Bloodbowl can be a cruel game. One can position their players according to their strengths, forcing the opposing coach into risky actions, and still have everything go horribly, horribly wrong. A hulking Ogre slain by a puny snotling, the dexterous Elf drops fumbles a simple pass, and the nible Skaven trips over its own feet...and dies. The roll of the dice, overseen by the fickle God Nuffle, is a factor in almost every action on Bloodbowl’s pitch, meaning that there is always a risk that even the safest play will go horribly wrong (or right). The pervasiveness of chance will tarnish the game’s appeal to some purists, but they’re wrong. Bloodbowl is a highly skilled game, where tactically managing one’s own risk against the opponent is the key to victory, maximising the strengths of one race against the weaknesses of another. That’s the case with the board game at any rate, Cyanide’s adaption tends towards being a successful one, but some incredibly boneheaded design choices sully Bloodbowl 2 to the extent that it is difficult to give a wholehearted recommendation, despite the compelling source material.
For a newcomer, it’s difficult to not be at least intrigued by the what’s on offer - a fusion between the Warhammer Universe and American Football into a turn based tactics game. Teams of 11+ players through 8 launch races (10 if you pre-ordered) face off in a no holds barred contest, with the simple objective of scoring the most touchdowns. Within the 8 races exists a significant variance in employable strategies. For example, Dwarves are slow as heck, struggling to cover the field, but are excellent at knocking down enemies and grinding the ball up the field. Elves are excellent passers with capable of fancy footwork, but die a lot, while Humans are a mixture of the two.
At the same time, even with a mere 8 races at launch, versus the 23 of the predecessor after 2 expansions, the nuances of the race combined with a complicated rulebook makes Bloodbowl 2 tricky for newcomers to learn. On the plus side, Cyanide have introduced a campaign mode, which essentially acts as a long winded tutorial, gradually introducing mechanics such as leveling up, re-rolls, tackle zones, assists, and injuries at a pace even a staunch troglodyte could understand. Most people aren’t troglodytes though, and with matches against the AI lasting the best part of an hour, and hence the first few matches are immensely tedious. What’s worse is that the AI often make bizarre tactical choices. Some of these are explained as being silly by the story which accompanies the campaign mode, but nevertheless consistent poor decision making by the computer only teaches poor habits to newer players, while veterans of the series simply have no need to play through the campaign. Compared to the original, this tutorial is a marked improvement in terms of catering to the uninitiated, but the fact of the matter is a novice would be far better off watching a competent youtuber as preparation for an online match.
Even so, there is a good degree of presentational polish here. The same commentary team return from the original game, but they actually have some amusing lines here and there, and although they will start to repeat themselves before long. The game is also a good looker, with each player model nicely realised, alongside a variety of arenas and pitches and a helpful smattering of blood whenever someone gets badly hurt. Animation quality is good, and each punch is accentuated by a sex slow motion. It’s just a shame that the option for the slow motion is essentially on all the time or not at all. If an injury occurs, it’d be great to see it in slow mo, but when it happens all the time it only serves to lengthen the 40minute commitment to any given match. In some sort of strange attempt at presentational realism, Cyanide also opted to make it such that pre-kick off players can only be moved around individually, with full walking animations as you slowly command each token to their desired location. When two players have to do this, occasionally taking a couple of minutes each to set things up, it’s a big time sink, whereas they could simply have allowed players to be teleported around for the sake of convenience. It is almost like they were so proud of their animations, that they wanted users to see them all the time.
More problematic is the fact that, although each piece looks good, it can be very difficult to differentiate between classes. While there is never confusion as to which player belongs to which team, picking out a human lineman from a human Thrower, for example, is tricky. This is significant, because linemen are always the team’s chumps, there to brawl in the middle of the pitch, and act as a road block for the opposing team’s nasty pieces. Throwers, as their name entails, are there to pick and pass the ball,, coming out of the box with a skills designed to enable them to succeed at such actions. During the chaos of a match, players will have to spend time clicking on each piece to find out where a team’s given skills are. Worse still, once your team has a few matches under its belt, and units level up, one will need to do this to also distinguish between linemen. This problem isn’t apparent for every team, but it’s there for many, and for some baffling reason Cyanide opted to omit the option to have a player’s position appear above their head as was the case in the original. Similarly, the grid has been removed from the surface of the pitch. This is significant because it is now much more difficult to count spaces and determine how far each token can move. As a result, while there is a nice fancy coat of paint, it’s abstract. Given enough time, it becomes second nature to click through the player’s on the pitch to find out who is where at any given time, but it is annoying.
Strides have been made in terms of the user interface outside of matches though, with menus looking much cleaner and generally being easier to navigate. However, a quick trip to the steam forum reveals that a concerning amount of users are unaware that you can create an offline solo league against the AI, with many believing this game is online matchmaking only and a campaign. The settings are also garbage, commentators can be muted but subtitles not removed, and there are extremely limited options in terms of customising texture quality and the like, so anyone looking for to pick this up had best meet the recommended settings.
Happily, online play seems to be improved. Connection issues crop up far less frequently than in the past, and it is much easier to ignore the bile of angry gamers pissed off at their “lack of luck.” People still complain all the time about how the RNG is screwing them (and not their risk management skills), but there isn’t an obnoxious flashing box marking a new message anymore, so one can play online in relative peace. The default turn timer is 2 minutes, which is just enough time to think about actions and get everything done, but naturally forces an eye on the clock. Although that amount of down time might seem problematic, watching the opponent’s moves closely is required in order to formulate a counter strategy and meet the requirements of the time limit. As such, once matches are underway they remain engaging throughout. Once issues with the interface are overcome
When push comes to shove, Bloodbowl 2 is a complicated game - this review has only scratched the surface of the many rules which run under the hood of matches and during the off the field management of a team, and novices will struggle mightily against the experienced, unassisted by lackluster offline AI. Some obtuse presentational decisions certainly hinders it too, but those who stick it out will find an enjoyable game which will only grow stronger as more races are added, and patches applied. That said, it is difficult to give a full recommendation, especially given that future pricing for cosmetics and more significant DLC has not been announced. Nevertheless, for all its faults, the streamlined number of races makes this the best place for an interested newcomer to get to grips with the game. Series veterans, however, may wish to stick with the Bloodbowl: Chaos edition until further races are added.