Deadball: An Interview with W. M. Akers

The baseball season is long, and fortunately I’ve lost the old desire to watch my teams’ every inning. Instead, as the 2017 MLB season eases into its gears, I’ve settled back into my more leisurely baseball routines: listening to a few innings as Howie and Josh call the Mets while I jog the neighborhood, and stopping by the Short Stop for a drink before the odd Dodger home game.

I never expected to get my baseball fill from a board game though, until I picked up a copy of W. M. Akers’s Deadball: Baseball with Dice. Funded in under four hours on Kickstarter, the baseball simulation uses simple player statistics, dice, and traditional baseball scorekeeping to a surprisingly realistic effect.

The possible gameplay variations are endless. You can pit historical teams against modern giants, replay the 2016 World Series until Cleveland wins, or start a season-long campaign in Akers’s fictional Southern Circuit, with ball clubs such as the Charlottesville Flycatchers and Tallahassee Wrens. Once you get the mechanics down, a seven game series could be hashed out over the course of a Friday evening game night, and every pivotal stolen base and walk-off dinger will be remembered just like the real ones.

A few weeks ago, after playing a few rounds with the early, unfinished rulebook, I reached out to Akers to talk about the origins of Deadball.

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Eephus: One of the things that I love about Deadball are the endless ways in which you can draft your teams; historical or modern, or you can just pull out yesterday’s paper and draft a team with a friend.

W. M. Akers: Yeah, a newspaper would work great. It’s unfortunate that they’re a little bit harder to get your hands on nowadays, especially one that publishes complete box scores. All you need are lineups and batting averages, and the box scores are a good way to get it so you don’t have to figure out lineups. You can just play with what’s on the page.

Eephus: What do you do when you’re not designing baseball simulations?

WA: Happily that’s most of the time. I’m from Nashville, I grew up there and I went to college in New York. So, I’ve lived in New York since 2006. I’m a reporter, editor, copywriter, and playwright. I do all sorts of things. I’m very much freelance, which is why I have the time for this kind of thing.

I’ve got a play up right now in the East Village, which is very, very, very not about baseball. But those are the sorts of ways I spend my time, and doing something like this was fun because I’m used to working with writing and editing, which is all sort of abstract. It was cool to apply myself to a series of problems that were more math-based, because I’m not a math guy.

So, much of the design of this game—particularly because I wasn’t just trying to make a fun game, but trying to make a fun game that felt like something that was real and that people know about—was a series of math and game mechanics-type problem solving.

Eephus: Where did you start with this game? What part of the mechanics did you latch onto and think “Ok, I can build out from here.” Was it the batting target [the first two digits of a player’s average, used to determine hits and outs] or something else?

WA: It was definitely the batting target. Because I first had the idea for this game about a year ago when I was up staying with my wife’s family in Massachusetts and it was the opening week of baseball season, and I had no access to cable or internet and was totally cut off. I wanted some kind of baseball something. So brainstorming, I thought there has to be a way to make a simple baseball game with what I have on hand. My first thought was that if you had 100-sided dice, you could make a game very easily using batting average, because a 100-sided die would give you a percentage result and a batting average is a percentage result.

But I didn’t have dice, so I ended up using cards to make a very silly game called Bored Boy Baseball, which I posted as one of the stretch rewards for Deadball. It’s a ridiculous game that plays really fast and is in no way an appropriate simulation of baseball, but its fun in the way that War is fun.

So it was the batting target, and the fact that I have a die that gives me percentage results. That was the first thing that sort of clicked and then after that I was like “What can I do for the pitcher? How can I adjust things to make the batters life easier or harder?”

The other thing that came immediately was, because I’d be getting results from zero to nine, it’d be very easy to use those numbers as fielding results. So, those two things came really easily. I love the idea that with one roll I can find out whether or not I got out, and if I did get out what part of the ballpark the ball went to. Because once you have that you can fill out a scorecard. And filling out a scorecard, especially when I’m cut off from baseball, whether its because I’m in Massachusetts or because its January, filling out a score card is a thing I really miss. It’s just so comforting, and even if you do it based on a game that’s not real, if you look back over it you can see it and you can see the plays that happened, and it really feels like a game that happened to you.

Eephus: How did you come up with the idea of using the scorecard and traditional baseball scorekeeping? Because really the game hinges on understanding and filling out the scorecard.

WA: That also came very, very early. You can play the game without keeping score, I have a play mat and if you want to you can just put a quarter on it and push the quarter around and that can be the base runner.

And that works great, but for me at least when you look back on the inning it doesn’t connect me to the sport in the same way [as keeping score]. In the game I was just playing, [Mets pitcher Noah] Syndergaard got knocked out after three innings, so we brought in a reliever who got two strikeouts, then allowed a triple, and then allowed a walk, and then was about to let the game be blown wide open when they got a long flyball to center field.

I love being able to look over that and remember it. The more you remember it the more real it feels. I was never going to make a baseball game where you didn’t keep score. And I like that fact that one side effect of this game is that if you play it a couple of times you’ll learn to keep score at a baseball game.

An example of a blank Deadball playmat, with scoring references.

Eephus: Deadball plays very realistically, and I think that comes down to the percentage concept that you grasped early on. It’s realistic in the sense that the odds are not in your favor, and more likely than not you’re going to get out, or that you’re going to strand runners at second and third base.

In your experience demoing the game so far, have you encountered any 15- or 22-inning scoreless games, or on the other hand, any 14-9 Bash Brothers style games?

WA: I did a game a couple weeks ago, where I had the ’06 Mets against the 2016 Mets. Just taking a trip through Mets history. And that was a lot of fun because Game One was 10-9, in I think 11 innings, which was a crazy game. And Game Two, with exactly the same line-up, different pitchers, was 2-1.

I love that, like in real baseball, depending on how the dice fall and when they come up for a hit, you can have either a huge blowout, or a crazy slugfest, or a tight scoreless game. The longest game I’ve ever had go scoreless was one go into the 12th, or 13th. So I’ve never had anything quite near 20 innings.

Eephus: You’re a writer. Words are your trade. One of the unlocked pledge goals was the rosters of the fictional Southern Circuit. How much of a backstory do you have for these teams and players, who are they?

WA: I’m really excited about the Southern Circuit. It’s going to be eight teams now, because we’ve unlocked both goals. So we’ll have a one-page summary of each team, and a whole 25-man roster. There will maybe be a one-paragraph description of each team. The goal will be to give each team a lot of personality but still leave a lot space for the player to fill in the rest in his own mind.

It’s not going to be a perfectly balanced league. There’s going to be one team that’s the big, badass that always wins the championship. And another team that’s always the loser. So you can pick which one you want to play as, or switch back and forth.

So my hope is that they’ll have a lot of personality. And a lot of the personality will come through the players too. Like, this team has invested heavily in speed and defense, whereas this team is all sluggers. I think that, again, because baseball fans are able too see so much personality in just a few statistics, I think that people will be able to see those numbers and fill in a whole lot themselves.

Where the players are coming from, they’re coming from two different places. That’s one of the rewards now, you can pledge to be on one of these rosters. Which I think is fun, so some of the people are going to be real people. The rest are going to be random player names, a thing that I love.

When I was testing this game, I generated a random league and I found the strangest random player name generator. I’m looking at one of the teamsheets now, and it has players like Sylvester Cardoza, Meyerbeck Marinoff, and Benzina Cruzon—just wonderfully odd, not-quite-real sounding names.

Eephus: Do you have plans to design any more games?

WA: Yeah, I do. That’s been the most exciting thing about how well this Kickstarter has done. It’s told me that doing these kinds of games that I make in my own house, and sell them print-on-demand or PDF, and keep it very small and contained, are a thing that people can get excited about and people will tell their friends and people will buy. So I’ve got ideas for future games, which have nothing to do with sports. I’m really looking forward to making a game that isn’t designed to simulate reality. It’ll be fun because I can make a rule, and I don’t have to go Fangraphs or Baseball Reference to check to see how accurately it reflects reality.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For more information on the game head over to Kickstarter, where the Deadball campaign runs until Friday, or check out the free quick start guide.

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Justin Hargett is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Eephus, and the host of The Big Game podcast.