I have to admit that I'm not really a fan of baseball. I enjoy going to the occasional Mariners game, but I think it is an incredibly boring sport to watch on television. My wife, on the other hand, absolutely loves baseball, and so I was really looking forward to playing Bottom of the 9th with her, especially after taking a look at the game at GenCon 2105. Even though I've never really been a fan of the game of baseball, I did enjoy collecting baseball cards when I was younger, and there are certain brilliant little touches in Bottom of the 9th that hit me with a rush of nostalgia for the thrill of opening new packs of cards. I've been pleasantly surprised a few times by games that didn't heavily appeal to me thematically, and Bottom of the 9th is no exception, and it turns out that I enjoy playing it even more than my wife does.
As soon as you crack open Bottom of the 9th it becomes apparent that designers Darrell Louder and Mike Mullins love baseball, and I would hazard a guess that at least one of them was, or still is, a baseball card collector. All of the player cards are packed inside their own package that looks just like a pack of baseball cards, all the way down to including a "stick of gum" with the cards. This is an absolutely unnecessary nod to collecting baseball cards that, nonetheless, instantly put a smile on my face.
The premise of the game is right in the title. One player is the rag-tag home team, and they are up to bat in the bottom of the 9th inning with the game tied at zero. If they can manage to score a run, they will win. If the away team can manage to secure 3 outs before a run is scored, they will win the game because they are the league powerhouses and are sure to win if the game goes to extra innings. For players who aren't satisfied with simply calling the away team the winners if no runs have been scored, it is very easy to switch sides, as each game of Bottom of the 9th clocks in at only 10 minutes or so. It's even possible to play out an entire 9 inning game if you were so inclined simply by switching sides after each half inning and keeping track of the overall score. The game is best when played in short bursts, but it's nice that the option to play a full game exists and requires no special setup or rules changes.
The standard, half inning game of Bottom of the 9th has the home team player choose a lineup of 6 batters, while their opponent chooses two available pitchers. Each player has their own special abilities, so it pays to put some thought into which players you choose and also which order you place them in your lineup. As with real baseball, it can be a smart move to start your lineup with players who can easily reach base, followed by power hitters who have a better chance at crushing a long ball.
Each pitch is broken down into a series of phases, the first of which, called the Stare Down, is where the majority of the inter-player tension is created. Both players have two baseball tokens. The Direction token, labeled High on one side and Low on the other, and the Location token, showing Inside and Outside respectively. The batter will be trying to guess which pitch will be thrown, while the pitcher will be trying to outsmart the batter. Once both players have chosen Direction and Location, they reveal their choices simultaneously. Guessing correctly gives the batter options to use during the swing, including his MVP ability if is correct on both tokens, while choosing incorrectly grants the pitcher bonuses.
Each pitcher has an Ace Pitch that is some combination of Direction and Location, and throwing that pitch gives them access to a special ability. Using any part of their Ace Pitch fatigues the pitcher though, so they can't simply throw their best pitch every time. If they use either the matching Direction and/or Location of their Ace Pitch too often, they will become unable to choose that selection, making the pitch that they throw far easier for the batter to guess. This gives the batter a chance to make educated guesses about what the pitcher will throw and creates a sort of cat and mouse game as each player tries to outguess the other.
Once the pitch is thrown, three dice are rolled. First, the pitcher rolls both a Pitch die and a Control die and uses any modifiers on those dice that were earned during the Stare Down. The Pitch die determines whether the pitch is a Ball, Strike, or painted the Corner of the plate, while the number rolled on the Control die is compared to the number showing on the batter's Swing die, which is rolled and modified after the pitcher has completed his rolls.
There is a small sense of disconnect with the dice rolls, especially when playing as the pitcher, as it can be a bit frustrating if the dice constantly come up in undesirable ways, such as numerous Balls when you need a Strike, and there really is no way to intentionally throw Balls consistently or to throw a meat pitch over the center of the plate. This randomness really places an emphasis on how important the dice modifiers from the Stare Down phase are, and a player who can consistently get the better of his opponent in the Stare Down will have a huge advantage during the Swing. Even so, it does take some agency away from the pitcher, because, while they can add or subtract from the Control die, knowing the outcome, the only real interaction with the Pitch die is to re-roll it and hope for the best.
If the batter manages to make contact with the ball, the Run! phase begins. The Run! phase is chaotic, wacky, and fun. Each player races to be the first to roll a 5 or a 6 on their die. If the pitcher rolls a 5 or a 6 before the batter does, he shouts "OUT!" and the lead base runner is out. If the batter succeeds first, he yells "Safe!" and all runners on base advance. It's a fun change of pace to rapidly move from the cerebral Stare Down to the chaotic desperation of rolling the die as fast as possible in the Run! phase. The batter does have a chance to avoid the Run! phase altogether if he can make contact with a natural 6. If he does, he crushes the ball and has a chance to re-roll the die, possibly resulting in a walk-off home run. When that happens, the pitcher has one last chance to catch the ball just before it goes over the fence, which can lead to some hilarious, and heartbreaking, moments.
A note on solo play: Bottom of the 9th features a solitaire mode that is quite good. You are tasked with playing 6 game, and must win at least 4 of them, scoring as many victory points as possible. Each game places you near the end of a game, usually in the 8th or 9th inning, and follows a specific setup determined by random card draw. One game might have you start down 2 runs in the bottom of the 8th, while another will have you begin with an Out already. Your performance in these games will determine your overall score. Each game also has a special effect that is drawn at random that effects that game, so there is enough variation to keep the solitaire mode interesting across multiple plays. The solitaire game has you play versus a deck of cards, rather than an opponent, but it takes the same kind of thoughtful strategy as the two player game, if not being a little bit more predictable than a human opponent.
A note on “chrome”: Bottom of the 9th really takes the baseball theme and runs with it. The components are great, from the player cards that are formatted just like baseball cards to the "stick of gum" that is used to track balls and strikes. The cards themselves, and the "stick of gum" are packed inside the box in their own baseball card-style packaging that absolutely exudes nostalgia for anyone who has ever collected baseball cards.
The bottom line:
Bottom of the 9th is a very good micro game that should really appeal to anyone who loves America's favorite pastime. It does a great job of taking a slice from the most exciting part of a baseball game and abstracting it just enough so that it works mechanically while still oozing baseball from every pore. Both the two player mode and the solitaire mode are worthwhile, and the game is mechanically fun enough that even players who aren't fans of baseball should enjoy it. It's fun to transition from the thoughtful Stare Down phase, to the random Swing phase into the chaotic Run! phase, although dealing with an uncooperative Pitch die can be frustrating as the pitcher. The game plays so quickly that a pair of players can each take a turn on both sides of the ball in under 30 minutes, and is flexible enough to allow players to play full 9 inning games if they so choose.
Get this game if:
You love baseball.
You enjoy micro-games.
You like two player, directly competitive games.
Avoid this game if:
You want a boardgame that simulates every aspect of baseball, not just the tension between pitcher and batter.
You prefer cooperative games.
The copy of Bottom of the 9th used for this review was provided by the Greater Than Games/Dice Hate Me Games.
Bottom of the 9th should instantly appeal to baseball fans, especially those who used to, or still do, collect baseball cards. It uses fun mechanics to allow players to play out the most exciting scenario in a game of baseball.