Like so many other good things, Blood Bowl is a product of time and effort. The first edition of this bizarre fantasy sports-themed boardgame was released way back in 1986 by Games Workshop, the creators of miniature games. Ever since, this curious spinoff from the company’s main Warhammer Fantasy franchise has seen over 25 years of further game development and several different editions of it’s core ruleset, currently running at 6th edition. The game has transcended its cardboard beginnings and is played with both detailed miniature models on tabletop, as well as online with the help of several different client software. The most popular online league fumbbl.com has 66171 active accounts with up to 600 matches played daily. But what is this silly boardgame that has captured the interest of gamers for nearly three decades? Why should you be interested in it? Keep reading to find out.
Blood Bowl, at it’s very core, is a sports game. Players take the role of coaches of two opposing teams playing a very violent and brutal version of American football. They take turns moving their players on a square-gridded playing field with the aim of moving a comically spiked football into the end zone of the opposing player. In order to do this, the players can try to attempt several different actions such as throwing the ball or punching opposing players, the result of which is dictated by throwing dice. To make things a bit more interesting, each player has a handful of differing characteristics that affect the outcome of these dice rolls. The ruleset is not terribly complicated and anyone can learn the basics of the game in about 15 minutes. Blood Bowl is easy to learn. Mastering the game, not so much.
You should play Blood Bowl because it delivers an appealing challenge to your inner tactician. The first match you play will seem just silly, your little fantasy world orcs running around among elves and dwarves, brawling and stumbling around with a ball. You throw loads of dice and the outcome of the match seems random, dictated by the whims of the little plastic cube with dots on its sides. By the second or third match, however, you start to notice the real game, the meat of the challenge. Blood Bowl is a game of rolling dice, yes. However, as a player you have several tools to affect the outcomes of these dice rolls. By clever play, you can stack the odds on your favor, and most importantly, you can stack the odds against your opponents favor. A crucial rule that emphasizes this point is the turnover rule: any significant failure in a dice roll will cause your turn to immediately end, and your opponent can begin theirs. Since basically any dice roll in the game can spell disaster, a strategy emerges: successful play is about making as few dice rolls as possible with as good odds as possible, while forcing your opponent to make as many rolls as possible, with as bad odds as possible. Blood Bowl is ultimately a cerebral challenge, and a match between two skilled players starts to seem chesslike, where every move is deliberate and every dice roll is a carefully weighted risk.
If this sounds boring, I don’t blame you. Chess is renowned for being dry and uninteresting to the uninitiated. Strategic depth is good, but a good game is also entertaining. This is where Blood Bowl shines; it carries its theme so damn well. Blood Bowl is a game of fantasy football mayhem where hulking trolls beat goblins into paste, where graceful elves dodge and weave around their baffled opponents. The game has a devil-may-care attitude to players dying on the pitch and a general air of cheerful violence combined with actual sports sensibilities. A match of Blood Bowl is supposed to be a sporting spectacle on level of real-world events. The brilliance of the boardgame is that it actually feels like the game it’s trying to simulate. The level of abstraction is cut just so that you find yourself thinking in terms of players executing maneuvers on the pitch, instead of just crunching numbers and projecting probabilities on the playing grid. Action is visceral and dynamic, with players getting pushed around and knocked down to the rattling tone of the chunky block dice; imposing custom cubes used for the sole purpose of on-pitch violence. The role of random chance hits that sweet spot where the actions of the player dominate the game, but the dice bring an element of tension to the gameplay. The dice are cruel masters, but occasionally also generous. Blood Bowl is filled with last-ditch incredible maneuvers that you still attempt because they might, just might, succeed if the rolls happen to be in your favor. Blood Bowl is more exiting and tense than any boardgame has the right to be. You should play it because not only you get to flex your brain, but you also get to have so much fun while doing it.
Blood Bowl is also a game of longevity and sustained play. When playing league games, you are not only playing a game about fantasy football, you are also playing a game of managing a fantasy football team. Competing in a league with your friends creates a whole metagame of player progression and team rivalries reminiscent of any real-life sports league. You can radically alter the playstyle of your team by picking certain upgrades over others, and making these decisions is as compelling and interesting as the game proper. The game immerses you with the failings and achievements of your team and you grow attached to your players. I personally find that good games create strong feelings, and when your beloved star player is fouled to death by a gang of dwarfs in a championship game, the roars of disapproval and vengeance bursting from your mouth will be a testament to the unique pull of Blood Bowl.
One more thing. For being a curiosity boardgame, the game is surprisingly accessible. The latest rulebook is freely available from Games Workshop’s site (a rare act of gratitude from the company), the actual tabletop set is still in print and there are at least two different computer clients you can play it on. The game translates stupendously well into a computer version, with no nuances lost in the conversion. Giving the game a spin is as simple as reading trough the rules and starting an account on fumbbl.com. And yes, you should give it a spin, because you haven’t lived before you’ve fouled an elf to death.