Friday, May 23, 2014

'Waterloo,' By APBA

Ohmigosh. I have been gone forever.

I’ve been writing this column for almost four years (not this particular column; it just seems like it), and it didn’t strike me until today that this is essentially a chronicle of perpetual and perpetuated failure coated with a veneer of snark ‘n’ giggles.

Look at the survivors left standing – okay, swaying – in the trading-card business; based on their healthy pallor they could pass for the cast of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Somewhere in amongst these nearly fallen flags is the sports-game manufacturer APBA. I can’t call APBA dead yet, because there is still an APBA company turning out game cards for a dwindling number of baby-boomed traditionalists and electronics deniers, but APBA ain’t exactly cracking off 4.4 40-yard dashes and scoring 7 on the Wonderlic.

If we follow the logic of a previous column where we compared card sets to cars, APBA’s trading cards are the International Scout and Travelall. These vehicles weren’t really cars, because they were made by a truck-‘n’-tractor company and looked it (the outsides were designed with a T-square and the insides featured the unmistakably luxurious touch and texture of painted metal, with accents of opulent cream-colored plastic), and they weren’t really trucks the way International made TRUCKS. They were bastard children, ahead of their time in one respect and belonging to no time in another respect.

They’re also basically indestructible. You remember those Nissan commercials of a couple of years ago that had Nissan Frontiers doing patently impossible things, like pushing a dune buggy up a gigantic sand hill and serving as a surrogate landing gear for a 747? If Nissan had used an International Travelall it wouldn’t have had to stage anything. And the driver could have done it all one-handed while chugging a Hamm’s.

APBA cards were built to be used to play a game, and they were built to last. They’ve never gone out of style because that would require style, and they’ve never gone out of use because the game play hasn’t changed in more than 50 years. You can throw a 1966 Matty Alou into your 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates deck and it’ll play just fine. It might even win a batting title. The problem with APBA cards – and this is only a problem if you look at baseball cards solely from the collectible, fancy-pictures-on-fancy-cardboard angle – is that they’re just a bunch of numbers on a piece of heavy paper with a name attached, and if you don’t play the game the numbers are meaningless. Never mind that if you played the game you can do more with those numbers on paper than you could ever hope to with your garden-variety Topps Stadium Club common. (You could even build a card house with APBA cards, if you were so inclined.) Taken as a group, APBA cards were as sexy as a bunion.

APBA’s lack of sexy scarcely mattered in the mid-90s. As Pok√©mon rose in the east and sports-card games that were more card than game sunk in the west, some investors alighted on APBA, which at that point was strapped for cash (like it almost always was) and going through a transition after the death of its inventor and the estate sale of the kitchen table that served as its manufacturing and packing facility.

The investors purchased the company’s assets and hired Bill Bordegon, late of Fleer and SkyBox, to supervise the transformation of APBA from a game company that used cards in its games to a game company that used CARDS (nudge nudge) in its GAMES (wink wink).

The master plan was impressive: launch kids’ games first, then a simplified version of the APBA baseball game with photo cards, then do the same thing in football, then roll then out the 600-plus-card master set in baseball, then do a master football set, and relaunch the hockey and basketball games along the same line. The horse-racing set would continue unchanged, to the relief of the four people outside the company who had actually heard of it.

We were brought in to help, and we did a lot: We drew up player lists for the kids’ and all-star games, reworked the basketball game to make it more playable, smoothed out game play for the all-star game, came up with a way to sell booster cards in packs, worked on packaging, wrote rulebooks, helped line up distributors, created collateral materials, and flew up to Buffalo, met Canadian card-and-hockey expert Baron Bedesky, and spent a weekend creating an amazing APBA hockey game, eating fried-baloney sandwiches, and watching the Buffalo Bisons. (I expensed the flight to Buffalo. The fried-baloney sandwiches were on me.) PR person extraordinaire Doug Drotman was engaged to generate press coverage for the new venture.

Everyone connected with the new APBA was dead-set convinced that this Dream Team of card-creating talent was going to revolutionize sports games for all time. And it would have, if it wasn’t for two small bumps in the road: the leagues wouldn’t license APBA and the company out of money (again).

Neither was that unexpected, in retrospect. The licensors could see perfectly well what we were doing, and while they were willing to let APBA make cards for a self-contained kids’ board game in return for an obscene pile of cash, it was not willing to accept a quadruple-X-rated pile of cash in return for a license to make a 660-card set of GAME (wink wink) CARDS (nudge nudge) sold in PACKS (know what I mean know what I mean).

There was a feeling within APBA that our position was sound and we would eventually wear down MLB – and we might have, had we not run out of money.  Seems the investors, in the manner of almost all investors everywhere, had underestimated the amount of money necessary to bring this project to fruition by somewhere between 99.5 percent and 100 percent. The checks were barely printed before they started doing their Flubber act.

The upshot was that Bordegon left APBA after a year or so, the investors bailed, we were off the case, and precious little was left of the expedition save for two kids’ games and a handful of baseball and football all-stars sets.

So let’s start with the kids’ games. SuperStar Baseball and Football play great, if a little quick. If the cards break right you can play a game in less than five minutes, including setup time, making them the perfect games to play if you want to spend quality time with your children, but not too much. (There’s even a shortcut on both game boards, and these games need a shortcut like the NFL needs another mock draft.)

The photographs could use some work; as I recall, we hired good photographers but got their leftovers. The player lists aren’t bad, though like everyone else we believed the Tim Couch hype. Obviously there are no statistics or descriptics on the cards outside of the most basic dimensions, but anything more than that would clutter up the card. Plus there’s that age-old APBA dictum that knowing a player’s height and weight and what sides he throws and swings from helps you as a manager make strategic personnel decisions. Knowing what he did for the Richmond Flying Squirrels in 2011 is not quite in the same league.

The All-Star Baseball and Pro Bowl Football sets were meant to be pared-down versions of the big APBA game, easier to learn and play. They succeeded in that regard, but the scope of that success depends on your attitudes toward sport-simulation board games. If you believe that 32 minutes is not too much time to spend for simulated Joe Grzenda to throw a slider to simulated Cap Peterson, the APBA All-Star Baseball game will leave you nonplussed. If you place a value on little things like seeing the sun a couple of days a week, All-Star Baseball may be just your thing.

The hope and expectation was that the game cards would have photos on one side and game stuff on the other. Since one entire side of an APBA card is wasted space, photos wouldn’t compromise game play in any way. If you were planning on spending 32 minutes having Mark Brunell throw an incomplete pass to Keenan McCardell, having McCardell and Brunell’s pictures on their respective cards might even make the time pass a little more quickly.

However, the photo deals fell through at the last minute, either through lack of permission or lack of wherewithal, so the result is a set licensed by the league and the players’ association that lacks the stuff you get licenses for – namely, player images and team logos on its most important pieces. I hope APBA got its money back on that one.

APBA never got its money back on anything, and there’s the final problem. Games are even nastier than trading cards in the cutthroat business of finding shelf space. (Makes sense: The larger the item, the more it has to be a guaranteed sale for the store in order to justify its position on the shelf.) APBA, for all its reputation within the sub-hobby of game-players, had no name recognition or brand equity on the outside. Some hobby stores carried the game, but not many more than had carried it back in its ugly days. And hardcore APBA players didn’t want their game in a fancier box with nicer graphics and stylish cards. They wanted to roll their clunky old dice and read codes off of their ratty old cards.

So as it turned out, the redesigned APBA was a cure in search of a disease. It was a better product for a world that didn’t want a better product but the same product over and over again, or failing that, no product at all.

Like most other efforts at making collectibles where collectibles had not existed previously, APBA failed. It popped out of the sump for a brief moment, sniffed the air and went right back. But in terms of what could have been, ah, there APBA was something special. APBA was just a half-circle away from ABBA and just a couple of breaks away from something big.