Blood Bowl: turn-based fantasy American Football. Still reading? Chances are you’ve already heard of the deadly board game taking much of its lore from the Warhammer universe. If not, you should know that Blood Bowl is based on the Games Workshop game of the same name, transferring from it all the ingenuity of the rules, strategy and gameplay; but also the sharp learning curve and the frustratingly sluggish game speed, while adding to it everything you would expect to find wrong with a direct board game to computer game port – and everything you would expect to find right with it.
First thing to say is that this is the “Legendary” edition, an entirely stand-alone game which continues from the 2009 Blood Bowl standard edition. In practice, Legendary updates the original with inclusions such as eleven new races, new stadiums, a new Blitz game mode and a number of bug fixes. The addition of eleven new races is quite substantial considering the original arrived with just eight (with a free Dark Elves expansion), and offers a wonderfully diverse array from which to choose your team: from Amazons and Vampires to Ogres and Undead.
It seems odd, however, that the original came with such a limited choice, and even more odd when you consider that the main feature of the “Legendary” edition is simply an update with teams you would have expected to begin with (how can you leave out Undead?), requiring avid Blood Bowlers to shell out more money for an entirely new game when it could have been either included at first, or released as an expansion.
What’s more, the new Blitz mode has little to offer in terms of features. New customization options are a plus, but the almost completely pointless real-time version of the game removes the careful strategy and tactics that make Blood Bowl what it is, replacing it with a chaotic mess that is only improved by the pause option (which effectively makes it turn-based anyway). I have yet to delve deeply into this real-time mode but, from what I can tell, for the most part the Blood Bowl community dismisses it as I do. It seems very much like a novel but ultimately superfluous extra that was stuck on just because it was possible, and because it worked in Chaos League. These complaints aside, newcomers to the video-game series (like me) or tolerant enthusiasts will be glad for the improvements to the buggy and somewhat limited original.
So what does a game involve? Whatever mode you play, the formula is generally the same. You select or customize your team, then before starting a match you enter the inducements screen where ‘petty cash’ can be spent on extras (generally the underdog team is given more cash). Starting the match, you enter a stadium full of a cheering crowd, and with or without a coin flip, each team takes it in turns to deploy their players before kickoff. There are 16 turns each, with half-time after the 8th and turns swapping when someone ends their turn or fails a throw of the die (yes this video-game relies on dice throws). Each turn you get to move your team in ways where you consider skills, tackle zones, character attribute levels, options to throw, catch, pick up the ball – all in order to score a touchdown by taking the ball to the opposite end of the pitch. Are you following? Congratulations! You now know about as much as I did upon finishing the tutorial.
To really get to grips with the game you either need to already have a detailed knowledge of Blood Bowl rules, a friend to help explain during play, or you need to read the rulebook (the actual board game rulebook) accessible in the main menu, as trying to learn during a game is borderline impossible (I was struggling to win anything before I realised I wasn’t taking into account tackle zones). There are so many aspects to this game – it is an extensively developed board game, remember – that it will take you a fair while to understand the very basics, with everything seeming to fly at you at once causing you to scream, “Why the hell did that happen???”, at any given moment (something I’m still prone to doing). Games can also seem both long and truncated, in that turns can take quite a long time, but you might finish a game after about an hour and think ‘was that it?’, with scores in my matches having contained up to just three touchdowns; though that might just be a reflection of my low skill level.
But is it fun? Not at first – is anything fun with repeated loss? When you’ve worked out the basics (or if you actually read the rulebook), then it does start to appeal. In fact, the more you play this game and the more you build up your teams, the more it starts to win you over. Deployment, skills, passes, tackles – the more you learn, the more you realise where you were going wrong, the more you change your strategy, and the more satisfying your touchdowns and consequent victories are.
There are actually quite a few single player options: a campaign, competition and an apparently new story mode. All involve a stream of matches. As an example, for a campaign I created The Wibbly Wobblies, a necromantic team full of ghouls, zombies, wights, flesh golems and werewolves. I won my first two games because I managed to temporarily acquire a ‘star player’ in the inducements pre-match screen, just because my team was so much worse. The wins were intoxicatingly satisfying, though, and so was the opportunity to upgrade my players to take on better and better teams.
Story mode puts you in the seat of an ‘historic’ coach, taking legendary teams full of individuals with a frightening number of skills onto the pitch. The ‘story’ consists of pages of writing between matches; though to be honest I’d be impressed if anyone could fit a truly immersive story mode into a game about Orcs beating Elves at Football. I found the mode particularly frustrating, as after the first game (which I lost – but apparently that didn’t matter), Chapter 1 drops you into a game at half-time where you’re losing 3-1 as a goblin team. I’ve so far only managed to draw, but apparently that wasn’t enough and my last attempt saw most of my goblins killed or injured in the first couple of turns, burning all hopes I had of advancing to Chapter 2.
Single player is quite fun, allowing you various options to hone and celebrate your skills. Some have bemoaned the AI for its pointless risk-taking and general stupidity; at my level though, the AI is annoyingly competent, though I have increasingly noticed (and rejoiced in) its failings. I can also see single player wearing thin reasonably quickly. My assumption though is that single player is for strategic refining and practice, while true Blood Bowl takes place in the multiplayer, which allows you to either face your physically present friends in hot-seat mode, or venture into the initially intimidating arena of online Blood Bowl players.
Multiplayer allows you to enter competitive leagues and matches with other players in order to build up your multiplayer-based teams. One thing to be said about this game is that the community is well-established and sees little sign of waning, especially with the release of Legendary. Good luck playing a friend with the standard edition, though, as unfortunately the multiplayer modes are incompatible (a planned enforced expenditure by the makers, perhaps?). The User Interface isn’t great, appearing to prevent you from actually playing the game, but once you start playing it’s all worth it for the gaming strategist. Beware though; if no win is in sight then the opposing side might put ALL their efforts into trying to physically destroy your team – after all, this is BLOOD Bowl, and a lot of the fun comes from hammering your opponents into the ground. Ultimately though, the dynamic nature of multiplayer offers a never-ending source of unpredictable and challenging gameplay where the AI might prove disappointing.
Upon starting my very first match, what struck me about the graphics was how bad they looked at default level – but after pumping the settings up to full the next thing that struck me was how good they looked. Sharply defined character models and strikingly detailed fields of play are a true delight to cast your eyes upon. The visuals are surprisingly impressive at this level, though I did have to turn them back down again for my poor computer to stop jerking. For the most part though, in a turn-based game like this you won’t be punished for having it look good.
Music appears on the menu and in between matches, but during a game you hear just the audience’s cheers, commentating and the sounds of general Blood Bowl. These are all as you’d expect, offering basic representations of what is taking place. The commentating, however, really starts to grate. In the tutorial it was amusing, with comments such as the fantasy ‘Cabelvision’ giving ABC (the Association of Broadcasting Conjurers) exclusive broadcasting rights. In the actual game, however, Jim and Bob really start to irk with their repetitions of the same conversations over and over within the same matches, to the extent that I just turned it off.
Despite this, the humour is a nice, if somewhat limited aspect of the game, though I guess when you combine fantasy violence with American Football it’s also an inevitable aspect of the game (one would hope). One particularly entertaining moment was when I killed a human with a goblin using a chainsaw and an automated text chat response followed: ‘To explain such nastiness, I’d say you must be so unhappy’.
So is Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition worth your time? Not if all you want is action; not if you want Madden; or maybe not even if you’re a veteran Blood Bowler but perfectly satisfied with the actual game, the free java-based FUMBBL (another well-established online community), or the standard edition and its support for fewer teams. However, if you’re into immersive strategy and thoughtful turn-based tactical gameplay; if you’re into intense multiplayer 1v1s and online community-driven leagues; if you’re a Blood Bowl lover and just want more; or even if you just love the idea of building up your team to take on greater and greater challenges, Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition may be exactly what you’re looking for. If you’re into sport, violence and detailed board games (and in particular their amalgamation), then Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition definitely IS what you’re looking for. Just between you and me, though, as much as I’d like them to, I don’t think The Wibbly Wobblies will ever have what it takes to enter the big league.
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