You usually meet the best people by accident, and often in the strangest places. I made the acquaintance of John Kuchar in a PayPal complaint box -- he had subscribed to Basketball State last month but some stray binaries kept his account from being activated. Once that was ironed out, he told me about the game he invented called Classic College Basketball. It's a tabletop game, played with pens and paper, that uses highly-detailed player stats and an array of in-game factor cards to create a highly accurate (if not invisible) simulacrum of college basketball. Basically, it's for serious fans who have outgrown the PlayStation and are ready for real coaching glory. My own attempts to step into Todd Lickliter's old shoes and replay the Butler-Florida Sweet 16 matchup to the Bulldogs' advantage, though, have so far been fruitless.I asked John to share some more about the game and its origins, and he kindly obliged. Along the way, he told me about his first tabletop basketball game, his love for the Dayton Flyers, and about trying to lug an APBA basketball game through the jungles of Vietnam. He even gave a rundown of a Bucknell-Army game he'd played recently. We discussed the balance between detail and playability, and whether there's even a place for tabletop basketball in an XBox age. Come join us after the jump.TMM: When did you first get started with tabletop basketball?JK:
I made my first basketball game when I was eight. The game was played with one white die and consisted of ten player cards made from 3x5 inch lined index cards cut in half. On each card I wrote numbers 1 to 6 to represent the numbers on that lone die. Next to those numbers, I put a G (Field Goal), G&F (Field Goal & Foul), or F (Foul), one each on every card. I tried to mix their placement so that no two player cards where identical. To play the game the ten player cards were randomly shuffled and then placed face up on the small desk that was my game table. I remember that I usually picked the player cards on the top row to be my team for that game. The game started with a jump ball roll of that one die. From there I rotated through cards so that every player got an equal amount of shots. If a shot was missed the defense automatically controlled the rebound. There was no home or visiting team, no steals, turnovers, or blocks. It was really a very basic, somewhat crude, and elementary game. TMM: You mentioned to me that you are also a great lover of tabletop baseball, a game that lends itself to the slow rhythms of the sport it simulates. Are there any particular challenges that a more fast-paced sport poses for tabletop games?JK:
Creating a good game engine is the biggest challenge for basketball, or for any game in which the ball is constantly moving and play stoppages occur less often. And, when those stoppages occur for fouls, rebounds that go OB, or to make a substitution those situations must done quickly (and realistically). Lastly, Advance Play options should be uncomplicated and easy to use. I had a boss that talked about precision without accuracy. In game design, you can be so precise that what you've created is unplayable.TMM: On average, how long does it take a person learn the game?JK:
If they do a quick read through CCB's instruction they should be playing a game within 10 minutes. To get a good basic understanding of CCB's game engine will take three to five games.TMM: In my first few tries, I've found it takes about an hour and a half to complete a game, but I can see how a more advanced player could do it in much less once they're more familiar with the flow of the game and the way the cards work. How long does it take you to complete a game?JK:
I play my games in 55 to 70 minutes. After a game, I transfer the stats into an Excel spreadsheet to track the stats.
How long does it take to play CCB is a great question. Because of the way CCB has been formulated, and subsequently plays, a game's length depends on several factors.
First, how do the teams that are actually play? How much clock do they use before attempting a shot, do they commit a lot of turnovers or fouls, draw more fouls, get more offensive rebounds and put backs, etc. In the same vain is how many players does a team use for their rotation, seven (fair), eight (better), nine or more (terrific).
Second, is much statistical data do you want to track? CCB's score sheet is set up to track all the major statistical categories, 2FG and 3FG attempts, FTs , offensive and defensive rebounds, steals, turnovers, blocks, assists, fouls, timeouts, and running score. The clock (game timing) is also recorded on the score sheet. Note: if you change the SPG on the score sheet to player number and ignore the time section it provides an excellent score sheet for any level of actual real play.
Third, is how many advanced options are you going to use. The AOs are available because people like to have additional coaching choices. I tend to use only a few advanced options. I also know that some players of CCB have come up with their own advanced options. And, that's fine as long as there is both a plus and minus when using the option for each team.
Last, and perhaps most important, is just getting to know the characteristics of a team (because they all play differently), when and who to sub for - that rotation thing, how different line-ups will play, do you use 1, 2, 3 or 4 guards, better rebounders may have lower assist and shot (attempt) ratings and therefore may make your team more prone to shot clock violations.
When I recently played Army '06 @ Bucknell '06, my Patriot League 2005-06 replay, the first half took approximately 40 minutes, Bucknell led 45 -18. It had lots of fouIs and offensive rebounds by both teams. The difference was that Bucknell was making their shots and the Cadets were not. I figured Bucknell had a good shot at scoring 85 to 90 points. The second half took about 25 minutes. The final score was Bucknell 75 - Army 34. Why the difference from my projection? Army's big guns were in foul trouble and on the bench, their subs had to use more clock before getting off their shots, a few of the Bucknell starters were also sitting because of fouls, they to were using more clock, and the offensive rebounds by both teams slacked off.TMM: The game is remarkably detailed -- down to fatigue, adjustments for players playing out of position, different defensive styles and double-teams. How did those factors develop?JK:
Many of the play options result from the play testing of Playoff Pro Basketball, the predecessor of Classic College Basketball. As with any of those options it was a lot of trial and error, and a willingness to listen to comments and criticisms of the friends who played those early game versions. We would play a game and then rip it apart, replay it, and rip it apart again. TMM: What goes into putting together the offensive and defensive ratings for players? Is it easier or more difficult to create ratings for players from the past, for the historical teams?JK:
The foundation for CCB is it's comprehensive statistical databases. They include both player and team specific data for statistical categories such as games played, minutes played, minutes per game played, total FGs made/attempted, 2FGs made/attempted, 3FGs made/attempted, FTs made/attempted, offensive and defensive rebounds, total rebounds, personal fouls, assists, turnovers, steals, and blocks. The stats come from various sources such as the web, magazines, media guides, newspapers, etc.
Once the data is collected for a specific team(s) it is transferred into another program to do the initial player card calculations. Once that is done and reviewed, that data goes to another program from which the player cards get printed.
Doing old teams is much more difficult. Unfortunately, the statistics that were kept prior to 1980 vary greatly from team to team and in almost all cases are woefully inadequate to provide even a basic representation. I liken doing cards with stats missing basic data to throwing darts in a dark room. All of the CCB teams, almost 500, that have been calculated to date have been done using a consistent set of statistical data and formulas. I believe that makes for better results.TMM: You mentioned your love for the Dayton Flyers of old, how you'd try to use your tabletop games to get them some wins. Why were you a fan, and who was your favorite player from those teams? JK:
The Dayton University Flyers were the first basketball team I remember having any fan feelings for. My father who enjoyed watching both pro and college sports followed them and that rubbed off on me. Hence when it came to having a favorite team for my first basketball game they got picked. I really did not have a favorite player.TMM: What's your history with Dayton, did you go to school there?
I have never had any affiliation with Dayton. However, to this day I still check to see how they are doing whatever the sport.TMM: You had an ABPA game sent to you in Vietnam. What was your experience over there, and how did tabletop games play a role?JK:
I joined the Marines after dropping out of Rider College in late 1965. I reported to USMCRD Parris Island on April 6, 1966. After months of training I landed in DaNang, RVN, September 7, 1966 and served there just a few days short of 13 months. I rotated home in early October 1967. My unit, the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, is still an active USMC unit; it has completed several tours Iraq, and participated in Gulf War I. It is the most decorated unit in the Marine Corps.
While in 'Nam I received an APBA brochure announcing their basketball game. I had one sent to me. Unfortunately it was too cumbersome and complicated to play and got shipped home rather quickly. I still have the player cards from that game. Their baseball game would have been a better choice.
When time permitted we played a lot of card games, hearts, pinochle, and poker. Guys would also play, checkers, chess, monopoly was probably the favorite board game, horseshoes, basketball, and some really rough and tumble touch football. Getting blocked into a reinforced sandbagged bunker is hard on the body! TMM: Which teams do you follow now, which brand of basketball do you appreciate most?JK:
I much prefer college basketball to the current pro game of today. I'm a fan of the Big East (my alma mater is Seton Hall '71) and east coast teams in general. Growing up in central New Jersey in the 50's and 60's I heard a lot about teams like Lehigh, Rutgers, Lafayette, Bucknell, Army, Navy, Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Dartmouth, Seton Hall, Harvard, Temple, Holy Cross, St. Joe's (PA), Villanova, Penn State, Penn, NYU, Providence, etc. Today, I really enjoy when a small school, or mid-major knocks off a one of the big guys.TMM: The business of it. Are the games selling well, do you get a lot of repeat customers?JK:
Classic College Basketball is doing nicely. I liken it to the story about the little engine that was trying to get up that hill. I do have an increasing customer base. I have done player cards for teams, not currently available, on a commission basis if the stats I need are available. On a daily basis I get inquiries, comments, and write-ups about games that CCB gamers have played.TMM: Tell me about your family. I know I get guff for spending too much time being a basketball nut, how has it been for you?JK:
My interest in basketball, sports board games, and stats has been, and is, very much tolerated. Dana, my wife of +38 years, and daughters, Tracy and Rebecca, both enjoy playing board games. When my daughters were growing up I made it a point to play a board game with them every night after dinner. Sometimes we played one game together and other times I'd played a game with each separately. This was our special time. We even played a quick version of the APBA Horse Racing Game which they both loved. However, it is a bit embarrassing to get beat by an 8 and 4 year old when playing Mastermind.
We encouraged both my daughters to be readers, and to this day they are prolific readers. Dana and Tracy, own three toy stores. Jackrabbit Toys
in Sea Girt and Shrewsbury, NJ, and their first store, Pip, Squeak & Wilfred, is in the MarketFair Mall in West Windsor, NJ. Rebecca, a Marist grad - communications, handles all the public relations and web activities for Jackrabbit and Pip, Squeak & Wilfred. While working for Cronin & Co., Glastonbury, CT, she represented the Basketball Hall of Fame on TV for several events.TMM: Obviously, folks today have more computerized options to play basketball simulations at home, PlayStations and the like, and playing (or, for that matter, eating) anything on a tabletop seems anachronistic these days. Is anything being lost in the progress? JK:
I believe that computers are a terrific resource. However, I feel there is more to be gained by playing a board game than a computer game. And, this is not to say you should not play computer games. I believe the socialization, communication, thought processes, and negotiation that happens when two or more individuals play a board game cannot be matched by sitting alone playing a game on a computer. One might argue that a board game like CCB, meant primarily for the solitaire sports gamer, is just like a computer game.
To that point, I would first argue, it can be played head-to-head. Second, if you play solitaire, unlike a computer game, you make the decisions for both teams, and rather than read a scrolling screen of play results, your visualization of the game will be based upon your own imagination. The feel is much different than a computer. It's not what your thumbs do that counts. It's your mind. And while there is no one quick click to finish, or cancel a game, because you do not like the current result, for the time you have invested, you will at the least learn a little more about a particular player, team, or perhaps about yourself.If you're interested in finding out more about Classic College Basketball, contact John at kucharjp [at] aol.com (the fast way) or TBC Games, P.O. Box 452, Metuchen NJ 08840 (not quite as fast). John also produces a newsletter called
CourtTalk, the October issue of which can be found here.