Elves, Orcs, Dwarves, and other fantasy characters aren’t new to video games. They have become a cliche and are often seen in online roleplaying games to make a quick buck for investors. However, in those types of games you often align yourselves with friends to defeat a great evil or just grab some loot. None of these games give you the option of playing a violent variation of football. This is where Blood Bowl comes in; a grid-based board game developed by Games Workshop which made its debut in the 80s and still has a strong following today. This isn’t the first time Blood Bowl has been made into a video game, but it is the first to make use of the internet and the latest version of the original rules.
Unlike most games based around a fantasy setting, Blood Bowl does not take itself seriously. There are no major rules to follow, and your overall goal is simply to make your ball carrier run to the other side of the field. There are no downs, no quarters, and the only way you can get a penalty is if you try to stomp on someone who is already knocked down. You can expect to see large ogres tossing tiny goblins across the field and rocks being thrown by the crowd to smack the rival team’s star player. You could safely say that Blood Bowl is more of a parody than an actual game.
Unfortunately, if you are new to the game and want to understand it, you're going to run into plenty of trouble. The tutorial is lackluster, as it only explains the basics, such as navigating the interface and how the game is played. What it doesn't explain, and this is vital to even a mediocre performance in "BB," is how the races are played, and what is considered a "good" starting formation. You aren't even told what would be a viable starting lineup for your first team. With all this neglect towards the new players, its hard to recommend this despite the technology making this board game more streamlined.
However, veterans of the original "BB" will find plenty to like here. Unlike most virtual interpretations of analog original source material to a video game, the developers behind "Blood Bowl" decided to not get "creative" and kept the entire game in tact. The only thing missing from the original board game are the large number of races; the board game has 21, the video game only has 9.
The race you pick plays a huge part on how you play the game. You cannot mix races, so once you go dwarf, you cannot draft humans or elves on your team. Each race has a specific strategy to follow and you aren’t given much room to adapt. For example, Dwarves are great at blocking and smacking people around, but don’t even try to pass the ball or get out of position since they are one of the slowest races. However, if you pick the wood elves, expect to abuse their high movement speed and throwing game as long as you don’t get involved in the physical game.
As your team progresses by playing matches, win or lose, they will gain experience and eventually gain new abilities. Your wood elves won’t be so terrible at blocking, and those Skaven rats can perform great feats. There are even mutations for certain races, allowing you to specialize your key players even further. In some sense, your team becomes more of an RPG character that evolves from someone who has trouble picking up the ball to a freight train of pain bull rushing to the end zone. If that isn’t enough to help you, you can always dope your players and bribe the ref if you have the spare cash.
For those looking for online competition, Blood Bowl has a surprisingly healthy community despite the niche license and independent developer. The entire game is based on allowing players to have an army of custom teams and throwing them into the various player-created leagues. There is also an online match maker, so you can play against another human being whenever the mood strikes you. However, if you need to be good at the game to jump into the online play, as most of the players have been playing BB for years. If you are new, you will get your ass handed to you.
With all these features being said, is there any problems with this game? Yes, and its main fault relies on the fact it is based on Blood Bowl, the tabletop game. The original game was based more on luck than skill because almost every action, including something as mundane as picking up the ball, is based on dice rolls. If you ever mess up an action, such as failing to pick up the ball, throwing/catching the ball, or getting yourself knocked down, your turn immediately ends. This sounds good on paper, as it forces the players to understand the concept of risk management and position their players properly, however, since the dice are so dominant in BB, even veterans will fail miserably on the field. I’ve seen situations in both online and offline play that would turn heads in a proper video game. For example, half of my human team suffered injuries or had to sit out for the half, even before my first turn in one game against the AI. I’ve played against someone who had their top Skaven player killed because he risked getting one square of movement more than allowed (yes, a player can die from running too far). To make matters worse, these effects are permanent, so if you lose a star player online, he is gone for good.
It’s these type of situations that make Blood Bowl an average experience, instead of something that could have been great. While this is no fault of the developers themselves, as they are only being faithful to the source material, it really makes one wonder on how this game gained so much popularity for the past two decades despite being based around luck. Watching your borderline perfect strategy go down the toilet because of the dice is not an enjoyable experience.
If you are a Blood Bowl fan and own the board game, chances are you’ve already bought this. It uses today’s technology to make the excessive bookkeeping of the original game more streamlined and the league-based online play will keep veterans hooked. It certainly sticks to the original source, which is a bad thing if want strategy in a turn-based environment. If you new and want to understand how Blood Bowl works, this game will not tolerate your existence. Simply put, this video game adaption is for fans only and does a good job appealing only to them.
The success of this league system does not suprise me at all. After the release of 3rd edition Blood Bowl, Games Workshop only keep the rights to the name and ensure royalties etc, from an active perspective, GW consider it a dead system and have long since abandoned the game to the fans (who have continually tweaked the game with the Living Rule Books, up to version 6 now I believe). That someone can actively take part in a game of Bloodbowl with only 11 figures must really irk the executives at GW who have bilked millions out of the credit cards of parents with other releases such as 40K & WHFB.
So then a search through the internet will reveal just how popular this "dead" game is. At Cancon (biggest games convention in Australia), it regularly is the 4th most popular miniatures game (behind 40K, WHFB & Flames of War). Matt Forbecks amusing fiction based on the game are all recent releases; Bloodbowl (2005), Dead Ball (2005), Death Match (2006) & Rumble In The Jungle (2007).
The game, both computer & tabletop, has such potential waiting to be tapped.
However, your last line is entirely correct, no one is going to be won over to the fantasy world that Bloodbowl is part of on the strength of the videogame, so I hope Cyanide keep that mind, they've got a huge audience, but also a very demanding audience who know what the game should be delivering. If they deliver, the game will be a success.