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The unique, immersive world of Strat-O-Matic football

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Tom Brady is on fire.

The Patriots quarterback has ripped off three straight completions against my Bengals defense.

To counter, I shift into a four-man front and send Carlos Dunlap on a blitz. The ball is snapped and Brady -- annoyingly -- looks right past my front seven, pegging Julian Edelman on a curl for 9 yards and another New England first down at my 32-yard line.

With the game tied 7-7, I call for a 3-3-5 nickel package and double up Rob Gronkowski with a safety, but Brady counters by handing the ball to LeGarrette Blount, who blasts past Geno Atkins for a 16-yard gain.

Whatever I do, the Patriots remain one step ahead. Next play, Brady hits Danny Amendola in the back of the end zone, taking a lead New England might not lose.

I need to rethink my plan on defense in a hurry. Brady's offense is just as multiple and unpredictable as in real life, which is the appeal of Strat-O-Matic football.

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Would last year's Broncos have beaten John Elway's championship teams of old?

Could Carson Palmer and the Cardinals have written a different ending to last season with a few strategic tweaks in the NFC title game?

How would Joe Namath's '68 Jets fare in a time-machine showdown with Bill Belichick's 2001 Patriots?

For a curious and devoted group of sports gamers, all these questions have answers. Solutions that have played out in countless ways on rainy afternoons from kitchen tables across America. Or, today, in online battles waged by a devoted collection of real-life gamers. Memorable rivalries, seasons and eras of old all rest at the fingertips with Strat-O-Matic.

Created in 1961 by Hal Richman, Strat-O-Matic first entered the world as a baseball board game, winning over fans with its offering of real players, unmatched strategy and statistical accuracy. As Strat grew in popularity, Richman dreamt up the football version in 1968.

"There was a seven-year difference, and there were a couple reasons why," Richman said. "I could barely afford one game. In 1961, I was all of 25 years old, and 25-year-olds back then didn't go into business for themselves. And I only went into business for myself because nobody wanted my product. So I said, 'All right, I'm going to give it a flier,' and I did."

While crafting a baseball game came naturally to Richman, designing a strategy-based football game was a different beast.

"I had an excellent knowledge of baseball -- it was my first love. My father gave me a book when I was about 8 years old on the great Hall of Fame players, and that really got to me," Richman said. "Football I didn't know that much about, so what I had to do, I got season tickets for the New York Giants, went a couple years, took notes and then came up with a game. And it took a lot of [in-game] testing. I tested my friends, basically, and it was a totally different game than anything out there."

It was decades before the earliest video games would serve as a tractor beam to the young, and football fans in the 1960s were out of luck on the gaming front. Low-level dice contests and loveable-but-clunky Electric Football couldn't touch what Richman cooked up: Full rosters of real players who performed just like they did in real life. Strat football allowed you to instantly line up your favorite team in multiple offensive formations and defensive fronts against your sibling, next-door neighbor or parent.

The rich detail of the game offered a much closer facsimile of real-life football than anything you'd find in the early computer offerings of the day. Each player came with his own individual playing card -- a laundry list of numbers and ratings that corresponded to a dice role. When you dial up a deep pass with the 1986 Giants, rolling a pair of dice would determine if Phil Simms connected downfield with Phil McConkey for a drive-saving first down -- or took the rare sack.

"The movement of the players was something unique," Richman said. "This gave you a chance to move the linebacker and the safety, and it made the game a totally different animal than anything else out there. We had to play it a lot because it's a very subjective game -- a lot of skill involved -- and we had to get statistics that worked. It was met with approval right away because we already had a big audience in baseball, which had a reputation. It wasn't like the baseball game, which was a pioneer and had to go through a lot of difficulty -- the football game did not, financially, in that respect."

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So who still plays? Your grandfather? Your weird uncle? Isolated folk nerding out in the middle of the night?

"You have to be a special type of person, I think, to play Strat-O-Matic football because you want more of a challenge," Richman said. "It's not just picking players and hoping for touchdowns, interceptions or whatever the criteria is to win. Playing Strat-O-Matic, you're really the coach. You're playing all out, looking for weakness, applying your strengths, while your opponent's devising his defense, his offense, to offset what you're doing. The Strat-O-Matic football player is an individual who wants to be much more involved beyond surface reaction. It's intense involvement and very different."

If not a magnet for millennials, Strat-O-Matic today still boasts an entrenched legion of fans. Longtime broadcasters Bob Costas and Jon Miller grew up playing Strat baseball, while director Spike Lee turned his real-life obsession of replaying the Brooklyn Dodgers' '53 season into a subplot in his 1994 film "Crooklyn."

Beyond the well-known names, today's Strat-O-Matic football community is very much that -- a community. The board game evolved into a computerized version more than a decade ago, allowing contemporary players to compete in highly organized online leagues that feature everything today's deepest fantasy leagues offer: dynasty drafts, trades, long-term scouting. And there's little room for fly-by-nighters.

"I think once people buy and play the game, once they pick it up, it can get into your blood pretty quickly," said longtime player Tom Cooke. "I think probably anybody who's into any kind of gaming, whether it's those old Avalon Hill Civil War strategy games, or even guys into Xbox or hard-core PC games, whatever's hot right now, I think there's an addictive quality to all that type of gaming, in general. Most of the guys who play Strat football are older -- 35 and older, easily."

Cooke plays almost exclusively online against a collection of longtime coaches who -- just like Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh -- know each other's strengths, weaknesses and strategic impulses. Unlike fantasy football, Strat issues its annual player-card release in August. So, later this summer, players of both the board game and computer version will get their first peek at last year's rookies and Super Bowl-champion Broncos.

"Trying to play alone against the computer, for me, doesn't have that same kind of enjoyment," said Dennis Crowley, who first found the board game in 1985 before discovering the PC version in 2004. "What I like about it is the strategy head-to-head, that cat-and-mouse you get, where you can influence the other coach's decision by continuously hammering at his weaknesses."

One-on-one showdowns are in vogue, but Strat-O-Matic's football family also includes its share of Thoreau types, dedicated to revisiting history in quiet rooms nationwide.

"There's definitely a group of solo replayers," Crowley said. "They get the computer game and they replay the 1961 season or the 1967 season or they take a franchise from the beginning of Strat-O-Matic years and play every year and keep encyclopedias, where they're creating their own kind of alternate universe. And then there's other guys who only play the board game, and that takes forever, but they enjoy that solitude of rolling the dice and writing the stats down and calculating it by hand."

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I'm one of those solitary players.

When the NFL first grabbed me as a mildly lost middle-schooler in the mid-1980s, I fell hard for the Cleveland Browns. This created a variety of issues for someone living on the East Coast. We didn't have cable TV, and I wasn't old enough to hit the sports bar. I only saw the Browns when they played on "Monday Night Football" or battled the local Jets or Giants.

With my Browns obsession growing from a distance, I lived for any nugget or video clip of the team. I'd record the few games I had access to and rewatch them dozens of times. Come the summer months, I'd badger my parents to take me to the local newsstand in hopes of finding the first wave of NFL preview magazines. This is how I discovered the remote world of dice football.

Tucked in the closing pages of a Street & Smith's, I found an ad for APBA football, a game similar to Strat-O-Matic. It advertised the chance to recreate rivalries and full seasons from home. My 13-year-old world was spinning. Sending away for more information, I could already sense this new discovery offered jet fuel for my obsession.

When the cards and board game arrived weeks later, I was hooked. The contents were pure magic: More than 800 playing cards from all 28 NFL teams. I dabbled mainly with the 1987 Browns, a franchise anchored by quarterback Bernie Kosar and a ferocious defense.

Why did it click with me? At the core, the game found me at the perfect time. I was too young to drive and anchored to the homefront, while girls in my grade were laser-focused on older guys. My calendar was open -- wide open -- and the thought of taking complete control of the Browns played well with my tendency to delve into fantasy worlds. I introduced the game to a handful of friends, but most shrugged it off, which I understood.

It was this adolescent hobby I chased in the quiet of my house, alone. And then, in time, it faded from the scene as I moved through high school, into college and toward new pursuits.

I never forgot about that little world of dice football, though, a galaxy from the past that came alive again for me when I discovered Strat-O-Matic's online game last November. I'd always known about Strat-O-Matic and understood its basic conceit, having played a similar game. What I wasn't expecting to find was a dedicated group of players who had turned those old, dusty board games of their youth into a vibrant pastime.

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"First of all, I'm never surprised to find someone who's played Strat-O-Matic, and I'm also never surprised to find someone who hasn't," Glenn Guzzo, a full-time consultant for Strat-O-Matic and a player himself for more than 50 years, told me. "You either got into it at some stage early or you never heard of it. Strat-O-Matic wasn't in every store, it wasn't on TV ads all over the place. You found it in a magazine because you were already interested in sports, or you found it through friends or word of mouth."

Billing itself today as "The Original Fantasy Sports Game," Strat at the core is far more, according to Richman: "There are a lot of tremendous differences. Fantasy, it's not really team against team, it's just adding up points and who comes out best."

Where fantasy sports allow casual players to set lineups in a handful of minutes and be done with it, Strat-O-Matic offers the chance to dive deep into the brilliant abyss of pro football.

"It's a really fun way to have a head-to-head strategy game, like chess, but you're experiencing it in the realm of the NFL," Crowley said. "You get to play your favorite players, you get to be a GM in the draft leagues, you can pick your guys and trade for players and trade for picks. So you get all those elements of fantasy football, but it's all based around this simulation game."

In a time when Madden reigns as king of the gridiron gaming community, Strat-O-Matic forges a different path. Think Madden, if Madden were stripped down graphically to the core. The online version -- essentially a sparse football field, drop-down menus for play selection, and a text-driven play-by-play narrative -- doesn't attempt to shock with aesthetics. What it offers is something else: power and control.

Leaning heavily on statistical accuracy, down-by-down matchups and situational strategy, wannabe coaches and general managers are tasked with making the call on every offensive and defensive snap of the game. It's not easily mastered, either. In the Bengals-Patriots game above -- which I played online against my emotionless, cold desktop computer -- I found myself slamming the desk in frustration as Brady picked me apart play after play. I felt like Rex Ryan, tearing my hair out, cursing the earth.

"You're going to find other games that are statistically accurate. You're going to find other games that feel like football. You're going to find other games that play fast," Guzzo said. "But you don't find very many that do all three of those things. When you add the satisfaction of knowing that you had an effect on the outcome because of the strategy, it's very addictive."

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Thousands of hours go into the creation of each new season. For years, Richman was responsible for hand-crafting the thousands of player cards for Strat-O-Matic's baseball, football, hockey and basketball games, among others.

Today it's Guzzo, the former editor of The Denver Post and author of Strat-O-Matic Fanatics, who does the bulk of the football-card work in place of the 79-year-old Richman. Tasked with creating each new season -- which includes more than 1,600 player cards -- Guzzo's job is to mold lifelike recreations of every star player, subpackage contributor and third-string guard. They're all here.

"We use a lot of different sources, a lot of research," Guzzo said of the card-creation process. "We use statistical sources -- multiple statistical sources because we don't want to rely on any one of them -- from traditional stats to stats that are derived from Strat-O-Matic formulas. We have our analytics, then we use the analytics that are available in the marketplace. In addition, we have our own source that we pay for data and deeper analytics. We want to know such things as how many balls 20-plus yards in the air did a quarterback complete? How many balls 20 yards in the air did a receiver catch? Or 30 yards? Is this guy truly a deep threat, or did he just have a good average because he broke tackles?"

Strat-O-Matic cares enough about the process to work side by side with pro scouts, especially in the baseball world, where it isn't tough to find past gamers who understand how Strat-O-Matic works.

"That's just the statistical part of it. We do a ton of reading," Guzzo said. "Hal has always been invested in that. So we find beat writers, national writers, I look at NFL.com almost every day during the season to see what stuff is being written, so we have a feel for the player. This guy is not playing because of this. This guy is better pass blocking than run blocking. This guy is the best run blocker on his team. We're conscious, as well, of awards."

The job has Guzzo entrenched in a 365-day study of today's NFL players and team trends in a quest for the most true-to-life game play around.

"It's not enough to say, 'This is a 10-6 team.' It's certainly not enough to say, 'This is a 10-6 team that had a really good passing game, but not such a good running game,' " Guzzo said. "We need to have a great feel for this team, so when you get the card ratings, they have instant credibility. And that when you play the game, you can see this team come to life. For me, I not only have to know every offensive lineman -- I have to know their backups! I'm rating 50 to 55 guys a team. So it's a bit sick, you know, in its own way, to say, 'Well, I've got room in my brain for this.' "

If Madden offers flashy graphics and uproar, what sets Strat apart is the lifelike way teams and players perform. Guzzo, for instance, hinted that the new Philip Rivers card wouldn't resemble his cards of old, saying: "Rivers, who certainly can throw deep well, didn't throw deep as often [last] year. That's going to be reflected in Strat-O-Matic's cards."

Asked if anyone can touch Strat's statistical accuracy, Guzzo said quickly: "We don't think so."

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While fantasy dynasty leagues have bloomed in popularity, Strat communities have been drafting their own teams dating back to the late 1960s. One of the oldest known leagues, The Autumn Wind, was formed in 1969 and currently fields 30 individually owned teams, having moved from the board game to online. Unlike fantasy, Strat requires owners to draft players at every position on the field, meaning The Autumn Wind includes almost every available NFL player.

"You can go and play fantasy football without really digging in to those depths," Crowley said. "You don't need to know what the defensive line or defensive tackles or linebackers are on a certain team if you're just a casual NFL fan or if you're only playing fantasy football and focusing on the skill positions. But this? You have to know every single player. It forces you to be much more knowledgeable about the NFL and rosters, in general."

While deciding whether to add Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston when last season's cards are released, dynasty players must also follow the careers of hundreds of players who might not bloom for another season or two.

"When we draft [later this summer], we're drafting off the 2015 stats, but you might notice that [Seahawks offensive tackle] Garry Gilliam is likely to become a starter -- and he might have a low rating this year, but he's moving to left tackle and might have a better pass-block rating down the line," Crowley said. "In a dynasty league, you're banking on his improvement in future seasons because of the position swap. You keep players for years."

Said Crowley: "You have a set of elite coaches that are in it for the long haul. They love it. They have the same kind of addictive personality and addiction to the game that I do, and you know they're going to be there year after year."

Said Crowley: "There are guys I met online who I consider some of my best friends today."

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One of those friends is Cooke, who plays with Crowley in a league called the Strat-O-Matic Internet Football Association (SOMIFA).

I discovered Cooke through a series of YouTube videos in which he serves as the league's play-by-play announcer, offering insights and anecdotes while calling games between SOMIFA's top coaches. Like so many others, Cooke found Strat-O-Matic in his younger days and was instantly hooked.

"My oldest brother and I, particularly, got into the football game," Cooke said. "In 1983 or 1984, when he came home from the Army, we played two seasons. We took 16 teams -- we each took eight teams -- and we played. We drew up a 10-game NFL schedule and we played. And we still remember, over 30 years later, what teams we had and guys getting injured and who won the Super Bowl. It's the time that you spend. The time you spend with your brothers, the time with a friend, and I have very strong memories of dice and cards with Strat."

Cooke himself went on to serve in the military, where he suffered a life-changing injury that left him paralyzed.

"I was in the Army when I was 19. I was stationed in Berlin and I was hit by a drunk driver. That's what paralyzed me," said Cooke, who has found a world of friends online he never would have met otherwise. "So, I can't use my hands too well. So, today, I use the computer with adaptive equipment.

"I don't want to make it sound like only someone like me wants to play Strat football, but I think that's another reason why I'm maybe a little more drawn to gaming online and certainly Strat. Because there I can compete like anybody else and I can do everything that any other person is doing and with not really any disadvantage at all. Really, for me, even just getting out of bed is kind of a pain in the ass."

Added Cooke: "It's comradery with people that you care about, meeting new people and sharing a passion for football and learning a lot more about football -- unless you want to go 3-13 every year."

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There are plenty of Strat players with similar stories to tell. Many of them, though, belong to an aging demographic. What becomes of Strat-O-Matic when this wave of lifelong players fades away?

"What concerns me is that we're not attracting a lot of younger players," Crowley said. "You don't see a lot of 20-year-olds that are starting and joining our leagues. So this hobby is focused on our generation -- I'm 49 -- and there's players in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. But I'm wondering what will happen if they don't attract a new audience, if this is going to continue on. I'd love to see it grow, because it is such a fascinating game and such a rewarding game."

Said Guzzo: "It's a challenge for the company as the audience ages. It's a challenge for a lot of companies in a lot of different industries. I'm aware of those many industries and can tell you the recurring theme is, How do we get younger people? Well, certain products are created for younger people. Strat-O-Matic was first created for 12-year-olds, but the 12-year-olds have now been kidnapped by visual games and hand-eye-coordination games, and that's fine if they gravitate that way."

Guzzo confirmed that Strat-O-Matic is already developing an initial mobile offering for the more popular baseball game. If that draws well, football could receive similar treatment down the line.

"It's a problem. We're not the only ones," Richman said. "The card companies like Topps and Donruss have the same problem. Most of their people are over 40 years old, too. That is a problem. We're working on it."

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For Richman, though, it's impossible not to look back and ponder what has bloomed from the board game he created more than half a century ago.

"Never in my life did I think I'd be in this position, 55 years later, with the company and still a profitable venture," Richman said. "I have brought a lot of enjoyable moments for a lot of people in this country and I'm very proud of that. I've contributed something to the mainstream of the country, and I never thought that would happen. That this thing would become that big."

Richman is open about the embattled relationship he shared with his own dad. Little did he know the games he created would go on to enrich so many father-son connections over the years -- perhaps its most enduring quality.

"The ironical part is I didn't have that relationship with my father," Richman said. "Really, what I did in my own situation, I was trying to escape him by creating games at a very young age -- at 11 years old. But I'm very happy, very satisfied and very gratified with what's happened."

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.
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