Gaming and Computing Since 1985

TextRich's Review of Strat-O-Matic Fanatics

On vacation away from my Strat-O-Matic computer, I decided to purchase Glen Guzzo's Strat-O-Matic Fanatics book to learn more about my favorite baseball game. I was not at all disappointed.

The book is divided into three sections.

Book One: Roots of a Game

This section focused on Harold "Hal" Richman's childhood and his inspiration for his Dice Baseball game. He had a domineering father, Irving, a supportive and protective mother, Helen, and a talented but afflicted sister, Rhett. Hal's lack of a nurturing male influence growing up led to him play by himself a lot when he was home.

Ethan Allen's All-Star Baseball game, just like it was for me, was a favorite baseball game of Hal. However, he hated that the spinner wore out and that the pitchers had no influence in the game. Hal created Dice Baseball and tested it with friends in the neighborhood, at school, and even at college. APBA came out and Hal was crushed that there was already a commerical dice baseball game on the market. He even tried to be different by using a deck of cards in place of dice, but realized that it was inferior to his game and became even more determined to make a better game. He had a "betrayal," but overcame it to make "a deal with the devil" to get the capital needed to properly launch Strat-O-Matic Baseball after a couple of costly false starts.

Book Two: American Sports Passion

This section focuses on the growing popularity of, and evolution of, the Strat-O-Matic product line. Hal's Basic game was so successful that he was able to focus on making an almost as popular football game and eventually basketball and hockey games as well. However, Sports Illustrated and later Pursue the Pennant (the latter now known as Dynasty League Baseball) gave Hal major scares. It led to the creation of Advanced (to counter S.I.) and later Super Advanced rules (to counter PTP). There was another scsre when the MLBPA began demanding royalties. Fortunately some of the higher-ups there were big fans of the game. That was why most of SOM's competition folded - they could not afford to pay the MLBPA, while a few companies such as SOM, ABPA, and PTP could. Finally, the popularity of computer games such as Earl Weaver's Baseball started to pull customers from SOM. Despite knowing nothing about computers, Hal recruited programmers to create a computer game that played to SOM's strengths. SOM wisely focused on gameplay and statistics rather than great graphics and inferior gameplay, and even today their computer software and roster outsells their card and dice offerings.

My favorite part of the book was Guzzo's fly-on-the-wall account of Hal and his assistants having a two-day meeting to determine the fielding rating of at-the-time current (2005) players. The section made it clear that it was a team effort to nail the final ratings for each players and that they relied on many sources to determine them. They were very cognitient that fans would not be happy with ratings for a couple of players. However, I got the impression that the SOM personnel did their due diligence with their research and scouting. In the end, if a player played better that year, the door was certainly open for a rating upgrade for the next season's cards. At the time I was really into fantasy baseball, running two or three teams per season, so it was cool to see what the SOM guys thought of the players that I thought were studs at the time. The operation of the personnel gave the impression that if it ever came time for Hal to retire or whatever, the company would continue to be in good hands.

Book Three: Love, Devotion, and Surrender

Book One focused on Hal and the game's origin, and Book Two was all about the evolution and refinement of Strat-O-Matic. Book Three devoted pages to praises from fans, players, and celebrities about the game and how it affected their childhood and even future careers. For example, Trip Hawkins of Electronic Arts, who would later make baseball games that rivaled SOM, was a diehard SOM player himself. His devotion to stats and player ratings helped lay the foundations for the realism of popular sport games such as the Madden football series. In another example, Daniel Okrent did not have enough free time to roll the SOM dice with his friends. It led to his invention of Rotisserie Baseball, which led to today's fantasy baseball. There are even more examples but I won't spoil them here.

My least favorite part of the book was Guzzo's analysis of a weekend SOM baseball tournament in Florida. There were so many people involved that it wasn't possible to flesh their characters out. In addition I am the kind of person who would rather play SOM than watch it. However, Guzzo managed some success in giving the reader a visual picture of what the tournament looked like, the interesting strategies employed by those Super Advanced players, and even a few good examples of sportsmanship that brought those players together every year and in different regions of the United States. That chapter also has a few examples of people who sacrificed their relationships due to their obsession with SOM. Even so, the chapter had even more examples of people who used the game to better themselves and other people, in particular troubled young men whose childhoods were not all that dissimilar from Hal Richman's.

The Verdict

Being a part-time writer for the Strat-O-Matic company, Glenn Guzzo benefited from having a close relationship with Hal Richman and other SOM employees. He achieved a good balance of portraying Hal and the company in a positive light, and at the same time he explained why SOM Baseball was not a success at first and why some of the company's later products flopped. Hal was portrayed as an attractive, athletic, and humble man whose devotion to his game led him to putting off seriously dating anyone and starting a family until he was satisfied with the success of his game and security of the Strat-O-Matic company. The book revealed enough company secrets revealed to help us understand the teamwork involved in using players' actual names and determining their ratings, but the story behind how those cards were created, for obvious business reasons, remains secrets that were not expounded upon by the book.

As for the game, the book focuses on the baseball game with only a few in-depth looks at the football game. Basketball and Hockey received minor coverage. However, I can tell you that Hal made his own false start in developing the basketball game and he was able to improve it with the help of his employees. The focus was fine with me, as SOM's baseball game is the only one that I play and am interested in. Fans of SOM's other sport games who have no interest in baseball may not get much out of this book other than a better understanding of the company's founder and philosophy.

I personally would have liked more photos, perhaps in color. I would have liked to see the artwork of Hal's sister Rhett that went into the design of the early game boxes rather than have to go to the internet to find what they looked like. With Guzzo's ties to the company, I feel it was a missed opportunity. Perhaps the publisher could only include a certain number of photos and in black-and-white, thus limiting the number of photos that could be used. SOM isn't at the same level as the Madden games - books on Madden would certainly outsell books on SOM, and justify higher production cost for those books.

The book can be breezed through in a couple of days. Guzzo gave a good balance of covering the game itself and the people behind it. I did not feel that he wrote too much about one at the expense of the other. If you are interested in the SOM company and especially the baseball game, you will certainly enjoy the book. I personally enjoyed seeing the names of some of the SOM community members that I have seen in the Strat-O-Matic Fan Forum boards. For everyone else, the tale of a young man with a difficult childhood who followed his dreams, and succeeded, will be of interest to nonplayers, at least for the first third of the book. Hopefully the rest of the book will convince them to give the game a try and add to the legions of happy Strat-O-Matic customers.

If you find the comparison between Strat-O-Matic and other baseball games interesting, you may want to visit my comparison page. Both APBA and Dynasty League scared Hal at first, but today he seems to rank DL above APBA, and of course, both games below his. I'm sure he would pick any of those games above his first attempt, All-Star Baseball. At the time of the book's writing, Hal welcomed the competition to attract as many people to cards-and-dice baseball as possible, especially with the growing popularity of computer and video baseball games.

©opyright 2020 by Richard Knopf
Updated March 30, 2020