Review: Blood Bowl

What does a zombie know about glory?

What can a zombie teach us about glory?

Game: Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition
Developed by: Cyanide
Published by: Focus Home Interactive
Release date: October 22, 2009

Alright, enough of this dry bookish crap. Lets crack some skulls eh gents.

“Why can’t anyone ever summon me a Balrog?” Thought Lahkasz as he surveyed the pitiful Undead army his obedient Necromancer had raised. He looked into the man’s pale eyes, entirely devoid of expression or sanity. The thought of having to use this savant halfwit as the teams assistant coach made him endlessly exhausted. The man’s lips appeared to go slightly more vapid as if in answer to his disparaging thoughts. “Perhaps I should have held off on the lobotomy.” He thought ruefully. He turned to his new team.

“My but aren’t you all a sad sack of sluggardly crumbling marrow. If I had a choice I’d dig you back into the ground that spewed up your repugnant slothly forms. You’re not a Bloodbowl team, you’re a disgrace to a sport built on the blood and death of it’s combatants. Look at you, there’s not a pint of blood between you!”

The Undead remained silent. One particularly obnoxious skeleton chose this moment to have his leg detach from his body. In an abandonment of balance Lahkasz’ starting kicker was reduced from a mindless structure of bone and rotten flesh held together by dark magic into a foot high heap of bone and rotten flesh held together by precisely nothing, the dark magic that bound him deciding that its animatory talents were required elsewhere. His necromancer whimpered.

“Completely devoid of thought, like putrid clay in the hands of a tactical genius.” thought Lahkasz. “Perfect.”

We'll play better with brainz!!

We'll play better with brainz!!

For those of you that don’t know, Bloodbowl was originally a table top game set in the Warhammer universe, based on the rules of American Football. It is turn based, with each team getting an allotted amount of time to move their pieces into position on a rectangular checkered playing field, before handing the control of the board over to their opponent for their turn. The goal of the game is to take the ball into the “end zone” for a touchdown, and/or stop your opponent from doing the same. The team with the most touchdowns after each player has completed 16 turns wins the match.

Pretty simple stuff so far. The first twist is that the game is brutal. Hammering your opponents is as much a part of the game as running or catching, if not more so. By hammering I don’t mean a clip across the ear either, we’re talking good ol fashioned severe physical violence, with tackling being less about pulling your opponent down than punching them in the face. Contestants are routinely injured and put out of action for the rest of the game, season, or even permanently killed and you need to find another poor meatbag to send into battle. The game serves as an ironic look at the gladiatorial nature of the popular high contact sports our species is enamored by, as well as one of the only publicly excusable reasons to be gawking at dark elves in cheerleader outfits.

GIMMIE a M-U-R-D-E-R

GIMMIE a M-U-R-D-E-R

The real question for me is how well does this all translate into a video game experience? The Warhammer universe is revered by an enormous fanbase, but it was never a world that I had much experience with before Warhammer Online in 2008. Considering WO proved how easy it was to take a fantastic well known table-top franchise and turn it into pretty poor digital experience, I wasn’t immediately ready to fall down in worship. I was apprehensive about a few design elements the game, the main one being a turn based strategy game in which every event is resolved by RNG. There’s no way that could be unnecessarily frustrating!

After a brief look through the rules and a run-through of a standalone match, I decided the best way to learn the game was to dive headfirst into a campaign.

The first thing you notice when starting a match is the incredible number of races to choose from. The Warhammer universe is notable for it’s rich history and lore, and it looks like most of the races have been adapted into football teams. There are 20 races in total, everything from Elves to Vampires, Humans to Nurgle, Halflings to Skaven with the players and stadiums doing a very good job at making you feel like you’re in a high fantasy football match. The races have a large variance in the distribution of the games stats, (Strength, Agility, Movement Allowance and Armor) as you would generally expect given the variance in the races physical constitution, as well as different skills and specialties. For example Dark Elves start with the Frenzy skill which gives them an extra attempt at tackling, while Undead get Regeneration, which gives them a chance to avoid otherwise serious wounds. It’s ambitious stuff. Badly designed strategy games with a large number of races can often end up with “one race to rule them” syndrome, or “racial sludge” syndrome where the appears to be little appreciable difference in the way the game is played with each race.

Some races are better suited to the task than others

Some races are better suited to the task than others

The only way for a coach to conclusively prove his genius is to make himself immune to player glory syndrome. It’s why everyone remembers Pele but not Zagallo, Jordan over Jackson, Thurston over Meninga. The only way around this is to control a team completely incapable of initiative, and even conscious thought on the pitch. I’m going to kick things into hive-mind with Undead.

The savage sun would have cooked the flesh of any living being, but Lahkasz wouldn’t have been able to feel it even if he had anything resembling skin or nerve endings. The game was too close, the energy around the stadium manifesting itself in random acts of savagery from the crowd. An errant rock flew into the skull of one of his cheerleaders, who calmly bent and picked it up again, set it back atop her neck and continued dancing. The coach didn’t even notice. They had The Ead Crackas pinned in their own half, and the game was all tied up.

It was at this point that Coldhands, his main man mummy, pulled off a huge play. Weaving out of the tackle of a particularly slobbering Orc, to get in range of the Crackas goblin ball carrier. WHAM!! A filthy fist collided with rust green teeth, and a wheezy cry announced the ball spilling loose. This was it, a chance!

Graverunner spotted his moment. A sprawling dive released him from the attentions of his defender, and before anyone could react the ball was safely in his grasp and he was away. Free like an abominable brown leopard. Liches below he was fast. What little sinew was left on his bones flexed and strained as the end zone beckoned before him. Still no one had moved.

“This is it!” Thought Lahkasz triumphantly. “Victory! All that work, and here comes the glory. Genius.” He was extremely busy with self-congratulations, so it took a minute for him to realize that it was the Orc side of the grandstands that were cheering. TURNOVER!

Graverunner had fallen. “WHAT?!?! YOU BUMBLING INCOMPETENT!!” The ghoul lay on the ground uncomprehending. The pitch was flat, dry and looking innocently back at him as if to say “Me? Trip your player? Oh dear sir you ARE good for a laugh.” Why did the pitch have a droll British accent?

The dice are telling you to stop failing

The dice are telling you to stop failing

It’s impossible to say very much about this game without addressing the huge elephant in the room that is the dice roll. Beyond very basic movement, every action requires a successful dice roll to be completed. The criteria for a successful dice roll is determined by a myriad of factors that shift wildly depending the situation. Every strategic action the player takes will be an attempt to minimize the risk of their desired action failing. But as anyone who’s played poker (or even watched it) will tell you, all you can do is mitigate, sometimes fate/god/cthulu/the great unknown is out to get you no matter how well you play.

I was initially apprehensive about this, as games of chance are things best left to casinos. I’d be lying if I said the dice hadn’t chewed me up and digested me at some point, but although it never stopped being frustrating, it was (usually) easy to see flaws in my own play that led to the dice falling against me. The factors are skewed strongly enough in favor of the right decision that the game rewards good play as well as punishing bad, while still allowing for tension whenever a key moment is about to occur in a game. Still the dice manage to make you feel both short changed and undeserving in equal measures.

The other problem I have with the dice is the lack of in game feedback you get. While there is a rule book detailing the intricacies of the combat rules, it is very difficult to decipher when you have no prior understanding of the game’s systems. Terms like Blitz, Go For It and Value Modifiers mean nothing to the uninitiated. You really have to go through some trial and error in game to get a grip on things, and there is very little feedback on your chances of a particular action while in the game, so for a long time the game feels very random. It’s not unmanageable, but you have to really want to learn what’s going on to be able to stick out what is a tough initiation.

The player development system is where the game moves beyond tactics and into strategy. Players in Bloodbowl gain experience and eventually levels, at which point they gain a skill point which can be distributed across skills suitable for their position. This is where the game really picks up. As well as allowing you to customise your team in line with your own Bloodbowling philosophies, it actually smoothes out a lot of the issues of luck. Planning on attacking the ball carrier in the coming turn? Make sure you have a speedy ghoul with Clean Hands (free reroll when picking the ball up) nearby to ensure you don’t drop your opportunity. Your ghoul got knocked out trying to maneuver through the pack while getting to the ball? You should have picked up the dodge skill.

Don't push the red button!

Don't push the red button!

As any self respecting strategy gamer will tell you, (4x games aside) beating a computer teaches you as much about a strategy game as paintball teaches you what being shot feels like. I was only ever going to learn so much against an AI that runs backwards and holds position when one point down with a turn to go, so I decided to take this show online.

The High Elf linebacker pranced daintily into the endzone and threw the ball to the ground triumphantly. WHACK! 2-0 and an unassailable lead. Lahkasz buried his head in his hands and fought his building anger as he tried to work out where things had gone wrong.

His Mummies, so implacable in practice matches, were either treated like ragdolls by bigger opponents, or flanked, hamstrung and beheaded by faster opponents. His Wights were dropping simple pickups and hadn’t even completed a single throw. His Zombies were getting easily, regularly and severely manhandled. His Skeletons wouldn’t know how to shore up defensive gaps if his necromancer managed somehow to transmogrify them into common kitchen plugs.

WHACK! Graverunner had gotten too close to the line and been kicked out into the crowd. The Ghoul curled up foetally as three crowd members gleefully lay sharply studded boots into his midsection. Bloodbowl crowds came prepared. “Can’t they see I’m losing?” he thought. “I’m the underdog here, they should be running on to the field to boot that grubby little referee!”

Lahkasz turned to his necromancer. “THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT!! I wanted to lead a Beastmen team, but NOOOOO we needed an unthinking blundering sack of bones you said.” Had the lobotomy not been a complete success the man might have mentioned that he had said none of those things. Instead he just winced slightly at the anger in the coach’s tone, then stared back blankly.

Like chess, but angrier

Like chess, but angrier

Owwwwwwwwwwwww. That’s me wincing in pain after the 3rd successive lubeless forced coitus I was subjected to while trying to get my rag tag team of Undead to victory in a game of Bloodbowl online. What was interesting was how different teams managed to find different ways of kicking my ass. My first game was against a Lizardmen team. They brutalized my first line of defense due to superior stats. If they had the ball they exploited the wide areas of the field if I condensed, and went through the middle if I didn’t. If I had the ball they forced me wide until they had me cornered. I either went into touch (and into the arms of bloodthirsty spectators) or gave up the ball in a tackle. It was ugly. My second game was against a Human team, and they got beat my using superior movement speed and ball security (though the dice were never with me this game.) They cleared some space midfield and hurled a long pass to a speedy linebacker for their first TD, and used their superior movement speed to cover the field and keep me shut out when I had the ball. Played.

The RPG element of multiplayer means that it often turns out like this for fledgling Bloodbowl players, though I made a few crucial errors that didn’t help my cause. I was learning though, and after I leveled a couple of players things got much easier. Sure Hands for my favorite ghoul, and Block for my main mummy gave me a boost, and in the next two games I managed to score myself first a draw (built on tough defense), then a win (built on a lovely halfcourt pass and tough defense). Great glorious SUCCESS!

My Wight ignores the team's "no showboating" rule

My Wight ignores the team's "no showboating" rule

Bloodbowls multiplayer is structured very nicely for a game of this type. There are public and private leagues. The public leagues, as you might have guessed can be joined by anybody. There are several different public leagues to choose from and each league has a different ruleset, and a separate ladder. Matchmaking is simple, with an option available to challenge any specific player or an automatic matchmaking option which pits you against someone of a similar team value to you. The private leagues are obviously much smaller and used for games between private groups.

Bloodbowl is, at it’s core, a strategically deep board game about controlling space and as such the comparison that will always be drawn is to chess. The simple reality is that if that sort of game appeals to you, and a faithfully renditioned Warhammer setting is a place you could stand spending countless hours then this game is right up you alley. Someone with only a passing interest in these sorts of games might find the motivation needed to wade through the dense nature of the ruleset and the unfriendly interface difficult to come by. I fall in to the latter category. While often tense, I didn’t find the game drawing me back in for a extra serve, and despite the depth of strategy on offer, the nature of the dice roll was something that I found difficult to come to terms with, both when rolling for and against me. Still I strongly recommend both the uninitiated and devotees give it a try.

SCORE: 3/5

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