Blaseball: Wild Cards – Taking Back Sportsball – Turn Order

There are two types of reviews one can write for the Blaseball: Wild Cards tactical card game (released by Wayfinder Games and co-designed by Rain Watt & Michael Fox).

One is for those familiar with Blaseball, the free, low-fi, online “Cthulhu meets Calvinball” computer simulation that launched on July 20, 2020, and became a Nebula- and Hugo Award-nominated runaway cult phenomenon. That review caters to those who play Blaseball and tweet Blaseball and Discord Blaseball and are Extremely Online About Blaseball and know intimately its rich history and lore and its every inside-Blaseball reference, like That Guy who knows every Monty Python quote by heart.

And then there’s this review, from someone (me) who missed Blaseball Version 1.0, bought Blaseball: Wild Cards at Pax Unplugged, then declared myself The Biggest Blaseball Fan Ever by diving headfirst and carefree into their “reboot” season (which launched this week) with supreme “eff around and find out” zeal. I think, therefore I fan.


Fandom is the state of loving things communally with others who love them as demonstrably and vocally and squeeably as you do. Gatekeeping is every fandom’s fascist movement; someone who excludes or oppresses others by declaring they don’t or can’t possibly love said things as they do – aka like them in the correct manner or in the proper amounts. But gatekeepers are sweaty and always tell on themselves; their denial of access lays bare their own incuriousness and insecurity, hermetically sealed within the empty room they’re protecting.

I discovered my least favorite variation of gatekeeping when I encountered select members of the board game community – the “Sportsball” faction of gatekeepers.

Sports and board games share a thick tome of theory, syntax, and language: games, contests, rules, luck, strategy, victory, defeat. But the bone of contention is usually the physical (sports) versus mental (games). Sports are associated with physical strength and performance and skills, while board games aren’t. Like most binaries, this is an over-simplified, contextless, and reductive take. But this is precisely where gatekeepers live, and thrive.

I’d have thought that the numerous parallels between enjoying sports and board games would overcome the gross generalizations of “lol nerds versus jocks”. But the casual “sportsball” microaggressions and performative “I don’t even UNDERSTAND how sports even WORK” disinterest from a few gaming folks proved me wrong. Their attitude hinged on the lazy assumption that one fan circle shalt not overlap with another. Pardon my transness, but binaries make me itchy. Why can’t I contain multitudes and like both baseball and board games?

More disheartening was that I was already beyond exhausted from being a lifelong sports fan, where gatekeeping is a big foam finger – perpetual and renewable dark energy source. For one, sports is mostly binary-based. Like Highlander, there can be only one winner and loser in most sports and sporting events, which lends itself well to gatekeeping slap fights and power grabs. And sports allegiances are typically determined by geography. Where you live determines who you root for. Being designated a fan of a particular team by birth rules leads to gatekeeping by divine right. It’s the nature of the beast. Sports fandoms is ripe for being exclusionary under the guise of being celebratory.

Blaseball: Wild Cards not only ignited my interest in the Blaseball V. 2.0 launch this week, it’s a tailor-made TCG for me because it grapples with the question as to whether a game can overcome the worst impulses of gatekeeping and align at least three fandoms (sports, board games, the cult of Blaseball) into a perfect circle on the Venn diagram of  “let people like things.”

Blaseball: Wild Cards presumes one knows baseball (or softball, or stickball, or kickball) basics: one side pitches, the other side bats. Pitchers try to generate three outs by striking out batters, or catching the ball when put in play. Batters try to hit the ball and get on base as runners. If their runners circle the bases (1st-2nd-3rd-home) they score runs (known in board gaming as “victory points.”)

Similar to Bull Durham (best baseball movie ever), Blaseball: Wild Cards is a simple game: you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. Each team fields a deck of 24 cards (14 Players + 10 Specials). Player Cards have pitching, hitting, and catching values one adds to the base 2d6 roll of an attempted pitch/hit/catch action. Player Cards also have unique abilities which lean into the best ways to deploy them (pitchers, batters, fielders, secret fourth things).

Blaseball Yin/Yang: Fish Summer adds an extra strike when pitching. Howell Franklin can spend Vibe token to remove strikes from their count.

Some players also start with Vibe tokens on them – power ups that activate unique game-bending actions such as rerolls, boosts, buffs, soaks, or other exotic powers, interrupts, and combos.

Special Cards are random acts of Blaseball (similar to player abilities or vibe effects) that surprise the game state with an “a-ha!,” “yes, and?” or “but actually”. They depict items, events, and even (especially) supernatural, eldritch weather.

Not a Bull Durham quote: “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes the players are incinerated, or sucked up by a turbulent void, or plagued by a shower of peanuts.”

Each turn, the Pitching player (fielding a Pitcher and Outfield support card) and Batting player (one Batter card only) roll 2d6 (adding additional modifiers from card abilities) to determine their pitcher/batter values, respectively. The batter value must exceed the pitching value to make contact. If it’s lower, it’s a strike. If it’s the same, it’s a ball. Like real baseball, three strikes make an out and four balls equals a walk (the batter’s free trip to first base). Unlike real baseball, the balls/strike count doesn’t refresh with a new batter. So someone can come to the plate with a full count and only see one pitch (aka That’s So Blaseball!).

If the Batter makes contact they have the conservative option of taking a Ball or running it out and seeing if they can get on base (thus becoming a runner, and possibly scoring runs). Getting on base isn’t a sure thing since the Pitching player’s Outfield support card has the chance to Catch the ball for an out.

Blaseball baserunning adds a dash of customary TCG-fiddliness amounting to determining the Batter’s running value (known as The Potential), and spending that value on any runners on the bases to move them (in any order) to score runs. (Anyone who’s spent any time around Magic: The Gathering will be familiar with this calculation). Essentially the bigger the margin between the generated Batting and Pitching values, the higher the chance that batters can circle 1/2/3/4 bases and score.

If a batter is not out via three strikes or a successful catch (see below), then both players reroll 2d6 for the next pitch of the at bat, unless and until an out is recorded or the batter reaches base successfully. After an out is recorded players reset in the Clean Up Phase. The batter plays a new player card. Clean up shenanigans can take the form of spending Vibe tokens to keep the same pitcher on the mound, or in a countermove have them forcibly removed by the batter.

The game simulates one inning in a Blaseball (baseball) game, giving each player a chance to pitch and hit. After the first three outs are recorded, players switch pitcher/batter sides and spin the game mat. After three more outs, the team with the most runs is the winner. Ties are possible (there are no extra innings in the card game version, although this week there was an 80+ inning game of actual Blaseball on Opening Day).

O Captain! My Captain!

But even without Blaseball knowledge its minimalist brush strokes (only three players on the field at a time and three possible outcomes per roll) evoke the feeling and rhythm of watching a baseball game or any real-time sports contest quite well, even in its barest bones.

It helps that the Blaseball universe as teased and told through the cards in the box is so relentlessly imaginative and bizarre. The artwork is fantastically evocative, with every over-the-top fake name and quirky or fiendish description adding details that read like the portents in a Lovecraft short story. That said, I wish the card text wasn’t so tiny and camouflaged by the background colors on many of the cards. I also recommend skipping the rulebook in the box and going directly to co-designer Michael Fox’s online walkthrough of the rules. Blaseball’s rulebook reads like pages are out of order. I was flummoxed by how baserunning worked and swear there might be a typo. The garish layout and non-sequitur sidebars with winking Blaseball references a novice wouldn’t care about do no favors. And as I write this, I still don’t understand what to do with the two included sets of booster packs.

Since I know very little about Blaseball proper the cards’ references to people, events and infamous moments in Blaseball’s history didn’t resonate deeper than “wow, pretty weird.” So playing Blaseball: Wild Cards is self-contained and doesn’t require previous BB knowledge. Playing the card game prompted me to look up some BB lore on their Wiki, which is as detailed as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As a rookie I found actual Blaseball an impenetrable thicket and tuned out after a few minutes. There’s a 90% chance that people new to Blaseball or coming at it via the card game will bounce off it in the same way. Learning about actual Blaseball from the outside looking in is like learning how to migrate to Mastodon from Twitter. Seriously – here’s a fit check. BB’s sharp learning curve (and, yes, perceived gatekeeping experience) is an issue that even the creator has acknowledged and is something they hope to sand down for this new iteration. Blaseball: Wild Cards is a step in this more inclusive and more cohesive direction.

Make no mistake. I’m a fan. I love Blaseball: Wild Cards. Like any officially licensed board game version of a video game, it whetted my appetite for opting into actual Blaseball. But other than “gateway game for Blaseball” it’s difficult to suss out who exactly the Blaseball: Wild Cards game (and by extension the original Blaseball) is for.

Because Wild Cards is a Cerberus of Blaseball, baseball, and tactical card game, and each of those barking heads subvert what people recognize and (think they) expect from Blaseball, baseball, and tactical skirmish card games. It will likely “sportsball” TCG’ers – especaially min/max robots and perfect information scolds who won’t like the steady diet of d6 die rolls, blind card draws, and card effect chaos. It risks sportsballing baseball fans since Blaseball: Wild Cards is a kind of a baseball sim the way that a meteorite is kind of a rock. It might even sportsball die-hard Blaseball fans since the card game removes the original’s betting economy and weekly community voting on rule changes – a huge driver of Blaseball’s cult popularity. It may well sportsball a large swath of The Internet of Fandoms too, who may misinterpret this game as poking fun at them and at fans and fan culture in general.

But Blaseball: Wild Cards is not gatekeeping, even if its IP is esoteric and opaque. It’s a distillation of Blaseball’s original mission, when it launched mere months into a Covid-19 timeline and three days before Major League Baseball resumed its own abbreviated season: to restore a feeling of hope, love, and community through positive shared (online) experience.

It’s no coincidence that this week’s Blaseball V 2.0 relaunch saw players, teams, and rules “burped” from a massive black hole back into competition. A massive black hole is where we were figuratively and literally in 2020. In that darkness Blaseball was complicated and bananas, but there were no wrong answers as to how one could engage with it. Root for any team or player you wanted. Switch allegiances. Follow along on a macro or micro level. Write fanfic about your favorite player and give them three dimensions. Vote on rules changes, or start grassroots campaigns to ratify them. Or, don’t. Any way you chose to you engage as a fan was valid.

Blaseball represents being able to love a wholly new thing, together, and root for it, together. To remember what it’s like to like a thing. To be a fan without judgment or being judged, and instead a fan borne from love, and shared, sincere support of that love.

Blaseball: Wild Cards as a gateway game is the antidote to gatekeeping. It captures a feeling of pure, benevolent fan culture in a card game like a fond memory. It celebrates the fun and games of fun and games. And does so with a goofy made-up sport so ridiculous and over the top and hard to understand at first that it might as well be called “sportsball.” Blaseball and Blaseball: Wild Cards reclaim sportball from the gatekeepers, like a fan mascot reminding us that to be a “true” fan you merely have to like something, unabashedly, for the love of the game.