I love Blood Bowl. By that, I don't necessarily mean Cyanide's digital adaptations of Blood Bowl – I mean Games Workshop's violent fantasy-sport and the finely poised ruleset that drives it. But we're here to talk about the latest digital adaptation so, with consideration for the boardgame and its rules, here's wot I think of Blood Bowl 2 [official site].
At its base, the sporting theme stripped away, Blood Bowl is a turn-based tactical game set in a restrictive and crowded arena. Two teams are attempting to fulfill an identical objective at opposite ends of that arena. Matches are about control of space, locking opponent units down by moving into adjacent squares, and protecting the ball while attempting to move it upfield by passing, kicking or running.
Although there are obvious similarities to American Football, Blood Bowl doesn't have the Sisyphean quality of that sport, in which a gain of inches can be cause for celebration. In fact, an entire half of Blood Bowl play often feels like a single play in American Football, or a couple of downs at most. That's because the ball isn't particularly mobile and is rarely handed automatically to a specialist player – there's nobody in the mould of the quarterback, commanding and controlling the game at the beginning of each play.
The fundamental difference in the ruleset is that a turnover – the handing of control from one team to the other – doesn't take place when the ball hits the floor in Blood Bowl; turnovers happen when opponents hit the floor. And that's usually because one of your players has hit them square on the jaw. It's not uncommon for the ball to sit on the ground, surrounded or guarded behind a defensive line but untouched, as both teams maneuver into a position that will allow them to play with maximum efficiency.
This opens up a different avenue of offense. Where American Football playbooks divide neatly into running or passing plays, Blood Bowl also incorporates aggressive plays. Attacking another player is referred to as 'blocking', which is a bit like calling Hannibal Lecter a serial dodger and fussy eater. A block can function as a defensive response but it's more likely to be an assault, delivered to move a player out of position or take him or her out of the game entirely. The exact result of any risky action - whether a dodge, block, throw, pick-up, catch, sprint or use of a unit-specific skill – relies on a roll of the dice. In essence, the better your chances, the more favourable the result is likely to be but there is always a risk of failure.
And that's Blood Bowl. A smart, condensed, cramped and sometimes claustrophobic tactical game in which you stack the odds as strongly in your favour as possible and then roll the dice. It's beautifully constructed, thematically flavoursome, and supportive of high-level play. The nuances of the individual races ensure that they all require drastically different approaches, from the hard-hitting well-organised defensive units of a dwarven line to the improvisational counter-attacking gutter-running of a Skaven squad.
All of the above is present and correct in Cyanide's Blood Bowl 2. A few slight niggles apart – currently, you can't choose to opt out of skill-based reactions even though letting an opponent slip by can (rarely) be beneficial – the rules have been adapted accurately to digital form, and the UI is much-improved as compared to the prequel. Taken as a whole, the game is more welcoming to new players, partly because feedback before and after actions is clear, and partly thanks to the singleplayer campaign/tutorial.
It's a full rags-to-riches story mode, that campaign, which makes it a little unwieldy if the intent is simply to teach the game. However, a newcomer would only have to play through the first handful of matches to learn the basics of the sport. Preparing for online competition is slightly more daunting. Some of these people have been playing Blood Bowl in its various forms for decades. I can't comment on how well the matchmaking tools place players with similar ratings against one another because the pre-release version was likely populated with die-hard fans. Needless to say, I mostly had my face stomped into the turf.
It's possible to join or create leagues and tournaments, and you can play or construct competitions populated with AI teams as well as braving multiplayer matches. The AI is uneven, occasionally putting up a good fight but just as likely to concentrate all its efforts on marking a single player and leaving a clear route to the goal line for one of his team-mates. Frustratingly, I feel like it's almost there, capable of understanding and reacting to various tactics but completely blind-sided by others.
Experienced and dedicated players are probably going to run rings around computer-controlled teams, able to exploit their weaknesses as soon as they spot them. For me, the AI is wonky and capable of throwing a game away, but just about interesting enough to enjoy playing with. For a while at least; it's entirely possible that the AI limitations will leave too much of a hole sooner rather than later.
For those looking to upgrade from Blood Bowl 1, the question is whether the improved graphics and infrastructure are enough of a benefit to outweigh the reduction in available races. There are eight races available at launch, each with their own playstyle, unique units and star players, with more planned as DLC. The final edition of Blood Bowl 1 included 23 races.
I'm torn. Partly, I want to support Blood Bowl so that it can have 23 races of its own eventually. There are genuine improvements, in both the persistency of teams (which age and can take part in a transfer auction market) and the ease with which leagues can be created and joined. It looks great as well, although after a couple of weeks playing I'm already praying for the addition of a button to skip or speed up animations. Not cutscenes for injuries and turnovers, to be clear, which can be switched off entirely, but the basic animations as players run across the pitch. They can make what would be a ten minute match last twice as long if both players are proficient.
Quite how the player auction system will work out, I can't say. It relies on a playerbase willing to sell off developed players. The offline player purchase system is a basic exchange of in-game winnings for a player in a certain category while the online auctions allow you to buy and sell players that have honed their skills and levelled up through a series of matches. It's a neat idea, encouraging and rewarding squad-wide growth, but I'd prefer a more involved simulated offline world. As it is, leagues and tournaments take place in bubbles.
The interface works well using either a mouse or a controller. I find the mouse preferable and a launch patch adjustment of the end turn button has removed almost all of my complaints about the UI. In fact, somewhat spotty AI aside, I don't have many complaints at all. It feels great to be playing Blood Bowl again and I haven't felt restricted with just the eight races. They're a great selection and I challenge anyone to become expert with Skaven, Orc and High Elf teams before the next races are available.
There's no word on price for future races yet but almost anything would be preferable to the new editions of the game last time around. For some, the game won't be up to scratch for a couple of years, when its roster might come somewhere close to matching Blood Bowl 1: Chaos Edition, but I've already been sucked back in and there are just about enough improvements to keep me here.
I wish there were more, particularly relating to team management and the persistency of the world, but this will do. It's not as clean and clever as fellow fictional ball-handler Frozen Cortex, but the messiness and violence really do add something. There's nothing quite like recognising that you're not going to score in the last turn of a half and concentrating all of your efforts toward obliterating the opponent team instead. Especially when they're High Elves.