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The 2020 MLB Season: A Game Designer's Perspective

The 2020 MLB Season: A Game Designer's Perspective

The return of Major League Baseball tonight is a wonderful thing. Early on in this pandemic, a professor of mine remarked that the baseball season is like “the rhythm of life.” It comes and goes with the seasons, and for many of us, baseball is not just a part of summer; it defines summer. For baseball fans, the last few months have felt strangely quiet.

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So, I am happy that baseball is returning and hopeful that it can return safely. No doubt, though, this baseball season is going to look quite different from seasons of the past. The stands will (probably) be empty, and some important rules have changed. But, the most significant change of all is the length of the regular season. 60 games is really different from the normal 162.

In order to understand why this change is so significant, consider a concept in statistics called “regression to the mean.” This is the idea that as one increases their sample size when measuring a variable, the sample average for that variable will get closer and closer to the real life average. Classic example: if I sample 3 random people, their average height might be way above or way below the actual average human height. But, if I sample 300 random people? Then, it’s very likely that the sample average will be closer to the real average human height.

Or, think of a free throw contest: Me vs. Michael Jordan. We each get one shot. It’s possible that I make the shot and he misses it. But if we each get 10 chances? It’s almost certain that he’d sink more than I would.

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In baseball, some teams are better than others. Over the course of a 162 game season, it becomes clear which teams are truly the best. However, over shorter periods of time, teams can have “hot” or “cold” streaks. In some cases, a team might win 10 out of 15 games, but lose 10 of their next 15. The purpose of having a long season (aside from selling a lot of tickets) is that it allows those bumps in the road to even out. A long season reveals how good each team really is, accounting for both highs and lows. When it’s time for the playoffs, which consist of three short series of games, you often hear things like, “The Red Sox are certainly the better team, but anything can happen in the playoffs!”

It’s clear that 162 games are enough to determine which teams are the best. It’s clear that 5 or 7 games (the length of a playoff series) are not enough; they’re something of a crapshoot. Where does the number 60 fall? It’s not a tiny number, but I believe it allows for significantly more “randomness” than the standard 162 game season. A short “hot streak”—consider maybe 7 wins in 8 games—could carry a subpar team into the playoffs this season.

What does this have to do with board games? A lot, actually. Here’s a tidbit about Risky Chicken. In a 4-player game of Risky Chicken, the player who obtains 70 “gold coins” first wins the game. Why 70? I believe it’s the right number to allow for some regression to the mean; it allows players who are actually better at Risky Chicken to benefit from their strategic thinking (and win more often). If the target number was 20 instead, it would be almost entirely a game of luck. One lucky turn could win the game quickly for any player. However, by playing to 70, it becomes a balance of luck and skill.

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Could I make Risky Chicken even less dependent on luck and more on skill? Sure, I suppose I could make the number 500, but then each game would take hours. A balance of both luck and skill, in many board games and almost all sports, is the norm. The best Risky Chicken player will win more often than others, but not all the time.

Just like how I’ve found my perfect balance of 70 gold coins, baseball had found its own balance: 162 games. The pandemic has disrupted this balance, and we’re going to notice the difference. Worse teams may finish with better records due to some good luck. Competition could be especially exciting and chaotic as the playoffs near. It’s a sprint rather than a marathon, and one misstep could have a huge impact. 

In any case, I am glad that baseball is returning. I’ll embrace the opportunity to watch a different kind of season, and I’ll hope for a return to normalcy in 2021. As far as Risky Chicken goes, you’re more than welcome to play a short game to 20 gold coins. But just remember: like this baseball season, it’ll be chaotic and unpredictable, and one lucky moment could make all the difference!