By Kieron Gillen on September 7th, 2009 at 6:53 pm.
I’ve been playing Blood Bowl to the death – mostly other people’s, occasionally mine. I can’t actually do a Wot-I-Think review, due to feeling uncomfortable with my conflict of interest. But I’ve played so much, with its UK release imminent, I wanted to do something. As such, with the second season of the RPS Cup now under way, I thought I’d take you with me on the rise and fall of the Skaven blighters. Why don’t you join me? Join me..
Blood bowl is a hyper-violent American Football analogue. It’s a turn-based board game, converted with impressive faithfulness by Cyanide. There’s also a real-time mode, which no-one appears to play, and as such isn’t really worth discussing.
The aim of the game is to score touchdowns. Some teams take the approach of killing all the opposition so they can’t score touchdowns, and then walking in one to win, but its’ still judged by touchdowns. Whoever scores most, wins the game.
Matches take the form of sixteen turns for each player, divided into two halves. At the end of the half, the game restarts with another kick-off – in other words, when turns start getting short, you’re justified taking increasing risks to score.
Blocks are your active attacks. If you start the game by an opposing player, you can attack them. This is the main way of hurting people. Tackles are your passive attacks. Anyone moving through the squares around any of your players has to make a dodge roll to not fall on their faces. Strength is the statistic for blocks, Agility for dodges.
Each turn you have a selection of one-off options. You can make one pass. You can make one hand-off. You can make one foul – that being, an attack against someone who’s already lying on the floor. And you can make one blitz – which is an attack after a move, and the primary device for getting in quick and fucking people up.
And finally, the big rule which defines the game’s character. Any time you fail a roll in a serious way – you miss a pass, you get tackled, you get one of your own knocked down by a block – your turn ends. In other words, the primary skill is in assigning priority and playing the odds. It’s a lot like poker or similar games. Do you go for the easy success with a limited reward or the trickier success with a bigger pay off? Do you try to be greedy when there’s an easy win just there?
For an example of the latter, you have a team-member about to run in for a touchdown. The second you score, the turn ends. If you’re a bashy team, you may want to do a load of attacks before then, to see if you can cause any injuries. Of course, if those attacks fail, your turn ends, and the team-member doesn’t get a chance to score, allowing more time for a counter-attack. For an example of the former… well, they’re trickier. Take something where your ball-carrier would have to take a longer route around the defensive line due to a player being in a certain place. You do the block to try and clear the route, risking a fail – so not advancing downfield at all – to gain the chance of advancing slightly further.
It’s a game of risk assessment. That everything could go tits up at any second provides tension. And impressive levels of frustration where it all goes wrong.
It’s quite the game, with an elegant brilliant design. Whatever problems Blood Bowl has very, very few parts of it are to do with the core board game design.
THE RPS CUP: SEASON 1
There’s a couple of RPS leagues ongoing. This is the first, whose initial season that was plagued by drop-outs, as perhaps expected. It was a new game, so players would simply find they didn’t actually want to commit at all. But with four out by the end, it was tricky to judge who actually did well, and who just didn’t play any games.
The exception was JanekT’s rampaging Wood-Elf team, the Raging Naturists, who won every single game they played – and that he played the drop-outs before they did that meant he ended with either a 8-0 or 9-0 record. It’s hard to be sure, because I had to re-create the league to go for the second season (frustratingly there’s no ability to alter things like size of the league once it’s already started), so all previous records were lost. Though I’m not sure you can even look at old records anyway.
(You actually have to go into individual team management to look at future and past fixtures in a single season. It’s not accessible when looking at an actual league. The league management is somewhat slipshod.)
So, second time there’s eight in the league – six players from the first, some with newly created teams as they abandoned their previous teams for being absolutely brutalised and/or not actually much fun to play, and they’d rather be playing something sexier and/or greener. Plus two two hardened newcomers.
I’m staying with my boys.
THE SKAVEN BLIGHTERS
I have a soft spot for Skaven. I’ve actually got a code somewhere which allows you to disguise yourself as a Skaven in Warhammer, and I’ve been resisting the urge to go native as the one boy from the undercity. They’re as evil as anyone else on the darker side of the Warhammer universe, but doubly treacherous and with lovely pelts. As such, they’re terribly effective Blood bowl players.
Each of the races have their own vague style of how they play, which is roughly analogous to various approaches to American Football. Apparently. Well, Troy Goodfellow says so:
Wood Elves are the West Coast offense, Dwarves are the classic Pittsburgh Steelers, Chaos are mutant Indianapolis Colts, the Goblins are cheating New England Patriots…each race has a personality. This is not a game about countering your weaknesses – it’s about emphasizing your strengths.
Skaven are a running team. In fact, they’re the running team. In a stand up fight, their low armour means they’ll accumulate injuries faster than if they were in a vivisection lab. Their passing game is merely acceptable. But in terms of pure speed, they’re incomparable. And, as Troy says, I’ve tried to push that as aspect of them as hard as I can. The Skaven Blighters are a fearsome team to make a mistake against. Fail to pick up the ball from kick off and one of the Skaven will get to it before you can. On an advance, even against an enemy endzone, a loose ball can lead to a one-turn touchdown when the Skaven are motoring. It’s high risk, all the time. When they win, they win big. When the dice are even slightly against them, things fall apart quickly. And if the enemy manage to cage-up – that is, create a proper defence around the ball carrier and slowly move down the field – then Skaven are going to be piled waste high before I get anywhere near it.
The Skaven Blighters had a pretty good first season. We suffered a lot of hurtage early in the season, leading to some awkward niggling injuries in some of my best players. Conversely, I had some enormous wins, gaining a lot of experience for the team – including a 7-1 victory, which I believe was the most brutal trouncing of the season. By the close, despite not winning, my team had the highest value – being the value where teams of differing value can be compared.
That’s the key thing with Blood Bowl, and why League play is addictive – there’s a relatively rapid increase in player competence. It’s the MMO-esque grind, but focused down neatly. Seeing a team develop from fairly incompetent into something genuinely brutal is the real joy. Also, like much of Blood Bowl, what advances you get has a hefty element of random nature in, so working out the best build from what fate has given you is a big part of it. There’s also a sense of Jim-esque Eve-risk. Players can get injuries, making them only suitable for early retirement. Players can just die. As such, trying to work out how to best advance your players – both gaining XP and not dying – while not losing matches is a key tactic.
For the Skaven Blighters, team-building was my primary focus for the first half of the series. I didn’t have enough players in my line up to cover for the inevitable match-injuries, so I was playing with less than the full eleven men for a lot of games. It was only near its close when I was capable of fielding a full team regularly.
That’s when I met the Raging Naturists. 2-1, to Janek, which… grates. I couldn’t even blame it on the dice. Equally, I couldn’t entirely give it to Janek’s play. I made a couple of really key tactical errors. So on the bad side, my fault. On the better side… well, it was my fault. Don’t make the mistakes, I can beat him. My main season aim is the biggie: To beat him and everyone else.
(So, yes, if you were to analyze my weaknesses, arrogance would certainly be amongst it. Like, no, really. Also, impatience, perverseness and a pathological belief that a touchdown that takes more than two turns to score is somehow immoral)
Let’s meet the Blighters who are going to try and pull it off.
The core of the team – and any Skaven team – are its Gutter Runners. They’re close to ludicrously fast and nimble, with only Elf Catchers in the same league – and Elves are far more expensive to buy. I’ve managed to get my maximum allowance of four. I’ve had some lucky rolls, which have allowed them to advance into a nasty formation. I’ve also had some unfortunate injury rolls, meaning my two finest players are walking dead. It’ll only take one orcish forearm to end them.
Lhiut is the best. He scored 6 of the 7 goals in that 7-1 match, a feat which moved him to Star-player level when most people were still trying to work out whether you had to pick the ball up with your hands or your teeth. As well as the always-useful Block skill (better fighting, basically) and Fend (which means when an enemy pushes him, they can’t follow up – so handy for separating yourself from your attackers), he’s grown a second head. Skaven mutations are a joyous thing, giving a further bonus to dodging tackles. He’s a classic deep penetration gutter runner. In a standard situation, he dodges a tackle on 2+… and then gets a re-roll on that if he fails. In other words, unless something goes deeply wrong, he’s going to position himself wherever he wants on the pitch, whenever he wants. The problem is a smashed collar bone has reduced his strength to an incredibly tiny 1. There’s a relatively small chance to knock him down – 1 in 6 thanks to the combination of Dodge and Block – but even a Goblin gets two shots at it. Nurgut is close to identical to Lihut, lacking only the fend while still having those agreeable two heads. However, due to a serious concussion, he’s got a reduced armour value. Skaven already have some of the lowest armour in the game. Nurgut is, basically, doomed. Snabfle Sneek is the latest and least Gutter Runner on the team, starting to work towards the skills of his peers. He’s got a block skill so far.
Nurgut, Lhuit and Sneek take similar roles, normally finding themselves deep in the enemy half. Fate has taken Stricut in a very different direction. He managed to get a strength bonus. In other words, he’s as tough as the average person in the game, plus the ability to move close to half the pitch in a turn. I use him like most teams use their Blitzers, as a ball-retriever – something he excels at thanks to his new Strip Ball skill, which means that even if you only knock someone back, they’ll drop it. He generally hangs back, acting as a last line of defence to any break through. Conversely, if the moment presents itself, he can run forward through the lines and throw a block on the ball-carrier to break a cage.
So if I use my Gutter Runner like a Blitzer, what do I use my Blitzers for? Well, not much. The pair of Stormvermin start the second season with no star player sklls, a victim of how much the Gutter Runners have been hogging the play. The only other star players on the team are a couple of linesmen, one of who has picked up a strength bonus – who I use as a roaming block support, throwing in wherever things are bloodiest – and another who’s picked up the kick skill, which is essential for certain of my tactics (Precision kicking=putting ball where you want it=ball retrieval). But really, that’s small fry. I have four skilled Gutter runners and not much else.
As such, my second season aim is to develop the team. Keep the best ones alive, if I can. Knowing that I won’t, build enough replacements. Try and spread the experience a little more evenly, so the (fragile) Gutter-Runners don’t take it all with them when they meet the big bad rat exterminator. Oh – and save up and buy a Rat Ogre, because it’d be nice to win a punch out for once in my life.
So that’s the Blighters. I’ll introduce the other teams as I face them. It promises to be an interesting season. Looking at the running order, it seems that my final game is actually against those troublesome elves. Let’s hope someone has turned his Wardancers into treeman fertilizer by then, eh?
Wardancers? I’ll tell you about them later too. In short: SHHHIIIIITTTT.