“Don’t take unnecessary chances, and assume you won’t be able to get ‘x’, ‘y’ and ‘z’ into position without being countered, and do the simple things first. ”
— The King Elessar
I’ve been waiting for an excuse to rip off this saying of TKE’s for a while now, and talking about Blood Bowl gives me the perfect opportunity to do so, because frankly what you see up there is the essence of How To Win At Fantasy Football.
I have, in the past, had issue with Blood Bowl. I’ve owned two editions of the game, played in several leagues and painted teams from three different races, and yet until quite recently I could honestly say that I hated Blood Bowl with a fiery passion far exceeding that of a thousand suns.
Y’see, Blood Bowl looks like it’s a beer-and-cashew-nuts* game. It really does. The whole premise of the game is ridiculous – that ‘rediscovering’ the lost sport of Armorican Foot-the-ball was enough to make the inhabitants of an alternate version of the Warhammer World settle down, stop fighting amongst themselves, and resolve their differences through sport instead (albeit a sport where steamrollers, chainsaws and hulking great monsters make regular appearances, and the casualty count is as big a part of a satisfactory match as anything so transient as the score).
Veering off into the Game Design Triangle for a moment: Blood Bowl looks like a simulationist game, and as a GW game with a small model count and an experience system, it comes with the conditioned expectation of a narrativist game. It’s not. It’s an extremely gamist game which lures you in with silliness and flavour text and then surprises you by simply not working the way it looks like it does.
I’ve played a fair bit of crap Blood Bowl against people who don’t know what they’re doing, usually while all participants are healthily drunk, and it’s been fun. It’s when I tried to play it sober that the problems emerged – because, you see, Blood Bowl is probably the deepest and most complex system GW have ever put to press. Yes, really. I’ll let you froth and fume for a bit, but work with me here.
Blood Bowl is complex because it’s a closed system. Where most GW games allow for a potentially infinite variety of terrain placements, deployments, moves, sizes of games and compositions of playable forces, Blood Bowl has an open playing area of set dimensions, divided into squares in which the players move, with tight rules over how many players can be positioned on the flanks or up front, how many players can appear on the field, and what those players are capable of when purchased (no customisable equipment, for instance).
You’d think that those limitations reduce complexity, rather than add to it, but the thing about designing within limitations is that you have a more finite set of possibilities available and thus a greater ability to control the outcomes of those possibilities. The effort which developers normally have to go to in order to curb the excesses of players working with an open system can be redirected into making sure that everything the players are allowed to do has a consequence.**
In Blood Bowl, the little things have large impacts; the precise overlapping of tackle zones, assists and available distances for movement allow for an amazing degree of control over an open field that doesn’t have terrain to do part of the job for you. Every bit of influence, control, manipulation and other words for clever tactical stuff has to come from the player, and putting one foot wrong (being one square too far back, or to the left, or to the right) can see a plan fall apart.
The game also has depth, which emerges in the form of team selection and league play. Not all teams and players are created equal; some start with favourable skill sets and cheap re-rolls which allow those consequences I was banging on about earlier to be manipulated and controlled, while others have to rely on good luck and clever play in order to gain those skills through experience. As teams develop, the cleverness of the experience system shines through; in theory, any player can acquire any skill***, if they can accumulate Star Player Points and if the dice are kind to them. In practice, however, you can bank on your team developing down a particular route, as access to skills is normally limited by the team’s theme and the player’s position, which define the skill tables normally available.
The problem, of course, is that if you picked one of those teams which start off without the essential skills, you have to burn through your hard-won experience points to earn them; if your first skill roll on a Chaos Warrior is a double, do you go for the essential Block that will help him not spend the entire game flat on his back like a baby turtle****, or do you take that may-never-appear-again opportunity for a skill or stat upgrade you’d never expect a Chaos Warrior to have?*****
From the above diatribe, it should be obvious that I have, at some point, attempted to play Chaos, and encountered the usual gimp factor that seems to dog the Chaos Powers across all GW games, ever. I was cool with not scoring many touchdowns – the game advertised the Chaos team as one that was largely unconcerned with the ball. However, what I hadn’t been expecting was my allegedly dead ‘ard bashy team to spend most of their games getting knocked down, but getting up again, but getting knocked down, but getting up again… because nobody starts with Block or Dodge or anything else that modifies the Block rolls, because their rerolls are so expensive, and because the Chaos team is at the mercy of the dice and so depends on some quite clever gameplay (manipulation of positioning to accumulate assists and spread tackle zones favourably) in order to survive its first four matches unscathed.******
When everyone else in the Shop League gets that, and you have yet to encounter the extremely seasoned group of online BB’ers who’ll teach you the error of your ways (long may you rest, Komitatus, but if nothing else, you gave great Blood Bowl tips), and when everyone else in the Shop League is quite prepared to engage in such gamesmanship as not scoring and instead parking a player just outside your endzone for five turns, out of reach of your trapped team, in order to deny you any chance to make a comeback in the first half, you are not going to enjoy Blood Bowl.
The last time I played proper Blood Bowl, I threw a team across the street at the end of my third game. No, it wasn’t an expensive one, it was thirteen scrappy models from the bottom of the bitbox; yes, I am in fact ashamed of doing that, but you have to understand that I haven’t always been the Dada-Zen master and paragon of anger management that I am today, and that I have smashed a fair few minis, chewed a fair few dice, and ragequit at least two events in my time. I frown upon nerdrage because I know that there but for the grace of Eris go I.
With that in mind, my current obsession with the computerised version by Cyanide Studios seems somewhat unlikely, and yet I can’t get enough of the wretched thing. I’ll talk more about that later, having run on to the extent that Auretious Taak’s latest masterpiece is starting to look like an attractive propostion (actually, read it, I think he’s on to something fun here). I hope you’ve found this preamble sufficiently diverting to make it through the day, anyhow.
* – I don’t like pretzels that much. Cashews, on the other hand, I can main-line for quite some time.
** – even ‘forgetting to move the turn counter before your opponent can say the words “I call illegal procedure”‘, which I freely admit is the single most frustrating mechanic of any game I have ever played.
*** – except for Mutations – it’s quite hard to learn how to grow a crab claw or extra head. You just have to be born with potential there, I suppose.
**** – admittedly a practically impervious baby turtle whose shell is cast in hell-forged iron, but still, a baby turtle.
***** – one of mine is packing +1 Agility and Sure Hands. It surprises everyone when a Chaos Warrior scoops up the ball and proceeds to lumber upfield with it, only to lob it across the field to a Beastman with Extra Arms and Sprint.
****** – an ability to not roll ‘Pitch Invasion’ or ‘Blitz’ on the stupid, cruel Kick-Off Event Table in every single game also helps; it’s hard to come back from a bonus turn before the first half has even started, especially when your opponent has used that to lock you down in tackle zones and catch the ball with a player in your half before they’ve technically even finished kicking it. There are aspects of Blood Bowl that I will always hate and the Kick-Off Table is one of them, even when it works to my advantage: it always, always sucks for the poor bloke on the wrong side of it.