls! But does it play better? I have been playtesting it intermittently in these recent years, and it feels (1) much more modern and up-to-date, and (2) much closer to basketball. The only problem with the activation system that I have found is that it makes solo play impossible, even with a split personality! I use to playtest solo a lot, but once I introduced activation I needed help from my brother, nephew, and brother-in-law.

Shorter games may rely a bit on luck, but this is something I do not mind when I play games now. Anyway, better play is still rewarded; I played against my nephew, letting him use all the variant players, and I beat him easily. In order to get an idea of how close it is to real basketball, check the examples of play at the end of the rulebook (zipped PDF); you will see many spectacular actions!

That is exactly what I wanted: Allow as many "real" actions as possible through few and simple rules. For example, there is no specific rule for screens, but they ARE in the game. (See "Example C" in the rulebook.)

Publication and Production: Nestorgames

And to conclude this diary, here is the final product!

The game entered the nestorgames continuous abstract game design contest with the prototype described above, and in only three weeks it got the 100 thumbs it needed to get published! I was happy about that, of course, but mainly about the interaction I had with so many users on BGG that like both board games and basketball, and the support of many "virtual" friends who I have met over the past years here.

The last step before entering Néstor's contest was making the rules available so that people could find out whether they liked the game or not. That was a lot of work! The rules had always seemed simple to me because I was always there to explain them, but organizing them, making everything explicit, adding the rules that would avoid people playing the game "not as intended"... And in order to get more support I created the rulebook in English AND Spanish, so I had to correct/change/add things in both at the same time!

Some users were very important during these last steps. The first one was kduke, who encouraged me to go ahead and tried several U.S. publishers for me, and GeoMan, who built the first prototype I didn't build myself and through his playtesting comments encouraged many Greek boardgamers/basketballers to give the "final push".

I cannot say much about game production compromises because this was only my first experience, but it was a great one. I don't know how common it is on the game industry, but Néstor (n_r_a) from nestorgames has always listened and respected my opinion on the changes that had to be introduced. And most of them, though imposed by production constraints, have made the game look better!

1) The player symbols: The nestorgames format makes the scale of the board and players a bit smaller, so the small hex/die numbers were hard to read. Néstor came up with the symbol idea, which I like much more!

2) The circle grid: The new move symbols were circles, and then it made more sense to use a circle grid instead of the hexagonal one. I had used both through the years, and we liked the look of the result.

3) The score panel and team colors: Néstor proposed the hollow frames for the score, and since the background is black, a black team was not a good choice. I had used black/white in order to give the game a "classic", chess-like feel, but those bright red and blue are much more attractive!

4) Number of dice and markers: During production we realized that I had been using more pieces than needed! Not a problem for a prototype, but we found out that six gray markers – red is used for a team – and two dice were enough.

5) The variant players: Having the variant player labels below the pieces is not very "durable" as they wear out if the pieces are not indented. When Néstor decided to make separate pieces, we thought that proposing them as an expansion was a better idea. Indeed they are not needed at all; the hundreds of games I have played through the years have never used variant players! I used them only for some sample turns to see how the game would change. The game has enough variety without them, but if some want to change, balance teams, play the pre-game of drafting the players, etc., then they are available as an expansion.

6) The rulebook: The rules have not changed, but they are much clearer now. That's why I have deleted the files I had posted on BGG; now the official rulebooks are available only at the nestorgames site. The links have been added on the BASKETmind game page. Note that I have added a summary at the end that makes clear many things that can be forgotten during a first play. I am also working on a French version of the rules...

Happy End

Hopefully I don't design games for a living, only to have fun. I like games and I like creating things, but most of the time I have created alternative pieces, variants or scenarios for existing games. And believe me, creating a game from scratch is a completely different beast!

If I have to keep one thing from these thirty years, it will be the memories of the Basketball World Cups I organized with my friends in the 1980s – that and the interactions I had with the BGG users and Néstor. And the feeling that "something has been completed" when I see the game at nestorgames. Well, that makes three things to keep!

Next time I open a game and think "But why did they do it that way?", I'll remember the compromises I had to meet with BASKETmind and be more understanding... Thanks for reading, and I hope some of you will enjoy the game!

Miguel Marqués
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