THQ – Blood Bowl review

super-violent yet tactical fantasy sport
Photo of THQ – Blood Bowl

Blood Bowl was a board game released by Games Workshop back in the mid-eighties. We remember it well, because at the time we were into D & D, Warhammer, White Dwarf, Car Wars, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and just about everything else vaguely RPG and geeky you could imagine. Blood Bowl was great fun: a sort of massively violent fantasy version of American football where the players literally risked life and limb.

In Blood Bowl it’s not uncommon for an ogre to rip a goblin’s arm off, or indeed just stamp the poor little green fellow to death. Granted, if the referee spots the incident he’ll send the offender off for an early bath (and in the ogre’s case he probably needs it). Although cunning coaches with a bit of spare money can always bribe the ref to look the other way.

That’s the kind of game Blood Bowl is. While the goal is to block with linemen and use your thrower (quarterback) to find your receivers in the end zone for a touchdown, often games just devolve into a massive all-out scrap. Especially when playing with the more thuggish races who specialise in pounding rather than running or throwing.

When given the chance to play a console version of this classic fantasy sport, we were jumping up and down in excitement like a minotaur on a wood elf’s head. This computerised version is based on a later set of rules than we played with originally in 1986, and a lot of cool additions have been made. Most notably a system of team and player skill development that allows a coach to nurture and grow their upcoming stars using experience points.

Experience is gained from completing successful passes, executing blocks on opponents, and indeed executing opponents. When players level up, new skills can be bought such as extra pace, better dodging or improved blocking, safe hands for ball catchers or indeed improved attributes. The latter are most important as, for example, when creatures clash on the playing field – well, battlefield – the outcome is based on their strength, as well as a random dice element.

Despite the strongly violent theme here, Blood Bowl is actually a very tactical game in its traditional turn-based mode. There’s also a real-time mode of play, in which all the players are AI controlled and you do your best to order them around with a system of preferences. However, the real-time controls are badly implemented and unresponsive, so it becomes pure chaos, really. You can pause the game and take a lot of time to plan out moves, but then it becomes far too easy to score against the AI. And at any rate, with hefty amounts of pausing you’re basically playing in turn-based format anyway, just without the funky rule-set the proper turn-based mode has.

In traditional turn-based play, Blood Bowl is like a sports wargame, in so much as each player exerts a zone of control consisting of the eight squares surrounding them. This is the tackle zone, and any opponent moving through this is subject to a tackle attempt. If tackled (and they don’t have any dodging skills), the poor unfortunate ends up clothes-lined and flat out on the turf.

Crucially, this causes a turnover, meaning that no matter how many players on the team are yet to move, the turn ends and the opposition get their go. Any player knock-down, ball fumble or dropped pass results in a turnover, meaning that you have to carefully decide in which order to carry out your team’s actions. It’s generally sensible to leave the riskier moves until later, because if you fail on the very first player’s orders and cause a turnover, the rest of the team will miss the turn and just stand there like planks.

Blood Bowl is quite chess-like in some respects, too, as the positioning of your players is of paramount importance. Team-mates standing next to one another add strength to each other’s blocks, providing they’re not in the tackle zone of another opponent. The game involves a good deal of thinking and positional planning, although a four minute turn timer puts a bit of pressure on the coach and keeps the game flowing.

Where Blood Bowl can become annoying is in its random elements. Sometimes you can have the turn from hell thanks to some bad dice rolls. A round might begin with your star troll rolling a 1 on his stupidity test, meaning he gets confused and stands there doing nothing instead of throwing a block for your running back. The running back who, despite his undoubted agility, also rolls a 1 when he swoops in to scoop up the ball, thereby fumbling it and ending your turn. When this happens near the opponent’s end zone, and you know you should really have scored, it can cause some serious teeth-grinding.

Granted, there are solutions to these problems: purchasing re-rolls lets a coach re-try any bad throws of the dice. But they’re expensive. Similarly, levelling your players up with skills such as safe hands or passing skills means that the ball is less likely to go astray when you attempt that long pass. But accidents still happen, and the computer always seems to be luckier than the player.

Or that’s the way it felt. We can’t count on our fingers the number of times we swore at the jammy AI teams in each match (partially because all the fingers on our right hand were removed in that studding incident at kick off). Speaking of the computer AI, it plays a decent enough game although it suffers from sporadic attacks of stupidity perhaps more often that it should.

Should you wish to take on a human opponent, that facility is available via Xbox Live. However, only one-off matches are supported on the Xbox, as opposed to the PC version which allows for leagues, tournaments and the associated player development. Which is half of the game, really, so that’s a little disappointing.

We were also less than enamoured with Blood Bowl’s presentation on this console port. The graphics are pretty low resolution and don’t look impressive on a big TV, which gives the game a rather dated feel. Spelling mistakes that crop up throughout the menus and help text don’t particularly generate an air of professionalism, either.

Even so, the core of the campaign mode is well designed, and levelling up your star players keeps you coming back to play the next game in the season. There are a lot of smart extras here, such as sponsorship deals to be negotiated, mercenary star players to hire for one match only, and cheerleaders to recruit (they boost the power of your fans, who can have an effect on matches). Most importantly, the turn-based rules are faithfully implemented with some reasonable computer AI opposition. It’s enjoyable stuff despite multiple flaws.

Company: THQ

Blood Bowl has its problems. The flaccid and pointless-seeming real-time mode, the rough presentation, a lack of online options compared to the PC, and the odd joypad-breaking fumble. However, the core Blood Bowl turn-based rules are still good fun to scrimmage with, the AI is passable and the campaign mode fairly well constructed. The game's definitely worth a whirl, though you'll probably want to pick up the PC version if you have the choice.