Last year I set up a Blood Bowl competition with seven pals via Steam. This weekend saw the final round of The Smash ’n’ Grab Classic, and it has been a glorious success—so much so, we want to expand our group and start a brand new tournament. (More on that later.)
If you are already familiar with Blood Bowl as a concept, you might want to skip ahead to The game itself but for the benefit of any newbies out there, here’s
A Brief History of Blood Bowl
Blood Bowl started life in 1986 as a tabletop game from Games Workshop, set in their Warhammer universe. At its most basic, it’s a fantasy-world variant of American Football, featuring teams of Elves, Orcs, Halflings, the rat-like Skaven, Dwarfs, the Undead etc. Oh, and Humans. You’ve got a pitch, two competing teams, and a ball to shift from one end to the other in order to score touchdowns. Whoever scores the most… wins. Simple.
It was quite a departure from GW’s traditional war-gaming shtick though, eschewing *large armies and specialised terrain for a tighter, more focused experience. There were models to buy and paint of course, and players could still select units and refine strategies to tackle different opponent, but the game felt very different, tonally. It also acted as welcoming ramp for people who enjoyed gaming in general, yet were intimidated by the sprawling costs, scale & complexity of war-gaming.
A disappointing computer version was released in 1995, but digital Blood Bowl didn’t really find its feet until Cyanide’s 2009 adaptation which finally let us Coaches challenge each other online, form proper leagues, and set up mammoth tournaments. The game found a home across multiple platforms, spawned a couple of expansions and then an excellent sequel which addressed a number of problems, expanded the player options, and polished it all up with a new game engine. Welcome to **Blood Bowl 2.
The game itself
The transfer to screen is pretty darned good, blending tabletop sensibilities with enough animation to feel like we’re getting a birds-eye view on real action. A user-controlled camera allows you to zoom in or out with ease and shift around the pitch quickly, and you can use keyboard/mouse or gamepad to play—whatever your preference. The graphics are sharp and stylised, the game-play smooth, and there are some cracking little cut-scenes for powerful attacks and celebrations. These add atmosphere but (like the comedic commentators) they can get a little repetitive. You can turn them on or off. I have to say, I could have done without the perve-pleasing cheerleaders—an egregious touch that presumes gamers are all immature, heterosexual, and male.
The action is turn-based rather than everyone running at once, so the illusion of an all-out slug-fest is somewhat sustained by good will and imagination. I should stress this is a mechanical feature of the tabletop game, not a bug in the adaptation. Interestingly, Cyanide have tried to introduce real-time iterations of the game, but they depend on either constant pausing to think, an over-reliance on AI, or strategising and multi-tasking at ridiculous speeds. None of them have really taken off. At heart, Blood Bowl is a game of adaptive strategy amid unfolding possibilities—ever-threatened by the consequences of a bad dice roll. (Oh yeah, there are dice. Did I not mention that?)
Every turn gives you the freedom to Move your players up to the limits of their abilities. Other options include Blocking (attacking) any opponents they are already next to, Picking up, Passing/Handing-off or Catching the ball. A single player can also Blitz, which combines their Movement with Blocking. In every circumstance, dice are rolled to determine the outcome. If it goes badly, your turn ends immediately and the other player gets a go. I’ve heard complaints from some quarters of the internet that the dice mechanics are not truly random – that it is broken in some fundamental way – but I can’t say I’ve noticed any results that stretch the bounds of luck or credulity.
Odds can be shifted by how many players are involved and how strong they are (affecting the number of dice used), and there are additional elements such as Skills and Re-rolls that can be earned through experience or purchased with in-game currency between matches, but these opportunities to team-tweak are available to all and balance out nicely. For me, one of the most welcome aspects of computer adaptation is the automation of onerous mechanics. I don’t want to waste time working things out, I just want to play! So, if you hover the cursor over an opposing player, for instance, and you can immediately see how many dice you would get to roll against them. Breaking the armour of your opponents, causing (or recovering from) injuries, the attempted use of certain key Skills—all can be handled in the background so you can forget about ruddy randomisation tables and focus on the big picture. That controlled flow of strategy and action is key to my enjoyment.
You can learn to play the game via the Campaign mode – a narrative arc that welcomes you as a new Coach, guiding and challenging you through 15 matches to win the Blood Bowl cup. Your opponents here are all controlled by AI, so you can take your time and learn from your mistakes without feeling embarrassed. Each match sets a specific objective to focus you on and a new game element to expand your understanding of threats & opportunities. As a old-ish hand, I’ve not bothered to play more than a couple of these, but if you want a preview and a bit of a guide as to how it pans out, check out this post on gamespot.
You may know the game backwards of course, and just want to get into some brutlity with friends or AI teams. It’s all available from the start, but whatever you do, you’ll need to create a team first. There are a wide range of playable species use can choose from, each with unique qualities to recommend them. Helpfully, each comes with a list of Strengths and Weaknesses, as well as a generalised Skill level. (The higher the level, the more adept a player needs to be to use them successfully.) You can pick your players, name them, and colour code them too. And, pleasingly, you can test-drive any team against a human or AI opponent in a ‘Friendly’ with zero consequences.
(Um. Yeah, consequences… Ahem. I’ll get onto those in a moment.)
There’s also the Challenges mode in which you are given an in-game problem and have to achieve a specific outcome. Think of those old chess puzzles you used to see in newspapers. You can use these to better understand the finer points of strategy when it comes to tight spots, or simply as a puzzling passtime when you have an odd 15 minutes to spare.
But anway, back to consequences. This is the real joy and pain of League games, bringing nuance and depth through the mechanics of injury, ageing and experience. In a League, your players can earn Skill Points by scoring Touchdowns, by successfully throwing and catching the ball, or by injuring/killing opponents. As these points accrue, your players can advance (between matches), gaining increases on their basic Stats or a plethora of Skills. And of course, if you can gain points by injuring or killing your opponent’s players, you may just as easily suffer those losses yourself—reducing player stats, causing individuals to miss the next game, or losing them entirely and having to get newbie replacements. It can cause frustration (as there is a luck factor in both the causing and results of injuries) but all of this makes the long game of League much more fluid and engaging.
The league experience
There’s a bit of admin setting up any league, but it’s not too bad. If I can do it, anyone can. You need to create the League first, determine the parameters of the competition e.g. ladder style, round robin, how long each Coach gets to take their turn, whether Mixed or Experienced teams are allowed etc. You’ll want to get this done in advance, then invite your friends to join. I found it helpful to set up a chat group on WhatsApp so we could ask questions, arrange matches etc. Discord, Messenger or whatever would do just as well. A word of warning, though: you may find it useful to set up a couple or three channels for different purposes e.g. one for announcements, one for game questions, one for general chat. If it’s all mixed into one, you’ll find key info vanishing fast up the thread.
In busy times it can be punishingy hard to arrange anything with regularly, so how do you keep things moving? I set out the expectation early on that we would each have a 2 week window in which to play a given match. That felt long enough to be manageable for most people and short enough that no-one would get bored and forgetful. As it turned out, the farther along we got in the league, the more eager everyone was to play their next match. Mileage will vary with the business of your lives and the commitments you have made to work, friends and family, but so long as everyone respects the fact that life will occasionally get in the way, there shouldn’t be any stresses caused.
We had 8 Coaches in The Smash ’n’ Grab Classic, some of whom were very experienced, some were middling (I’d only played the AI campaign on the old iPad app), and one Coach who had never played before. As a host, the most important thing for me is simply that everyone has fun, so I did all I could to encourage our novice, keeping interest going via WhatsApp, and offering Friendly matches on the side to teach them the basics and build up confidence. I also went an extra step for everyone in the Smash ’n’ Grab by producing a News item for each League game. This is by no means a necessity, but I flipping love the fact that Blood Bowl 2 makes space for this kind of thing. I took huge pleasure in watching everyone’s Replays of a weekend, jotting down notes, then boiling it all down into tight little News stories. What can I say? It appealed to the writer in me.
Replays, you say?
Oh yeah. There’s another feature called Cabal TV/Cabalvision that enables real-life spectators. You can tune in to watch a match live or you stream a replay. It’s easy to search for a Team, Coach, or League by name or you can browse through the community replays and watch total strangers if you like. Whatever floats your boat. What surprised me was that, as the competition hots up, we found ourselves keeping a closer eye on our opponents, checking out their style of play or cribbing their tactics when something worked out particularly well. ***I’ve had a few players saying they learned a bunch of new tricks by doing this, and it’s been notable how game-play has evolved depending on the strengths and weaknesses of our opponents.
There’s a really neat touch when it comes to Replays which I only really noticed (and appreciated) after watching a Live match. As a Coach, you have a few minutes per turn to decide where your players will be moving to and what they’ll be doing. Time ticks quickly by when you’re making those decisions but it feel a little slow as a spectator. However, they simply edit out all of the dead time in the Replays, which makes for a much swifter, more engaging experience. Bravo!
We headed into the final round with the top spot in sight for four of the teams, which was nail-biting as hell. Not only did each of us need to win our own matches, we also had to hope for specific outcomes in other matches to tip the balance in our favour and claim final victory. When all the what-ifs fall away, we were left with pure quality.
My congratulations go out to the inestimable Duncan Bradshaw – our eventual winner – and my warm thanks to Carly, Joe, Justin, Nathan, Nick and Richard who joined us in the carnage. It’s been an absolute blast. We’ve all gotten to know each other a lot better through the experience—voice-chatting during the games and pinging silly WhatsApp messages at each other in-between them. It’s been competitive, sociable, and a hell of a lot of fun. Energy is high to kick off the next Season in the near future, so here’s the question:
What about you?
Have you played Blood Bowl before, or are you eager to give it a go? We are looking to expand our group to 12 Coaches and begin all over again with some brand new teams. You could be a part of that.
With 1 Coach stepping back to focus on a passion project, that leaves 5 slots available to fill. If you want to join us on the Blood Bowl pitch then get in touch with me via social media or drop a Comment in the box below.
That’s it for now. I got proper mauled in my last game, so I’m hobbling off to see the Apothecary. See ya.
* The combination, creation and decoration of which can really spiral in terms of money and time – it’s practically a separate hobby in its own right.
** Note – the Legendary Edition that we’ve been playing collects Blood Bowl 2 with its expansions. It’s the whole hog, and well worth your money.
*** By the way, if anyone’s interested, you can watch replays of all our matches via Cabal TV, the in-game spectator function. Just open it up and search Replays for the following teams: Blaen’s Deepest Miners, Bog’s Dollocks, Impure Hounds, Lost Tasteless Degraders, Pirates of Pain, Putrid Carnival, Salem’s Block, Tangerine Tantrums.
If you like monsters with a bit of pathos, you might enjoy my review of the board game, Horrified.
If you prefer games on a tablet, here’s the round-up of my Top 10 Digital Boardgames.
And if you want to get past all this games nonsense and just hire a damned editor to help you with your writing? I’m here, beavering away on critiques and diligently running my fine-toothed comb through line and copy-edits. Let’s do this.