The Wizard Sleeve: Blood Bowl Review

bbowlFrancis can suck my big toe.  His video game reviews are…how to put this nicely?  Adequate, I guess.  Y’know, if you haven’t played many video games.  So I thought I’d show him, here at The Wizard Sleeve, just how things are done this time, since I’ll be covering a tabletop game turned video game.

After many long years, it has finally happened.  Someone took a tabletop miniatures game and translated it directly into a video game.  Sure, there have been numerous games based on tabletop rules, but almost all of them adapt the idea instead of sticking to the rules that brought players in to begin with.  Blood Bowl changes that.  So, if you’re already a fan of the tabletop version of the game you have no reason to not pick this up right now.  For the rest of you ill-informed heathens, let me bring you up to speed.

Blood Bowl, the tabletop game, was originally released by Games Workshop in 1988.  It was a game that took the basics from American football and mixed in the fantasy races from The Old World (Warhammer’s setting).  The goal is to drive the ball up the field and score by entering your opponent’s end zone.  Unlike American football, there isn’t any line of scrimmage or strict rules for who can handle the ball, so anyone can score.  The game is still one of GW’s best and the rules can now be found free online, from their Specialist Games website.  If you’re going to play the Blood Bowl video game, you may as well familiarize yourself with them now as the game is an exact translation of the tabletop.

The game is divided into two halves of 8 rounds each.  During each round both sides activate their players and position them to pass, block, run, or foul downed opponents.  What drives the game is the Turnover mechanic, which is a brilliant piece of game design.  Basically, almost every action in the game comes with a certain amount of risk.  When you roll the dice there is always a chance of failure and when you fail it immediately becomes the opponents turn.  So it quickly becomes a game of setting up your team to reduce risky actions.  For example, if you have a weaker character trying to block a stronger one there is a good chance that he may knock himself down and force a turnover.  If however, the weak blocker has a couple of his teammates nearby to assist, it drastically increases your risk of success.  Good management of risky actions is one of the biggest keys to success in Blood Bowl.  It’s like chess in that you need to be thinking a few moves ahead.  Unlike chess, there’s violence.  Lot’s and lot’s of violence.

Speaking of violence, they don’t call it Blood Bowl for nothing.  Players can be knocked out or injured which takes them off the field and gives your team a numbers advantage.  A perfectly valid tactic is to ignore the ball in early play and focus on knocking out the opposing team.  In campaign play, injuries can make players miss games or nag them for the rest of their careers.  While most injuries occur in legitimate play, you can also foul downed opponents in the hope of further hurting or killing them. This can be a great aid to the team, but the player who caused the foul may get ejected from the game…unless you bribe the ref.

The game is made for campaign play as players earn “Star Player Points” which let them increase in level and take numerous skills and mutations to help them in play.  As you play games you also earn money to hire new players, recruit superstars for a game or buy bennies like dice re-rolls, ref bribes, cheerleaders, an apothecary, and potions (which can get you busted for doping).  The numerous skills let your players develop in all sorts of interesting ways, allowing you to develop rounded players or ones that specialize in tasks like the passing game or injuring opponents.  Don’t get too attached though, as any time a player steps on the field there’s the risk that he’ll end up dead.

The video game currently has eight races available:  Humans, Dwarves, Wood Elves, Orcs, Chaos, Lizardmen, Skaven, and Gobbos.  Each race has different strengths and weaknesses and is able to recruit different units.  For instance, the Wood Elves are excellent at passing and catching but can easily get blocked and run over due to their low strength.  Dwarves, on the other hand, are slow and not much for the passing game, but have little trouble breaking through enemy lines.  Some teams, like Orcs, are only mediocre at the game itself but are phenomenal at pummeling opponents and sending them off the pitch with injuries.  There’s a race for just about every playstyle and the promise of more teams to come out as DLC.  Currently, Dark Elves and Undead are rumored to be coming soon.

The game runs well, with only the occasional visual hiccup, though there are a few abilities which are still bugged this soon after release.  The graphics are solid and convey the atmosphere well, even on low settings.  The only place where the game really fails technically is with the commentary.  The game uses the two commentators from the rule book and they’re pretty hilarious…for about two games.  After that, it becomes painfully obvious how few lines of dialogue are in the game as you get to hear the same things again and again.

The game includes an extensive single player campaign along with the ability to play one-off matches and multiplayer.  In most every mode you can choose to play by the classic tabletop rules or customize them to your liking.  Also included is a real-time mode for those not patient enough for turn-based play.  While it certainly works, it loses almost all the strategy the turn-based game has.  I’d avoid it.

Multiplayer has options for LAN, Hot Seat, and internet league play.  When you join the league your team is quickly entered into the rankings along with everyone else.  You can also start a private league, but the game really restrains your choices in playing private matches by dictating who plays who instead of just letting people challenge each other.  I joined a league with some folks over at RPG.net and they circumvented this problem by creating a private league, so that we would have our own in-game private chat, but doing all our challenges to other players in the open league and just communicating in IRC to coordinate.   The game doesn’t track our stats this way so we have to do it manually, which isn’t fun for the organizer.

The tools and UI for multiplayer are pretty restrictive and clunky and I’d love to see a complete overhaul of the system in future patches.  That said, it’s still easy to find a buddy and play a game. It’s less easy to hosts a tournament or league for casual play.

Blood Bowl is currently available for direct download for the PC only.  In September, it’ll get a retail PC release, and be available on Steam and the Xbox 360.  I’ll be honest, I kind of feel like I played to beta test right now, but the sting of that is removed by the fact that overall the game is solid gold.  They’re a few small bug fixes and an online UI overhaul away from being a near-perfect game.

In closing, this is a great game. It’s got deep strategy, a wonderful sense of fun, and enough character development and campaign play to scratch that roleplaying itch.  The dice system is ingeniously designed to fuel a game of highs and lows where you’ll cheer as the unlikeliest player pulls off an amazing play only seconds before your star blitzer fails at his block and ends up a corpse.   Its the kind of game that generates ridiculous and unexpected outcomes that become great stories to tell.  Most of all, the game is just fun. That’s what will keep you coming back to the pitch, match after match, to watch your team develop into a powerhouse.

Highly recommended.

6 comments on “The Wizard Sleeve: Blood Bowl ReviewAdd yours →

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  2. What do you mean? BFG was awesome, Eldar or not. Granted, Eldar were SUPER awesome, but still…

    Yeah, 40K killed the specialist games. But it wasn’t because people couldn’t afford them but because GW wasn’t making as much money as it was with 40K. That’s why minis production shut down but the designers kept producing rules for those games for years.

  3. Battlefleet Gothic was a horrible game! Its mechanics were flawed from the get go (unless you played Eldar, then you thought the mechanics were awesome).

    The small games suffered from 40k for various reasons (Necromunda for having its rules pirated for the larger game, Mordheim and BFG for releasing during 40k’s rise to absolute dominance). 40k achieved such vast market dominance that it was hard to find games of WHFB much less the smaller gamers. Add on to that rising costs and having to buy new figs after spending a few thousand on my Warhammer armies, and the smaller games just couldn’t get off the ground.

  4. Yeah, GW’s best games were always the smaller ones: Blood Bowl, Necromunda, Mordheim, Epic 40k, Gorkamorka, and Battlefleet Gothic. All great games, all handled short term. On the bright side, all those rule sets are free downloads now, which is pretty awesome if you ask me.

  5. Like many GW games – solid story and background, decent mechanics, but terrible long-term support.

    Also, the foam board was very lumpy and made it hard to keep the figs standing.

    I did love the scatter template for that game though!

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