Brent Spivey at the moment is an unknown name in the board game world. He's designed several excellent miniature game rule-sets including Havoc: Tactical Miniature Warfare, The Battlefield, and Rogue Planet. When I heard he was entering the board game world my eyebrows arched skyward like my 75 pound horse of a dog hearing the word "walk". When I discovered it was an 8-bit American Football game I was left dumbfounded, like my 75 pound horse of a dog trying to apply the Pythagorean Theorem to an obtuse triangle.
But this is Brent, right? Havoc won my heart as soon as I realized you could club a dude with a Giant and send the target's body into a line of infantry like a missile loosed from a Goliath-sized crossbow. You haven't lived until you've Tiger Woods'd a Knight down the fairway into a formation of spearmen.
Glory, bit by bit
It's easy to slip into hyperbole when you get emotionally invested in a game and the experience it provides; Lord knows I can become emotionally invested. Such it's hard for me to ascribe the word brilliant to Techno Bowl and actually command the respect that adjective deserves. But I'll try.
While Techno Bowl's heart lies in its activation system (don't worry, we'll get there), it's brain certainly persists in the programming of those activations via "building the play". Each team consists of seven or eight players, depending on the mode, and each player is represented on your bench with two identical cards. Before building your free-form offensive/defensive formation you must program five cards in a stack. This is identical to the order system used in the fantastic Queen's Gambit or Star Wars: Risk. The beauty here is that you begin with control and a semblance of a plan, at least until the tanker full of chaos drives right through your offensive line and rolls your all-star Quarterback.
Like most of this design, the system is nuanced and deeper than it initially appears. When you simultaneously reveal cards to activate, the player with the higher first digit number, who is considered to be quicker, will go first. These players may have been slotted into a rough position on the field - Center, QB, Wide Receiver - yet there are no true restrictions and you can hike the ball to a lumbering ogre or even line up nearly your entire team in the back field. This freedom bolsters creativity while it also lifts any requirement of football knowledge. It's fantastic and works seamlessly to promote enjoyment by placing control in the hands of the players.
That play worked so beautifully in your head. When you throw it into the fast paced realm of an NFL Blitz and Techmo Bowl inspired old school gridiron everything can go pear-shaped in a hurry.
The activation system of Techno Bowl is where the beef's at. When you trigger a player he can move or perform a half move as well as an action. The number of squares you can move is equivalent to the player's number in the first digit on their jersey which is clearly visible on their counter. This becomes more interesting as you exit threatened spaces surrounding players, having to pay additional movement points to fight through the pack. This system of threatening and slowing down nearby players adds a great deal to the formation building as you attempt to clog lanes and throw up walls of linebacker flesh for your opponents to bounce off. It promotes natural strategy native to the sport as you keep coverage tight and collapse around the ball.
Actions consist of block, tackle, and throw. The dice-based system used is influenced by the fantastic Apocalypse World RPG where you sum two six-siders. Modifiers exist due to a difference in player ability as well as supporting teammates and threatening nearby opponents. Modifiers can swing at a maximum of three in each direction and this keeps results tight and easily calculated without eschewing their natural dramatic tension.
The game will ship with tokens, but print 'n play "pixel blocks" will be available to fashion beautiful 3D bonecrushers
Player abilities are brilliantly represented by their jersey number. As hinted at earlier, higher numbers can move farther and are more agile but will have negative modifiers when trying to tackle or block the heftier lower numbered players. Additionally you can throw or lateral the ball a number of spaces equal to twice the number in the first digit on your jersey. This has a very Battleball-esque feel where the giants on the field hit hard but lumber about and the slick jukeing gazelles cover ground at insane speeds but eat it quickly if confronted.
After calculating your modifiers and committing to your act of aggression you chuck the dice and hopefully fist pump. A result of six or below will feel like Von Miller slamming into your ribs at full speed. Your action fails and the opposing player gets to perform a full activation with any one of his team members. A 7-9 means you succeed, but again your enemy will get a half move with one of his brutes. What you're really hoping for is that sweet sweet 10+ which means you pull off your move AND get to engage another one of your dudes to push up turf or truck an opponent.
This is where Techno Bowl sets fire to those other sports games and grinds their ashes with its cleat. This sense of back and forth, dynamic unpredictability and continual shifting of field position is unreal. Openings will emerge and suddenly your scrambling quarterback will be able to push beyond the blitzing defensive line and make a dash. You'll have turns where you attempt to hit a huge block with your lineman who has a healthy amount of positive modifiers stacked so that you can get a 10+ to activate that Quarterback so you can perform an unexpected throw. Squeezing out these extra slices of engagement is where the battles of Techno Bowl are won and where huge plays can erupt.
It's dramatic and exciting in a way befitting the most ecstatic moments of sports entertainment.
Techno Bowl is not a light game. This is solidly a medium weight design that has what appears to be a hefty set of rules to work through. The first time I read the rulebook I was agog at the perceived complexity and began to worry that the 8-bit theme was mismatched with extremely heavy gameplay. And then I ran a play.
You see, while the rules may be daunting upon first read, everything internalizes very quickly. You won't need the exceptional player aids after a couple of plays and you will easily remember how each action is resolved, how fumbles and interceptions work, and how you can motion before a play. The resolution is simple yet produces deep and unexpected results, and the capabilities of your players are always clearly visible on the pitch. The experience is beautiful and immersive.
Still, I won't be teaching this to my game-averse Mother who's perfectly fine connecting routes with plastic choo-choos. It requires 60-90 minutes and can be excruciatingly slow with someone who is prone to analysis paralysis. The rules look to solve this issue by dictating a timer to build your play but this won't be needed with most gamers (although I do enjoy the Space Hulk-like tension).
Prototype tokens line the field, ready to bust some heads
The game also features several modes which does actually make tailoring the experience to different skill levels and preferences easy. You can play a more fast paced game with the standard seven players a side, or a slower more thoughtful arcade experience with eight on each team. While standard play is meaty enough to consume your dome with strategy and engagement, I really dig the player abilities that grant several members of your team special traits. This will let you juke or perform a powerful block, increasing your ability for the dramatic and adding another layer of bluffing when building plays as you utilize your weapons in deceptive ways.
I could ramble on like Robert Plant and talk about the NBA Jam-like Inferno mode where players can catch fire, or dive into analysis of properly utilizing your "bench" where you manage your activation cards. The fact of the matter is that once this game gets out into the world it will sell itself. No downtime, a huge opportunity for clever play and extreme dynamism make for the best sports game I've ever played. All of this is coming from a guy who hasn't watched a full NFL game since Kurt Warner left the Rams.
This review was originally written for FortressAT.com. To view other reviews written by Charlie Theel check out this Geeklist.