I don’t play tabletop Warhammer, but whenever I walk past a Games Workshop retail store, I feel like I’m never more than a well-aimed fart away from blowing in there and blowing my money away. Not that it’s really my cup of tea mind, what with all the painting small figurines and general socialising with people who aren’t really my crowd, required to get the most from the experience. But strategy games absolutely are my cup of tea and there’s an ever-present part of me that fears what would become of me if I were to accidentally He-Gassen my way into the store.
Which is why I’m so fond of the Blood Bowl video games, satisfying my innate fascination with and curiosity for Warhammer, without the need to set foot into the world of Warhammer proper. Plus, you know, I quite like sport in case you haven’t noticed. But the main problem with Blood Bowl and its sequel are that they’re just not cricket.
Thank god, I hear you all say. Bear with me.
Whenever I mention cricket to people who don’t watch or play it, the conversation invariably turns to how boring it is. “It’s just a load of graphs and numbers” people say “they spend more time looking at field placements drawing arrows and circles than they do playing”. That is partially right, too. On any given day of a five-day test match, hours are probably spent analysing everything from batting averages to strike rates to average bowling speed, permeated throughout the 7 or so hours of a day’s play. Sport is almost always a game of numbers, but cricket is more than most, which is precisely one of the reasons I can spend hours watching, reading about and talking about the greatest professional sport in the world, and even now and then write about the statistics of cricket.
If you take a look at the three aspects of cricket the game – the bowling, the batting and the fielding – is a venerable cornucopia of interacting numbers. Taking just the smallest passage of play in the game, that is a single ball of an over, there are numerous factors that determine the outcome of that interaction. The speed of the ball, the length of the ball down the pitch, the reaction speed of the batsman, the power of the batsman and the size of his/her bat, and a proxy determining the judgement of the batsman in shot placement all play a part in the outcome of that ball. If the ball has been hit, distance travelled by the ball, the distance and speed of the fielders and the speed of their throw, and the speed of the batsmen between the wickets. Cricket is a machine, an unpredictable one at times, but a machine nonetheless. It is a beautiful mathematical equation that starts the moment the selectors choose their best XI and ends with the last ball or wicket. It is the place at which the beautiful meeting of leather and willow occurs and the numbers governing our fair game start to do a little cosmic dance to determine the outcome of each ball, each over, each inning, and each game. I honestly just cannot get enough.
And then of course there’s the field placement, which in and of itself, is its own game of chess. Where the captain puts their fielders is according, again, to numbers, as they try to coax the batsman into knocking the ball to the man. It is part preventative and part psychology, as the bowler bowls to his field, balancing aggression and defence. They’ll be willing to balance out give and take, to give away a few pawns just to claim the queen, and get one step closer to check-mate.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, my fondness for videogames in most cases, is based largely on the same basic factors as what makes chess and hence cricket such an appealing proposition. Sure it’s a game of athleticism, but perhaps more so a game of strategy, and a game of wits and brains. And when you consider this aspect, along with the battle out in the middle between bowler and batsman, cricket in and of itself isn’t terribly different from a turn-based strategy game.
Sending your best off-spin bowler in? Why not move someone to silly point or silly mid off in the hopes of a Boon-esque moment? Have a left arm bowler bowling around the wicket at a right hander? Why not have a few blokes in the slip cordon and a gully to catch that a thick-edge from a seaming ball. It’s this rock-paper scissor mechanic that, if you’ve played a sneaky game of Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics – even Pokemon – you should know exactly what I’m on about. You understand the importance of having your team in the right positions, of exploiting weaknesses, and of doing your numbers to maximise your chance of victory. Sure, some of you may scoff at the ‘yobbo’ nature of Australia’s favourite pastime, but know that at its most basic level that video game you’re playing isn’t that different from padding up and heading out to the middle of your local cricket oval.
But cricket video games have never really captured the strategic side of the ‘gentlemen’s game’. Sure, they have attempted to simulate the ‘game’ of cricket, in much the same way as the Football Manager series, for as long as I can remember. I could lose hours to setting my batting order, juggling my bowlers, and setting my field. But somehow despite the hours flying by, it never felt like anything more than chance, despite the serious number-crunching that I’m sure was going on behind the scenes. It was strategic, sure, but it didn’t really capture the magic of the game.
Which is why Blood Bowl is the perfect template for a cricket strategy game. If cricket is a game of rock-paper-scissors, and is basically an interaction between numbers, there is no reason it couldn’t take a leaf out of Games Workshop’s famous table-top fantasy sport. If cricket is a fight between bat and bowl there is no reason it couldn’t take the form of a turn-based battle. Imagine balancing out your batting order according to strengths and weaknesses, finely tuning your line-up according to on side and leg side ability, or ability to play shots off the back of front foot. Or conversely bringing in a bowler whose strengths are bowling fast and full at a player who has a low ability to play defensive shots on the back foot. And when it comes to fielding, well that’s just about as suited to a grid-based strategy game as you get, just add a sprinkle of player movement and the roll of a dice and you’ve got yourself a game.
“But I hate cricket” I hear you say. Well superimpose mechanics found in traditional turn-based strategy games on top and you’ll start to see that not a lot separates cricket from the your favourite interactive electronic fare. Remember the Judges from Final Fantasy Tactics Advance? You’ve got your field restrictions. Remember the ‘burning aura’ mechanic from Jeanne D’arc? You’ve got your perfect batting partnership. Many constructs in videogames are designed to mimic human relationships and dynamics, the likes of which are applicable to sports team cohesion and even adversarial relationships. They may seem as disparate as Vegemite and jam, but it doesn’t take an enormous logic leap to see that underneath the difference in audience, cricket and your turn based strategy game aren’t that different.
So try as you might to distance yourself from that loathsome outdoor activity known as ‘sport’, you may be surprised to know that the delta between the two socio-cultural structures isn’t as large as you’ve always thought. In much the same way as Blood Bowl bridges the gap between sports fans and Warhammer fans, a thin aesthetic or thematic veneer would be all it would take to make strategy game fans into cricket fans and vice versa. And If I can satiate my innate thirst for games driven by numbers, then I can safely walk past Games Workshop without the pervasive fear that those Heinz Baked Beans will betray me, and send me into a world I’m just not willing to be a part of.