I recently spoke to Sylvain Sechi, project manager of Cyanide Studio’s forthcoming Blood Bowl 2, about their new adaptation of Games Workshop’s game of fantasy football. I had an ulterior motive, though. I didn’t just want to ask him about when the game is coming out and what the new team will be like. I wanted to selfishly hassle him about not including some of my favourite teams and also present my pet theory about the appeal of Blood Bowl: that what makes it fun is that it’s the most unbalanced strategy game ever made.
“I really like Skaven,” says Sylvain Sechi. It’s a sentence you might hear any Blood Bowl coach say. Skaven are a popular team, partly because they have the fastest players in the game but also because they are hilarious paranoid ratmen obsessed with cheese. “I really like Vampires as well,” he continues. “They’re not a very popular team but I think they are mighty fun to play, with the Thralls and all this stuff. I will say that Skaven and Vampires are my favourite.”
“Right,” I say, like I have him all figured out. “You like the evil teams.”
He laughs at this. “Yeah, I do actually! You’re right.”
I understand. When I want to win at Blood Bowl I pick Orcs or Undead. Orcs are straightforward brawlers while the Undead are relatively versatile, strong but slow Mummies balanced by agile but fragile Ghouls, and most of their players have a Regeneration skill that lets them bounce back from injuries. They aren’t just evil in the moral sense; they’re evil in the sense of being hard bastards. When I want a challenge though, I play as Halflings.
If football at its finest is poetry in motion, a Halfling team playing Blood Bowl is a drunken limerick slurred by a barfly midway through toppling from a stool. Halfling players are soft doughy lumps, too weak to stand up to the beef-armed warriors of other teams, too small to pass the ball accurately, too wobble-belly slow to play the running game. They are Martin Prince from The Simpsons, and about as good at sport. The main things they have on their side are a roly-poly agility that helps them tumble out of tackle zones to delay the inevitable, a master chef who at least feeds them well, and their Treemen allies.
Treemen are thick-barked enough to take a beating, and can pick up a Halfling who has somehow fluked his way into possession of the ball and hurl him down the pitch. He might even survive that and score a touchdown, but not often. I’ve played Blood Bowl with a lot of different teams, but my Halfling squad – the Chicken Chasers – have only ever won a single match and consider each draw a triumph. My similarly useless Goblin team perform even worse than that.
And yet I love these ‘joke teams’ of stumblebum losers, and when I heard the lineup of eight default teams that come with Blood Bowl 2 wouldn’t include either of them I was concerned. For the first time, I was worried a game wouldn’t be unbalanced enough.
“One of the things we took good care of on Blood Bowl 2 was to make sure we crafted a game that is accessible,” Secchi explains, “and one of the choices we had to make was selecting for basic races – the races that we ship at the beginning of Blood Bowl – races that were not so hardcore. Like you say, Hobbits and Goblins are great races to pick when you know the game and know the rules but they’re not so great teams to pick when you begin, and most of the time they are actually the races that frustrate a lot of new players.
“We actually have figures, statistics on Blood Bowl 1, and we know that there is a very strong drop rate on players. Because they fancy the Goblins – Goblins are fun, they have chainsaws, they have sticks, they have ball-and-chain and stuff – they want to play [them] but they are actually very hard to play. Even though it’s fun, they still lose and get kicked out of the pitch, so it’s a very hard team to play with.”
You might argue that players picking the wrong team and then being dispirited is the fault of poor communication on the game’s behalf – when you choose to play as Claptrap in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel it asks if you’re sure about that four times – but Blood Bowl isn’t just a hard game to learn because you might accidentally pick a rubbish team. To play it well you need to know how to make the best use of your own players and how to counter specific opponents, and since many of the teams play radically differently, the more weird teams are included the harder that initial learning curve is. “One of the big failures of Blood Bowl 1 was the accessibility and tutorial,” Secchi says.
You may prefer to believe Blood Bowl 2 will come with less teams at launch so that Cyanide can sell you the rest of them later and then dive into the ensuing piles of money like Scrooge McDuck, but the result is still a game that will be easier to learn because its roster doesn’t contain bizarre teams who can throw their own players around.
“Even though I know it’s a bit frustrating for hardcore players, we definitely will add these races later,” Sechi adds. “We decided to go on with races that are a bit more safe for players to begin with, even though races like Dark Elves can be pretty challenging to play even though they look strong.”
This is true. Elves may at least be able to semi-consistently pass and catch the ball, which looks like deep magic to players who fail at their roll to pick it up off the ground while stationary, but they’re squishy and expensive to replace once squished. Learning how to break through your opponent’s line without your Elves being murdered is strategically tricky, but if I’m honest I don’t just choose Halflings or Goblins or even the surprisingly mediocre Ogres because I want I way to crank up the difficulty, or handicap myself against inexperienced players. There’s more than that to it.
These ‘joke teams’ aren’t just fun; they define what Blood Bowl is really about. While superficially it’s a parody of American football that suggests what we honestly want to see in contact sport is big men brutalising each other, it’s also a parody of competitive gaming. It throws concepts like game balance and niche protection out the window, and shows that you can have a fun multiplayer experience without a constant finicky re-jigging of things, endlessly nerfing whichever tactics and abilities became most popular since the last update nerfed the ones from before that. Halflings come pre-nerfed.
The Games Workshop who created the original Blood Bowl miniatures game in 1986 were a very different Games Workshop. Warhammer Fantasy Battle was still in its second edition and Warhammer 40,000 was a year away from its first. Both of those games in their 1980s incarnations recommended you play them with a gamesmaster, an impartial third party who kept things fair. I say “fair” rather than “fair and balanced” because balance wasn’t nearly as big a deal for the Warhammer family of games then as it is now. Today you can sign up for official tournaments in which armies of equal points values face off against each other on a level field, but in the 1980s the rulebooks were dismissive of this style of competition. Instead they encouraged narrative campaigns with ongoing stories in which wilfully unfair and doomed last stands against overwhelming odds were a standard feature.
For an example of that you have only to look at something else Games Workshop released in 1986, a campaign for Warhammer called The Tragedy of McDeath. A fantasy parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it opens with an ambush – one of those doomed battles in which one player is expected to win and the other to enjoy selling their life in a dramatic fashion, thus setting up a chance for revenge later in the campaign. It was game design focused on creating vivid moments rather than equal fights, with the gamesmaster even encouraged to award bonus victory points to players who seized those dramatic moments to deliver genre-appropriate speeches, “provided they are in rhyming verse.”
The 1980s was a different time for Games Workshop is what I’m saying.
When Blood Bowl came out – a two-player miniatures game that required no gamesmaster, and was set up for competitive play – it was the creation of a studio who seemed to disdain competitions and tournaments. It was a piss-take. They wanted you to appreciate that losing could be fun in its own way, that games focus too much on the glory of facerolling your enemy and not enough on the nobility of getting ground into the dirt while making jokes about it and then shaking hands (or typing “gg” into the chat window) afterwards. They made the rules unfair at their core, and hilariously so, in a way that no later edition or adaptation has changed.
When Cyanide bring out a Halfling team for Blood Bowl 2, whether as part of an expansion or as DLC, I’m going to drag the Chicken Chasers out of retirement. It won’t be because every time I force a draw with them I feel ecstatic, but because I want to be underdogs who aren’t pre-destined to score the winning goal in the third act of the movie. We’ll lose and laugh about it, then pick ourselves up and carry on. Nobody will sing songs about us – or if they do they’ll just be limericks – but we’ll be remembered for being good losers.