“On this team, we fight for every inch,” Al Pacino grumbles in the 1999 American Football drama Any Given Sunday. Trying to inspire his team, he demands that his players “claw” and “tear” their way to victory, one inch at a time. But while the NFL may revolve around a physically-demanding contact sport, it’s nothing compared to the savage, barbaric world of Blood Bowl. Had Al Pacino been facing off against an army of toothy, chest-beating orcs that day, you can’t help feel that that speech may have fallen on deaf ears.
Blood Bowl 2 is the second digitized version of Games Workshop’s tabletop fantasy sports game. A turn-based combination of Warhammer and American Football, you’ll have to master chess-like strategy and hope luck is on your side if you’re to win the ball, avoid enemy attacks, and score points in the end zone. Of course, in the fantasy realm of lumbering trolls, scheming elves and blood-thirsty orcs, sportsmanship is a dirty word and if you’re to win, you’ll have to do it by any means necessary.
Each match consists of 16 turns per player and will begin with eleven-a-side, made up of a combination of linemen, runners, throwers, as well as a big, heavy unit that can be used to block your opponents or bring them to the ground with a bone-snapping crunch. A coin toss will determine who gets to kick-off and if you’re on the offensive, the game starts by kicking the ball deep into enemy territory. You’ll then have to strategically move your players around the field in order to inch closer to the ball while preparing yourself for the impending counter-attacks that will come at the end of your turn.
Much of the focus lies in tackling enemy units before their turn in order to reduce the barrier between you and the end zone. Your front line will be instrumental in grounding and distracting the main body of players on the pitch, while a “blitz” ability can be used once per turn allowing one of your supporting units to run up the pitch and charge at an unsuspecting enemy in the hopes they can be dispatched early in the game. You can also send other units swerving around enemy lines in an attempt to inch closer to the ball and if you think one of your players is in a particularly vulnerable position, you can activate the block ability to strengthen your chances of pre-empting any impending countermeasures.
Chance plays a big part in each match with many moves ultimately determined by the gods of luck, represented in true Warhammer fashion by D6 dice that pop up on screen once you’ve triggered your move. Each die has a number of possible outcomes, including a one-in-six chance that your glorious tackle or ambitious sprint up the pitch will completely fail. This all depends on the attributes of your player and their position on the pitch. For example if a relatively weak player is surrounded by multiple enemy units, then you’ll be less likely to complete your move but if the shoe is on the other foot then you can increase your chances of winning the dice throw. Some units will have the ability to activate a bonus dice roll while other will automatically win the throw of the dice if their skills are high enough.
This leaves a lot of what happens in a match up to lady luck, a feature which may frustrate some first-time players, particularly playing against the game’s AI. It can sometimes feel that the odds aren’t in your favour, especially if you’re playing defense and desperately trying to save as many players as possible and block off whoever has the ball. Unlike American football, there’s isn’t a limit in the number of downs which works well for your team if you have possession, but can grow incredibly tedious when trying to defend. The only way then to win the ball is to tackle whoever has the ball, pick up a fumble or, if you’ve no players at hand, to simply let them score and hope you can regroup in the next phase. This leads to score boards looking relatively low at the end of a match and if you’re playing against a human player, plenty of times where winning teams will wind down the clock in order to progress to the next phase or end the game.
After a few games, you’ll eventually learn how to tactically position your players and determine in which order you’ll need to execute your gruesome tackles if you’re to successfully survive the opposition’s upcoming turn. While the controls are simple and the grid like layout of the pitch is easy to navigate, the trick is to place your players on squares that aren’t in the enemy's immediate vicinity, so that you aren’t swarmed on your next defensive turn. Some dice rolls can knock units out for a complete turn, while others will remove them from the game indefinitely. The same however goes for your team and if you fancy your chances against one of your opponents larger units, then there’s the increased possibility that your move will completely backfire and reverse these effects onto your own unit.
Even if you’re a tactical genius, the biggest problem in Blood Bowl 2 is that the game’s eight races aren’t proportionately balanced, meaning that you’ll have to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each on if you’re master them all. Humans, Dwarves and High Elves can draft teams from the five basic unit types, making them the most balanced of the races. Orcs have an extra unit type and while you’re limited to how many unit types can appear on your team, it still sometimes feel like they have an unfair advantage. Worse still, the Dark Elves, Chaos and Bretonnians are all lacking certain unit types such as catchers and strong passers, meaning that it’s a challenge to even consider creating a team with one of these races. There aren’t even specialized units or extra star players on hand to bolster these races ability on the field.
Star players are heroes on the football-cum-battlefield. With increased stats and special abilities, they can make all the difference between winning and losing a match. Introduced during the campaign mode, your team will attract these players once they’ve earned a strong enough reputation and have the coin to pay for their services. Some of their skills include weakening enemy morale, stabbing players, shooting the ball out of a cannon and even lobbing an enemy in possession of the ball right into the end zone. They add some much needed character to the game and will certainly win over the crowd should you include them in your starting line-up.
These stars are introduced during the game’s campaign mode. The witty introduction to the universe of Blood Bowl is narrated by two over-the-top commentators who tell the story of the Reikland Reavers, a team who were once at the top of their game but have since fallen down the ranks due to the departure of their previous coach. You’ll step in as their new commander-in-chief and be tasked with objective of winning the Blood Bowl league and restoring glory to this once mighty team.
The opening matches will take you through the basics, where you’ll not only be introduced to the happenings on the field, but also the behind-the-scenes strategizing that goes on before each game. Most of this is concerned with purchasing new players and honing the skills of your current roster, which sets you up in good stead for creating your own team to take online or play in the game’s custom league modes. Depending on the amount of money in the kitty, you’ll also be able to add emblems to your team uniform, select your home stadium and buying new abilities for your more experienced squad members. Secondary objectives will increase both cash flow and team strength, leaving you with plenty of resources to kit out your team as you see fit. It’s all contained within a simple to use interface that doesn’t get too weighed down with numbers and stats compared to other sports games.
After an enjoyable if not relatively straightforward campaign, you’ll have the confidence to take a team online and face off against some highly-skilled human players. It will be tough at first, with some of your team members quickly getting injured or indeed annihilated altogether, but these seemingly team-destroying moments lend themselves well to the spirit of Blood Bowl. Bitter rivalries will emerge, forcing you to perfect your strategy time and time again and try and get inside the mind of your opponent. The same occurs offline, although being in the same room as your enemy can possibly lead to some violence outside the game - you have been warned.
Balance issues and the random aspect of the gameplay may put off some, but for the rest of us, this only increases our need to perfect strategies both on and off the pitch if we’re to survive, let alone win. As each play unfolds inch-by-inch, there’s an immense satisfaction to be gained by brutally tackling enemy units, grabbing the ball and dancing across the end zone. This makes Blood Bowl 2 is not only a strong sequel but a rather addictive game in it’s own right. It may have the heart of a sports game, but it has all the brains of a console strategy genre, an area of gaming that has been criminally overlooked in recent years.