Ender Wiggins
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Introducing Famous Fastballs: The World's Smallest Baseball Game

I love sports and I also love games, so games that combine the two are almost certain to get my attention and interest. And that's especially true of Rob Bartel's The World's Smallest Sports Games series. It currently consists of six games which bring to life the sports of golf, baseball, football, tennis, car racing, and yachting.

I recently posted a favourable review of Famous Forehand, which takes us to the tennis court. Like all the games in the series, it consists of just 9 playing cards. While there is a fair element of luck, the game won me over with its charm and cleverness, and the amount of thematic flavour it managed to evoke within the context of such minimalism.

With Famous Fastballs: The World's Smallest Baseball Game, the series takes us to the baseball diamond. The official description of the game is as follows: "Famous Fastballs is a fun, fast-playing simulation of the sport of baseball. The game focuses on the contest between the pitcher and batter which results in walks, hits, and outs. Hits lead to an additional contest between the fielders and the baserunners, resulting in everything from home runs to triple plays. Throughout the game, pennies move about on the playing cards, tracking statistics and men on base." Famous Fastballs was actually the first game created in the series, and like Famous Forehand, is regarded as one of the simpler games, and good place to start.

With the bar of my expectations already raised by my enjoyment of Famous Forehand, could this sports microgame possibly provide as much fun as its sibling? I'm pleased to say that I loved the baseball game just as much, if not more. The genre of microgames is certainly having its day in the sun at present, and Famous Fastballs is an excellent little game that does well to evoke something of the atmosphere of baseball with a very small set of components. Let's play ball!



COMPONENTS

Game box

As with all the games in this series of microgames, the box consists of a cardboard sleeve that offers portability with a size that approximates a single playing card, while at the same time housing the cards and rules snugly.



The back of the box gives us some basic information about the game.



Component list

The version of the game I have is the pre-2013 edition, which didn't come with the quickstart cards. Here's what you get:
● 9 cards
● instructions

This is the edition for sale in the boardgamegeek store - the retail edition available from the publisher includes an additional two quick-start reference cards. You'll also need to provide eight coins or other markers.



Infield card

A baseball game needs a baseball diamond, right? Here we see one of the most crucial cards of the game - it pictures an actual baseball field, including a pitcher's mound, three bases, and home plate. You'll be placing markers on here to represent players, and moving them around the bases to score runs. Chalk up some immediate bonus points for theme, Mr Bartel, I'm liking this already!



Score cards

These two cards will track the score for the Home team and the Visitors team. They're double sided, so if you do start getting a few grand slams, you will be able to score more than 9 runs!



Batting and Fielding team cards

These two cards picture a batter and a pitcher, and you'll simply use these to designate visually whether the Home and Visitors teams are currently batting or fielding.



Inning and Outs cards

You'll use a marker on the double-sided Inning card to keep track of which inning you're on, and on the Out card to keep track of how many outs there are. Just like baseball on TV, you know!



At Bat and Hits cards

These two cards lie at the heart of the mechanics that drive Famous Fastballs. Players will resolve each at bat using simultaneous hand gestures. The "At Bat" card is used to determine whether a batter gets a walk, a hit, or strikes out. In the event of a hit, the "Hits" card is used (in conjunction with a second simultaneous hand gesture) to determine what the outcome is, e.g. results favouring the batting team marked in blue (scoring a single, double, triple, or home run), and results favouring the fielding team marked in red (pop fly, double play, or triple play).



Quick Start cards

These only are included in the second edition available from the publisher (alternatively, download them here). They are double-sided reference cards that give a handy summary overview of how game-play works.



Instructions

The instruction sheet unfolds to tell you everything you need to learn how to play. It also includes includes some optional rules, ideas for extending enjoyment of the game with leagues and tournaments, and some baseball trivia. The game is easy enough to learn, but there is an online tutorial that makes learning the game even easier, which you can access here:

Famous Fastballs Online Tutorial



GAME-PLAY

Set-up

The cards and markers are arranged as shown in the picture below, just like in a regular baseball game, with the visiting team batting and the home team fielding. It's the top of the first inning, and there are no outs. Play ball!



Flow of Play

Famous Fastballs is super easy to play as long as you already know how to play baseball. I'm not about to teach all the rules of baseball in this review, so I'll assume you already know the basics of how a baseball game works, because scoring and flow of play in this game essentially mirrors how the sport works in the real world.

Pitching

Both players simultaneously select and reveal a hand gesture, much like in the old rock-paper-scissors chestnut. The pitcher can choose between a Strike (closed fist) or Ball (open hand), and the batter can choose to Swing (closed fist) or to Take a pitch (open hand). The "At Bat" card is used to determine the result:
● if both players have different gestures, it's an out (i.e. the batter has swung at a Ball, or the batter has passed on a Strike)
● if both players have open hand it's a Walk (i.e. the batter took a pitch that was a Ball)
● if both players have a closed fist it's a Hit (i.e. the batter has successfully swung at a Strike)



Hitting

In the event of a Hit, players again reveal hand gestures simultaneously, this time revealing either 0, 1, 2 or 3 fingers. The total is added together, and the "Hits" card is used to determine the result. In the event of a walk or a successful hit, markers representing base-runners are moved around the bases just as in real baseball, scoring if they get to home plate.



Just as in baseball, after three outs the players switch between fielding and batting. The winner is the player who scores the most runs after an agreed upon amount of innings.

The game also has some optional rules that enable players to use hand gestures for an attempted sacrifice fly or an attempted stolen base, and these give both sides an additional option to work with.

Example Plays

The easiest way to explain the game is to show you a couple of examples of play.

First let's show you a batter swinging (closed fist, on the left) at a ball (open hand, on the right). That's out!



Now let's imagine that the pitcher and batter both revealed a closed fist, which means that the batter was swinging at a strike. That's a hit! Both players now get to reveal 0-3 fingers to find out what happens next. The batter reveals three fingers, while the fielding player reveals one finger - that makes four altogether, so it's a Double! Base-runners are advanced accordingly on the baseball diamond.



CONCLUSIONS

What do I think?

Bases are loaded!

A microgame home run - it does a lot with just a few cards: One would think that little can be accomplished in a game that has only 9 cards. Considering this limitation, Famous Fastballs does a fantastic job of creating a game that is both playable and fun. The elements of bluffing on the level of game mechanics, and the level of flavour on the level of theme, combined to make the game very rewarding and appealing for me. For a portable package that has so few components, this little game really hits the ball out of the park, in terms of the game experience that it creates. This is a good example of a microgame done well!

Get into the game - it evokes a lot of theme: Sports games are usually geared towards sports fans, so to be appreciated, they need to capture something of the experience and excitement of the actual game they're about. I'm pleased to say that Famous Fastballs manages to do this, not least because it relies on the actual rules of baseball for much of the gameplay. By having players advance markers on a baseball diamond, and the use of outs/innings/scoring just like real baseball, there are enough elements that simulate an actual baseball game to captivate our interest and attention. We feel like both participants and spectators, and the ebb and flow of the action mirrors the tension and drama that one might experience while watching a real ball game.

Mental baseball - it captures the bluffing of the sport: A lot of baseball happens in the mind. Will the pitcher throw a ball or a strike? Should I swing or leave? Particularly the use of rock-paper-scissors style simultaneous hand gestures to resolve the "At Bat" captures this beautifully. It's not an exercise in pure randomness, because you have opportunity to outguess and outwit your opponent. If he pitched a strike last time and you didn't swing, does that make it more likely that he'll do the same this time? Especially over a series of consecutive pitches, you'll be trying to find patterns or read what your opponent might do, and that makes it tremendous fun, and helps evoke something of the theme of baseball. If there's a number of runners on base, the stakes can be high, and it's amazing how much tension this can create!

Swing that bat - its mechanic revolves around hand signals: The cards are largely necessary for keeping track of the statistics and scoring, while the heart of the game-play is about swinging your fist and revealing your hand gestures. To some extent this mechanic has apparently been inspired by a game called Finger Baseball by Mark Sager. I like the idea of having players use rock-paper-scissors style hand signals, and much prefer the simplicity and elegance of Famous Fastballs to the overcomplicated style of Finger Baseball.

Baseball seasoning - it uses actual baseball gestures: The hand gestures for resolving a hit add to the flavour and theme. Although they're not quite as thematic as the strike/ball of a pitch and the swing/take of an `at bat', they do bring to mind the gestures a catcher might make to his pitcher, or a coach to players. In this way they also tap into another part of the baseball atmosphere.

Bases loaded, bottom of the ninth - it creates real tension: Despite the simple mechanics, I found myself getting totally into the action, and found the game-play to be dripping with suspense at times. Just like a real game, sometimes a great deal can ride on a single pitch! For example, you're one run behind, it's the bottom of the ninth, you've got the bases loaded with two outs, the pitcher has just thrown two straight balls for walks - can you count on him to do the same? In situations like these, whipping out those hand signals becomes an intense exercise, and you can't help yourself whooping with excitement when things go your way, or groaning out loud when they don't.

Minor leagues welcome - it's easy to play for all ages: Another nice thing about Famous Fastballs is that it's easy to learn and play. The mechanisms are simple and easy to explain, and yet within the context of a simple ruleset, you can have tremendous fun. This also makes it ideal to play with children and in a family context, with kids just as likely to win the battle of wits as their parents. People will be very easily drawn into the theme, and almost anyone can play.


It's the bottom of the 9th inning, with two outs and two men on base, and the Visitors leading 7-6!

Recommendation

So is Famous Fastballs: The World's Smallest Baseball Game for you? Just as was the case with the companion tennis game (Famous Forehand), sports fans will appreciate the level of sophistication, elegance, intensity, and thematic flavour that Rob has created in Famous Fastballs within the strict limits of microgame minimalism. Despite its small size, it does recreate something of the feel and excitement of baseball, as you try to out-think your opponent to get your runners on base, and set up a big scoring play. Once again this series has impressed me with the level of thematic flavour it manages to capture with such a small package. Famous Fastballs truly does recreate something of a baseball-like experience, and as such would make a very suitable and appealing gift for any baseball fans, even if they are non gamers.

Rob Bartel continues to surprise me with games that are clever, fun, and evocative. Despite its simplicity, Famous Fastballs offers an experience much larger than its small size would suggest, and is certainly something that sports fans should give a go. Along with Famous First Downs, this is probably my favourite game in the series so far. If you enjoy the world of sport or of microgames, then you definitely need to take a look at the World's Smallest Sports Games series, and Famous Fastballs is certainly an excellent place to start!

Availability: I was fortunate to get this game as a participation prize in a BGG photo contest (thank you Rob Bartel!). However you can purchase the edition pictured in this review (along with the others in the series) from the BoardGameGeek Store or get the newer edition directly from the publisher Famous Games Co.



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mb The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596

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If you made it to the end of this review and found it helpful, please considering giving a thumbs up at the very top of the article, to let me know you were here, and to give others a better chance of seeing it.
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James Bentley
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This game looks simple and fun....thanks to your review, I've placed an order. Thanks!
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David Janik-Jones
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Combat Commander, Up Front, Fields of Fire, Cats were once worshipped as gods and they haven't forgotten this, The Raven King (game publisher) ... that's me!
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Slywester Janik, awarded the Krzyż Walecznych (Polish Cross of Valour), August 1944
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Ordered as well. (I swear, between you and Rahdo, my wallet sure takes a hit.)
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Rob Bartel
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Thanks for the orders, guys. I got those shipped out to you today and they should be in your hands in about two weeks' time.

I'm looking forward to your impressions and session reports!
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Eric Teoro
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Sold.

Excellent review! I need to look for more of yours.
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