"Keep Summer Safe!"
[This review originally written in 2000, updated 2003 -- Brian]
Blood Bowl is "A game of Fantasy Football set in the Warhammer universe" of Games Workshop. GW is a British company; when they say football, they mean some other sport. In this case, rugby. Each player builds a team based on one of the classic fantasy races (Orc, Elf, Dwarf, Human, Halfling, etc.). There are four different positions for each team, which are usually Linemen, Passers, Catchers and Blitzers. Each position is rated for movement, strength, agility, and armor. A team buys a number of players (and re-rolls, explained later).
The field is a rectangular grid, and players are set up with a maximum of one player per square (with plenty of empty squares). During a team's turn, each player can perform one action. Actions are:
Moving is just that. Players can move a number of squares, up to their movement allowance. If a player moves while adjacent to a player on the other team (a wargaming would say "moving out of a zone-of-control"), then he has to dodge. You roll a d6, with agility determining the number you need to match or beat.
To throw a block two players must be adjacent. You compare strengths (and get bonuses for nearby team-mates) which determine how many block dice are thrown, and who gets to pick which die to use. The block dice show various results, including: attacker tackled, both tackled, push the defender back and defender tackled (conditionally and unconditionally). The block dice aren't that complicated, but there are special cases floating around.
A blitz is just a block with a running start. One blitz per turn.
You can also pass once per turn. The passer can move and then makes an agility check, based on the distance of the pass. [A special ruler marks of the distance increments.] Then the receiver makes an agility check to catch it.
There are also interceptions, handoffs, picking up the ball when it's on the field (rugby, remember), injuries, random events, weather and other details. But let's stick to the core game. The clever part of the game comes from a sudden death rule: If you fail a die roll, your turn ends. Fail basically means drop the ball, miss a pass, or have someone throwing a tackle get knocked down. However, some players also have a skills that affect this. Most passers can re-roll a failed pass (once). Most catchers can re-roll a fail catch. Blockers can't re-roll, but interpret the block dice more favorably, etc. Each team also has a number of team re-rolls, usually two or three. These can be used for any roll (on your own turn), but no re-rolling anything more than once, and you can't use more than one team re-roll per turn.
Each half lasts 8 turns per team. Only touchdowns score anything, one point each (like Football ... er, rugby, er soccer).
Blood Bowl has cons and pros. It's long, taking 2-3 hours a game. The races are distinctive (if cliched), you can play with pre-built teams or build your own. (Each player has a list price. Each race also has a cost per team reroll per half. You get your money and build a team). There are problems with the game. All die rolls fail on a '1'. So even if you have plenty of re-rolls, your turn ends 1/36th of the time you throw a die (With blocking it isn't so bad since you often throw two dice and choose one, and can use a team re-roll if need be). All the brilliant play in the world won't help that. Teams are diverse, but not necessarily well balanced for a single game. It can get depressing to play a high skill team versus a team whose strategy is "Kill as many players as possible, then walk the ball down the field." These games can often be tense, as the skill team goes up 2-0 or 3-0 but then has to play a delaying action. But, given the luck factor mentioned above, a blowout (one way or the other) occurs fairly often. A more skilled player will tend to win against a less skilled player, but sometimes the dice speak.
However, with the addition of the expansion (DeathZone) and the formation of a league, I find the game interesting. DeathZone adds more races, as well as wizards, medics, star players and strategy cards (Really random "Take that" cards that you get to draw a few of and then play when you want). Additionally, there are many more skills and rules for players improvings as the league progresses. (Those that don't die, anyway). Also rules for handicapping teams, finances, and the like. Of course, real gamers tinker with these rules incessantly. Our league certainly does.
I emjoy leagues because of the added excitement and depth during the play (with every roll being significant) while not destroying strategy completely. This puts it squarely in the realm of good "beer and pretzels" games. The league format gives you something episodic to look forward to, and some long term planning. Do you want to get a new passer, or buy another re-roll? What skill should your catcher get next? Should you fire that seriously injured player to lower your payroll (which determines handicap) or keep him on the roster. It gives you something to think about and argue with other coaches. For those of us who don't really follow real sports, the question isn't arguing Pittsburgh vs Philly, it's Lizards vs Undead, and what's the best first skill to get a Wardancer?
Not deep decisions, but they give armchair quarterbacks something to argue about. And what else do you want from football?
Blood bowl has a new edition out, which incorporates the expansion directly into the main set. It's roughly $60. On the downside, a team box set is $40, and that only gets you a dozen players. A full roster team can be 16 players (the extra four are sold seperately). Games Workship games are not cheap. However, you can download the "Living Rulebook" for free, if you are interested. I actually use an old set with a printout of the newly revised rules. Most of the rules changes are minor (and much too detailed for the scope of this review), but don't actually change anything I've written. A big change is the proliferation of teams. The old game had six team, with six more in the expansion. The living rulebook adds an extra four, and there are another six or so teams currently in playtest.