I am cheering for the Cubs, so the World Series is really depressing me right now. (I inherited a love for the New York Yankees from my dad, but I went to college in Chicago.) In board game fantasy world, however, I can have the World Series anytime I want, thanks to Baseball Highlights: 2045 from Eagle Games.
Baseball Highlights is a deck building game set during the World Series in the year 2045. The premise is that baseball has evolved to include not only natural human players, but cyborgs and robots. As a result, many of your players have special powers that threaten different types of hits at different speeds, while also taking out your opponent's hitters and base runners. Each player begins with a starting team composed of rookies and veterans with slightly different abilities. The base game includes four teams: New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The starter teams really do feel slightly different from each other, and I'm curious about some of the others that are available as expansions.
Rather than play the same team throughout one long game, you will play several minigames (best of seven wins). During these minigames, you will threaten your own singles, doubles, triples, and home runs, while simultaneously trying to counter your opponent's. This makes for a frenzied and fun experience where you try to play offense and defense at the same time. Between each of the minigames, there is a buy phase that allows you to acquire "free agents" with improved abilities, while sending some of the weaker cards from your starting team to the minor leagues. By paying attention to the card combinations your opponent is creating, as well as to the free agents that they are buying, you can build a competitive, carefully tailored championship team.
Although Baseball Highlights could play up to four players in a round-robin style tournament, the game clearly shines with just one or two. With two players, you get to face off against an opponent who is trying to optimize her deck to counter your every move. With one player, you battle against an AI player whose team is randomly generated from the free agent deck.
You might think that drawing 15 random AI players and playing them one after the other would not make for a challenging game—after all, it's not like the game can actually strategize against you. But solo play works surprisingly well. This is partially because there are only so many mechanics available in the game, so the AI cards can still mess up many of your plans through luck of the draw. Additionally, the free agent cards are naturally more powerful than your starter cards, so the AI starts with a bit of an advantage. To mitigate that advantage, solo players actually need to go through a few buy phases before beginning to play. That's right: some of your rookies will go back to the minor leagues before ever getting to play a game in the World Series. The rulebook recommends two buy phases for a challenging experience, but you can have more if you want an easier game. I'm not sure you can win without going through any buy phases at all.
Solo play in Baseball Highlights: 2045 is only lacking in one way. In a two player game, you are constantly paying attention to what cards the other player has and which free agents they are buying up, so that you can create a team of your own that takes enemy strengths and weaknesses into account. My one complaint is that this particular element is absent from the solo variant because the AI deck is randomly generated. The solo game can be challenging no matter what, but when I want a bit more of a strategic game, I sometimes construct AI teams to make sure that their abilities have a lot of synergy. This also makes thematic sense to me—it's not like baseball rosters are a mystery in real life.
I've had a ton of fun playing this game solo, and am seriously considering ordering some more starter teams (Chicago!). Not only does Baseball Highlights: 2045 offer a fun challenge, but the pacing of the game creates tense, quick rounds that make you want to keep playing. Even if you don't like baseball, the deck building elements that are built into Baseball Highlights give it enough strategic interest to be worth a shot. The minigame structure keeps the game action-packed, and the game as as whole is short enough that it doesn't wear out its welcome. In fact, you might finish one World Series and immediately decide to play another. I highly recommend this one, especially if you want a quick, fun game to play on your own or with a partner.