Baseball Highlights: 2045 isn’t a baseball game; if anything, its sense of baseball strategy might frustrate hardcore fans who retch at the use of “clutch” and know small-ball means small run totals. It’s a deckbuilder with a baseball theme, and a remarkably simple one to learn that involves a lot of game theory-style decision-making because it pits you directly against your opponent in baseball “mini-games.”
The conceit of Baseball Highlights is that by 2045, the game has had to introduce cyborg and robot players to maintain the sport’s popularity among the general public. (Those of you familiar with the fabricated media trope about how “baseball is dying” may roll your eyes at this.) In practical terms, however, that just means that players have three basic card types from which to build and improve a roster of fifteen player cards, of which six or seven are used in each mini-game.
Each player card has one or more events on it, some for offense and some for defense. On a turn, a player plays one card to his/her “in play” box, resolves any defensive effects on the opposing player’s current in play card, then sets up any offensive effects to wait for resolution after the opponent’s next play. For example, the first player may lead off the game with a card that “threatens” one double by an average runner (runners may be slow, average, or fast, affecting their ability to advance on subsequent hits). The opposing player might then play a card that has the defensive effect Glove: Cancel 1 Hit, which prevents the double from occurring, and then threatens a single by an average runner. Certain cards also have a quick effect that takes effect immediately, such as giving the player a hit if the opponent’s last card played was a Cyborg, with no defensive resolution required. This back-and-forth continues until each player has played all six of his/her cards for that mini-game, after which the player with the most runs wins that particular match.
Player cards also have a green number on them representing revenue produced by that player, and at the end of a mini-game, each player counts up the revenue produced by cards used in that game and may use those funds to buy new players from the free agent row, six cards displayed in a market available to both players. The player who produced the lower revenue total in the last mini-game may choose to purchase first, and players can buy as many cards as they can afford in that buying round. Adding a free agent to your deck requires you to option one current card to the minor leagues, so your main deck never exceeds fifteen cards. These free agent cards bring new and more powerful effects, some of which are highly specialized, only working against certain card types or in specific game situations, also introducing more Fast runners who can advance multiple bases on subsequent hits. When you buy a free agent, that card goes on top of your draw deck, which means it will be in your six-card lineup to start the next game.
The play of each game includes a fair amount of randomness because of the draw of cards, although the initial four decks are quite similar and you get to see which free agents your opponent adds over the course of the game, so there’s a planning element to playing out each mini-game. For example, dropping a potent offensive card on the first play of the game can draw out an opponent’s best defensive card, which may make sense if you have a strong offensive lineup but not if you lack other hitting cards. A player can also choose to reserve one of their initial six cards under the “On Deck” space on their board, making that card a pinch-hitter or potential defensive replacement for in-game use; the player draws a new card to restore his hand to six, and may either discard a card with the PH (pinch hitter) symbol on it to draw and play the on-deck card instead, or can use the on-deck card for the “visitor save” play after the home team’s final (sixth) card of the game is played.
The rules suggest that players begin with a three-game series to allow for three buying rounds, with the winner of that best-of-three gaining home field advantage in a subsequent best-of-seven World Series, although you can play any number of mini-games in any format you’d like. The game would work just as well for a longer “season” if you’d like, and the mini-games themselves are so fast (five minutes or so if you’re focused just on playing) and often so intense that there’s always an immediate “let’s play that again” feeling after you’ve finished.
The base game includes four initial team decks of fifteen cards apiece, plus a starter free agent deck of 60 more cards, all made of very sturdy cardstock. There are also five small expansions, totaling another 60 cards, that introduce fifteen coach cards as well as 45 additional free agents, some of whom create new interactions with existing cards. Each player gets a small board to track runners, threatened hits, and store the various decks and other cards, all clear and easy to follow. I played with three different opponents, one of whom was my almost nine-year-old daughter, who said it was “good but hard,” and kept asking to play another mini-game. A modicum of knowledge of baseball mechanics helps you learn the game faster, but is by no means a requirement, as this isn’t some Strat-o-Matic clone that tries to activate your inner Earl Weaver. It’s light without pandering, intense without taking itself (or its theme) seriously, and, if you just toss the components into a plastic bag as I did, quite portable. Even if the baseball bits and player names like Cy Clemens and Hideo Tanaka make you a little nutty, Baseball Highlights: 2045 should make your game rotation.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.