We haven't talked about Blood Bowl properly yet, have we? Let's correct that shit right now. What kind of board game column is this if we haven't even talked about Blood Bowl?
You want to talk about all things Blood Bowl? Cool. Me too.
“Have you played Blood Bowl?”
There's a reason why everybody who enjoys board gaming is eventually asked that question. There's nothing like Blood Bowl. Nothing quite so exciting, and so full of thematic crunch.
Let's just state what everybody already knows. Blood Bowl, Games Workshop's game of brutal American Football in a skewed version of their Warhammer Fantasy universe, is one of the greatest board games ever produced. This is not in question. We will not debate this in the comments section. To play Blood Bowl is to love Blood Bowl.
In Blood Bowl, each player controls a team of fantasy archetypes, and tries to lead them to victory. Each half of the match is broken up into turns. In each turn, every player on each side can take an action, but if an action fails there is a Turnover, instantly ending the turn and passing momentum to the opponent. Turnover is the thing that makes Blood Bowl shine. With the Turnover mechanic, every single decision is filled with tension. If you want a player to make a risky pass, you have to decide when to try it – fucking up can end your whole turn early, and that can often be devastating. In Blood Bowl, you never feel like you are going through the motions. Every single action is valuable, and most actions come with the possibility of failure. It feels like a sport. That's the thing. It feels like you're playing a sport.
And then there's the violence. It's an acceptable tactic in Blood Bowl to just maul your opponents into submission. Indeed, for some teams, it makes more sense to fight than to run and pass. The game is about playing to your team's strengths, and if your team is slow and can't pass for shit, you better make some hard and meaningful tackles. That's some basic management shit, kid, and it works in every real-life team sport that matters. Again, though, attempting to kill an opponent can sometimes put you in a coffin instead – it's like what happened to Paul Gascoigne, remember? Long before the media reinvented the rich wife-beater as a loveable victim, Gazza tried to “do” Gary Charles and “did” himself. You can recreate this dramatic moment of thuggery-meets-karma in Blood Bowl!
Here's what I really love about Blood Bowl though – it's an entry point. Everything Games Workshop produces is an entry point. Many people criticise the company for this. “Oh, they just want you to buy more miniatures!” “Oh, they just want to sell stuff!” And sure, of course that's the case. But there's also something beautiful about a game that allows its players to dig right in, expanding the world of the experience.
You want referees in the game? Sure, we have miniatures and rules for that. You want cheerleaders on the sidelines? Go right ahead – we have miniatures and rules for that. You want a wizard on the coaching staff who fires off spells at opposing players? Not a problem – buy one of our wizards and have at it. You want a giant league full of teams competing for trophies? We have the teams – come buy them. We have the rules to support that kind of play. We even have the miniature trophies.
But here's the thing – you don't HAVE to buy any of it. You'll want to buy it, but there's no real necessity. This game is great right out of the box, and you could make a cheerleader out of plasticine if you wanted to. So go ahead – make the roll to see how the weather is, roll to see if any fans riot before kick-off, and then fling yourself into Blood Bowl.
Or maybe you don't want to be a player. Maybe you want to be a Team Manager.
BLOOD BOWL: TEAM MANAGER
Fantasy Flight's card game Blood Bowl: Team Manager is a different kettle of fish from standard Blood Bowl. But what a shiny kettle it is. And those fish are really tasty.
In BB:TM, each player takes control of a team – a deck of cards full of players. The week's match highlights and tournaments are laid on the table. These are cards too, showing the rewards that a team can expect from participation and victory. Then, the team managers commit players to the highlights and tournaments.
The game is really difficult to explain, but so elegant in play. It's an abstraction of a season of Blood Bowl, and yet it still manages to hold onto all of that lovely theme and crunch. You have to decide where to place your players, and which skills to activate when you place them. As you add players to a “highlight”, your team's Star Power rises, and the team with the highest Star Power at the end of the match-up gets the reward.
Watch this video – it explains the meat of the game really well.
I love this game. I mean, I really love it. There are six teams in the box, and they all play really differently. The Chaos team I hang with can barely pass and are terrible cheats. In BB:TM cheating is a mandatory skill you have to use whenever you place a cheating player. You draw a cheat token and place it without seeing what it is. At the end of each week you flip it over and it can give you bonuses or have you ejected from the match. It is SO exciting. I love the tackling in this game too – it really has that Blood Bowl feel, where a die roll gone wrong can have you on your back instead of your opponent. Pulling Star Players into your team is always a thrill, because they come with some amazing game-changing special abilities. But where do you place these players? IT'S HARD BEING A MANAGER.
With two players, the game plays really well. With three or four, it's an explosion of colour. The tournaments become fast-paced four-way bloodbaths, with players flinging tackles at each other and using clever card combos to try to gain possession. There are roars and cheers and thumps of fists on tables. Rivalries start and end and start and end and start again.
Last night, my very last act of the game was using a special team ability I'd earned to place a cheat token on an opposition player. A risky move, because that cheat token can provide a bonus. But the player I played it on was about to win the whole game for an opposing manager. It was a last-gasp attempt at trying to change a seemingly inevitable fate. If the token flipped and it was a sending-off, eliminating that player, then I had a chance of coming first.
WAITING FOR THAT TOKEN TO FLIP WAS ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING THINGS TO HAPPEN TO ME IN MY LIFE.
It wasn't a sending-off. Oh well. It would have been AMAZING though. Next time...
I can't really recommend this game enough. I'm sorry I've struggled to explain it, but you have to trust me that it's a game that sounds dry and complicated in explanation. I don't want to turn you off it. I want you to buy it, play it a few times, and feel it all click for you. Feel that excitement.
I've gone way over my word count here. Let's just finish off by saying:
ALL REALLY FUCKIN' GOOD.