My favorite sport by a country mile is professional basketball, specifically the National Basketball Association (NBA). And as much as I love the NBA, the NBA playoffs are magic. (And speaking of magic, Magic Johnson was my favorite player growing up and the “Showtime” Lakers of the 1980s are still my favorite stretch of NBA history.)
Another year of great playoff action has recently wrapped up. During the playoffs this year, I worked through a review copy of the game Basketboss (2022, BoardGameTables, the publisher that is now known as AllPlay).
Basketboss is an auction game with minor, draftable player powers that plays in about 45 minutes with 2-5 players. It’s also a hoot for an NBA junkie like me, even someone who also dabbles in the WNBA and follows women’s college hoops.
That’s because all of the available players for each “manager” (you, the gamer) are shadily-named current and former hoopers like Shane Berlin (say it fast and it sounds a lot like some guy named Wilt Chamberlain), Ellis Odman (quite possibly Dennis Rodman), Suzanne Flight (bears a striking resemblance to Sue Bird) and Yanis Anotheroopoh (you may have heard of a gentleman named Giannis Antetokounpo).
In this regard, Basketboss nails the street cred elements of the theme. Is the game any good?
Strength in (Star) Numbers
Basketboss is a six-round experience that mostly plays out the same way. As general managers of a struggling pro basketball team, each turn requires managers to acquire players at one of the five legacy basketball positions: center, power forward, small forward, shooting guard and point guard. (As a new-school hoops guy, I know that times have changed and players are mostly considered frontcourt or backcourt players. The board game is stuck in the 80s, in part because this version is a reskin of the 2009 original design, also called BasketBoss.)
The acquisition of players comes in the form of an auction; players, on skinny, colorful cards that form a market, come in one of five positional flavors and with a certain number of stars that denote their level of talent for a given season. Because players age each year, their skill level will require planning for future seasons. This is a little weird, because you can predict the future in Basketboss and know that Scott E. Pippendore (I’ll let you figure that one out) will be a one-star player in his first season but his second season will be a max five-star output.
Each manager’s player board holds their team’s current players with cards that slide up into the board as players age. To begin play, every manager has a set of five players that are steadily going to provide one star worth of talent. Upgrading to better players is the only way to win, and when judging the current season, managers will measure team strength by adding up all of the stars showing for the current season. A small bonus will then be added: one star for each unique position on your team.
That means that you can start a team of five incredible shooting guards…but you’ll only get one bonus star because you only have players at one unique position. This provides flexibility to draft the best players, at a minor cost each round. (Players can always be swapped out for new ones if you don’t want to see your current players age to the point where they are worthless for your team strength. Players automatically retire when there are no stars left in their future career…which, again, is really strange.)
After trophies are handed out based on each team’s current strength—these trophies score points at the end of play—each player can draft one of the six “Advisors” that provide a power for the next round. Income is distributed based on the number of dollar bills showing on active players (you’ll need cash to hire more players) then managers age their roster before starting a new round.
Final scoring includes the trophies earned during play plus the end-game strength of your roster. Ties are broken by leftover money, which is absolutely the right call in a game about the business of professional basketball.
Uncle Stu Flames Out Fast
Basketboss is an interesting experience.
The auction elements at the start of each round of Basketboss are the core of the game—the rest is mostly administration and clean-up. Each round has a different event that slightly changes the rules, although rounds one and six always have the same event, which is basically no event at all. Sometimes, players get a benefit for having more power forwards and centers in the game, or having multiple players at the same position.
I like that money is tight, so most of the time, you’ll only have enough cash to acquire one, maybe two players in a round. One of the Advisor powers grants a dollar each time the owning manager passes during an auction, so it’s a great way to earn a little extra cash as you try to load up for a future round. Another power automatically takes the lead in a tied auction—in this case, a bid of $2 can be matched by the owner of this power to now have a better/higher $2 bid—while another grants a manager with a one-point trophy, which in a close game might be the difference.
The bidding on players, and the timing of when to start an auction on another player, is the heart of the Basketboss experience. But it’s a little more interesting when you want to get your hands on the shooting guard Dee Fade (gosh, is that Dwayne Wade?) and you get to hash out all of your great D-Wade memories. But is Basketboss as interesting when you aren’t a hoophead?
I don’t think so. There are only 35 player cards in the deck: 33 players, and two injury cards. You’ll see most of those in each game, and some of them are just patently better cards; the Bot card (the game pokes fun here and there; you’ve also got a Mascot, Fan, and Bud card, the latter of which reminded me a lot of the Air Bud character from the movie of the same name) gives you four stars every season. Most players ebb and flow, giving you five-star seasons and one-star seasons over the course of their career.
Also—and maybe this is the junkie in me—some of these characters appear to be based on real NBA players but then change up how their stats really played out. Timothy Duncant, who may or may not be based on Tim Duncan, is terrible in Basketboss, with a total of only six stars across the first half of his career; in real life, Duncan was winning championships right out of the gate, won the Rookie of the Year in his first season, and was a 15-time All-Star across 19 seasons. I think many, if not most, fans would say he was the greatest power forward in history across the first half of his career, maybe ever.
Beer and Basketboss
Basketboss is a great beer-and-pretzels experience. It’s solid, in that it is not particularly weak in any one area, and the game gets better the more knowledgeable you are as a basketball fan.
Basketboss is incredibly easy to teach, has fantastic production (love those player boards and money chits), and plays best at its highest player count of five players; this is typical for most auction games, since chaos is the goal. At two or three players, the auctions are just less interesting.
I don’t think Basketboss has lasting power, but for a roughly $30 gaming experience, I thought Basketboss provided great value and will get you a half-dozen plays before tapering out. Designed by Corné van Moorsel (Factory Funner, the co-designer of Nova Luna), Basketboss is a six-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs each year: above average, no home-court advantage, fun to watch, ultimately not an all-time classic.