Strat-O-Matic Celebrity Q & A with Trip Hawkins

Strat-O-Celebrity Q & A with Trip Hawkins

In this edition of the Strat-O-Matic Celebrity Q & A series, Strat-O-Matic interviewed Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts. A Hall of Fame game industry leader, Hawkins played a key role in defining the PC industry as an early executive at Apple, and was also the creative force behind EA Sports.

Question: You started playing Strat-O-Matic in 1967 when you were 13 years old. Who introduced you to the game and how often did you play?
Trip Hawkins: A buddy from school, Tim Bevan, had been playing the baseball game with his brothers and we started playing with his 1966 set.  Being a bigger football fan at the time, I bought both the football and baseball games from the 1967 season when they came out.  I played every day in the summer and on the weekends.
Q: Was there a particular group of people you would usually play with?
Trip Hawkins: I had to find the nerdiest and geekiest most hardcore gamer kids in my neighborhood and school.  We began doing draft leagues with the 1968 card sets.  I’m still playing with 4 of those guys.  We’ve been best of friends for a long time now.  There is no doubt that the competition around Strat-O-Matic kept us together and helped us become great friends.
Q: What specifically was Strat-O-Matic able to teach you about baseball?
Trip Hawkins: Most importantly, from the study of SOM, I deduced Bayesian Probability Theory and got much better at math, statistics and the "game theory" process of interdependent strategic thinking.  With both baseball and football, I learned a tremendous amount about the players and how to best build rosters and do the game management.  Like every Strat player, I also developed a lot of grit and perseverance from the disappointment of losing and plans gone awry.  By 1976, we’d invented the method of drafting players before the season began and watching them for six months and then waiting another 5 months for the cards to arrive (which to me is as big a deal as Christmas morning).  As we all know, when your # 1 draft pick tears a rotator cuff or you lose a nail-biter for the championship on one bad dice roll, you are going to suffer, big-time.  And you have to learn to pick yourself back up and get back into the arena for the next round.
Q: You went on to create Electronic Arts/EA Sports, which of course, has become a multi-billion dollar company whose games have brought a lot of joy to millions of sports fans. Were there elements of Strat-O-Matic that helped influence your work at EA?
Trip Hawkins: Many board games inspired me.  All Star Baseball, Strat-O-Matic and APBA all used real players, which was essential to me.  But Strat-O-Matic was the most authentic in statistical depth, accuracy and game design.  Like Hal Richman, I wanted to make the most realistic possible simulation.  I have always felt SOM was particularly good with baseball where the one-run tactics like bunting and baserunning are correctly modeled in terms of choices and outcomes.  I also really appreciated how Strat-O-Matic got better over the years with key additions like lefty-righty and individualized throwing arms and baserunning.  However, I do like some of the administrative streamlining in computer games that make things flow along more smoothly.  For example, my buddies and I embraced the Advanced rules but not the Super Advanced, HAL or Passed Ball types of rules that slow things down too much.
Q: You are still an avid Strat-O-Matic Baseball board game and Windows game player to this day. Tell us about the league you currently play in and the people you play with.
Trip Hawkins: There are 6 of us playing, 4 from my childhood and 2 that I have "only" known for 20-30 years!  We call it BETTY for BEaT The Yankees.  The idea is to make in March a team that will outperform the Yankees (and each other) for half the money the Yankees are spending.  We use real salary data.  When the season is over, we run the Windows simulation software a bunch of times to determine a Computer Champion and some of us also play card game championships.  Several of us also now go to spring training together to scout the 15 teams that are based in Phoenix.
Q: What is it about Strat-O-Matic that has kept you playing for all of these years?
Trip Hawkins: It’s both authentic and efficient – I can play a game in 30 minutes or less and create a genuine baseball narrative.  I love the drama created by the dice rolls.  Luck in any game design adds a compelling "spectator" dimension.  I love keeping the stats and saving them and developing histories with certain players.  I had several great years with Barry Bonds but even more with lesser players like Gary Matthews. 
Q: All-time favorite card to play with?
Trip Hawkins: Nolan Ryan because strikeouts make you feel so dominant.  In recent years, Troy Tulowitzki, who is also fun to watch.  I had several great years with Barry Bonds but even more with lesser players like Gary Matthews.  I love the five tool guys because I love the running game.  I am looking forward to Billy Hamilton in the upcoming card set.
Q: In all of your years of playing Strat, is there a memorable game or moment that stands out to you most?
Trip Hawkins: I was in the finals with my arch-rival Ed and was down 3 games to none.  I battled back to win 2 games and then in Game 6, Nolan Ryan threw a no-hitter and my demoralized rival then lay down and submitted to the inevitable game 7 loss.  I’m very competitive so the funny story I need to share is the time that a great team of mine was struggling because they were mostly 2 column hitters and we weren’t rolling any twos.  My competitive rival mocked me for complaining when I decided to examine the dice.  He’d already won the first game of our playoff series and was leading in game 2 when to our utter amazement, we found that the die did not have a 2 on it.  We started over and I won the series.  On his deathbed I have no doubt that rather than saying, "Rosebud", my friend will be complaining about me and those dice!
Q: If you could play anyone in a single game of Strat, who would it be and why?
Trip Hawkins: My great friend Ed Munson.  He’s such a smart and experienced player and a great challenge to interact with mentally.  It’s an honor to play with him and a thrill to win against all the things he throws at me.
Q: What is it that people can learn or take away from Strat-O-Matic that you would encourage them to play it today?
Trip Hawkins: There is 100% certainty that we grow a lot of new brain cells and synapse connections from a game like Strat-O-Matic.  Every room in your brain is fully open and lit up and working.  It’s also so immersive that it is a great escape from mundane life.
Q: Are there any benefits that come from playing Strat-O-Matic that can’t necessarily be replicated in video games?
Trip Hawkins: The continuous manipulation of math and statistics really do keep your brain sharp.
Published: October 10, 2014