Consider Cyanide's previous title Chaos Legion, a 2004 strategy title that was pretty much Blood Bowl - a turn-based, hyper-violent ode to American football in a fantasy setting - in everything but name. Games Workshop were a bit miffed with Cyanide's efforts and filed a lawsuit, one that culminated in an undisclosed out-of-court settlement and a license with Cyanide to develop a proper Blood Bowl game. Flash forward five years and it's finally being released.
It's safe to say Blood Bowl's had a difficult journey. It popped up digitally at the end of June, though received plenty of grumbles due to its steep 40 GBP price tag. Now, in September, we're finally seeing a boxed retail release, accompanied by the usual pre-order price-shaving hijinks that only a physical retailer can provide. Cyanide's faithful adaptation of Games Workshop's enduring sport-themed strategy game is finally likely to be able to satiate price-conscious consumers, as well as those of us who prefer their games to come in boxes.
Blood Bowl gives you the option to play the classic turn-based game or Blitz, a real-time mode developed for the game. Which, sadly, is complete bobbins; it's fiddly, complicated and imprecise. Stick to the turn-based mode. It's what Blood Bowl is, after all.
I'd never played Blood Bowl before, so my first mission with the game was to try and find a tutorial. There's one in-game, but it functions as a very brief summary of Blood Bowl and ultimately left me more confused than when I started. Deciding that the game might be more of a learn-by-doing experience, I went for a quick Orc versus Human exhibition match and felt slightly despondent when my greenskins got slaughtered 3-0.
Hours later, and after reading the chunky more-useful-than-the-tutorial manual, I decided to try my hand at the campaign mode. There are eight teams in the game: Humans, Orcs, Dwarves, Lizardmen, Skaven, Goblins, Chaos and Wood Elves. I picked the cloven-footed, demonic Chaos - brutally strong, terrifying units that consider scoring touchdowns secondary to causing damage to the other team - and persevered to claim minor victories against Human and Dwarf squads in my first two matches of the game's beginner cup.
Games in Blood Bowl are won on touchdowns, so running the ball into your opponent's end zone is something a team has to consider sooner or later, although maiming everyone on the opposite team and marching the ball up an empty pitch is an eminently valid tactic. Each game is split into two halves of eight turns each, and with every turn you're given various strategic options: you can foul one player, blitz (move towards and attack) one player, and retake one failed dice roll provided you haven't used all your re-rolls already. Your other moves revolve around manoeuvring the rest of your eleven-strong team into hopefully advantageous positions, or attacking opponents in adjacent squares.
When it all works, it's sublime. About ten hours into my campaign, I'm stuck in a match against the ratty Skaven. The first half ended in a stalemate, and the flimsy rat people did a surprising amount of damage to my supposedly tough Chaos legion. But on entering the fourth quarter of the game, the Skaven team drop like flies. In two turns my squad has knocked down eight of the opposing team, leaving me with two turns to win and a vacant pitch to do it in. The problem? It'll take both of those turns to move to ball into the Skaven's end zone. It should be doable - there's only six of their team left on the field; four languishing in my own end zone, having moved expecting to catch a pass that never came, and two lying motionless on the floor. Provided my Beastman doesn't fail his roll and actually picks up the ball, I should be alright. Thankfully, he does, and I score the only touchdown of the match on my final turn. Glorious.
But games of Blood Bowl can easily go the other way. The dice are the real masters of the game, and they're far too cruel to be dependable. Every action in the game requires you to pass a roll, which the computer handles for you. The process suffers slightly without the tactile sensation of feeling the dice in your hands, and sometimes clicking attack and then watching your star player get massacred can be truly disheartening. Fail a roll at any point and your turn will be over, which often adds to the frustration. Luck is a factor, then, and Blood Bowl routinely puts you into plenty of genuine nail-biting David and Goliath situations: even the tiniest of Skaven can murder your star Minotaur on the third turn of the game.
Blood Bowl, then, is about luck. But that makes it sound too simple. The reality is more nuanced, and good players assess the risk of specific actions and plan their turns accordingly. As a strategic game it's an acquired taste; even the most meticulously planned tactic can go to pot because the dice didn't fancy it.
There are low production values all around, which is made more confusing by the game's insanely long loading screens. One of the bigger problems, though, is particularly shoddy AI. Feeble squads seem to be all too keen to go toe-to-toe with proper bruisers, and whilst the luck factor has already been established the odds are certainly against them. The computer tends to be more than happy to keep the ball static, too, keeping it out of harm's way and never trying to attempt more aggressive styles of play. The game comes with an online mode, thankfully, which is unfortunately plagued by somewhat fiddly lobby systems and a lack of decent matchmaking options. If you've got some friends with a copy of the game, though, you'll be alright.
Ultimately, fans of the tabletop game will be delighted with Cyanide's videogame translation. Shoddy turn-based mode aside it's a faithful, accurate conversion of the game. The Blood Bowl faithful will appreciate the chance to test out strategies in matches with their friends without having to fork out fifty quid on models and spend a fortnight holding a paint brush. The rest of us, though, will have a more difficult time. Blood Bowl is an unashamedly complex game, and it's been a long time since games have forced you to study text and plough repeatedly through failure to get a basic grip of what exactly is going on. But when it clicks, it's spectacular.