Roll-Up Sports Fans – ‘Blood Bowl’ Returns

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The arrival of the new season of Blood Bowl has been long awaited, but its fanatical adherents need wait no longer. The game’s latest incarnation is here.

I am far cry from a fanatical adherent, having played only twice since the game’s first edition, released in 1986. I’ve now played a game of the new version; well, half a game (captured in the video above). Not, I concede, an exhaustive playtest for review purposes, but here are my early thoughts of the game.

Overview:

Blood Bowl describes itself as “The game of fantasy football.” To most people on my side of the Atlantic (in the UK), this means a fictional assembly of soccer players from the English Premier League, that men across the land tinker with, week after week, whilst hoping desperately that Jamie Vardy scores a hat-trick against Stoke City.

The fantasy football in Blood Bowl is far more akin to that found across the pond: the football where almost nobody uses their feet. Blood Bowl is based on the NFL (indeed, the Blood Bowl god is called Nuffle). The game pits various fantasy teams against one another, and over the years there have been many teams from lots of races in the Warhammer world. This new set has just two teams, humans and orcs, but more teams, including Skaven and Dwarf, are on the horizon–in fact, the Skaven team is arriving alongside Blood Bowl on its official release date (11/25/2016).

The aim of the game is to score more touchdowns than your opponent.

Components:

If you haven’t seen it yet, our unboxing video goes through all of the things found in the box, but here’s a quick run through of what you get for your money.

The components are all of an excellent quality. After years of accusations of being neglectful of the game, Games Workshop has clearly been determined to restore the balance.

  • 12 plastic Human players in various poses. I particularly like the catchers.
  • 12 plastic Orc players, including 2 Black Orcs.
  • Extra balls–with pegs that fit in the player’s bases, to help you remember who has the ball.
  • Plastic team counters and coins to flip.
  • Double-sided foldout card pitch. One Orc side, one Human side. The pitch has squares marked on it to regulate movement and combat.
  • 2 double-sided card dugouts.
  • Cards detailing Special Plays, Star Players, and references for all included players.
  •  2 sets of dice. Blue for the Humans and green for the Orcs. These include D16s!
  • Yes, D16s!
  • 56-page rulebook. Though the basic rules cover only a few pages. It also includes a handy painting guide.
  • 2 quick reference cards.
  • A range ruler, scatter template, and throw-in template.
Bloodbowlbox
The Blood Bowl Box is jammed full of plastic: Note the green D16 peeking out through the plastic bag.

The Game:

NOTE: In Blood Bowl terms, the “players” are always the figures on the pitch. The human’s controlling them are called “coaches.”

For veteran players, the rules for the new edition are essentially the same as the previous version. For newcomers, Games Workshop has produced a getting started video. They have also made a PDF of “Drills” to take you through the basics. These are quite well hidden at the bottom of the Bloodbowl.com page, so make sure you scroll down and take a look. There’s some good stuff down there, including some nostalgia teams for Blood Bowl veterans.

A game is split into two halves, each of 8 turns. Play starts with the toss of the coin, and the winner picks who kicks off. The ball is punted into play and the team who didn’t kick off scrambles to pick it up before the opposing team steamrollers into them.

The idea is to score touchdowns, which is done by one of your players being in control of the ball inside your opponent’s end zone.

I’m not going to precis all the rules, but here’s a brief overview.

On your turn, you pick each player in your team, one by one, perform their action(s), and then move onto the next player. Players can be picked in any order, but once you have chosen a player, you must do everything you want to do with it. You cannot return to a player that has already moved. The order in which you choose your players is very important and is where most of the tactical decisions in the game are made.

There are several basic actions you can do with each player. Not all of them are relevant at every stage of the game.

  • Move.
  • Dodge.
  • Pick up the ball.
  • Throw the ball.
  • Catch the ball.
  • Block.
  • Blitz.

If your player is in space, you can move it freely up the number of squares given in a player’s stat block (all on handy cards for a basic game, using the teams straight out of the box). If you want to do anything else, you have to make a roll and that’s where things get interesting.

The concept of the “tackle zone” is vital to a game of Blood Bowl. The 8 squares that surround a player, denote their tackle zone. The more tackle zones of an opposing team a player is standing in, the harder it is for it to do something. The more friendly tackle zones the player is standing in, the more his teammates can help.

A “Block” is essentially an attempt to keep opposing players out of the way. With a successful block, you can push a player back, or down onto the ground, where they may be injured. Careful, though, as there’s usually a risk to your own player. If your player is much stronger than your opponent’s, blocks are a little easier. The game comes with its own special block dice, and a chart to tell you the outcome of your block.

A “Blitz” is a special block where a player can move, block, and then carry on moving. Normally, a standard block finishes that player’s turn.

The key to Blood Bowl strategy is that if one of your players fails an action, YOUR TURN IS OVER. At this point, the play switches to the other coach.

This is where the tactics come in. You want to throw the ball, but your catcher is surrounded, making the catch difficult. You could try to take some opposing players out, but a failed block roll would leave your player with the ball stranded. You could try to move the player you want to catch the ball first, but he needs to make some dodge rolls, and if he fails those, he’ll be on the ground, and your guy with the ball will still be stranded. It’s important to make your key plays first, whilst always remembering to mitigate against the risk of failure.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Both teams have a number of rerolls they can call upon to alter the outcome that fate has dictated. Be warned, though, the second roll must always count, and those precious rerolls soon run out. Use them with care.

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Once again the annual human/orc tea party ended in fisticuffs.  Photo: Robin Brooks

As a novice, I found the initial rounds very confusing. There are definite “plays,” which an experienced coach can use to pummel you into the ground. Once your players start to get injured, great gaps start appearing in your defense. The learning curve in the game is understanding how your team works together and how best to use your tackle zones to your advantage. The myriad options and combinations, and working out what order to do things can be bewildering at first.

In tournament play, the rules about declaring who you are moving and what they are doing are quite rigid. For novice players, a greater degree of flexibility is definitely required. Initially, I had to take a lot of advice from my opponent, but once I’d played a few turns, I began to develop a few strategies of my own. One thing that took a while to get used to is how fast the game can move. Despite playing against big lumbering Orcs, my fleet-footed humans could still be chased down, despite apparently being in the clear.

As the game continues and players become embroiled in fights, or lie face down in the mud, turns become quicker, as options and permutations are reduced. Once I knew what I was doing, the game began to flow and was genuinely exciting.

The Verdict:

Blood Bowl is a tried and tested game, and its fans are universally going mad for this version. Will it bring new converts? I don’t see why not.

From a modeling and painting perspective, the new miniatures are excellent: dynamic and expertly sculpted. More teams are promised, and, personally, I’d love to get my hands on a specially sculpted “Star Player” for my human team (not currently available, but it can only be a matter of time).

As a game, whilst the rules are simple, mastering their implications is a tough learning curve. Younger gamers and novices will need some hand-holding before the nuances of the game become apparent. Play is tense and exciting, but I’ve yet to see it free flowing. This is due to my own inexperience. Games are slated for 60-90 mins, which make it ideal for a game night. I’m not close to getting it that short yet, but, hopefully, with a few more games playing time will come down.

For a Games Workshop game, it’s quite reasonably priced (you get the whole game for $99 or £65). An additional team (The Skavenblight Scramblers) will cost you $35. Pay this cost once and you have another team. But that is up to you; the game plays straight at the box, and you need not spend any more money.

Also coming out at the same time as the main game is “Death Zone: Season 1,” a compendium of additional rules and the stats for seven new teams. This will enable to turn your one off games into full-blown leagues, with rules on how to turn your heroic ball chuckers into Star Players. There’s also an iOS and Android Blood Bowl app, which will help you keep track of your teams and runs through how to set up a game.

For the moment, you’re not at a disadvantage if you don’t shell out for lots of team variations. Blood Bowl only has to involve an influx of plastic and an outflow of money if you want it to. Not only that, it’s a great game for a club night: League tables, grudge matches, and multi-million dollar franchises. It’s all here. Apart from the last one.

So what do you think? Are you convinced by this new release? Do you love the game? What’s your favorite team? What plays should I be adopting to halt the Orcs in their tracks? Please write in the comments below.

Disclaimer: Games Workshop sent me a copy of this game to review. 

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