When I first heard that Fantasy Flight was going to be exploiting its licence for Games Workshop properties by doing a Blood Bowl deck-builder I was wildly excited. I haven’t yet found a deck building game that’s interested me greatly, in spite of being impressed the the cleverness of the concept, and it seemed such a natural fit for the theme. Well, many months later the game has hit the shelves and it’s not looking much like a deck-builder at all but something rather different. Fantasy Flight sent me a copy so I could find out myself whether the transformation has done it any good.
It’s just occurred to me that reviewing a card game which is supposed to be about a fictional game and in which players play player cards representing fictional players in said fictional game could get confusing fast. You’ll have to bear with me here.
The concept behind Blood Bowl is simple yet devilishly endearing: it’s a supposed sport, a little like a no-holds-barred, ultra-violent version of American Football played by fantasy teams in Games Workshop’s Warhammer universe. The original board game on which this card game is based is a highly-regarded classic in GW’s range and, given it’s wacky subject matter, manages to be a surprisingly cerebral game. But it’s limited to two players and the aspect of the game that everyone idolises above all - league play, where you manage and gradually improve and grow the same team over repeat seasons - is such a time-sink that most Blood Bowl players have only scratched its surface. As a fan of the original game one of the first things I wanted to find out from Blood Bowl: Team Manager was whether it might manage to fill in these gaps. It starts out well - the card game plays 2-4 and, it scales pretty well. To my surprise the two player game works well, three is best, and four turns out to be a little over-long but perfectly playable. So strike one for Team Manager for giving us a multi-player fix of fantasy football.
The game isn’t especially complicated but you need to read the rules carefully and follow the game turn procedure carefully else you can run into trouble. Each player starts with a deck of 12 cards representing their team members - there are six different teams to choose from, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Each turn a headline card is chosen which either represents a high-stakes knockout tournament or an event which affects all the players for that week only. Then a number of “highlight” cards are turned over, each one of which represents a particularly exciting or decisive moment of a match. Players then draw a hand of six player cards and take it in turns to play one card into a highlight or a tournament, using classic Blood Bowl skills such as block, cheat or sprint as they do so in an attempt to grab a ball counter and tackle players already assigned to the highlight or tournament. Once all cards are assigned the total value of the cards are added up - ball possession gives extra points and tackled players have lower value - and the winner claims rewards in terms of power ups, new players or fans. After five turns of this the highest fan total wins the game.
At first I was pretty dubious about whether this was going to work terribly well in thematic terms. It just seemed a bit feeble, reducing entire games to “highlights” and whole tournaments to a single card, and then only using a fraction of your available players each round. I was wrong. It’s a genius idea that works brilliantly. The idea of a momentary, but vital, game highlight which only involves a few players is an awesome way of abstracting down a whole game and whole team into something that can be resolved in a few minutes and thus keep a lid on the playtime to a manageable 20-30 minutes per player for the game as a whole. And all the cards are cunningly designed, well chosen and illustrated with a variety of well executed and delightfully brutal artwork to suck you into the theme. Highlight cards such as “Unnecessary Roughness” and “Rolling Cage” convey the flavour of the sport to a tee, and most also carry amusing snippets of fictional commentary to get you into the right frame of mind - these are easy to miss but are totally worth reading out as the highlight cards are dealt to add to the atmosphere. As it turns out, tackling and injury is rather more common in the card game than the board version and Blood Bowl:Team Manager sits closer to the line between abject chaos and careful planning than its more demanding big brother. Indeed I always felt that the strategic nature of the board game sat awkwardly with the chaotic nature of the sport it was supposed to simulate. So on the whole, bizarrely, I actually found Team Manager to be more thematic and atmospheric than the board game. Strike two for the card version.
Laying down players from your hand onto highlights our tournaments is a fairly straightforward process. You need to look at the relative ratings and skills of the players you’ve got in your hand and assign them in a tactically sensible order. This can get a bit fraught late on in the round as players begin to run out of cards: you’ll have decided by this time which match-ups are must wins for you and you want to assign your cards appropriately, but you’re unlikely to be sure what the best play is because of unknown factors like hidden cheating tokens and, unless you’re going last, what other players have remaining in their hands. This can lead to the tactics of the game feeling more involved than they actually are, and analysis paralysis can creep in, rather pointlessly since you can’t really make good decisions based on hidden information. Personally I feel it’s more the long-term strategy where the game really shines in terms of choice. You need to learn to make the best use of your teams’ strength and minimise its weaknesses, being aware of the specific upgrades it can get from its own special deck. And after the first round when you’ve started to collect specific and generic upgrades you can choose and play into match-ups that maximise your ability to use and collect points from those upgrades, whilst at the same time trying to foil your opponents from doing the same thing. All in all the game strikes a very good balance between strategy and tactics, and randomness and choice, giving stronger players and edge whilst still offering luck-based leg-ups for the inexperienced. However to get the most out of the strategy everyone needs to keep a careful eye on what upgrades everyone else has, and to this end the game procedure includes the slightly bizarre but important ritual of reading out your new upgrades at the end of each round, a necessary annoyance that slows the game down and spoils its pace somewhat.
There’s been a lot of debate regarding the level of strategy and tactics in the game and I think that’s partly down to the different nature of the teams. Games involving aggressive teams that do a lot of tacking (which involves dice rolling) and cheating (which involves hidden counter draws) are going to owe a lot more to randomness in deciding the outcome than those which don’t, and if it really worries you then you can always play up the goody two-shoes teams to minimize it. But it’s interesting to note that the design goes to some lengths to allow in some randomness but minimise its impact. If you’re tackling a weaker player there’s a paltry one in thirty six chance of knocking down your own player instead, and if you look carefully at the cheating tokens, some of which cause a player to be removed or to gain two power, most of them actually add zero or one power so are unlikely to be game-changers. But they do add a fantastic element of tension and uncertainty to what could otherwise be quite a dry and analytical game like its big brother often is, without having a major impact on balance. Personally I’ve found the staff upgrade deck to be the biggest culprit in skewing games - some of the rewards you can get from it add big fan payoffs, and many of those are, in turn, dependent on you being lucky in drawing other cards such as a certain number of star players with a particular ability.
This is an especially important issue with this game because it’s at its best when it’s played in a fast and furious manner, and yet it positively encourages you to sit and work stuff out. If you play it quickly then the rapid pace suits the subject matter and no-one minds terribly if, once in a while, the dice or the cheating tokens leap up off the table and kick you in the face. If you analyse the hell out of it, which you certainly can by toting up the star players on each side of each match-up and carefully sifting through your hand and your upgrade cards and working out the probabilities of what’s likely to happen on each one if you play that player just there and use this match-up action then you’ll be there a long time and the game will last ages and everyone will end up hating everyone else and the game as well. But the good news is that it’s perfectly possible to both play quickly and in a properly tactical manner, it just takes a little experience (about two games’ worth). You might at first think the game is slow, or just a dice-fest, depending on which way your group defaults when you first play it. Stick with it.
The game structure is supposed to be like a season of blood bowl. You play matches and a couple of big tournaments and tot up the score. You acquire star players and new staff and your team gets better. It’s fun and worthwhile and the gradual upgrades add to the options and the strategy on offer but one thing it doesn’t do is manage to convey the theme on a meta-level. In other words there’s no great sense of gradual improvement and, especially, there’s no sense in which your original player gain new skills and abilities. This is partly down to the star player decks which either give you generic, faceless “freebooter” players that replace your existing players or named star players that can come from any properly aligned race - so an elf team could end up with human or dwarf stars on its roster. That can be tweaked a little with house rules if it bother you but it doesn’t help a lot. Basically, when it comes to the crunch, this isn’t going to be a substitute for those longed-for Blood Bowl leagues we all planned and anticipated and which collapsed after two matches.
But still, Blood Bowl: Team Manager checks two of the three “want” boxes I had lined up for it when it was delivered into my greedy hands, and checks them with considerable style. And it’s an excellent, fun, medium-light game in its own right so perhaps I shouldn’t insist on comparing it with the board game quite so much. Keep it fast, keep it loud, and you’ll have a ball.