Blood Bowl (2016) review
Blood pools in boot-stamped wells in the mud. Orcs roar as they charge into human ranks, impaling those unfortunate enough to remain stationary on their spiked armour. Meanwhile, a group of humans attempts to bring down one of the bigger beasts but fail, merely pushing him back and postponing their suffering. Broken bodies and the whimpering injured are dragged from the field. It may sound like a warzone, but this is simply a football match. This is Blood Bowl.
Games Workshop’s sports-meets-combat Warhammer spin-off has been around for decades now, passing through multiple iterations before adopting an evolving set of rules introduced in 2000 to supplement the boxed third edition of the game released way back in the mid-'90s. This new set drops an edition number, highlighting the evolving state of the game’s rules, but includes reworked orc and human miniatures (other teams will be released via expansions), as well as the board, tokens, cards and everything else you’ll need to get started for the first time as a newcomer.
The box includes 12 plastic players for each side, which you’ll need to clip out of their sprues before even thinking about anything else. By and large, the majority of the three-part figures push together and will hold without any glue necessary – however, the bigger orcs often had their heads fall off when left dry (we nicknamed one such black orc blocker Faceless) so you’ll want to put at least a dab of adhesive on each piece. Your fingers should also be prepared to suffer, courtesy of the surprisingly prickly spikes on most of the orcs’ armour and footballs – both teams have custom balls which slot into the front hole in each miniature’s base when in possession of the ball, as well as additional separate balls when dropped or scattered onto the field.
As you might expect from Games Workshop, the miniatures are simply brilliant. The quality of the moulding is fabulously detailed and the poses held by each player lend a fantastic air of energy and aggression to the tabletop layout. If you’ve never played Blood Bowl before, you might initially have trouble sorting your blitzers from your linesmen – especially on the human side of things, where some of the poses and equipment are similar – but after ten minutes or so you’ll quickly learn which is which. The custom dice are similarly finished with a superb quality, and the cards are fittingly sparse, making quickly checking stats for dice rolls easy. In fact, the only slight production wobble comes from the range ruler and scatter and throw-in templates, which are simply – if left unpainted – boring thin grey plastic.
The board is double-sided, featuring a human pitch on one side and the orc equivalent on the other, both decorated with the usual array of torn limbs, splatters of blood and trapdoors; not unlike White Hart Lane. Spaces for miniatures are denoted by small crosses marking the corners of each box, which efficiently act as a grid for movement without impacting the luscious greens or dank browns of the environment beneath. One thing to watch for is that the miniatures’ expressive forms often result in clusters of models pushing each other out of line – so keep a track on where your players should be to avoid any possible debates.
Despite more closely resembling American football, Blood Bowl plays in the format of rugby or English football: two halves, each consisting of eight turns per player. Players move their models in accordance with their movement speed or execute an array of moves, from passing the ball (by lobbing it along the field) to blocking opposing players on the pitch – one character a turn can move and then also block, in a key move known as a blitz.
Blocking is key to the game, as it serves as a way to knock the ball from players’ hands, but also a method of knocking rivals unconscious, temporarily removing them from play or – in the case of a particularly lucky roll – permanently killing them. Each player first rolls a number of custom dice (dependent on the strength difference between the players) which denote whether they have successfully pushed back or attacked the player – or, in some cases, knocked themselves unconscious or scored a double KO. If passed, the next roll is with 2D6 to try and overcome the rival’s armour rating. If that, too, is successful, the final 2D6 roll is to determine a fate – from a momentary stunning and the accompanying missed turn to an injury that removes them until half time or a total fatality. If a player on the other team is simply knocked down to the floor, another player on the other team can risk a foul to damage them – but doubles means being caught by the ref and being sent off the pitch.
With Blood Bowl essentially being a sports wargame, there’s a lot of dice rolling involved in the proceedings, but it never feels tiresome thanks to the chaotic nature of players continually slipping over (in blood, we presume) or accidentally knocking themselves out by headbutting an enemy player. Failing a dice roll on your turn instantly ends your actions, meaning that tactically choosing which players to move and in what order to perform blocks and passes is vital – it also halts the frustrating experience of rolling nothing but failures before it has a chance to happen.
That said, expect to suffer plenty of casualties – players must even roll to move out of squares within an enemy tackle zone, and can risk falling over and injuring themselves, which in one of our games led to a (presumably) broken neck and untimely demise of a particularly unlucky human catcher. It’s not just the players; the crowd is almost as aggressive as locals watching a Sunderland game, and will instantly injure (or kill) any player knocked out of bounds.
It’s a heck of a lot of fun and the semi-luck-driven nature leads to plenty of genuinely gasp-inducing moments – such as a successful Hail Mary in the final turn of the game or the unlikely dodging of a spritely human runner between ranks of orcs towards the touchline.
The core game is absolutely gripping to play, despite its often lengthy playtime. (Prepare to spend at least two hours on a match – up to four or more if opening the box for the first time.) Like football itself, it’s also a fantastic spectator game, inspiring audiences to root for each team as their fortunes swing.
The rulebook, written with a confident level of humour from the in-universe commentators, features a number of optional rules and more advanced guidelines for participating in league play, including weather, special kick-off events (such as the ability to bribe the ref), procedures for building custom teams (including unique players) and fan support, which provide buckets of expandability for those hooked on the meat of the gameplay. Once you get a taste, you’re sure to be hooked, too.
Blood Bowl’s 2016 edition is an ideal introduction to the vicious and hilarious fantasy sport, featuring all of the gorgeous miniatures, quality components and customisable rules – from beginner basics to more complicated league and optional guidelines – you would want in an updated release, and more. A complete hat-trick.
Publisher: Games Workshop
Genre: Sports wargame
Time: 45-120 minutes