Bottom of the 9th & Expansions Review


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Posted by Charlie on Dec 22, 2015

I’m not really a baseball fan. As a lifelong resident of St. Louis, admitting that is grounds for Cardinal Nation to burn you at the stake. I grew up playing the game for eight years and certainly understand the sport, but I’ve always found its plodding nature and lack of excitement a deal breaker. Thus Bottom of the 9th initially fell off my radar and I didn’t give it a second look. After it caught some positive buzz and trustworthy people began talking it up, I could no longer avert my eyes.

Baseball is boring as hell – you’re not going to convince me otherwise. However, Bottom of the 9th throws a curveball (uh-huh) by focusing on the most exciting 10 minutes of a three hour game. It distills the most tense moments of a ferocious yawn into a small filler-type bluffing game with a set of mechanisms that actually convey the setting in an extremely clever and effective manner. Half-way through my first game I felt like I had been beaned in the side of head and suddenly all was clear.

This is a two player head to head showdown where the Home team is up to bat at the bottom of the 9th inning. The score is tied and a single run will result in a walk-off. If the Home team can’t muster a run, then the heavily favored visitors are assumed to seal the deal in extra innings. The setup is compelling and anyone vaguely familiar with the sport and the inherent drama of a walk-off Home Run will dig right in.

The collection of mechanisms here are light yet completely focused on dramatic resolution. Your strategy will initially be effected by your lineup, which each player chooses prior to play. The Away team will select an active pitcher as well as one relieve who may enter play during the game. The Home team selects six batters, but more importantly they select the order they will appear at the plate. This is an immediately thematic tie in that you will want to select an appropriate leadoff batter as well as cleanup. You may go for a heavy hitter and want them farther back in the order to take advantage of runners in scoring position, but if the top of the lineup falters, the fence-swingers won’t ever make it to the plate. Subtle but interesting choices inform an overarching strategy that is immediately recognized.

The main mechanism is a “staredown” where each player secretly chooses a combination of High or Low, along with Inside or Away. So Ben’s taking the mound and giving you the stink eye, choosing High and Inside as his first pitch. All those years of Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone westerns paid off as you’re giving him the thousand yard stare right back. Your gut says Away and Inside and you wince as you both reveal – you should have stayed away from the jalapeno nachos at lunchtime.

As a batter you want to correctly guess what the pitcher chooses, while the pitcher wants to completely mentally deke and have you fumbling. The pitcher places a token on his character card for each element the batter missed, while the batter places a token on his for each he correctly assumed. The better you do the more special abilities and effects you unlock.

This may sound completely random as you simply try to deduce another player’s choice by looking them in the eyes. However, nuance exists in the fatigue system. Each pitcher has a special pitch which allows them to perform a strong maneuver. If a pitcher chooses either aspect of his special pitch (High/Low, Inside/Away) then he or she loses fatigue. If they choose both then they’re really gassed and drop down on both tracks. As a pitcher becomes more fatigued they become more predictable and the batter will see more success. Thematic and elegant as all get out.

After the pitch location tokens are revealed and assigned to each player, the pitcher rolls a custom six sider along with a standard one with pips. The custom die denotes where the throw actually lands – in the strike zone, outside, or painting the corner. The standard die sets the difficulty or challenge level the batter needs to combat with his own roll of a die. All of these results can be modified with the aforementioned special abilities possessed by each character in the game.

What’s really astounding here is that everything is simple and easy to grok, and it completely makes sense mechanically. You can’t connect with a hit unless the pitch actually lands in the strike zone. You need to restrain yourself and roll low if the ball is outside the strike zone. The corner location is the most difficult to nail as you need to roll exactly what the pitcher threw. It’s smooth and you pick it up after a couple of pitches, no longer needing the included reference card.

If the batter does connect a nifty real-time sub phase occurs where both batter and pitcher pick up their dice and start rolling furiously attempting to get a 5 or 6. If the pitcher gets it first he yells “OUT!”, and if the batter gets lucky he rolls “SAFE!” I bet you can figure out who the tie goes to.

Or perhaps not, which is one of the possible stumbling blocks in this design. I have to admit that everything here made sense immediately and I picked this game up very easily. If someone was completely unfamiliar with the game they may well run into trouble. Most of the rules are spelled out but little gotchas, like realizing a foul ball after two strikes is not an out or how the structure of an inning even works, can highlight a lack of context to the drama that the uninitiated may suffer from. It’s hard for me delve into that perspective but the game definitely leans on its theme somewhat to get the rules across with minimalism.

It’s also insanely fun to roll the batter’s die and make contact with a hard six. This means you slug for power and get to roll again, possibly resulting in an extra base hit or even a home run. In the result of a home run, the pitcher gets one last throw of the die to try to catch the ball at the wall – requiring another 6. This will be a rare occurrence which props up the dramatic tension and has you tossing your seat to the floor as you jump to your feet.

The presentation of Bottom of the 9th is also spot on, slamming you right in the heart with a fastball. The included deck comes wrapped in baseball card packaging and even includes a stick of gum that doubles as the pitch count tracker. Anyone who’s collected TOPS in the 90’s will also recognize the format and graphic design of the cards themselves that perfectly mimic that old-school nostalgic feel. You’ll even see little fun facts and trivia on cards.

The game also hit the market at launch with two card pack expansions that are difficult to resist for their tiny price. The first is a standard extension of more pitchers and batters offering new effects and more options. The second pack is where the magic is at as we see a crossover of Sentinels of the Multiverse characters making their way to the diamond. Guise’s card has scribbles on the back with him declaring himself the best ever, while Tempest can throw forked lightning at the batter (seriously). It’s wild and crazy and sure to keep you interested as you extend the game’s life into extra innings.

Bottom of the 9th is a small box game with a mighty swing. It’s not likely to end up on any best of the year lists due to its diminutive nature, but it’s impossible to shrug off the smiles and laughter opposite huge groans this game has provided. Drama is one of the key elements I look for in a design and this little sucker has it packed in to standing room only.