updated 05:40 pm EDT, Sun August 3, 2014
How faithful is the conversion of the 30-year old title?
Tablets, specifically iPads, are shaking up mobile gaming. Nintendo and Sony both have firm footholds, but the ubiquity and power of smartphones and tablets have the possibility of bringing experiences to the eyes of more people. Board game conversions have been made for computers since the dawn of computer gaming, and one of the most recent migrants to iOS is Blood Bowl. Blood Bowl in board form sought to mesh the fantasy universe of Warhammer with American football in a brutal twist. How well does the game and concept port to the iOS perform, and for that matter, how faithful of a translation is it?
The originating tabletop title was published in 1987, with several major revisions since then. A parody of American football, the game pitches fantasy gaming racial staples against each other in a bloody and violent battle to score. Orcs, Dwarves, Humans, Elves, they're all here -- some with in-app purchase. The "Chaos" edition of the rules, available on Windows, has 21 races altogether, well short of what's available on the iOS. For now, the Blood Bowl $5 initial purchase entitles the user to Humans and Orcs only. The in-app purchase gives four more races for $3 each. For now, the total package is $17 -- high for a "standard" iOS game if such a thing exists, but on par with other titles in the genre.
First of all, and we're just going to put this out there straight -- the game is faithful to the tabletop rule set. So much so, that while you're learning the game, we feel it's vital to have a copy of the rulebook handy. Blood Bowl references the rule set several times in the tutorial alone. In game, one link provided is broken, while the other is intact. For convenience, the Competition Rules Pack, or CRP, is available for free PDF download on enthusiast site thenaf.net and embedded here to save their bandwidth.
Blood Bowl players have four statistics that govern how well they handle the ball and other related tasks. Additionally, special skills may boost players' attributes or give them bonuses for picking the ball off the ground, passing or catching. The skills (plus modifiers imposed by other players' proximity) determine the target for dice rolls which regulate success or failure. Failures can be particularly grievous, leading to injury or death of a player, and happen randomly when a particularly egregious assault is made.
The game can be played in a single exhibition game against the computer, which is good for a quick fix, if an hour-long game can be considered quick. Also available is a prolonged campaign mode which allows for player training -- we like this mode the most. Funds for team improvement and other nasty tricks accumulate with losses and victories, with progress (and injuries!) carrying across games and even seasons. There doesn't appear to be an "end" to campaign mode, which is nice.
Also available is online play against the horde of players nearly always available on the Internet. Regardless of time of day or night, we found no difficulties getting into a Blood Bowl game. The developers claim that iPad competitors are on the same field as PC and Android players, but what is not clear is which particular version of Blood Bowl on Windows is required. We've emailed the developer to find out, and will update this article with what we discover.
The iOS version is turn-based, but limited to a four-minute turn clock. In that four minutes, you run the ball up the field in an attempt to score, or make choices on how to prevent this from happening, depending on who has possession. Even with Blood Bowl using a turn-based system, it still feels fast-paced and more explosive than the televised NFL these days, where 15 minutes of game play takes an hour.
Regardless of some reviews claiming die rolls are everything in Blood Bowl, tactics do matter. A player with a better grip on the rules and tactics will nearly always beat one who isn't, even including the effects of bad die rolls. That said, regardless of perfect tactics, a single botched roll can be brutal to the overall game plan. This is normal for a board game conversion, especially one with roots in the eighties, and not a flaw in the design.
George Carlin once said that American football would be more interesting if the clock never stopped, and the Red Cross took injuries off the field -- this is about what this game is like. The clock "stops" ending a player's turn during a forced turnover, or a score. Turns must be completed within four minutes. If they aren't, that's too bad -- turnover time. Subjectively similar, classic title Mutant League Football just put straight Football rules in monster clothing. Blood Bowl resembles Football, with some approximation of strategy, but gameplay isn't a rebadged Madden like the classic title was.
We have a single grievance, which is both our major joy and complaint with the game. The game is brutally faithful to the tabletop rules, of which there are many. This is a game with a near 30-year old rule set that has been heavily playtested and changed over the years, with strict adherence to same. A perusal of times to play on various Internet forums suggest that the game takes nearly two hours to finish, and we found that to be the truth. Unless you have the longest commute ever, maybe stick to something lighter for that train trip into the city. Tragically, the only place to save a game in mid-flow is during halftime, so block off some time to play, or keep your charger handy.
To be perfectly clear, if you want to play Blood Bowl, and excel at it, you need to understand it. To understand it, download the rulebook and keep it handy. The game won't really hold your hand on rules or how they work, and if you don't reference the rulebook during play, results of the die throws will seem arbitrary and governed by something other than luck.
This isn't a "grab the bird, throw the bird, knock stuff down" iOS game. You're going to lose as you figure out the game, and it will seem brutal, and capricious. Brutal, yes. Capricious -- no. This is a game where any sort of success relies on digestion of the rules, comprehension of the underlying systems, and some commitment to get the most out of the title.
Blood Bowl is best for: Players looking for a strategic tabletop experience that they can take anywhere.
Blood Bowl is not for: Players that expect to complete a game while waiting in line at the grocery store, or have no interest in learning rules for a tabletop-based game.