When it comes to football simulations, the two names that most people have heard of are Strat-o-matic and APBA. APBA has been producing football games since the 1950s and is alive and well today. There’s a huge following for both games. I’ve played Strat-o-matic many years ago, but this is my first look at APBA. I’ll be reviewing the 1980s Master version though I did play through a 1973 set of cards as well as looked through a more modern set.
My first run through the game featured a 1973 contest of the Rams vs. the Cowboys.
Opening either a pre-1982 version of the Master version, it’s impossible not to notice the charts. They are massive. (Note: APBA reformatted the charts into spiral book form just a few years ago, but the principle is the same) Every result is derived from a particular chart so you’ll become quite familiar with them as you play the game. Also included are a set of cards for each NFL team (the newer basic version comes with just two teams). Players have three columns of numbers that are used for rushing, passing, and kicking. The cards are printed on sturdy card stock and come in a team envelope. I was impressed at how well the cards in my 1973 set have held up. Colored dice, a serviceable board, a football, and first down marker are also included. The master version I got included a dice cup. The older game is well made although not exactly eye catching. The modern version seems to have added color to the charts at the expense of quality which leads me to preferring the older, albeit uglier, charts.
As mentioned, key players from a season get their own cards. The cards host a seemingly endless array of numbers, but only one gives you any sense of a player’s effectiveness. Next to the players position(s) there is a rating. The higher the rating, the better the player is at that position. Player rating may change if they can play multiple positions and defenders can have splits depending on their strengths against the run and pass. Looking at the cards, there’s no denying this is a sports simulation. Repeated play might shed some light on players that excel due to numbers that relate to good results on the charts, but it’ll be awhile before they look like anything other than numbers.
The core of the game focuses on your offensive and defensive platoons. Once you’ve selected your 11 man line-up, you calculate the rating for each player in the position they’re playing. The difference between the offensive and defensive ratings determines which part of a chart you look at to determine results. In my first run through, the Ram’s offensive platoon equaled 42 as did the Cowboy’s defensive platoon. This meant that I looked at the “C” column, The defense can further influence by play by declaring either a standard, down field (pass), or ground (run/screen) focus. Dice are then rolled to determine a number on a player’s card that is then used to refer to the actual result on the play charts. So, yes, you look up one number to refer to another chart to get another number. If it sounds tedious, it is. The charts are unwieldy. Perhaps the modern spiral book streamlines this some, but the two step process to determine results isn’t as smooth as other systems. Add in rare plays, interceptions, fumbles, and penalties can result in three or four look-ups. Other games that use this system do a better job of cutting down the number of times you need to check the charts or add narratives to make the experience more enjoyable.
The reality is I can deal with the charts. I like simulation games so that isn’t what put me off. The real gripe with the game is the lack of impact of non-skill players. A sack specialist defensive end or a shut down corner, other than impacting the defensive platoon total, has no bearing on the outcome of a play. None. Simulation football is about exploiting weaknesses whether that be running behind the strong side of your line or picking on a weak corner. That can’t happen in this game. Other than the passer or the runner, the only position that slightly impacts the play is the receiver whose rating may change the offensive platoon total. When you couple this issue with the repetitiveness of the double chart system, it really detracts from the game.
The research put into this game is evident. There’s a reason this game has a strong following. The stats seem to work out pretty well, and at least in my plays I didn’t see a high number of rare plays occur. As you would expect, strong teams will be able to move the ball effectively against bad teams, but upsets can happen. It is a dice game after all!
For a game with such a long and loyal following, it’s interesting to note that there really isn’t a good solitaire system out there. The game recommends playing both teams to the best of their ability. There are some complex systems out there made by those dedicated to the game, but it’s nothing you can simply pick up and plug in to get going.
Head-to-Head: The game may have been designed for head-to-head play, but it doesn’t present itself that way. With the emphasis on platooning, there is no formations to set up. You only need to have your 11 man team in front of you. Since there’s no “coaching” strategy, your play calls would end up being based on down and distance and playing the percentages. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is the limitation of the game system designed for head-to-head play.
With a strong emphasis on statistics, APBA lends it self well to a replay system. But the game is not a quick play, making a long term replay a deep commitment. However, with the plethora of seasons available, there’s not a scenario from the last 60 years of the NFL you couldn’t recreate.
Availability: The game is still available and recent years can be ordered. APBA also has retro seasons available that they have reprinted, and eBay is never without past seasons for sale. The problem is the game is not cheap. Even getting current seasons can be pretty pricey and old seasons often exceed $100. It’s one of those rare cases where the game is out there, but it’s a steep commitment for a game that may or may not interest you.
Final Score (not an average): 6
One one hand, I see why APBA has such a loyal following. The game is statistically deep which makes it an interesting play. So many seasons make for nearly endless possibilities. It’s a game that’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a long game that may appeal more to the statistical gamer than a football strategist. I could see using APBA to replay a season that’s not available through another system, but there’s quicker systems that provide the same experience or games that add a greater element of strategy. In that regard, APBA falls just a little short.