Version tested: PC
Know what I hate? Elves. Maybe it's the fact that they remind me of the smug trustafarian hippies who plague Brighton's pubs and open spaces. Perhaps I'm jealous of their svelte, eternal youth and haughty attitude. Maybe it's because I'm basically a dwarf. Maybe it's because they just absolutely trounced me on the field, embarrassing my team of lumbering Orcs with their sublime grasp of the long-field passing game and elegant, darting runs and dodges.
I was doing pretty well up until then. A few games to get my head around the rules (Blood Bowl was one of the few branches of the Warhammer tree which I never scampered along in my youth) and I was playing relatively competently. The game's initially bewildering nature, compounded by a less-than-helpful tutorial, had been clarified – boiled down to a basic understanding of the blocking, tackling and risk-calculation which form the backbone of Blood Bowl's gameplay. It had gone from infuriating to fun in about half an hour. Unfortunately, my hands-down defeat by the prancing wood ninnies sent my petulantometer swinging wildly back the other way.
Blood Bowl is American Football at its core, with the more complex rules and frequent stoppages stripped out and replaced with brute violence and Games Workshop's stock fantasy races. Each race represents an accepted tactical approach to the real-life game - with Elves embodying a fluid, passing play-style, the Skaven personifying speed, Orcs the power game and so on. Focusing on these advantages and the weaknesses of your opposition is fundamental to success.
In the turn-based version of the game, coaches move each of their players around the field one by one, or make tackles and blocks against opposition members in adjacent grid squares. Each turn, one player can "blitz": both moving and tackling in one turn to offer a shock-tactic advantage. Almost every action requires a dice roll: moving through tackle zones, attempting a pass, trying to make a block. Failing a roll results in a "turnover", with play switching to the opposition.
Each match consists of 16 of these turns for each player, eight in each half. Wins are based on points from touchdowns, although the regularity of injuries, knock-outs and even fatalities means that grinding opponents into dust before strolling in a last-turn touchdown is a very valid tactic.
Building a basic strategy around the strengths of your team isn't hard to do, and settling on the Orcs as a tough, physical beginners' set-up, I pick up the ropes pretty quickly. I learn a few of the basic manoeuvres and terms early on, setting up "cages" for my ball-carrier by surrounding him with rugged blockers and blitzers and shuffling him toward the end zone. Switching up the formations at each kick-off to overload flanks or cripple key players serves me well too, although my trusty Greenskins find the more flamboyant or advanced tactics beyond them.
However, I soon start to find the AI wanting. Tactics are predictable and occasionally curiously inappropriate. Fragile teams will sometimes attempt to attempt to trade casualties with a physically superior side, and clumsy brutes will try and string together graceful runs and long passes. Annoyingly, this quite often works, with supposedly ham-fisted players pulling off feats of incredible agility and lean and lithe beanpoles felling blitzers three times their size. It all feels a bit random.
What it comes down to, and what really starts to grate after a few hours of play, is those damn dice rolls. Admittedly, attacking a game like Blood Bowl - to which dice-rolls are the very life-blood - for randomness is a bit counter-intuitive. The element of chance is key: every move is a calculated gamble, and very quickly players must learn to prioritise their least risky moves, putting the basics into place before attempting any panache
Much like any successful gambling activity, the risk/reward balance needs to be excellent in Blood Bowl, and for the most part it is. Often though, it all feels a bit too unpredictable. As a control freak, if I set up a masterful strategy, meticulously planned and executed, I want to know why it fails and what I could have done about it. When the answer to that question is usually "bad luck", I start to feel a bit miffed.
More time and a deeper understanding of the sport would help, but even so, watching your star player smashed to death in the first turn of a match, having spent six or seven matches crafting him into a lethal steamroller with the game's rudimentary experience and progression system, is extremely galling. More often than not it had me reaching for a restart rather than struggling gamely on. Only having a 50/50 chance for most players to even pick up a loose ball whilst under no pressure seems a bit too harsh, even when that player is half-goat.
Perhaps I've not really grasped the spirit of Blood Bowl. I had too many teams decimated (many to the point where they could no longer field a full team at kick-off after a few matches), too many long-term investments wiped out in a single unlucky tackle, too many matches lost on a crucial, easy roll failed against the odds. I suspect that for many enthusiasts this is actually the kernel of the enjoyment, this chaotic unpredictability, but I was unable to move beyond sighing frustration.
Matches against human players are more satisfying, partly because the tactics are generally more interesting, and partly because there's less of the distrust over extremely unlikely outcomes which can creep in against a computer-controlled opponent. If it's a chess-like predictability you're looking for though, best knock on another changing room door.
In general, the presentation is much what you'd expect from a small studio developing a niche licence: it's not particularly pretty or polished. Humour is base, and there's the mandatory fantasy-world smattering of adolescent sauciness with female characters' outfits. Commentary is well-voiced but repetitive, with anecdotes making up the bulk of the vocalisation rather than any direct explanation of the events on pitch. Players are hard to distinguish, with the customisation of models so limited as to be pretty pointless. The full Living Rulebook 5.0 is included on the disc, but a better tutorial wouldn't be hard to implement, especially as so many aspects aren't so much glossed over as sanded down and hidden under a layer of lathe and plaster.
What Blood Bowl offers is a way for enthusiasts to enjoy their chosen tabletop sport without much of the hassle, remotely and conveniently - and for those with friends who'll also indulge, it's probably a no-brainer purchase. What it doesn't really provide is a compelling way for newcomers to learn and become involved in what is clearly a balanced game offering great tactical depth. I'll probably return and persevere with it, attempting to take my Orc team all the way through the punishingly extended campaign, but it's unlikely to convert me to being a real fan - which smacks of a missed opportunity.
6 / 10