I’ve been playing in a Blood Bowl league for the past year or so with a group of guys I haven’t otherwise been much in contact with since high school. As we get together on the second Sunday of each month, I frequently find myself thinking, this game should be better.
It’s not that I don’t have fun. The monthly event is a good time, the game’s concept and world are fun, and it’s just the right game for the group. But as a game, it also seems like you put in more into Blood Bowl than you get out.
Back when the league started, we had these fantasies that the noon-to-four o’clock blocks we were scheduling would eventually—once everyone knew the rules pretty well—let us play two games each in an afternoon. Now, a year later, we barely got two games apiece done when we blocked out a whole day to do an eight-player elimination tournament. We had to reschedule the finals for February.
We’re as prone to analysis paralysis as the next group of gamers, and that can make games longer. But in Blood Bowl, where such central rules as those for throwing a block hinge utterly on the order of movement and the order in which blocks are thrown, and because the stakes of throwing an ill-considered block are so high—it can easily end your turn before you’re ready to be done—it just doesn’t pay to plow ahead without considering every… single… move. And that’s the opposite of how a game like Blood Bowl should play, right?
Let’s be clear: I don’t mean to slag on the game, because I truly and honestly like it. I wouldn’t spend so much time thinking about how Blood Bowl should be—and could be—better if there wasn’t something really compelling there.
And so it occurred to me during the aforementioned tournament the Sunday before last that Blood Bowl‘s chief sin as a game is that it violates, and extravagently so, the pack half principle.
Blood Bowl has a rule (and sometimes a chart, too!) for everything. Even its attempt at a single unifying chart—the Agility table—has so many situational modifiers that vary wildly from action to action that it’s just plain unwieldy. It’s a game with protuberances everywhere. Instead of packing half, it packs something like half-again.
There are two interesting things to observe, though:
First, we’re playing it anyway, and nobody in the league wants to stop after this season. The game is so popular that Games Workshop essentially failed to stop publishing it, even when they tried. There’s nothing new about a game whose setting or schtick is so compelling that fans stick with it even though the gameplay experience has more in common with a poke in the ear than with THX’s Deep Note. But even while that’s true, there’s a Blood Bowl league at work that I’d join in a heartbeat if playing a single game didn’t represent such a major time commitment.
Second, it’s not immediately obvious which parts of the game are the half that ought to be unpacked. And trust me, I’ve thought about it. Any serious revision of Blood Bowl (and who knows if we’ll ever see such a thing?) would have to untie a lot of knots and butcher a lot of sacred cows to get to the point where the game could be rebuilt with real elegance.
Even though there are no obvious solutions, here are some areas where I’d poke around under the hood, if I were going to try to apply the pack half doctrine to Blood Bowl:
Allow every player on the pitch to blitz every turn, but stipulate that throwing a block costs 3 or maybe 4 movement points. This would eliminate the analysis paralysis involved in making sure you use your one blitz in just the right place.
Eliminate the turn-ending rule for failed blocks. (But keep it for true turnovers—fumbles and bad passes—probably.)
Make the field about two squares narrower (although just as long), and reduce the player-fielding limit to either 9 or 10 players. Fewer players will make turns go a little bit faster, and make games run a little bit shorter.
Get rid of all the bizarre tables related to playing cards. At the absolute minimum, these should be custom decks with the rule right on the card.
Eliminate the game-end MVP award, or, at the very least, make it correspond to the actual performance of the players in the game. (That’s right, your MVP is currently determined by a random roll. A player who didn’t even step onto the field can be your MVP as the rules stand.)
The non-obvious benefit is that this would curtail the strange and random skills constantly earned by otherwise unremarkable linebackers of no reasonable distinction. (Because skills are earned by the accumulation of Star Player Points, and being an MVP is the single biggest such bonus in the game.)
The problem with non-uniform skill proliferation is that when each of the 15 or so members of your team has a slightly different set of skills, then the players have to constantly refer to their team rosters in the course of play. “Does number 6 have Block? How about Dodge?”
To further attack skill proliferation, I’d go so far as to lump all of the bog-standard linemen on a team into a single stat line, and advance them all as a group. (Not as easily as a single player advances, of course.)
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To apply the pack half principle to a game you like and know well—like Blood Bowl, in my case—is a great way to practice; it’s a lot easier to kill someone else’s darlings than your own, especially when you’re only doing it theoretically. Then, once you’re in the zone, you can move on to your own original material, with a better chance of spotting the extravagances and protuberances bogging it down.