Before Warhammer 40k was first published some time in the late ‘80s, someone at Games Workshop took a look at its fantasy IP, and (I can only assume) asked “Why don’t these orcs and humans channel their rage towards each other into sport?”
In that moment of bizarre brilliance, two things were born. One was Games Workshop’s line of “specialty games,” which take elements from their parent setting and build a tightly focussed game around them. These tend to focus on small groups of units, and have persistent levelling mechanics that have made them perfect for computer adaptation – I’ve reviewed, and had fun with Battlefleet Gothic and Mordheim while writing for INN.
The other creation in that moment was Blood Bowl, and while it took a while to evolve into the game we see today, it is amazing. The combination of diverse teams and fantasy species, American football, rugby, RPG mechanics, and a dash of violence somehow comes together to form a really fun game.
Blood Bowl II: Legendary Edition is the latest in a long line of digital adaptations stretching back to the MS-DOS era. After a long history with the franchise, including being sued by Games Workshop for creating a similar game in 2004 before being granted a license, French developer Cyanide has finally nailed adapting Blood Bowl to the PC.
Fundamentals of Blood Bowl
At its core, Blood Bowl is about trying to get the ball into your opponent’s endzone and score touchdowns. This is complicated by the fact that not all units and factions are created equal – ogres and goblins share the same pitch, and are far from the most exotic creatures to play the sport.
For a quick overview, the twenty-four different teams are roughly split into strength and agility focuses, with more exotic factions throwing in little curveballs of their own. A strength team is more likely to succeed by physically dominating the pitch, knocking down and potentially even killing opposing players as they bulldoze their way towards a touchdown. Agility teams are all about technique, making use of handoffs and passes to send the ball flying down the field.
Player skills add another layer of strategy, making units better in ways that go beyond a raw stat increase. This helps specialise units in the early game, and makes skilled, successful characters all the more valuable – they’re better on the field, and you’ll feel their loss a lot more than that of a rookie.
All of this is condensed into a single-player tutorial campaign that introduces new mechanics step-by-step, so don’t worry if it sounds a little overwhelming here.
Cyanide has reduced this complexity through an easy-to-read user interface. The game clearly illustrates what each move will involve before you commit to an action, and how likely each step is to succeed. If any special player skills are involved, those are shown as well. While this is pretty simple stuff, it is fundamental to how players interact with the game.
Creating a team is also a breeze. Each potential team has their pros and cons listed in a way that novices can understand, and the auto-create function spits out a competitive roster without the need to delve into detailed fan wikis. One of my few complaints is that you need to buy units one at a time in order to custom name them, instead of being able to rename existing units. Part of the fun is pitting units with a fun naming scheme against each other, and I know that my Skaven (rat-people) team felt the loss of The Great Ratsby more than that of another Skitterscamp Greentooth or what have you.
Getting your newly formed team into battle is pretty easy, too. Joining a ‘league’ (basically a matchmaking pool, although you can fight against AI opponents if you’d prefer) and searching for an opponent is pretty painless. Facing up against dozens of other players went flawlessly from a technology standpoint. Given that I was playing a beta for an updated all-in-one version of a game from late 2015, the matchmaking was surprisingly healthy, and I hope that continues well into the future.
It’s also worth addressing that the game is absolutely gorgeous, a huge visual step up from Cyanide’s last Blood Bowl game. The units look great, plus the animations (especially those for violent blocks and players tripping over) are incredibly satisfying and convey the action well without overstaying their welcome. A few seconds is enough to build excitement over the results of some dice without breaking the flow of the action, or digging into your turn timer.
Cyanide has also leaned heavily into anachronisms when creating the world framing Blood Bowl II: Legendary Edition. Little details like mechanical billboards flipping over, goblins carrying cameras twice their size, and stands packed with a variety of fantasy species putting the ‘fan’ in fanatic really help to sell a sense of excitement with each game.
There’s also a pair of sports commentators who will chime in whenever significant events happen in the game. I’m surprised I haven’t gotten sick of them yet, but they’re easy enough to turn off if you want.
If you like competitive player-versus-player action and the chance to nurture a team on its way to the top, Blood Bowl will appeal to you in any of its forms. If you’re looking to get into it, Blood Bowl II: Legendary Edition is the best digital adaptation of it that I’ve played. It’s gorgeous, apparently well-populated, and friendly to new players. The fact that my only complaints have to do with not being able to easily name your team has to say something, and I’m a pretty grouchy person.
Legendary Edition is also probably the best way to get into Cyanide’s adaptation. All the teams are included in one package, and going up against wildly different teams is a lot of fun.
Lastly, if you’re interested in the idea but would like to try the game for yourself, you’re in luck. FUMBBL is a free multiplayer implementation of Blood Bowl made by fans. You will need to put in a bit more effort to build a team and find an opponent, but the community welcomes new players, and the core gameplay is identical to that in Blood Bowl II: Legendary Edition.
If you’re already a fan and would like to play a more modern adaptation, or you like the idea of finding out who’d win in a sporting match between Amazons and the undead, take a look at Blood Bowl II: Legendary Edition when it arrives on Steam on September 5.