As I ripped open the sealed bag containing the special dice for Blood Bowl, I applied just a tiny bit too much force and four of them ended up going flying across the room. I went over to pick them up – each of them showed the ‘attacker down’ symbol that is the ever-present reminder to a Blood Bowl player that life is fundamentally going to screw you over at the most inopportune moments. Those four dice, in a nut shell, are your review. I’m not going to talk much about how the game is played – there are abundant resources out there for that already. What I’m going to talk about is how the game plays.
I’ve played a lot of Blood Bowl over the years. A lot of Blood Bowl. Until now, it’s been entirely through the slip-shod Cyanide video game adaptation – thanks to an especially insistent friend I have bought that buggy mess four times now, in four ever so slightly different variations. And I’ve played every single variation to death. When I heard that the new edition of the tabletop game was being released, I reinstalled the Legendary edition of the game to remind myself how it played.
I lost a weekend to the new campaign I started.
I have even written EPIC POETRY about Blood Bowl, which I have published on THIS VERY BLOG. When was the last time a game moved you to verse? This is a big release for me.
I was excited when the box made its way into my clammy, expectant hands. This is a game that has carries the weight of expectation because for many years it’s been out of print and available only on the second hand market. Sure, the rules were never difficult to find and all kinds of companies were making all kinds of compatible miniatures without the blessing of Games Workshop – but that’s not the same, y’know?
When you take hold of this box, it feels like you’re holding on to a piece of history. When you open it, it literally smells like Christmas – like that copy of Hero Quest I owned as a young lad. That impression was overwhelming. It smelt like the eighties on a cold, Scottish December morning. It was like a flashback to an earlier time of simpler games and expectations.
That may sound overly romanticised, but really that’s my snarky way of say ‘My God, Games Workshop seems to have no idea that the eighties are over’. Everything about the Blood Bowl box, from its form-factor to its plastic sprues of miniatures you need to assemble yourself – feels antiquated. The manual comes not only with (borderline useless) assembly information but with a guide to painting each model in the correct GW approved colours.
Don’t look directly at these sections – they are seductive sirens, trying to lure you deeper and deeper into The Hobby. Games Workshop is an old hand at making you work for your fun and there is an hour or two of preparation ahead of you before you can even see how the game looks when it’s set up.
I understand that this is all ‘part of the experience’ that goes along with Games Workshop products –that the painstaking assembly of miniatures is, in itself, a satisfying diversion. The models they give you here aren’t complex – three parts that will, with experimentation and a fair degree of frustration, eventually slot together in place. But still – when I opened up Descent for the first time I wasn’t greeted with a todo list and a small dinosaur carcass worth of wasted plastic.
Anyway, you take your fine detail clippers… wait, you don’t have those? Oh dear – you’ll need them or something very like them. You can use scissors I suppose, if you’re some kind of disgusting animal. Then you take your exacto knife…you don’t have one of them either? What’s wrong with you? Then you snip all those figures out of the sprues. How many figures? Twenty two, each in three parts. Be careful when you do this too – the elasticity of the plastic means that you’ll often end up cutting a connector only to find an orc head shooting off into the air like you’re the antagonist in some grisly fantasy serial killing. Then you clip out the other miniatures and tools – the balls, the coins, the fists (fists?), and the scatter, throw-in and range tools. You clean them up, removing the excess plastic that your clumsy hands left on the models. You slot the miniatures together, making use of your GW approved plastic glue where necessary. You don’t have that either? What the hell were you thinking when you bought a Games Workshop product? Just because it’s 2016 it would be foolish to think they’d arrive pre-assembled. You don’t need a lot of glue, but you definitely need some. Then finally you have a copy of Blood Bowl you can play. Finally. FINALLY.
Of course, playable is not the same thing as completed. You know that legions of Games Workshop fans are silently judging you because you’re planning to play the game with green and blue unpainted models. I bet you’re not even going to painstakingly carve the transfer decals from the sheet and gently apply them through water before coating the model in sealing varnish? You’re an embarrassment to the Hobby. You probably don’t even have spare cans of undercoating spray in your house.
Blood Bowl then is Old School. It’s so Old School that it’s still taught by Socrates.
It’s not just the presentation of the box and the assumption of assembly that lends it that impression. It extends to the rules, which are clunky, state-dependent, and full of tables and special procedures that apply under certain circumstances. This is not a game of simple ‘roll and do a thing’. This is a game of cross-referencing lookup tables against stats against skills against the state of play. As I said above – this is a game that makes you work for your fun.
It’s around about this time in your first exposure to Blood Bowl that you come across the turnover rule, at which point you’ll likely slam the manual down and storm away. The turnover rule, you see, is absolute bullshit. Ridiculously punitive, archaic nonsense from an age of gaming where roll to move was still considered acceptable. See, the turnover rule basically states that whenever you roll the dice poorly your turn is over. If you throw out an attack that floors you instead of an opponent, that’s a turnover. When you fail to pick up the ball (which you have to roll to do), that’s a turnover. If you fail to catch a ball thrown at you, that’s a turnover. The list of events that cause turnover seems to cover basically every part of the game. That’s because it’s basically every part of the game.
How does that sound? Does it sound like absolute bullshit? Of course it does. What kind of absolute bullshit are you trying to pull here, Games Workshop? This is not how board games work any more. They’re all shiny chrome consoles and elegant card-stacks, glowing with futuristic lights, scented with lavender and accompanied by a Vangelis soundtrack. This kind of thing just isn’t on any more. Turnover? Game over, more like. Am I right? Shut it all down. Am I right? Am I right?
No, I’m not right. I’m not right at all.
Turnover, like almost everything in Blood Bowl, is beautiful. Blood Bowl demands that you make all the concessions to its austere design but rewards you in abundance for your effort. The only absolute bullshit here is the bait and switch you just worked your way through. Classic mid-review turna… wait, let’s not do that. We’d probably owe Shut Up and Sit Down some royalties. Classic mid-review turnover? That’s probably fine.
This isn’t a game I should like, because it has everything I hate packaged up into one unbearably punitive package. I’m not a great fan of dice chuckers – I’ve always preferred randomness to be a flavouring rather than a core system. It’s like coriander – it’s nice when carefully added to a winter soup. You wouldn’t want to eat a bowl of it by itself.
Blood Bowl has you chucking dozens of dice during any given turn.
I’m not a fan of games where the only thing you can do to improve your performance is ‘roll better’, and Blood Bowl provides you with many moments like that through the course of its thirty-two turns. I don’t even like the basic premise. Gridiron? Urgh. Gridiron with dwarfs and orcs and trolls? Urgh. Set in the Warhammer universe? Ur… well, I guess that’s okay. I’m not a fan of the Warhammer fantasy setting, but it’s not an explicit turn off. Lots of fiddly components? Urgh. Urgh. Urgh. There is so much here that, on the surface, means I should hate the game.
But that’s just it. It’s all on the surface, and you really need to dig deep into Blood Bowl before you start to see the beauty of the design. So let’s do that. Let’s dig deep because if you’re anything like me you’re going to need a bit of convincing that this is worth playing. Blood Bowl, we’ve already seen, isn’t going to make the effort itself to draw you towards it.
Let’s start with that hideous looking turnover rule – a rule that seems so bad that it should be hauled into the Hague for questioning. It looks like a relic from a dark chapter of gaming – something ancient and alien and vaguely forbidding that a forgotten civilization left as a warning to others. It looks like that, but it really isn’t. Turnover is the thing that makes Blood Bowl work, because it’s what gives every single action the spice of meaningful risk. Almost every action risks turnover, which makes you carefully consider every action before you undertake it. If you don’t want to roll the dice, you can walk about the pitch, out of harm’s way. If you want to actually make progress towards victory, you have to put everything on the line. Turnover is the beating heart of Blood Bowl – a system that is fundamentally unfair, but necessary to lend the overarching strategic and tactical evaluation its substantial weight.
That weight, that risk, is what in turn shapes the randomness in the game. Here’s a partial list of what you roll dice for in Blood Bowl:
- Picking up the ball
- Throwing the ball
- Catching the ball
- Moving away from an opponent player
- Moving farther than your movement allowance permits
- Throwing an attack (known as a block)
- Surviving being hit by an attack
In short, every action that can change the state of the game. And those dice rolls can be tough, modified by the stats of your players. Sometimes they use a standard d6, other times they use the brutally unpleasant block dice which can do as much damage to you as they do to your opponent.
They’re modified by adjacent players (of both teams), weather conditions, special events, skills, and more. Sometimes bad dice can be re-rolled, either by consuming one of your ‘team re-rolls’ or by special skills on particular kinds of players. Your catchers can likely re-roll the die if they fail to catch a thrown ball, and your throwers likewise if they fail to launch the ball in the proper direction. So, assigning the right player to the right task is a key element of risk management. Importantly, you also get to choose what actions you perform and in which order – and that is what makes the fundamental randomness of Blood Bowl interesting. Randomness in Blood Bowl isn’t the game, it’s the puzzle. Every turn, your job is to manage and prioritise risk in such a way as to minimise your liability and maximise the risk to your opponents. You look at your resources, and your re-rolls, and you decide how often, and in what order, the dice get a chance to screw you.
That risk is everywhere, and you need to deal with it. You set up your play – you make plans to move a player to pick up the ball, send it hurtling over the pitch to your runner, with the intention of scoring a beautiful touch-down. You move to the ball, and roll a two – a failure. It’s fine, you’ve got the sure hands skill. You can roll again. And you do – and get a one. That’s also a failure. That’s the turn over. And now your opponents get to capitalise on your failure. Nice rolling, no rolls.
A turn of Blood Bowl is fundamentally about positioning yourself to deal with these horrible, teeth-grinding moments. It’s about making sure when those same moments happen to your opponent you’re poised to seize the momentum of play. Your job as a coach in Blood Bowl is mitigate and prioritise risk. You’ve got eleven players (to begin with at least) and you need to coax them into action in the order that is going to expose you to the fewest number of unfavourable die rolls. You are constantly looking to triage your position and carefully spend your actions to ensure failure isn’t critical.
So you handle your moving first, because that’s risk free provided you’re not dodging out of a tackle zone. You use that to set yourself up for blocking, making sure that your players are well supported by their allies. The more of your buddies around you, the more likely attacks will be under favourable conditions. You use blocking to then set up chains of attacks, hopefully knocking enemies out of the way to bring yourself into closer proximity to your allies still left to block. When blocking, if you have a greater strength than your opponent, you roll two dice and choose which result you like. If you have a lower strength than your opponent, you roll two dice and they choose. You draw strength from untackled allies in contact with your target, so there’s a lot of careful ordering that goes into this. You want to make as few dice rolls as possible overall in a turn, but when you roll them you want them to roll in your favour.
That’s your turn – you make sure you cover the ball, that you protect your ball carrier (if you have one), that you cover all the angles. That you set things up to make sure your opponent must pay for every action with die rolls, because even if the odds are in their favour you roll so many dice so often that you’re guaranteed to end up cursing them. Every player extrudes a ‘tackle zone’, and that’s a powerful tool for area control and area denial. Blood Bowl is a game of violence projected and contained, and your tackle zones are how you shape that battleground. If you can’t play the ball, you absolutely must play the man.
You maximise their risk. You minimise your own. That, in a nut-shell, is what Blood Bowl is all about. It presents you with an intricately connected puzzle of randomness, and then equips you with the tools needed to meaningfully manage it. You’ll never end up with a sure thing – there will still be situations where ‘lol, roll better’ is the only way to improve for next time. Those moments though are rare because you have a massive bag of tricks you can use to make sure when the dice roll, they roll true. You can make sure you play the right players for the right roles, and you can carefully make use of your sparse re-rolls to ensure mitigation of the worst turnover timings. Be careful though, because re-rolls can turn things from bad to worse. There are few things as galling as thinking ‘I really need to knock this guy down’ and re-rolling your two block dice to get two ‘attacker down’ symbols. You have to take the reroll – but that’s part of the risk. That’s part of what it means to never be able to ensure your own success, no matter your tactical genius.
But then here’s the awesome part – the fact you can’t guarantee success is great. You might be rolling three block dice against an opponent, and all three come up attacker down. The chance is low, but it’s there, and I’ve had it happen to me. It was a moment so bitterly, karmically unfair that it was like the universe itself had decided to support my opponent. Randomness in this game can be anthropomorphized into a malevolent asshole out to make you look like a chump. Every so often events conspire in such a way that you need to convince yourself through gritted teeth that ‘I am definitely enjoying this’. Next turn though, you’ll just as likely be cheering wildly for your Ol’ Buddy Randomness who just let you kill a massive troll with a single block die. Blood Bowl is a game where you are always at risk of rolling poorly, but it’s also a game that manages to ensure that if you’re the better player you’ll still almost always win. Mitigation in that respect comes in a whole range of forms. If Blood Bowl seems too random, you’re probably not playing it right. There’s randomness in the individual plays, but your strategy and your positioning are far more significant predictors of outcome.
Blood Bowl, more than any other game I’ve ever played, is a game of real, palpable moments of fist-pumping triumph or hair-pulling despair. It’s perhaps the only game I’ve played where I will stand up and yell ‘Yes!’ when a particularly risky strategy comes together.
It’s the last turn of the second half. You’re one point down, and the only way you can pull yourself back from a loss is to perform the dice-rolling equivalent of tap-dancing through a minefield.
You roll to dodge out of a tackle zone – you manage it. The crowd cheers their approval.
You slip through another tackle zone, because it’s the only option you have. You fail the roll. The crowd groans. You spend a re-roll. You pass! The crowd goes wild!
You run to the end zone ready to score a touchdown, but your movement allowance is two squares too short. So you go for it – you can eke out another two squares of movement at the cost of a die roll per square. You roll the die once. It’s okay, you move into the square nearest the end zone.
Excitement in the crowd, and the coaches, is at fever pitch. One more square and you score. You close your eyes. Everyone holds their breath. You roll the die…
And it doesn’t matter what you roll because that moment is great regardless of how the story ends. It ends either in fantastic triumph with a last second equalizer, or in noble defeat and wild exultation from your opponent. No matter what happens, it’s a memorable experience. Every die roll feels awesome for one of you, and the emotional high-point will bounce between the two coaches like a rubber ball in a tumble dryer.
Blood Bowl is full of these memorable experiences. It’s the randomness that permits it, and it’s the turnover system that adds the emotional accelerant. It’s not ‘Oh, I failed my roll so I go do one of my other actions’ – those turnovers happen at the worst possible moments, and they cut short your momentum and hand it wholesale off to the other player. Turnover keeps play from being abstract and sterile – it makes it visceral. The combination of these elements elevates Blood Bowl from a comparatively workaday fantasy gridiron game into a platform for emergent storytelling where both players will be constantly and consistently surprised by the growing narrative of the match. You can tell sensible, coherent stories from these dice rolls, and that’s a phenomenal feat of game design. You’re perpetually surging down the mathematical slope of de-escalating turnover, and no matter what happens on your downwards trajectory, it’s going to be interesting. Infuriating, enraging, violently upsetting sure. But interesting. It might be a manifestation of a kind of ‘ludic Stockholm Syndrome’, but you will live and die with your team’s successes and failures.
Blood Bowl is such a great game that it’s even a teaching aid. It lets me understand what fans of real sports feel. It has all the drama and cut and thrust of an actual match. The ebb and flow, to and fro, stop and go, and high and low of sporting accomplishment is beautifully simulated by these sometimes anachronistic mechanics. Blood Bowl is a fantastic game.
It’s not a perfect game of course, because few games are. It’s mechanically awkward, with a lot of scope for missing important modifiers or mistakenly committing to actions. The consequences for such mistakes can be considerable, because turnover is a constant threat you need to navigate. If it’s galling to suffer turnover because of your intentional action, it’s almost unbearable to suffer it for a mistake. All those dice rolls add depth and story to play, but each one is a mess of modifiers and special considerations and exceptions and exemptions. Blood Bowl, for all its very considerable assets, is not a game that plays smoothly, or permits effortless expression. It will fight you every step of the way. The best thing you can say about this is that there are no obviously unnecessary rules – this isn’t first edition AD&D, everything here serves a purpose.
It’s also a game that this base set doesn’t really do a great job in opening up. Much of the true diversity of Blood Bowl is in the different teams it makes available – elves are agile and masters of the passing game. Undead are flimsy but frustratingly durable. Skaven are stunty little bastards that will be all up in your end-zone like rats slipping through a drainpipe. Dwarfs are like concrete walls in football helmets. Every team plays meaningfully differently which creates a fantastic meta-game of strategy, counter-strategy, counter-counter strategy and so on. Elves versus dwarfs is a very different match to dwarfs versus goblins. That’s what keeps Blood Bowl feeling interesting after forty or fifty intense matches – there’s always something new happening as a consequence of combinatorial explosion. This diversity is supplemented with formal league play, star player advancement, apothecaries and so on – it creates a very rich meta-game of team management and long-term campaigning when this stuff is available. You develop an attachment to your team, and your players, if they’re part of an ever evolving league. Playing Blood Bowl as a single game is great – it’s all the fun described above. Playing it within a league is better. Every bone crushing injury and dead player feels all the more meaningful because of the long term consequences.
With the base set, you get a human team and an orc team, and not many models of either. Like the X-Wing Miniatures game, you need to look on the base set as your down payment on a future investment if you want to get the most out of it. I’ve already ordered the Skaven team, and the campaign supplement. £65 is a lot to pay for a down-payment though. Games Workshop are not known for being the most affordable or generous of publishers when it comes to this kind of thing – their business model is built around the expectation of regular purchases of supplementary material. The base set will only carry you so far, and the truth is it’s probably not as far as you might like.
Still, our review here is as much about what the game can be as what it is in the box, and the game Blood Bowl can be is easily four and a half stars. You can realistically settle for a handful of teams in your own collection, because you will eventually develop preferences. I like dwarfs and wood elves, and if I want deeper variety well – if Games Workshop does one thing well it’s supporting play at its store-front locations. Even if you don’t own all the teams, you’ll find there are plenty of opportunities to experience a kicking at the hands (feet) of an ancient mummy. While the intersections of team styles adds depth to play, more teams are primarily about increasing breadth. You’ll find a balance, if you decide this is a game you want to be part of your life. And if you don’t fancy paying the prices charged by Games Workshop, I’m sure a cottage industry of compatible third-party substitutes will be available. We are seeing Blood Bowl return to the tabletop, at least in part, because the Blood Bowl community is phenomenal and that adds tremendous value to the franchise. In a real sense, Games Workshop has ceased to be relevant as far as Blood Bowl goes – this base set may be the ‘official’ box, but you could cobble together your own using nothing more than plasticine, a few dice, a couple of bits of loose cardboard and a printer for the rules.
God, I love Blood Bowl. I’m not saying that you will too – but I do think you owe it to yourself to push past its initial hard shell and give it a go. Just bear in mind that Blood Bowl isn’t forgiving of casual dalliances. It’s not looking for a one night stand. You better be prepared to put a ring on it if you want the best experience. It expects and demands commitment.
It’s definitely not for everyone, but it’s just as definitely absolutely for me.
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