ErikPeter Walker(Voxen)United States
Blood Bowl: Team Manager – The Card Game, and so I was blown away when it turned out to be a meaty little euro. It's incredibly simple to play, but features some slick mechanics that add depth and reinforce the (ridiculous) theme.
Team Manager's core mechanic is a 2-4 player extension of the Battle Line/Balloon Cup formula, which itself is an evolution of trick taking games. Managers take turns placing their cards (players) on a handful of match-ups each round, hoping to have the highest total Star Power at each match-up. It can be difficult (and delightful) to choose how and when to play your cards most effectively, and when to cut your losses on a losing contest in order to reinforce a different one.
In addition to Star Power, every player has one or more Skills, and possibly a special ability. Each of the four skills embodies mechanics borrowed from other games, and they are incredibly simple and effective. And so clever. All of them together help make every contest tense and surprising in different ways.
Passing: Each match-up has a ball token, which represents superior ball control by the team who carries it. When a match-up is resolved, the ball is worth +2 Star Power (about a player worth). Teams get the ball token by playing cards with Passing skill icons; effectively, passing gets you a temporary +2 Star Power, which can be stolen if an opposing player uses the passing skill or the ball carrier gets tackled (see below). It's a tiny mechanic, yet captures the shifting momentum of a football game perfectly.
Tackling: Not surprisingly, players can tackle each other. When a player with the tackling skill is placed at a match-up, his manager may choose an opposing player to attempt to tackle. The tackle dice are another streamlined mechanic that works great without having to think about it. If the tackling player is stronger, you roll two dice and pick one (with only a small chance to fail). Roll one die against a player of equal strength, and if the tackling player is weaker than the target, roll two and your opponent can pick which to use (meaning you must roll "double tackles" to succeed).
Tackled players aren't immediately eliminated but tipped sideways to show their "downed" Star Power, a smart feature that allows for another layer of distinction between players. Downed players who are tackled again get eliminated, which means sometimes brute force (and a little luck) are all you need to win.
Cheating: Some players have the Cheating skill, which adds a small amount of unpredictability to each match-up. When a player with the cheating skill is placed, a random "cheating token" is placed on top of that player, and they are not revealed until the match-up is resolved. A token may increase that player's Star Power, or add fans (VPs), but there is the danger that he will be ejected from the game as well.
I love this mechanic because of the uncertainty it provides; while the cheating team pushes its luck, the opposing manager is encouraged to over-commit resources just in case. And it's yet another simple bit of rules that adds an additional layer to what could otherwise be a dry math exercise. One game off the top of my head that would benefit from something like this is Vineta.
Sprinting: Team Manager incorporates a light deck building mechanic, along the lines of Arcana and Middle-Earth Quest. As managers recruit players, they add them to their deck, and discard them after each round (only getting them back when they re-shuffle). The Sprinting skill lets players cycle their decks, drawing and discarding cards one at a time to get access to their best players.
I wouldn't call it a "deck building game", but the card cycling is a helpful mechanic that, like everything else I've mentioned, adds depth to your choices. The team deck, a mechanic seen in countless other games, feels familiar but is well implemented and fun. And it fits the theme perfectly. Each team is supposedly balanced with the others but has a unique makeup which emphasizes one or two of the four skills, which should add some replayability,
In addition there are team and staff upgrades, which are basically goal cards for VP and item cards that provide special benefits (e.g. "exhaust this to use the cheating skill at one matchup"). It wouldn't be a FFG game without an upkeep phase where you untap (that is, refresh) some of your cards.
Everything--players, VPs, upgrades--is earned at match-ups, which highlight another clever mechanic: Even the loser of a match-up gains a predetermined award. At the beginning of each round there is a definite "action selection" vibe, as you must consider the payouts at every position and pick the one you need most (and inevitably watch in dismay as the spot you hope to play next is taken by your opponent). Will you focus on team upgrades, hoping for bonus fans at the end of the game? Try to recruit as many star players as you can? Or will you pick the match-ups that award the most fans? How will you deal with shifting priorities as the Blood Bowl nears? So many good choices.
All in all, Blood Bowl: Team Manager combines a handful of streamlined mechanics pretty much flawlessly. Every little refinement this game brought to the table sets my creativity buzzing, and it is a case study for solid design decisions. I would love to see the same sensibilities brought to bear on some of FFG's other games, which can be bogged down by little rules that are more trouble than they're worth.