Influencing the odds inside and outside of Blood Bowl 2
“Blood Bowl 2 smashes Warhammer and American football together, in an explosive cocktail of turn-based strategy, humour and brutality, adapted from Games Workshop’s famous board game.”
I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better brief description of what Blood Bowl is.
In Blood Bowl, you take on the role of a coach leading and managing a team playing an extremely violent mockery of American football. During a match, two teams try to carry one ball from one end of the pitch to the other but the similarities between football and Blood Bowl end there.
Each of your actions can have long term consequences on your team, making each and every moment a nail-biting experience. When playing in a league (a sports-like season of matches played with a group of other players) you are stuck playing with the team you started with over a long period of time. In such a context, you’ll find yourself becoming invested in your team and soon enough you’ll be putting your all into winning, protecting your team and trying to destroy any one who opposes you.
Playing Blood Bowl is about performing constant risk evaluation and risk mitigation. On each coach’s turn, they perform actions using their players such as moving around the pitch, bashing a player on the other team, picking up or passing the ball, using one of their skills, etc.
Most actions a player can perform requires dice to be rolled, if successful the action is performed otherwise the action fails and usually the coach’s turn ends immediately. This is called the “turnover”, it is a quite unique game mechanic and is fundamental to the Blood Bowl experience.
Over the course of a match, coaches will be rolling hundreds of dice, good coaches will manipulate the game state such that the dice will be more likely to land in their favour and lead them to victory more often than not.
In practice, playing consistently well is quite difficult and requires a lot of experience and deep knowledge of the game mechanics. Furthermore, the thirty or so different factions play quite differently from one another and so require different strategies to play with and against them well.
A coach must be intimately familiar with their own team and understand the opposing team to be able to play against them effectively. Otherwise it becomes easy to fall into traps and difficulty to adapt your strategy as chaos begins to spread on the pitch through players moving and bashing one another.
Players can, and will, be injured or possibly even die in a match but if they can manage to perform certain game changing actions such as injuring another player or scoring a touchdown, they will gain skill points that can be used to gain (you guessed it!) skills.
Most skills serve to improve a player’s odds of successfully performing an action or improve the results of an action. This incentivizes coaches to keep their players alive and healthy so that these experienced players can better support the team through the use of their skills.
The design of Blood Bowl encourages coaches to become attached to their team, invested in the moment to moment gameplay of a match as well as the meta game layer where they are tasked with managing the team by buying more players to widen their bench, replacing dead or crippled players as well as managing each players’ development.
One of my favourite game series of all time is XCOM, which shares many similarities with Blood Bowl, where players lead squads of high-tech soldiers on missions against an alien invasion. Given that both games were developed in Britain, Blood Bowl as a board game in 1986 and XCOM as a video game in 1991, I could imagine that the design of Blood Bowl might have influenced the design of XCOM and eventually led to me being a big fan of both games today.
Both Blood Bowl and XCOM, but especially XCOM, have had tremendous critical and commercial success which can be seen with recent releases such as XCOM 2 and Blood Bowl 2. However I would argue that they remain uncontested in terms of the specific core gameplay loop that both games provide. I believe that this is primarily because players playing either of many versions of each of these games will experience very high highs and very low lows during the course of play.
Due to how human brains work, we tend to remember bad experiences more easily than good experiences. And so it’s not surprising that many players playing these games tend to focus on the lows and thus feel mixed about their experience with the games as a result.
On a personal level, I’ve had a difficult year. Due to working hard as a software engineer for 40h/50h weeks for a couple years coupled with my passion for playing videos games it was inevitable that I would be afflicted with RSI injuries, it was just a matter of time given how little, if at all, prevention was talked about during my years of education, internship experience and training in general.
If I was Blood Bowl player then one could argue that I was inflicted a “-1 strength injury”. I’ve recommended other coaches in the past to fire and replace players such as these because that is the optimal play to make, hiring a rookie is cheaper and more efficient than keeping an experienced injured player on the payroll (The parallels one could make with the real world are disheartening).
In Blood Bowl terms, players like these would be better off dead. When times were really bad for me it was hard for me not to feel the same way about myself and my own situation. After suffering any kind of serious injury, especially chronic pain, feeling “less than” can easily become the norm and become something that’s difficult to shake off.
The worst of it has passed for me but it’s something that will always be a part of me. Overall, I’ve come out of it stronger and more resilient to the difficulties, whatever they may be, that each and every one of us will come face to face with in our lives.
Perhaps my love for Blood Bowl and XCOM comes from my ability to focus on the positive in my life as well as the DIY mentality I have when it comes to fixing or managing the negative in my life in a healthy and constructive way.
If Blood Bowl has one thing to teach us, it is that life is short and that you can’t predict with certainty what tomorrow will bring no matter how vigilant, intelligent or well prepared you think you are.
You can influence the dice but the dice have rolled and will continue rolling no matter who you are, what you do or what you believe in.
Influencing the dice in Blood Bowl is satisfying because each decision you make is important and meaningful within the context of the game.
Blood Bowl, and any game for that matter, is fun because it was designed to be a compelling experience from the get go. Life is not. It’s up to each of us to influence the dice in our lives such that we strive closer to the goals we’re looking to achieve (happiness is a common one) because no one is going to do it for you.
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