Dice & Boards

J. Henry Waugh and the strange, random literature of sports text sims.
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The game that decided baseball’s 2011 season had it all: a see-saw slugfest that inevitably led to a 9th-inning blown save; a starting ace coming out of the bullpen for extra-inning heroics; a crucial defensive error setting up the series-winning run. And that’s how the Far Mountain Redhawks became the first team to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the championship, celebrating in front of nearly 12,000 stunned Ozarka Naturals fans at Ellie Ewing Stadium. 

For the Islandian Baseball Alliance – currently halfway through its 2027 season – those events are ancient lore, the start of the Far Mountain Redhawks’ unduplicated three-peat. The towns, teams, and players (such as Pro Cup MVP Boomerang Hines and IBA Mr. October Don Nichols) may be fictional, but the league has all the storylines, drama, and history of reality. Except this sports reality exists solely on the hard drive of 71-year-old Eugene Church, a retired DJ in Baton Rouge who spends 12 hours a day simulating and chronicling the world he invented.

Church’s world was created with a game called Out of the Park Baseball (known by its fans as OOTP), one of the more popular entries in the genre of sports text-sim games. Text-sims occupy a thin sliver of the sports-gaming market share, a tiny shrub between the gaming redwoods of console titles and fantasy leagues powered by actual on-field outcomes.

Aside from the European blockbuster Football Manager, games like OOTP, Baseball Mogul (and other “Mogul” sports sims), Front Office Football, or Draft Day Basketball (pro or college flavor) pull a minute fraction of the yearly Madden sales or fantasy league subscriptions. But text-sim players make up for their smaller numbers with an outsized obsession, playing the games with an intensity that can reach life-damaging levels (Football Manger’s creators have boasted of the game’s purported role in dozens of divorce cases). 
These are games for people who love fantasy sports’ reduction of flesh-and-blood players to a line of digits, but who are too impatient to wait for reality to produce a fresh set of numbers one slow game at a time, and for gamers driven nuts by consoles’ insistence on putting arcade-style playability and realistic TV-style graphics ahead of statistical and AI accuracy.

But the text-sim’s greatest appeal is its customizability, allowing users to create any kind of world they wish. A player can grab hold of their beloved team in their favorite year, reliving the season from the manager’s seat. Or they can take over their team in their darkest year, attempting to repair the wrongs they helplessly observed in reality. A player can freeze baseball forever in the dead ball era or pre-free agency, draft Ted Williams to the Dodgers, or just the ban the goddamn Yankees from baseball forever. 

Or you can dream up an entire new (and entirely unreal) reality, as Church did before starting his Islandian Pro Alliance four years ago. As documented at the start of a thread now nearing 2,800 posts on the OOTP message board, Church established a detailed backstory, mythology, and setting for his league, including a map of the two countries (Ruthlandia and Tycobbia), 48 towns (from northwest White River to southeast San Dimas), and 64 pro baseball teams of Islandia. Twenty-seven seasons in, the IBA has taken on a life of its own.

“All of this allows a gamer to really get immersed in the game,” Church wrote me by e-mail. “Ruthlandia and Tycobbia are places I would like to live… life there is like the 1950s I grew up in and love… life was simpler and better then in my opinion… I was blessed to grow up in that era… and now I can get lost in my fantasy world every day for a few hours and return to the good old days.”

***

Text sims are only the latest in the lineage of a type of sports gaming that long predates computers. Readers of a certain age may have fond memories of the table-top “dice-and-boards” genus of simulator games, headlined by the popular baseball editions put out by APBA and Strat-O-Matic since the 1950’s and the other sporting options created by strategy game publisher Avalon Hill. Most of these games shared the same basic procedure – players determined the performance of real-life athletes (their abilities condensed into a card filled with impenetrable numbers) with a shake of the dice, which directed you to a cardboard index of game situations and outcomes carefully weighted for probability and realism. 

This dusty low-tech predecessor to today’s deep text sims inspired Robert Coover’s prescient 1968 novel, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (which was just last month reprinted and re-released by Overlook Press).  Waugh is a fifty-something unmarried accountant who invents elaborate dice-based sports games to pave over the drudgery of his life; the Universal Baseball Association is his magnum opus. Every night, Waugh hunches alone over his kitchen table and lets three dice write the story of the UBA’s eight teams, from the on-field action to league politics and even the deaths of retired players. 

The novel joins Waugh 56 years into the UBA’s existence, where his nightly ritual of playing out the games, recording the statistics, and writing up the news of the league has conjured up a rich fantasy world that he increasingly struggles to keep quarantined from his real life. The simple mechanics of dice determining a fly ball out versus a double in the gap has given rise to a world where a retired second baseman runs the bar where players hang out, a country singer writes hundreds of ballads celebrating the quirks of the league’s history, political factions fight over the league’s chancellorship, and multiple generations of players are born and die.

It was much better once a kind of continuity had been established, and when new players had taken over the league who had their whole careers ahead of them. It was, in fact, when the last Year I player had retired that Henry felt the Association had come of age, and when, a couple years ago, the last veteran of Year I, old ex-Chancellor Barnaby North, had died, he felt an odd sense of relief: the touch with the deep past was now purely ‘historic,’ its ambiguity only natural.

It’s another death, rolled off the rarely-used Chart of Extraordinary Circumstances, that irreparably punctures the thin membrane between Waugh’s fantasy life and real life. The league’s history and personality becomes so dense, detailed, and fascinating that Waugh’s actual life can’t compare – he finds himself missing work and daydreaming about his fictional creations even when he tears himself away from the game. 

***

There does seem to be something different – different from Strat-o-Matic, or fantasy baseball, and also just plain different – about the story-creating ability of a sports text-sim. The Sims and Sim City series, increasingly elaborate role-playing environments, and countless war simulations have exponentially out-sold sports text-sims, but none of those games (to my knowledge) have inspired fans to write and share the historical record of their own private game. The closest comparison for text-sims might be fan fiction. But there’s something more passive and academic about a well-executed text-sim dynasty. 

Perhaps the purest form of playing a text sim is to not play it at all, and merely to let it run without divine intervention, watching from the heavens as a benevolent, hands-off God instead of a micro-managing Old Testament version. It’s like a new style of generative literature, where the player establishes the rules and then lets the game determine the outcome and the storylines – they’re only the historian, trying to record without bias. The Out of the Park Baseball community offers a vast library of shared projects, fromtournaments of the greatest teams ever to a league made up of goblins, orcs, and elves to, inevitably,recreations of Waugh’s Universal Baseball Association. Most of these “dynasties” take the beat reporter approach, filing game stories over the course of a season. 

“I love to write and I love history,” wrote Nicholas Kokosioulis, a 36-year-old Chicagoan who has spent over two years running his tournament of baseball’s greatest teams. “I put that together with my love for baseball and it’s a perfect fit, I take joy in writing about it. I am not an established writer of any kind. I always had an itch to be a journalist, report what was happening.”

Others take a more ambitious approach, penning feature stories or poems or songs about the action, designing custom logos, stadiums, uniforms, and (using the slightly creepy face generator built into the game) player portraits and baseball cards. In Eugene Church’s Islandian Pro Alliance, team capsules provide the history of clubs and their cities, from the polka band and bratwurst at Far Mountain’s Sky High Stadium to the Aspen-like decadence available at the Ozarka home field.

“Initially, I was going to recreate baseball history in the IPA, going from the early amateur days of town ball (local teams only) in the late 1800s to competition between towns in the region and going through the company league days when business sponsored teams and the competition got so severe they put the players on the company payroll and all they had to do was play baseball,” Church wrote. “I began the IPA that way with 240 teams (each town in the IPA had 4 teams)… however after I spent several months setting up the league, I found out the game couldn’t support a league like that - too many divisions. Once I realized that I had too many teams, I didn’t have the heart to remove 48 towns that I had grown to love.”

The back of my copy of The Universal Baseball Association false-advertises the novel as a “comic masterpiece,” when the storyline is textbook tragedy. It’s about an addiction parable, and the addiction ends up winning. But like any effective tale in this genre, the heart of Waugh’s neurosis is understandable even if you have never touched one of these games (“I can understand how he got so caught up in it,” Kokosioulis wrote me, “sometimes it is a great escape from the difficulties of real life.”). Even in the darkest months of the offseason, the text sim player is just a few clicks away from opening day. Whether that opening day is next year’s or happening a century into the future is up to them.


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