I am not, by design, a very sporty person. This makes me a curious person to review a game that, behind all its violent trappings, is still a sports game. I don’t watch or play sports, but Blood Bowl still manages to speak to me in a way that I imagine football and rugby speak to the ordinary and well adjusted members of society.
Blood Bowl is a curious sort of mash up of American Football and Speedball, created by Games Workshop as a tabletop game and finally brought to the PC by Cyanide Studios. You choose a team from a handful of typical fantasy races and kick, punch, bite and claw your way into scoring more touchdowns than the other guy. On the face of it, the game is simply a turn based American Football in fantasy trappings, but to declare Blood Bowl merely that alone would be incorrect.
My biggest issue with sports, as an objective observer, is the lack of violence. There is something primal in me that requires all team sports to relate back to gladiatorial combat, and few sports manage that in reality. There are violent sports, sure, but the hideous rules and primadonna players make them less interesting. Blood Bowl avoids this by pushing out almost all of the in-game rules, opting to make the majority of the constraints related to player stats rather than how they are allowed to act.
Your players in Blood Bowl have four specific stats: movement allowance, strength, agility and armour value. These influence your dice rolls and declare how effective each player is in a specific role. High agility players will be good runners and have enviable ball skills, but will tend to be rather squishy, whereas high strength players will be much more suited and smashing the opposition into the dirt but will likely also be clumsy as a newborn lamb when it comes to ball control. The different teams have different arrangements of these stats, and as a result picking the right team for your play style is of the utmost importance.
My preferred team during the game is Dwarfs. When portrayed against other teams, the Dwarfs are ridiculously hardy, but also ludicrously clumsy. The majority of a Dwarf team will be made up of players called blockers, which should give some indication as to the usual Dwarf tactics. They’re all about being violent enough to prevent the opposition from getting close to the one player who can actually carry the ball. Yes, the Dwarfs are so monumentally clumsy that only the handful of more specialised players can even come close to maybe picking up the ball.
During my first few hours of play, it was this quirk of the Dwarf race that led me to absolutely loathe the game. I did eventually overcome this irrational hatred however, once I realised the true cause of my frustration. It is very important that you understand this if you have any intention of buying this game: despite including a single-player mode, Blood Bowl is for online play. The playing the game offline, while somewhat fun on easy, is dangerously unforgiving on normal and higher. I don’t want to claim that the computer fixes dice rolls, as that would be childish and unprofessional, but if I were playing the tabletop version against an anthropomorphic personification of the CPU I would find myself surreptitiously checking to see if they were using trick ones. The computer will pounce on any chink in your defences, sometimes with attacks that you could swear would never ever work, with unprecedented accuracy and crush you. It’s frustrating, and after four hours of back to back matches I was about ready to surrender.
Some may say that this stems from my total failure to grasp the metaphysics of sports in general, that athletic tactics are useless when provided by me for I cannot understand the nuances of a competitive sporting event. That may be true. On the bright side, however, taking the game online made the game much more enjoyable. Once I had worked out exactly how to navigate the somewhat clunky interface, the online competitions were much more fun and engaging, and the persistent nature of the online universe means that you can become attached to your players, levelling them up and choosing which talents you want them to have after each outstanding game. This makes it all the more painful when they die horribly, of course, but also all the more sweeter when it is you who does the killing.
It’s a game of stark contrasts then. On the one side you have a satisfying tactical system, where every movement you make will have a direct affect on the flow of the game, on the other a fiddly interface at times and a great source of mind numbing frustration at times. When things work the game feels amazing, but the one time a dice goes against you will be enough to start the hair pulling. But that’s how it should be, right? Isn’t that how sports tend to unfold, every mistake by your team becoming a beacon of rage and hatred for the fans? Blood Bowl captures that perfectly, except with the added bonus of being able to literally kill a player that has wound you up something chronic.
Example. A recent online league match pitted my Dwarfs against a team of Lizardmen. Lizardmen are tougher than Dwarfs but even more clumsy, with the exception of their star players, the Skinks. These things are tiny and weak but can run like the clappers, and their high agility means they can slip through your defensive line like they were mist. As a result, I quickly went 1-0 down and spent the rest of the game trying to claw my way back to a draw. Despite a spirited attempt, my beer-pickled Dwarfs fell short and I lost the game. Still, I went away happy in the knowledge that, in one of the last few turns, one of my Dwarfs punched a skink so hard that it dropped dead on the pitch. In my mind I pictured the slippery little bastard’s head erupting in a volcano of gore as twenty pounds of Dwarf-fist punched right through. Skinks are cheap to replace, but that sweet taste of vengeance is priceless.
So I suppose the best way to describe Blood Bowl would be as a legitimate sports game, albeit with sanctioned violence and a legal channel for revenge. It has a few design oddities that can become frustrating: the unashamedly evil AI, the clunky interface, and the brain-strippingly annoying commentators (who can be turned off, thankfully), but the core game is enjoyable enough to keep you coming back for more, even if sports are not your thing.
Word of advice, though. I recommend playing a nice online league with friends or people of a kind disposition from your preferred online community. This game will annoy you from time to time, and it’s best that you experience that with people who aren’t going to be sending you ‘lol noob’ messages every five minutes. Just a thought.