Blood Bowl: First Impressions

I usually play games intensely for a while and when they lose my interest, I move on. This has led me to a lot of different games and game types, but the most elusive so far has been tabletop war games. Not for lack of interest though! I’ve always wanted to try games like Warhammer.For me, the cost of entry is simply too steep. To compare, I believe the most expensive customized Magic: the Gathering deck I’ve ever built for competitive play has been about $80. So for a game like Warhammer, which has army prices from $200 – $600, I had to pass. However, fortune has favored me recently. A few weeks ago, my Friendly Local Game Store announced they would be running a Blood Bowl league. Blood Bowl is a game that combines American style football with the table-top war game Warhammer, going as far to use the tabletop game’s races as player teams. Teams cost anywhere from $40 – $100 and there are no books to buy other than the official rule-book for the game. That’s it. Suddenly, the door to tabletop miniature gaming opened and I stepped into a world I had only dreamed of as a broke teenager. Oh, happy day!

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The game is quite simple. Each “coach” (real life player) gets a team of 11 players to place on the pitch/field. These teams are from the classic Warhammer mythos, each coming with unique stat-lines, abilities, and the potential for leveling up. The coaches take turns trying to pick up the ball and get it into the opposite end-zone, just like American football. Every turn, a coach activates each player once and performs an action. The basics of these are Move, Block, Blitz (which is a Move and a Block combined), and Pass. There are many other, more advanced options that can be chosen based on team race and special abilities.  Otherwise, basic moves like move and block are the meat and potatoes of the game. If a player manages to get the ball into the end-zone, that team scores one point and the ball is kicked off to the other team. Easy peasy! So to make things interesting, you have to roll dice to do almost anything. To emphasize, I truly mean-

Almost.

Anything.

Tackle a dude? Roll some dice. Did it break their armor? Roll some dice. Did it injure them permanently? Roll some dice. Throw the ball? Roll some dice. Catch the ball? Roll some dice. PICK UP THE BALL FROM THE GROUND? ROLL SOME GOT’DAM DICE. And so forth.

These rolls dictate success and failure, but failure in Blood Bowl can be utterly catastrophic. This is because if you are the active team and one of your players falls down, your turn immediately ends. Even if it was your player failing to grab a static ball from the ground. The game tries to balance this a little bit by letting each team buy “re-rolls”, usually for a pretty big chunk of money (for example, a re-roll will sometimes cost more than a player). A re-roll simply lets you re-roll the dice to make up for the awful luck you will have while you play the game. And rest assured, you will have awful luck. I’ve witnessed a coach on his first turn roll to dodge out of a tackle zone. He needed to roll anything above a 1. He rolled a 1. He got to re-roll the dice. Got a 1 again. That was the entire turn. What should have been the activation of 11 players ended when a superstar slipped on the grass moving one square away. Alternatively, I have scored touchdowns the same way, except the 1/36 chance meant success.

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It’s definitely a very swingy, rubber-bandy game. This can make players who focus on strategy very frustrated as they watch their giant minotaur taken down by a goblin who rolled well once. Heck, the first game I played in my league one of my players DIED, meaning I can’t never use him again for the rest of the season. I think the trick is to recognize that everything can go sideways at a moment’s notice and the skill to playing comes in minimizing your chances to fail and maximizing your chances to succeed. If you can do that, you should technically be good at the game. That’s why playing in a seasonal league is so appealing to me. A season is a long term series of game, like the NFL season. In a season you play a lot of different teams but you really care more about your overall progress, hopefully leading to an eventual (wait for it) Blood Bowl. The ability to win and lose, to grow and develop strategies means that one terrible game doesn’t mean the end for your team. Your players can die yes, but they can also level up and become stronger as the season continues. Even in a loss, you make some gold which you can spend on replacements and bench-warmers because you know that one of your linemen will die eventually. To summarize what my trusted game store owner told me when I signed up: “It’s a game of risk management. Everything you do will be a risk. The question is how will you handle it.”

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So there you have it!

Blood Bowl is a game of risk management. The roller coaster will go up and down, but what matters is who is still on the ride when it stops. It’s a terrible game where everything you love can come crashing down in an instant. It’s an awful game where odds don’t matter and the weak can massacre the strong. It’s a masochistic game where even your best is not enough. That being said, I bought my first box of miniatures and will be playing twice a week for the next eight weeks. I recommend trying a demo in your FLGS if you have the opportunity. It’s a great way to get into tabletop gaming at a fraction of the price without sacrificing too much strategy. See you on the pitch.

“Nuffle is always smiling Jim! You just never know which side he’s supporting.” 

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