March Mardness

Just as everything seemed very quiet over at the Avalon Hill sports department, all of a sudden we have March Madness and some other significant stirrings. Along with the small sportsgame column in The General and the imminent release of Wrasslin', this must be considered an encouraging development for sports gamers who, I would suggest, were beginning to wonder where the next boardgame was coming from (the prolific Mr Goodchild excepted, of course). Let's hope the resurgence carries on and that the sales live up to Avalon Hill's expectations.

March Madness is a game about the exciting sport of college basketball. If you find this a contradiction in terms, it may still just be worth reading on. It specifically deals with the 64 team NCAA invitation tournament and the prestigious 'Final Four' (the semi-finals and final). It is also essentially two games in one. At a cost of around £20, this doesn't seem bad value and, predictably, the standard of production is excellent. The first game covers the whole knockout tournament on a broad brush level and the second game is a detailed, individual player simulation of the Final Four games. Because of the clear split in the games, it is easy to tackle and evaluate each one separately.

The tournament game uses a large board which shows the traditional knockout competition tree diagram. Onto this are placed the sixty four coloured counters which represent the college teams involved. These are colour coded for team kit (extra stickers are provided for even the most obscure colleges) and also into four colour groups which identify their controlling player. The overall effect is impressive. Each player (up to four, though autopilot rules are provided for the dummy players) has, logically, sixteen colleges which are seeded one through sixteen. These are spread equally around the four quarters of the draw as the NCAA allows for four number one seeds, one from each region.

The draw is set up so that the No 1 seed plays weak teams all the way through to the last sixteen (where they tend to even out) and for this reason they are given a decreasing 'seeding bonus' all the way in to the final. So, for instance, in the first round the top rated Georgetown Hoyas get an eight point bonus per half against the sixteenth seeded Robert Morris Colonials which makes an upset unlikely, but in the second round they get only four points per half and so on. If anything, this seeding bonus seems a little over-generous with some of the lesser known schools getting creamed, but it is still possible to go out on a fluke.

The gameplay is simply a matter of playing through each round of games and getting one or more of your teams to the final. This is achieved by each player choosing, in turn, an advantageous fixture to play and resolving it in the standard manner which is, believe it or not, by grabbing a handful of dice and rolling for your points. It sounds basic, but it seems to work.

For each half you roll six dice which loosely correspond to the five player positions plus the bench. These are added up and that is your half-time score. The skill factor (I could tell you were wondering) comes in the form of strategy chits which can be played for each half. These either multiply one of the dice by x2 or x3, or simply add a number of points. So, a big roll on the black dice in conjunction with a x3 black 'trippler' chit will bring in a lot of points above the average of 21 per half. The second half repeats the first and the winner is the one with the highest score. Ties lead to overtime which is quick and savage, taking no account of seeding. Finally, stat fans are told to 'add 25 points to each total to get a representative score' which strikes me as a bit of an afterthought but, saying that, I can't think of an easier way of doing it unless you start using D8s or D10s which never have quite the same feel as a good old D6.

The strategy chits are often the only way of beating a higher seed or for coming back from a half time deficit, but as you only get five in total, can't play more than three per half, can't hold a large reserve and, crucially, can only play one of the strong multipliers per half, you quickly realise that they are like gold dust. Replacements are at the rate of one chit for the loser and two upwards for the victor, depending on the scale of the victory. For this reason, it is easy to commit all your good chits to a close or important game and have nothing much left for the next one - this is exactly when you become a very popular opponent.

The system of drawing more chits for big wins also tends to build up one player as a potent force who the other players aren't keen to meet until forced to by the turn sequence. The recent big winner tends to have more and better chits so has a better chance of winning the next game as well. In this way, he gets on a chit-loaded winning roll until such time as he gets in trouble and is forced to use up powerful multipliers. Although it works well as a game mechanic, it doesn't gel from a logic angle as there is no reason for the whole group of your teams to get powerful just because of some lucky wins by individual teams. I'm not sure about this aspect really, I can see that it represents fatigue and effort but this only really feels right in the latter stages where you are down to one or at most two teams. At that stage, using all your chits in one round will mean none for that team for the next. Rationalisation please anyone?

The other observation is that the game tends to favour the top ranked team throughout. This may sound correct but everything goes their way - they commit chits second, roll the dice second, they get seed bonus and they should only really be playing at all if you feel ready for it (but therein lies a strategy - if your opponent's No 1 seed is still to play, and he has only one chit, hit him then as the dice may carry it for your outsider). I would have thought that some way of giving the underdog a chance would have made the game more exciting, but perhaps this would unbalance it?

Despite all this favouritism, the game throws up a reasonable number of giant killings. They are not excessive in number and the game tends towards balance with the top seeds getting through on their advantage. However, in the exciting case of a favourite going down, the seeding bonus is inherited by the progressing team as a way of indicating that they are 'hot'. This is cleverly done and gives a big incentive to the underdogs to go for it, especially in the early stages. The result can be, as in our last game, a No 12 seed going all the way to the final four which was great fun.

For fans of non-elimination games, there is an averaging effect due to the large number of teams and rolls which means that you can normally expect to get a couple of your teams into the last eight. This works unless you have been having some really duff luck (like a certain Mr Clifford who once threw a 1,1,1,1,2,3 combo), so the player interest is maintained to the finish. Another neat idea is that when two teams belonging to the same faction meet, control of one must be given over to the weakest player, thus giving him another chance at getting through.

Game length is around two and a half hours and it is strongly recommended that you play it to a physical deadline such as the game club closing or Cheers starting as this really helps the game rush along and build to a climax. We found a good option for a shorter game is to automatically promote the top seeds from the first round which retains virtually all the play balance but halves the number of games to be resolved.

The game system has shades of a replay system in that the top seeds will probably do well (with the ever-present chance of an upset) and the scores are not unreasonable if you add the 25 point fudge factor. There is also enough gaming value in using the strategy chits and game selection to make it playable by non-sports gamers interested in the subject. As Ellis Simpson quickly spotted, there wouldn't be much problem in using a variant of this system for the FA Cup or anything else that uses the knockout format. This could be worth looking into.

Although the tournament game is billed as being a 1 to 4 player game, I feel it is at its best as a game for two or four players. As a solitaire exercise it leaves a lot to be desired. The autopilot rules provided for uncontrolled teams aren't bad, but they are based on random chit draws which means the robot teams often try hard on no-hoper teams and do little or nothing for their top seeds. Weird. I'm sure some enterprising gamer could improve on the system. With four players it slows up a little but it is worth it for the consistent, intelligent play and choice of fixtures. Three players remains a good compromise but even this can be influenced by easy matchups against non-player teams. With less than four, it is far from unplayable but simply loses a little excitement.

I want to quickly mention a small piece of trivia at this point. Incredibly, having played the game four times (solitaire, two, three and four player), the final has been contested by the same two teams each time; the North Carolina Tarheels and the Arizona Wildcats. (They shared the titles in a year that saw Michigan win it in for real). I can partly understand the former because they are 'my' team and, despite their being a No 2 seed, I always try and get them through. But for the system and the other players to always generate the Wildcats seems amazing. It's a funny old world, innit?

The tournament game is a hard one to sum up. As someone who loves the real game and the college atmosphere, it was one of the most eagerly awaited games I can remember. However, even this degree of enthusiasm can't cloud the fact that the tournament game is a little disappointing. The game does deliver on the atmosphere (there are upsets, big comebacks and where else in gaming do you get the Minnesota Golden Gophers?) but essentially the problem seems to be that it goes on a bit too long, the early rounds are 90% predictable and there is an awful lot of dice rolling and adding up. As I observed after the last game I played, it would all be over in twenty minutes on computer. For all that, the tension certainly builds steadily after the last sixteen and the final four is gripping stuff every time. Sweaty hands were strongly in evidence, so it can't be all bad.

The second, 'advanced' game included in March Madness is the strategy game and concentrates on the NCAA final four teams. Although a full tournament is suggested in the rules by which colleges from different eras can be matched up on the tournament board, the system is really geared to the detailed recreation of single matches. The three games required for a final four showdown (two semis and the final) can be completed in an evening's play. A sixty four team all-time great tourney using this system would take a long, long time but would promise a fascinating outcome.

Team cards are provided for final four teams from the early seventies to date plus some earlier great teams, so the range of players and classic tournaments are well covered. Each player is assessed for offensive skills on an AA to F scale and the overall team is rated for defense. Additional ratings are provided for the quality of the bench, coaching and 'power' levels. The latter is used to determine seeding and overall team strength.

Each player has a display onto which to lay out his team card, monitor his game clock and place his strategy cards. These cards are the heart of the game. They are dealt out to each player at the start of the game and are gradually played 'onto' your players and bench. They cover both offensive, defensive and unusual strategies and some cards can only be played on specific positions. In addition, there are coaching cards that can be applied to the whole team such as full court press and the like. Cards cover such areas as tight man-to-man, injuries, hot shooters, working the inside, fast break and boxing out so the flavour of the game comes through quickly.

The game, which is played in two distinct halves, is paced by the game clock which is a little weird. It is clearly designed to crank up the pressure by reducing the options as the half progresses but it is seems an overly complex way of achieving this. Basically, through the roll of dice, the clock dictates what you are free to do that turn and whether it is becomes compulsory to resolve the half's scoring for a certain position. Scoring is resolved simply on a matrix influenced by one die and any applicable cards. Both sides' players are worked out at the same time and the knack is to ensure, through playing cards and controlling the game and your opponent, that your key players' scoring is resolved when it is most beneficial to you.

The timing is often crucial as some teams have just one exceptional shooter (Ewing, Baylor, Lanier and Alcindor for instance) and a supporting cast of no hopers, these offering perhaps single figure scoring. It is therefore ideal to resolve your offensive superstar when he has an enhancing offense card (or cards) and no restricting defense cards against him. This is not easy to achieve and the combination of, say, a double teamed Patrick Ewing without an offense card and a bad roll can swing the game in your opponent's favour. Although this is roughly what happens in a game, if you don't get the chance to choose the timing it seems an arbitrary way of deciding who 'shoots'. Further, as the entire half's points are worked out in one roll this feels a little false. Sure, in real life Ewing might be double teamed or boxed out successfully for most of the half and held to ten points or so, but it the way it is portrayed that gives me the problem - this can happen in the first few minutes of a half and it doesn't gel to know that early on.

As the game progresses, more and more strategy cards can be played and occasionally drawn from the pack. The half ends when all positions plus the bench have calculated their points and these are totted up for the half time score. The sequence is repeated for the second half but because of the adding up at the end, it is hard to build to a decent climax. This can only happen if you can play the game, watch for cards and still add up as you go along. Again, perhaps a computer would make the slightly clumsy system perform a little better.

Ironically, although the system doesn't feel quite right, the points and results are spot on and several close games can result. True early round upsets are not really possible as the teams are all top notch finalists, but the victory of an underdog over UCLA or North Carolina is just as entertaining. The players seem to get scores that broadly reflect their historic performance and overall team totals are representative. This part of the game works well. I also very much like the idea of the strategy cards. As you play them, especially the team coaching cards, there is a feel of holding a time out and calling for the press or trying some weird and wonderful offense to sneak a win over the hot favourite. In that sense the strategy game works, but couldn't they have been married to a smoother, quicker system?

The rules for the strategy game aren't as clear as those describing the admiitedly simpler tournament system, but they make an acceptable stab at introducing the unusual clock and scoring systems. Each strategy card has a full description in the rules which, given the obscure nature of some of the plays, is extremely useful. The descriptions offer advice on when to play the cards, how to get the best from them and what cards counter them effectively. The rule book lacks the normal designer's notes which are one of my favourite parts of a game. In this instance, we are forced to wait until The General runs a feature. This is a disappointment as there are some interesting systems here that must have taken a while to devise and the underlying reasoning for them would be a fascinating read.

The strategy game almost makes it. The cards and strategy ploys are neatly done, allowing virtually any combination of tactics imaginable - as long as you have the cards in your hand. This neatly simulates the realistic lack of freedom to coach as you please. Where it fails is that it isn't that quick to resolve a game and, most importantly, it doesn't feel much like college basketball. It just isn't that exciting and I didn't find that the clock system portrayed the suspense of the last few minutes well enough. Additionally, although I appreciate the reasoning, resolving all the points for each player at once does nothing for the atmosphere. If indeed we are simply working out player scores, then there are simpler and faster ways of doing it. The clash between an interesting card strategy system and a weak scoring system is very obvious.

Overall, March Madness delivers two above average games in a very reasonably priced package but I fear that the ultimate college basketball game is still out there somewhere. There is however easily enough gaming value in March Madness for half a dozen sessions. This beats most new games these days, but I would find it unappealing if asked to play it much more. On balance though, March Madness can be recommended and may be an indication that perhaps the big companies haven't forgotten all about sports games. On this subject, while I don't think we are likely to see All Star Replay hit the streets again, this must be seen as a positive sign. I can't wait for Wrasslin' which I am sure will offer scope for a Sumo variant. Look out for a review of this one next issue.

Sumo - Mike Siggins