Early in Blood Bowl 2’s campaign, the player faces a team of outlandishly stout dwarves. Tattooed in a Nordic font across the muscular back of one of these bare-chested competitors are capital letters that spell the word “kill.” In the context of cartoonish fantasy sport, the terseness and extremity of the murderous mantra is humorous. But then the brutish dwarf makes a successful roll, and a close-up cutscene shows him blocking the player’s lineman. Time slows to a crawl leading up to the impact, and the commentator fits in a hushed, anticipatory “smash!” in the silent moment before time resumes—then the crunch of bones and spray of blood. If the player can get inside the dwarf’s head, and, say, imagine the motivation behind the externalization of that internal mandate emblazoned on his back, this carefully orchestrated presentation lets players experience part of the dwarf’s euphoric satisfaction, even if their lineman is getting pummeled.
This scene is only a small slice of Cyanide studio’s turn-based strategy game in the format of American football. It speaks to its strengths, yes, but it also hints at its failures. The cutscene is one of 11 actions per team, per turn. In a game of 16 turns, the repeated, jarring cut from overhead strategy perspective to scripted close-up grows nauseating, and the scenes themselves grow stale. They can be turned off, and the option greatly improves the flow of play by allowing players to plot their next action while their previous ones play out, but there’s a tradeoff to this improvement: The empathetic, if cheesy, personality of the bloodballers is reduced to a board game, which, in digital form, lacks the satisfying tactility and spatiality of the one which this game is based on. Cyanide seemingly, as they say, can’t win.
The commentary is also cursed. There are moments of well-timed quippery, but more often than not the talk is just pointless banter between two “personalities” reaching for wit and humor with random stories and parody. When the tale of Bob’s first touchdown, accomplished by decapitation, has been repeated for the third time within the first few games, and Facetome and Twerper are referenced as the hottest social networks, the player may start surfing the options menu in hopes of finding the mute option.
But the granddaddy of the game’s failures is that its chance-based mechanics are so rigid that they suppress player expression. Every action other than moving through open spaces is a crapshoot. Some bloodballers are more skilled at blocking (or passing, catching, and running) than others, so players are encouraged to match the baller to the action at which they’re most likely to succeed. But even this strategy breaks down, as a pass from a skilled thrower to a skilled catcher has a decent chance of failing. And it’s best not to fail, as it results in a turnover that forfeits that turn’s remaining actions.
This all leads to a strange play style—which the game directly promotes—whose order of action priority is from least to most likely to fail. It’s a logical path, sure, and players would probably win more often than not if they chose that path. But what’s the point of playing at that point? Prioritizing the least chance of failure isn’t a human path, but a computer one. It requires not taking failed actions personally. It requires not going insane when an attempt to pick up a free ball several spaces from the goal fails multiple turns in a row with multiple teammates.
There are backup mechanics designed to support this structure, like limited action redos and increased blocking success with adjacent teammates, but patching a flawed foundation with even more rules is hardly a solution. A digital conversion of a physical game is a worthwhile endeavor, but it might have been best to leave this one on the tabletop, where the wild rhythms of chance are eased by the clatter of dice.
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