I’ve been playing Games Workshop’s tabletop games for almost twenty years now, and while they certainly have their flaws they’re always fun to play and full of flavor. Blood Bowl, their Warhammer spinoff where the conflicts of the Old World are resolved in a violent death sport rather than on the battlefield, is one of their longest-standing classics. I recently had the opportunity to participate in the closed beta for the third iteration of Blood Bowl‘s digital version by Cyanide Games, getting an early look at what works – and what doesn’t.
Like its predecessors, Blood Bowl 3 skillfully adapts the tabletop game using the most recent ruleset, taking care of the bookkeeping so the player can focus on the action. The titular sport is loosely inspired by American football, but is most certainly its own entity; loose balls lie on the field until picked up, there are no field goals, and brutally murdering the opposing players is legal (and indeed, encouraged). The team that scores the most touchdowns by the end of the second half (i.e., after each player has had 16 turns) is the winner. No overtime means draws are a real possibility.
Each play is resolved by dice rolls, and the game makes it easy to understand what’s being rolled and what the chances of success are. This is important, because failing any roll causes a Turnover, ending your turn immediately. Much of the gameplay is built around risk management – like in real football, gutsy trick plays can score big and thrill the crowd, but when they fail it can cost an entire game.
Graphics & Sound
Even in beta, Blood Bowl 3 is the best-looking version of the game yet. There’s so much to take in at the stadium that it’s worth just sitting back and enjoying the pregame flyover before having to focus on gameplay. Vendors hawk Bugman’s Beer in the stands, ads from corporate sponsors cover the walls, Cabalvision TV crews jockey for the perfect shot, and cheerleaders hype up the crowd. Each game feels like an event.
All this is made even better by the customization options available for each team. While the beta only allows customization of players and their uniforms, the full game will have unique models for coaches, balls, and even the cheer squad. Each team’s colors and patterns can be selected from a huge array, and in true Games Workshop fashion, the colors are faithfully adapted from Citadel paints. It’s going to be a treat to see what unique teams players create when the time comes to go head-to-head in the full version.
Each game is called by a pair of offscreen announcers, Jim and Bob. Their voice acting is excellent and their banter is fun, though some of the pop-culture references are cringey and probably won’t age well. They also talk far more than they need to, which can get annoying during tense moments. The pair definitely help set the mood for each match and provide color commentary for big plays – their voice lines just don’t need to play as often as they do.
While the core gameplay is great and the graphics stunning, Blood Bowl 3 needs some serious work on its user experience before it launches. As of right now, the game seems to need to communicate with Cyanide’s server to do anything, even something as simple as displaying your team’s roster. I’ve also repeatedly encountered an issue where the game freezes while trying to resolve an attack against my players – the communication icon is running in the corner and the announcers keep making cracks, but whatever information the game is looking for isn’t forthcoming and after several minutes of waiting I’m forced to quit the program. This only happened once in multiplayer but I have yet to finish a single-player match against the AI because it has happened in Every. Single. Game.
According to the global Steam Achievement stats for Blood Bowl 2, only about a quarter of that game’s players ever touched multiplayer. The rest never once joined a multiplayer match. Those players shouldn’t have any need to reach the servers in order to be able to play the game, so the inclusion of an Offline Mode would certainly improve the experience for the many players who just want to bash in some AI-controlled helmets.
While team customization is one of the game’s major selling points, I discovered that there is one critical option missing. After my second or third multiplayer game, I realized with horror that my team name had a typo – the Chrace Chargers had been registered as the Chrace Charagers. As it turns out, a team’s name can’t be changed after it’s created (or if it can, the way to do so is very well-hidden). I was forced to either delete the team and start over or live with my mistake. Player names can be changed at will – why not the whole team?
The primary focus of the game is online matches against other players, and it’s here that the game earns its stripes. As more team types become available, hopefully players will branch out and discover builds for a diverse, healthy metagame. With the exception of one Dwarf player, every single opponent I faced online during my time in the beta played Black Orcs. That aside, each match was a blast – even when my entire team had to be carted off the field broken and bruised.
The presence of a turn timer helps keep the game moving – each player has just under two minutes to activate their players. If they run out of time, they can dip into their Bonus Time to pull of complicated plays, but once that’s gone, it’s gone for the match. If anything, in the game’s current state it feels like the Bonus Time might be too forgiving – I never saw any instances where my opponent or I needed to use more than half of it.
In one particularly memorable match, I felt like I’d really mastered the agile, high-flying playstyle of the Elves. Weaving through holes in the Orcish line, I sent my star receiver deep for a long pass. He made the catch with ease… only to be turned into a frog by a wizard on the sidelines just before making a touchdown. I couldn’t help but laugh – it was the kind of thing that took me right back to my days in the basement of my local game shop. If Blood Bowl 3 can fix its issues and consistently deliver moments like that, where even losing a match is fun, it’s going to be a hall-of-famer.
Despite the problems I had with the user experience, Blood Bowl 3 looks fantastic and is fun to play when it works. I definitely feel that the beta only scratches the surface of what the game will have to offer. I can definitely see myself playing plenty of matches once it launches – and you can be sure I’ll be double-checking the spelling of my team’s name.