Blood Bowl Is Unbalanced And That’s Why It’s Good

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.

27 Comments

  1. Kreeth says:

    About once every couple of weeks I look at the various Blood Bowl things to buy on Steam and think, “Hmmm, maybe I should buy that this time” but never get round to it. Is it worth playing if you’re a miserable bastard who’d rather eat his own kidneys than play multiplayer? Is it even playable SP?

    • Morph says:

      Oh it’s definitely playable SP against the computer, though you should know that the AI is not great. If you’re a veteran Blood Bowl player you probably wont lose very often.

      • sinister agent says:

        I’d go further than that, and say the AI is utterly worthless. I’d never even heard of Blood Bowl until I bought the game (I didn’t even know it was turn based. I think I was drunk, I forget), and it was a while before I ventured online (with RPS, who are a great and diverse bunch). I’ve literally never lost a game against the AI. Even playing as the joke teams. Ask around on the forum – I’m an average player at best.

        • klops says:

          I agree. The AI is too easy. I’ve never played BB as a board game and am in no way a brilliant startegist. Still my dwarves won every tournament and almost every match.

          -Edit- Oh, you already bought it. Well, many people like it.

        • bill says:

          Conversely, I used to own the board game and i got totally stomped by the AI in my first campaign. Dragging out a draw became a major victory.

          To be fair, I’d basically completely forgotten all the nuances of the game, but I remembered the basic concepts.

          What the AI seems to be bad at is keeping an eye on the clock and prioritizing, but it didn’t seem to have much trouble targeting my players and taking them out, or making breaks.

          The PC game does a terrible job explaining how the mechanics work. As someone who used to play the game I still had to go on the forums and ask how it worked.
          Once you get them down, the basic mechanics are pretty straightforward. But the trick seems to be the combination of skills and the good players know all the best/worst combinations. The AI doesn’t.

          • Continuity says:

            Yep a major flaw of the AI is that is has no awareness of the clock, it will play the ball just as hard on the last turn of a half as on the first, even if its impossible to score at that point.
            Bloodbowl in its essence is about running numbers, like gambling, if you want a good chance at success you have to make plays that have odds in your favour or closest to being in your favour; squeezing every last percentile of the odds into your favour is what makes the difference between an average player and a good player, and the AI just throws away too many opportunities due to its lack of situational awareness to ever seriously compete with a human player.

    • HothMonster says:

      I picked up one of the expanded editions on sale and had a good time with it only ever playing single player. If you like turn based strategy and humorous frustration it’s a good time.

      The tutorial isn’t great so get ready to get stomped the first few games. The RNG hates you and makes most plans failures. Your player can fail so horribly at picking up a stationary ball right under his feet that he breaks his legs. But once you have an understanding of all the base mechanics its largely a good time.

  2. arisian says:

    I keep thinking we need more games like this. I think this is one of the things that gave Master of Magic its long lasting appeal; it really didn’t try that hard to be balanced, but it is still looked on with great fondness to this day. Modern games all seem to be focused on “balance” to the exclusion of all other things, and the result is a sort of homogeneity that makes for bland, repetative stories. This is even more true in singleplayer, where there’s even less of an excuse; why on earth should a game like Civ (BE, or whichever edition you like) be designed as a symetric, ballanced competition?

    Sure, if you want to have eSports competitions, then things need to be balanced enough that you can keep an audience. But most games don’t aspire to eSports, which really begs the question of why they’re so all-fired concerned with maitaining balance.

    What if, instead of balance, we focused on variety? Make the experience noticably different when you change factions, and give us more than two or three to choose from, and suddenly your game is far more compelling, and can lead to all kinds of interesting emergent stories. I thing both strategy games and co-op PvE games are ripe for this kind of thing.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Logged in to say pretty much exactly this – should’ve known someone would beat me to it. MoM was, let’s be 100% honest here, one of the least balanced strategy games ever released. It’s hillariously easy to win the game on Impossible difficulty with halflings and life magic, or any of a number of mix-max strategies that land you a nigh-unstoppable unit before your opponents even know you exist. But people still play and love it today. And they don’t play Halflings and life magic. And they don’t min-max their way to walk-over victories. They experiment, they do all sorts of silly, crazy stuff, and they just have fun. Which is, after all, the whole point of playing games, right?
      While I’ve had lots of fun playing various strategy games with my friends over the years, I do tend to get bored of the ones that are most tightly balanced for competitive play pretty quickly, there just doesn’t seem to be as much to keep me coming back, to keep me going “I wonder if…”.

      Having said that, never tried Blood Bowl. The article has me interested though…

    • SuddenSight says:

      Have you aged Dominions (now into the fourth one)? Because that game also exemplifies the unbalanced approach. Not simply because it is unbalanced (it is) but because it is difficult to even quantify what balance would even mean. The number of units and items and spells is so overwhelming that it really is impossible to say what the “correct” strategy is in any situation. I remember having hours of fun just reading strategy guides written by other players, because they would often think of approaches that hadn’t even occurred to me – often based on some little used spell or item that was entirely useless except for this one circumstance.

    • Kerbal_Rocketry says:

      This is why I love EU IV, it is fundamentally an easy game once you understand it but the narrative is much more fun than the winning.
      Taking Franch and surviving is easy as piss, but take a non european nation and see what you can do, or take a small gemanic state and see if you can unite the HRE without the nice start. Or even just take a major power and mess with history.

    • Premium User Badge

      teije says:

      Unbalance as a design decision is one of the best things about Paradox grand strategy games (CK, EU and Victoria). The various countries are completely unbalanced, and unapologetically so. Playing as powerful France in EUIV is a completely different experience than trying to survive as Albania or Trebizond in EUIV. It becomes much more about role playing the country and setting your own challenges for them. For France, it might be conquering all of Europe, the Americas and Africa. For Trebizond, the challenge is to survive for 100 years. Both enjoyable endeavours, and I switch between the overpowered and the hapless from each game to the next.

  3. ninjapirate says:

    Is it blasphemous to ask why there’s no option to create your own team from scratch, with no limitations to which races your team can house?

    • mrpier says:

      Sort of. it would be a mess, but it’s kinda limited supported in the board game rules with some teams (Underworld, Chaos Pact). I could see it being implemented in single player or as an option in private leagues.

  4. Jockie says:

    This is a very well written and enjoyable read whose central point i disagree with, mainly because I don’t buy Cyanide’s schtick that its all about providing a better experience to the customer. Coming from the publisher that repeatedly made new releases of a kind of broken game with minimal discounts or concessions to previous players, it’s easy to be cynical.

    I pretty much maintain that Bloodbowl was hugely enjoyable in spite of Cyanide’s input and I’m still not really sold on this, it’s the same game with a better interface, shinier graphics and fewer options.

  5. jon_hill987 says:

    Halflings are the best. If I actually want a chance to win though I go with WoE.

  6. Heliocentric says:

    One of the nicest things about Bloodbowl’s imbalance is they evolve. Each team has different rates of progression internally as a result of the natural biases of their teams attributes. And as teams get more developed traditional teams can either be exaggerated or flipped. Vampires or ogres with a half dozen skills each are irrepressible monsters who are reliable and cost-effective. Whereas norsemen or amazons with a half dozen skills just become bloaty inefficient and eventually ruined.

  7. catscratch says:

    Eh, Blood Bowl isn’t that unbalanced. There are teams designed to suck, certainly, but there is no one team designed to win in all circumstances. If you look at average win rates, then there are quite a few teams that win 50%+. Also, teams perform differently at different team values, and even some teams that are designed to be bad can have a 50%+ winrate at certain team values (i.e. Vampires, which hit 45%+ at TV1500 and top 50% at high TV’s). Plus, Blood Bowl is a pretty deep game, and the better player will win a majority of the time. Not all the time, you do get diced sometimes and everybody makes mistakes, but the difference in skill level can be pretty pronounced here.

    The biggest balance issues that the game has generally are 1) the combination of Claw/Piling On/Mighty Blow at high team values really gives certain high-armor team problems, and as a result those teams have win rates that drop in to the 30s 2) certain teams overperform in tournament settings specifically (Amazons, Wood Elves, and Undead being standout examples, but they’re not the only ones) and could use a slight nerf. But I doubt we’re going to see another edition of the rules, and even with these complaints, this game is still reasonably balanced compared to a lot of what’s out there.

    Besides, do you really want Halflings to be a competitive team anyway…

    As far as Cyanide, they’re giving us the party line, as usual. They’re either gonna make us buy the same game over and over 3 times until we have all the teams, or they’re gonna make us pay for those extra teams as DLC. Either way, the people that really like the game are the ones that will end up being screwed. I expect better graphics, some more features that don’t make any sense, and the same lame interface, buggy netcode, and general lack of polish that Cyanide is known for. Either way, I’ll give this one a shot, I mean, it’s Blood Bowl. It’s hard to mess it up, though by God, they try…

  8. drinniol says:

    “The 1980s was a different time for Games Workshop is what I’m saying.”

    They still don’t care about balance or tournaments, because how do you get the whales to buy your new units unless they are better than the old ones?

    The difference is they hadn’t priced themselves out of the market yet and still produced good-looking miniatures.

  9. Railway Rifle says:

    Bloody Chicken Chaser, I had to buy a new name in Fable just to stop the yokels from prattling about that.

  10. BobsLawnService says:

    One thing I’d really love to see is a Blood Bowl management sim.