The biggest name in fantasy sporting is back.
After some wilderness years relegated to “cult” status with only a couple of decent but somewhat flakey video games carrying the torch, Games Workshop gave the classic Blood Bowl a new lease on life back in 2016. It was fun, and it was great to see the premiere name in fantasy football back on the pitch. But it was also, even four years ago, somewhat behind the times. It felt a little too old fashioned, a little too cumbersome, and a little too archaic. And much too long. Granted, longtime Blood Bowlers didn’t mind all of the above too much and they certainly won’t mind that the newly released Second Season Edition retains many of those qualities, albeit with some nods toward streamlining.
The new box is, as we expect after a few years of stunning Games Workshop boxes, stunning. Featuring an entirely new illustration style that’s more comic book than faux Renaissance, the whole package just looks amazing. The Official Rules book is an absolute delight, with page after page of awesome layout and artwork (as well as one disturbing pic of a Chaos cheerleader). There’s tons of fun lore including the history of Blood Bowl and of course Cabalvision commentators Jim Johnson and Bob Bifford put in their obligatory appearance. It’s a neat book to leaf through, well-written and presenting the really quite complicated rules in an efficient manner.
The models are absolute knockouts. I don’t say this lightly- the Black Orks team may be the best Orks that Citadel has ever turned out. The team also includes some wonderful Goblins and an absolutely incredible-looking Star Player in Varag Ghoul-Chewer. The opposition is a human team that is thankfully not a repeat of the ol’ Reikland Reavers team from 2016 – this time out it’s the Bogenhafen Barons decked out in Imperial finery that includes some massive plumage. They get Blood Bowl superstar Griff Oberwald as their Star Player. I really like that the set comes with a couple of Big ‘Uns (a Troll and an Ogre) as well as a couple of referee models (Dwarf and Elf), as these give some previously “sold separately” options right out of the box.
Now, as for the game- it’s Blood Bowl alright. And that means that it is in 2020 too old fashioned, too cumbersome, and too archaic. Just like it was in 2016. There are some definitely-for-the-better refinements and some revisions befitting a second edition, but only longtime players are going to notice or even care that they are there. I had to look on the Warhammer Community Web site to see what was different and sort of just nodded affirmatively at the changes – they are good design. But from what I understand, some oldtimers have gotten fussy about the changes, as they do.
For those completely new to this game, I think this box set may prove to be quite daunting, especially for those born after average game lengths across the hobby started to shift away from “all day” toward “under two hours”. This is a very complex game with lots of detail- there’s weather, referee inducements, cheerleaders, kick-off effects, pre-game sequences, post-game sequences, injuries, coaching, arguing foul calls, and a whole battery of special abilities. And this is without figuring in the intricacies of running a multiplayer season, a campaign in which a group of folks play scheduled games and manage their teams over time, hiring players and developing their skills if they manage to stay alive. It’s really quite a feat that everything fits in 130 pages including all the lore and such.
Granted, a lot of the detail – which can be extremely fun because that’s where Blood Bowl really shines – comes across in rolling against tables and dealing with random results. Make no mistake, despite the fact that Blood Bowl is a very strategic and sometimes quite compelling game that finds you navigating tackle zones, setting up defensive screens, and leveraging player abilties to maximum effect, it ultimately all comes down to the will of Nuffle. Which means, rollin’ the dice. Blood Bowl is, always has been, and hopefully always will be a capriciously fickle game where a bad die roll can turn even the most ironclad strategy, even the most meticulously planned-out drive, into an unexpected turnover.
I’ve found that element sometimes shocks new players, especially in today’s gaming environment where many players are expected to have their strategies or even the fact that they are even playing the game at all rewarded with success. Nope. Not here. At its heart, Blood Bowl is really just a big, massive press-your-luck game where the strategy is as much about learning which sequence to move your players and when to take a risky roll as it is about tactical decision making.
As a box set, ostensibly one that could be used to introduce new players to the game, I’m not sure Season 2 is really up to the task. It throws a lot of game at the player up front. There is no “quick start” game, there is no suggestion to maybe don’t play with all of the rules in your first game. Having played before, even I was sort of overwhelmed by it. For the veterans, this is all a rock-solid update that should keep the game fresh for years to come, along with some awesome new models and an updated pitch. This is good for them, but for the newcomers, I’m not so sure.
Now, I’ve made it to about 900 words without dropping the bomb on Blood Bowl Season 2 and since I’m essentially talking about accessibility here, it’s time. Blood Bowl Season 2 has a big problem – Blitz Bowl.
Blitz Bowl, designed by James Hewitt (who also worked on the 2016 edition), is a ruthlessly streamlined version of Blood Bowl that captures the spirit of the game and its highlights in a 30-45 minute package. It is not as detailed. It does not support long-term campaign play as well. It does not dig into the “Football Manager” area of the game. But it is, for me, the best sports games that I have ever played and when I want to play Blood Bowl, it is what I reach for because it’s simply more playable and more immediately engaging. It sets up in less than five minutes and can be taught in ten. It has all of the bone-crunching action as well as the do-or-die press-your-luck rolls. It has the strategic elements in place. It even has all of the Blood Bowl teams available, barring some of the newer ones that I hope will be added in time.
I think Games Workshop views Blitz Bowl largely as an introductory product to entice players into the larger Blood Bowl ecosystem and that is fine, but doing so completely short-changes the quality and value of that exceptional game. It’s far more approachable, modern, and ultimately marketable in today’s hobby games space but it’s been sort of hobbled by weird availability (it was only available at US Barnes and Noble stores until recently). I’m of the opinion that Blitz Bowl should be GW’s flagship sports title and it should all the support, relegating Blood Bowl to a Horus Heresy-like Forge World setting so that those who want the bigger, more robust game have access to it.
It's also a missed opportunity in this box to not have Blitz Bowl stat cards for the included teams, as well as rules for the referees, star players, and big ‘uns. I’d love to see them added to Blitz Bowl. Maybe we’ll see that happen in a White Dwarf.
So in the end, my feelings toward this set are very mixed. I was thrilled to see the big box show up courtesy Warhammer Community for purposes of this review and I was excited to dig into it. But it all just reminded me that I have a couple of Blitz Bowl teams I need to put together and it sparked a series of matches of that game – not Blood Bowl- with my son over the Thanksgiving break. I think what it comes down to is that what Blood Bowl is offering at this point is more than I need, while Blitz Bowl gives me exactly what I want. Others may find the exact opposite situation, and for those folks this is definitely another top notch set from Nottingham.