Review: Blood Bowl06 Aug 2014 0
It is widely agreed that the 1980s were a very strange decade. Neon legwarmers, obviously, but also Games Workshop and its hobby games casting a shadow greater than any other between TSR and Wizards of the Coast.
Their games were often forbidding investments of time and money, but offered both strategic depth and incomparable (if deeply silly) aesthetics once your hand-painted miniatures graced a well-laid table. Blood Bowl is the silliest of the lot: not only does it incorporate the exaggerated character design and overwrought world of Warhammer, it's fantasy football the way many readers of Pocket Tactics will have imagined it when they heard the phrase. Sure, daytime sporting events between vampires and halflings don't make any sense, but if you're worried about plausibility in your Games Workshop games, I invite you to figure out Chainsaw Warrior.
The sport Blood Bowl simulates is actually quite light on rules--there are no downs or field goals or eligible receivers, and all manner of ultra-violence is perfectly legal so long as you don't stomp on a prone opponent in a deliberate attempt to put them out of the game. Even then, officials aren't that attentive and possess a FIFA-like open-mindedness about bribery.
Blood Bowl's rules are poorly presented and have a few too many complex embellishments with too little return. In addition, there are roughly a hundred different skills with special rules and additional rules governing campaigns and skill development. While it's wonderful to have the enforcement of these rules taken off your hands so you can focus on the intriguing strategic game underneath, Cyanide Studio's iOS version is an awful tutor and you end up forced to do a great deal of tedious record-keeping, anyway.
Blood Bowl is largely about managing risk. "Blocking" (a.k.a. melee combat), dodging past opponents, passing, catching, even simple things like picking up the ball or running as fast as possible all involve rolling dice. When you fail a roll, your turn ends in a turnover, and any of your players who haven't moved stand around for a turn picking daisies. Since there are only 8 turns per half, wasting actions is painful. The natural response to this is to do low-risk actions first, but choosing low-risk actions can depend heavily on the consequences of some of the higher-risk actions, so you occasionally benefit from departing from that heuristic. Sadly, I was kidding about the daisies--you don't get flowers or anything else from units who took no actions (though that would be a variant I'd love to see).
Risk management, while hugely important, is only one aspect of the game. Though the base game only allows you to play as the newbie-friendly Orcs and Humans, there are four other factions available as opponents. In-app purchases unlock the option to play these teams, with many more from the PC version ripe for future porting. Within each faction, there are a smattering of different kinds of players with various skills, of which they can learn more over the course of a campaign. Different team compositions and skill selection can predispose your team to quite varied strategies. Some, like the Orcs, tend to try to create tight formations to support one another in the attempt to deal out grievous bodily harm, and then run over the bodies of the fallen. Humans aren't terrible at fighting and have more agility available, allowing them to attempt the passing game without courting near-certain disaster. Even these are very broad characterizations, laden with exceptions and variations and providing the opportunity for serious engagement with and attachment to one's team, especially over a long campaign or a tournament with other people.
Now, dear reader, I have you poised like a cartoon character looking up at the bottom of a falling piano, as the prophesied other shoe begins to drop. Blood Bowl makes very poor use of the tablet format. What you'll notice first is that the tutorial only crudely introduces even the most basic rules; a player who relies on it alone will be utterly unable to plan effectively or understand why things happen. For example, the meaning of the various faces of the block dice are never explained. A red skull looks bad, but is it bad for you or your opponent? There's no way to know without downloading the massive pdf rulebook in your browser. There's no option available to play with a subset of the rules to get a handle on the basics, even though this would not only be very helpful, but also uncomplicated from a game design perspective, as the skills are so easily separable from the rest of the rules. Indeed, it would be a great boon to the new player to eliminate the ability to "Go for it" at a risk of falling on your face, or kickoff events, or the global benefits like apothecaries, wizards, and cheerleaders, all of which provide amusing flavor and some gameplay value, but at the cost of substantial rules overhead.
Nor is it only the poor noobs who suffer. The interface is largely borrowed from the half-decade-old PC version and leaves out two crucial features: it no longer lists the skills of the players involved in a block on the screen on which you must choose your result [correction: a font change slightly de-emphasizes these, but they are present. I appreciate @metalface13 and @olio's help in the comments], and there are no mouseover tips. Having seen a video of the PC version in action, these tips are everywhere, and they greatly help ease the burden on one's memory. It would have been possible to at least partially accommodate their lack by making the character models more visually distinct; rather than having all linemen looks the same, for example, they might have provided different decor or armor to indicate particularly important or common skills. Instead, you must tap each player individually in order to view skills and stats.
Though the game does offer three levels of AI, and it took me some time to learn to play well enough to defeat even the easiest of them, the multiplayer offers Blood Bowl's greatest charm: league play. Once again, though, there's a touch of poison in that heady mead--it's synchronous-only, with a maximum turn length of 4 minutes. I hear it's a great multiplayer experience, if you ever manage to get a game going and nothing interrupts you over the half hour or more you should expect it to take. It's supposedly even better if you can do that many times over weeks or months in a league.
Many of my problems with Blood Bowl are really problems with the interaction between Blood Bowl and the way the world has changed since 1987. It still has the virtues it always had--though you don't paint your own minis, you get digital minis which look better than anything I ever painted (even if the game looks forlorn and unloved next to its PC cousin), and all the strategy and humor is present. Making a time to meet a friend and play is easier now than when you had to be at the same kitchen table. Having the computer enforcing the rules makes learning the game at least a little easier. Yet I expect more improvement. I want a good user interface, designed to take advantage of a tablet's strengths. I expect a great tutorial, with a gradual introduction of the elements of the game. If a game is turn-based, I see absolutely no point in requiring synchronous play. When I am disappointed in these ways, I BASH IPAD WAAAAGH!.
I, um, like playing the Orcs.
Blood Bowl was played on an iPad Air for this review.