Review of Basketball G.M. (Fanfare Games)

Basketball G.M.

Designer: Chris and Tony Fanchi

Publisher: Fanfare Games

Players: 2-8

Time: 120 mins suggested, though in my experience, 60-75 minutes per player

Ages: 14+

Review by: Dale Yu

bbgm

When I first read about Basketball G.M., I was immediately interested in learning more about the game. The reason for this is that I have always been fascinated by boardgames that try to replicate the world of sports, especially a long term view. Basketball G.M. puts players in the role of competing general managers as each tries to draft the best basketball team possible, finding the best players and coaches, and then tries to improve their team throughout the course of the season adding players or changing coaches as necessary.

Fanfare Games appears to be a newly founded company, and their game is available though cooperation with Game Crafter (thegamecrafter.com). Game Crafter essentially acts as a production hub for many small companies to be able to print smaller sized print runs of games. As far as I can tell, Basketball G.M. is the first effort from Fanfare Games.

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The generic box that all Game Crafter games come in

In short, the game is a huge card game with just about everything being represented on some sort of card. There are multiple decks of player cards which are separated by general ability level (into 4 categories). There is also a deck of coach cards. Gameplay can be affected with two other decks, the “Occurrence” deck as well as the “Strategy” deck. There are 144 total cards in the game, though there are apparently two different versions available, each with its own set of unique cards – meaning that a full set will include 288 total cards.

Each player in Basketball G.M. forms his own team, and then the team’s success is measured over the course of 8 turns. At the end of the 8 turns (which are supposed to represent a full basketball season according to the rules), the title is awarded to the player with the most victory points OR there could be a playoff bracket created to extend the game.

The rules are quite long, 20 pages in total, so I’ll try to summarize them as concisely as I can here… But note that I’m leaving out a fair amount of fine detail that is spelled out in the rules! If you need more detail, please look at the set of well-done instructional videos that Fanfare Games has put together.

To get your initial players, you have to draft them. The game offers 2 different styles of drafting. The quick version simply gives each player a stack of 10 cards (with identical distribution amongst the different ability players), and the player chooses one card from the stack and then passes it on to his neighbor. Now that he has a new stack (now with 9 cards), the player chooses another card and then passes the rest of the stack onwards… This continues until all players have 10 cards in front of them. Once each team is filled with players, a coach card is also chosen using a similar method. The advanced version of the draft is an auction where each player is given a pool of play money (the components of which are not included in the game), and players bid money in an open auction to acquire the different cards.

Each player card is chock full of information. At the top is the card is the player’s name and an icon representing the caliber of player. Just below that you can see which position(s) that the player is suitable for. To the left of this are his vital statistics. Underneath the positions are the red and orange bars which describe that player’s personality and skills. Beneath that is an area where most players have some sort of special ability or modification. The very bottom of the card shows you the player’s overall ability, salary cost and trading value.

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Once the initial teams are set, you calculate salaries (by adding up the salary values of all of your player cards) and then set up an initial lineup. Your goal is to create a team which has the highest total ability. In general, your team will score for 8 cards. You have 5 starters, one at each position (PF, SF, PG, SG, C) – and you also have 3 substitutes in your rotation (PF/SF, PG/SG, C). In order to record your scores, you set up your team on the table, and then transpose the necessary numbers to your scoresheet. If you’re not good at mental mathematics, I’d definitely recommend keeping around a pocket calculator to get the sums correct. You also need to calculate the league salary cap which is set at the first multiple of ten more than highest starting team salary.

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Once the setup phase is complete, and each GM has a team, then the game starts in earnest. Each of the 8 rounds in the game follows a similar pattern of (using my terms):

  • Trading Block
  • Occurrence Card
  • Set Lineup
  • Roll the Dice
  • Cleanup

In the trading block phase, two player cards are made available to the teams. As I mentioned earlier, each player has a “Value” number in the lower right which is essentially that player’s trade value. In this phase, the GMs bid with a total value number with the highest bidder taking the offered player onto his team and then discarding player(s) currently on his team that meet or exceed the value bid. This goes on until both players have been allocated onto teams OR all GMs have declined to trade for those players.

Then you move into the occurrence card phase. This phase starts with the player currently in the lead and then goes clockwise. First, the active GM flips over the top Occurrence card from the deck and then follows the instructions on it. Each of these cards somehow affects the game. Many of them modify the ability of a player on your team (positively or negatively). As this happens, you calculate the change that results from the card and then mark that on your scoresheet. Other Occurences are global in nature and will affect all GMs. Some of the cards, especially the injury cards, may stay in effect for multiple game turns. The other important piece of information on the Occurrence card is the white box that tells you how many d6 you get to roll later (in the Dice Rolling phase).

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Once you have figured out the effects of your Occurrence card, you have the option of trying to engineer a trade with one of the other GMs. Finally, you have the option of signing a free agent (flip over the top card of the Free Agent deck) as long as you have space on your roster (no more than 12 cards) and can afford that player’s salary (given the constraints of the salary cap amount which was set in the setup portion of the game). Finally, you now look over your entire team and confirm that it is legal – you must have at least one player at each of the five positions, no more than 12 players and compliant with the salary cap. Each player goes through this phase on his own in clockwise order from the first player.

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Next, the GMs simultaneously setup their teams. The first step is to decide upon the strategy card which will be used this turn for your team. Each GM has a hand of strategy cards, the number of which is dictated by the Strategy value of the team’s coach. Each GM secretly and simultaneously chooses a card and then they are all revealed at the same time. Most of these strategy cards modify the abilities of players on your team (usually due to their Personalities or Skills) though some are more complicated than that.

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Once the strategies have been chosen and revealed, then each GM sets up his lineup. Again, remember that your team will usually score the Ability scores of 8 players – the 5 starters and 3 other players that are substitutes. This part of the game usually takes a bit of time as you often have to consider the special abilities/modifications that can occur on your player cards, your coach card as well as randomly selected Occurrence card from earlier in the turn and the Strategy card that you chose to play at the start of the phase. Your goal here is to try to get the players lined up to maximize your cumulative Ability score amongst those eight player cards. Once your lineup is set, you then get to transpose all the Ability numbers from the cards to your score sheet, add them up and come up with a subtotal.

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The next phase is the actual “playing of the games”. In order to shake things up a bit, each coach gets to roll a number of d6 (usually between 1 and 3) and adds the total number of pips rolled to his team’s Ability. The number of dice rolled is determined by whatever number is found on the Occurrence card that was randomly drawn earlier in the turn. Each player rolls however many dice his Occurrence card tells him to roll, and then each GM calculates his final team Ability score total for the turn. These scores are then recorded on the GM scoresheet and victory points are awarded. Whichever GM has the highest ability total gets a number of VPs equal to the number of GMs in the game. Second place gets (number of players minus one) and so on… If there is a tie, all tied players get the higher number of points.

Finally, in the last phase, each GM can discard up to one Strategy card from their hand and then draw up to however Strategy cards is allotted by their team’s coach card. This same turn structure is repeated for a total of eight turns.

At the conclusion of the eighth turn, normally the player with the most VPs would simply win the game. However, the rules also provide a setup for a playoff bracket with teams being seeded based on their VP total and then having extra turns for one-on-one elimination matches.

So, that’s how you play the game (more or less)…. My thoughts on the game by category:

Gameplay – Basketball G.M. is actually a lot of fun, if you can get into the theme. The constant ability to tweak your team was fun for me. Though, some other gamers who tried it who weren’t basketball fans found the game to be more tedious than anything else. I was provided an Advanced set of cards, so there’s a lot of text on the cards and a lot of interacting abilities that need to be watched over. The rules suggest that you have some sort of marker available to denote the changes caused by cards, but let me tell you that there are often four or five cards on a team that somehow affect another card. I enjoyed the constant interaction of the cards as I felt that it always gave you something to consider when trying to change up your team. (Note – in the basic set of cards, the players apparently do not have special abilities on them, so there aren’t as many things that you have to worry about calculating and modifying.) Additionally, if all of the player ability modifications turn out to be too much, you can always play Basketball GM in Basic form and simply ignore all of the text on the player cards.

The drafting is a lot of fun as is the modification of the team through trades. In my games, there hasn’t been a single GM to GM trade, so all changes have come as a result of the Trading Block phase or when an Occurrence or Strategy card allows a GM to add a player to the roster. The constant challenge of also trying to fit the players into the salary cap limit was another enjoyable bit of computation to have to keep in mind when trying to fit together your team.

I think that the Occurrence and Strategy cards added a fine amount of randomization to the results – after all, unexpected results, upsets and ill-timed injuries are what makes following a season so compelling. Though the team with the best ability usually has the best chance of winning, there is always something that might happen to allow the underdog to come out victorious. The random nature of the Occurrence cards as well as shrewd play of the Strategy cards makes sure that outcome of each turn isn’t set in stone from the beginning.

On the flip side, the further addition of randomization with the dice left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Mostly because the overall potential effect of the dice roll was so large when compared to the effect of the players. In my games, most total Ability scores based on the cards was in the 60s and the dice roll was anywhere from 2 (rolled on 2d6) to 17 (rolled on 3d6). The amount of variability from the dice seems too high – where GMs who get to roll 3 or 4 dice have a nearly insurmountable advantage over players who can only roll one or two. (At least in the games I’ve played so far, the team Ability values have usually not ranged more than 8 or 10 apart from best to worst). Further, the proportion of the total Ability score seems too much to come from the random dice roll which in turn is triggered by a randomly drawn Occurrence card – there were times that the dice roll represented as much as 20% of a team’s overall score for the turn.

I surmise that this mechanic was thrown in to keep a much superior team (based on player card Ability) from winning each round, and that this effect is something seen in real life sports – but as a board game mechanic, it felt contrived and a bit frustrating to essentially have a 20-30 minute turn come down to which card was drawn and what the die roll was.

The game length is completely dependent on the types of players that you have. When playing with the Advanced rules, there are a ton of things to try to keep track of. If you have the sort of player in your group who has to calculate everything out and know what all of his options are based on which cards will interact with others, prepare yourself for a long game. If you have more freewheeling sorts of players (and I do have that in my group), each turn in our 3p game seemed to take anywhere from 10-20 minutes.

The rules offer two different ways to end the game, either on simple total VPs at the end of eight turns or by playing through a playoff bracket. We have, thus far, always chosen to go with the playoff scenario, and that arrangement does give anyone in the playoffs a chance at winning the game. But, given the randomness that I’ve outlined above, it does kind of turn Basketball G.M. into a two hour experience game as the final outcome often seems to come down to who rolls better in the final matchup.

Rules – could have been written a bit better, though it’s really not bad for a first effort. The thing about the rules is that this is a seriously complex game, and in an attempt to help out the gamer, the first 9 pages of the rules are nothing but a string of definitions and explanations of the game terms and components. Only when you get to page 10 do you finally get to the setup of the game. The rules are intended to give cross-references whenever things need definition – i.e. “see Card Types, on p. 4”), but what this results in is a very disjointed set of rules where you’re constantly flipping back and forth to find information. The 20 page rule book is packed with rules and definitions, and the complexity of the game is reflected in the length of the rules.

Components – to be honest, the components are a little below average. The cards are glossy cardstock, but they feel lightweight and are quite sticky. Even after repeated use, the cards are still difficult to shuffle and often stick to each other. I have not played a game produced by Game Crafter before, so I don’t know whether this is a common finding with their games or not. The cards have held up OK through 4 games without any significant marks, but they are still difficult to shuffle.

I didn’t have an issue with having to print out my own score sheets and keep track of stuff on paper – but a few of the guys I played with kind of wished that there was a scoreboard (and pawns/markers) that could have been used instead to keep track of scores. I would have liked it if Fanfare would have included at least a few pages worth of scoresheets – as the first time I tried to play the game, we had to abort as we didn’t have any sheets printed up ahead of time. I also would have preferred to have had chits or markers to help keep track of all of the modifications caused by the different cards. I, of course, understand that the designers of the game were likely trying to keep costs down by limiting the number of things that had to be made – but I did find it difficult to keep track of everything especially with the jerry-rigged nature of the components that we were able to find near us as we played.

Also, if I were to have other Game Crafter games, they would all look alike. I would like to see the game have it’s own box, or at least a sticker affixed to the top and sides of the box to identify what is inside. Yes, I know that I could do this myself, and will likely do it myself, but I’d still prefer this to be done for me at the factory than have to do it DIY.

Overall impression – I love the theme of the game, and it’s clear that the designers have spent a lot of time developing the cards and the interactions between them. I want to like the gameplay as much as the theme, but it does turn out to be a bit too fiddly and too long for what I get out of it. That being said, there have been times in each of my games when the amount of things that I was trying to keep track of really did make me think that a real Basketball GM’s job was too much to handle! I still want to play the game more, and I think the big key for me is to play it mostly with players that are inherently interested in Basketball / NBA. In my initial games, I’ve found that I can pretty much predict the gamer’s verdict at the end of the game based upon his interest level in Basketball in general.  In the end, I love the theme, I like the gameplay, but the components leave me wanting for better… So far though four games, my overall rating on the Opinonated Gamers scale is: Neutral.

Basketball G.M. is available on a print-on-demand basis from The Game Crafter. Per their website:

Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers:

Larry Levy:  Warning!  These thoughts are based on my playing exactly one quarter of a game (two turns).  So please take them even less seriously than usual.

There’s a lot to like about Basketball G.M., particularly if you’re fairly knowledgeable about the parent game.  The game is dripping in flavor and there’s lots of detail on the player and coach cards that ring true.  Even though players are only represented by a single ability score and salary, their additional skill and personality descriptors not only distinguish them, they really allow the GMs to follow different strategies.  It’s an excellent design decision that makes the game both thematic and skillful, without raising the complexity level too high.

I really like the Trading Block phase.  The number of available cards is dependent on the player count, so in our four-player game there were three cards up for bid each turn.  The phase allows you to come up with creative trades (which can include cash) in a relatively short period of time, since there’s no haggling with your opponents.  The influx of new players is one of several things that keep the game dynamic from turn to turn.

I’m less certain about the trades with the other players.  There are a sufficient number of variables (positions, salary cap, special abilities) that working out trades that are worthwhile for both players seems relatively hard to do, particularly for teams that have done a decent job of tailoring their team to their base strategies.  However, you still want to see if you can improve your team through a trade, so the end result may often be a longish period in which little, or maybe even nothing, happens.

We set our initial rosters using the quick drafting method, which is essentially a 7 Wonders-style “choose a player and pass the remaining stack” mechanic.  This seemed to work pretty well.  The alternative, a set of auctions of what would have been 40 players, seemed insane (it would have taken forever!).  Maybe fantasy sport fans would be drawn to it, but you’d have to take the game pretty seriously to go that route.

Of the three ways of modifying your ability total each turn, I think the Strategy cards are the most successful.  Tying the number you can choose from to your coach is a good idea.  The Occurrence cards add a lot of randomness to the game, but the basic idea is still good.  I particularly like that their lasting effects can really change your team, forcing you to switch strategies mid-game.  It may not be fair, but it does add to the fun and is realistic.  My only complaint is that the cards’ effects don’t always seem to match up with the number of dice rolled.  Effects that should help the team often have the same number of dice as those that should hurt.  Not a fatal flaw, but a bit of a concern.

Like Dale, my biggest beef is with the effect of the dice.  Adding a dice roll is fine, since the game needs a bit of a random factor.  But the range is too high.  You sweat to maximize the ability of your team and then you finish second because you rolled a 4 on 2D6 and your opponent rolled a 10.  I think having the players reroll all 1s and 6s (effectively turning the dice into a series of D4+1 results) or using averaging dice (2-3-3-4-4-5) would have given a much better balance between uncertainty and skill.

The way the rules are laid out is pretty frustrating.  Putting the explanatory sections before breakdown of the turn is just a bad idea.  They definitely make learning and teaching the game harder than it should have been.

As much as I liked the basic concept of the game, I think it needs to be more streamlined for it to really work.  There’s no trading of any kind on the last two turns of the game, but even taking that into account, our game probably would have taken a good 3 hours had we played it to completion.  Even though the challenge of building your team is maintained throughout, you’re still pretty much doing the same things for that entire period.  That was just a bit too much for me and for some of the other players in our game.  On the other hand, one of the players was very enthusisastic and I loaned him the game in the hopes that he could get it played with his own group.

Basketball G.M. is an admirable effort.  As an experience game, I think it absolutely works for basketball fans.  There’s also the promise of a design that could work for your typical Eurogamer, but I think it ultimately falls short of that goal.  Maybe with a few tweaks and a good bit of streamlining, it could succeed with that crowd.  But as it currently stands, as much as I like some aspects of the game, I have to say I’m Neutral about it.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:

  • I Love It!
  • I Like It.
  • Neutral (2) – Dale Yu, Larry Levy
  • Not for me…

 

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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