With turn-based strategy games usually taking place in some sort of military or empire building setting, it's always nice to see a title bring something a little different to the table. In Blood Bowl 2, American football's been forced through a Warhammer fantasy filter to create a violent sport where Humans, Orcs, Elves, and Dwarves face-off against each other on the sports field rather than the battlefield.
Taking on the role of coach for your 11 player team, you'll guide them through 16 turns – eight in each half – of bone crunching action in each match. Since it's based on a board game that sported a fairly hefty rulebook, if you jump straight into the leagues and tournaments available – whether against an AI opponent or another player – without any familiarity of the mechanics, you'll probably struggle to work out just what's going on, and why your players seem to be getting knocked down an awful lot by your opponent.
As a result, if you're new to the series your initial hours are best spent playing through the campaign which acts as a sort of tutorial, where you're tasked with coaching the hapless human team 'The Reikland Reavers' to glory in the Blood Bowl final. As you progress through each match, new gameplay elements are slowly introduced, allowing you to build a familiarity with the mechanics without getting overwhelmed. This works well most of the time, but it won't be until the eighth match that you'll finally have the full picture, and even though the game drip feeds you information about how to play, it does a poor job of explaining how certain aspects work, meaning that you'll still be getting to grips with certain nuances well after their introduction.
In between each match of the Reavers campaign, you'll be treated to scenes starring Bob and Jim – an ogre and a vampire respectively – who're presenters on Cabalvision, the sports channel broadcasting Blood Bowl matches. These vignettes shoot for a comedic tone parodying the sports channels of today and are quite entertaining, providing a fun window dressing for each fixture to help make the campaign feel more than just a series of matches.
There also tends to be some sort of unique spin to the games with each featuring bizarre events or challenges for you to contend with. These can range from taking out of play – by any means necessary – certain members of the opposition for someone who can fix the score in your favour, to a goblin crashing a helicopter into the pitch mid-match. These strange goings on, and the frequent commentary from the Cabalvision hosts – triggered by the play on the field – are surprisingly engaging, and even though they're quite modest in presentation, they'll keep you in the dugout to coach the Reavers in their pursuit of Blood Bowl glory.
To lift the trophy, you'll need to win each match by scoring more touchdowns than your opponent. This can be much harder than it sounds, though, as the Great God of dice Nuffle – yes, that's really his name – is a cruel master, and the success of most of the actions that you take on the field are based not just on the skill of your players, but also on the random roll of the dice.
During a turn you can move each player once within a range determined by their movement allowance stat – one of four stats used to determine a player's skill. If a player starts their turn adjacent to an opposing player, they can also block, the outcome of which is determined by a roll of the blocking dice. The number of dice rolled depends on the strength stats of both the attacker and defender, and there are a number of potential outcomes to a block, such as players being shoved back one space or knocked down completely.
Getting knocked down is an occupational hazard for a Blood Bowl player, and in most cases they'll be able to get back up on their team's next turn. There is a risk of more harm, however, and players can be put out of action for longer periods if they happen to be stunned, knocked out, or, in more extreme circumstances, killed.
There are other actions that your team can perform, but these moves can only be attempted once per turn, so you'll need to make sure that you use them in just the right situations. These include passing the ball, going for a 'blitz' – where a player blocks an opponent not adjacent to them – or performing an intentional foul in the hope of injuring a player. Once again, the success of all of these actions depend on a player's stats and the roll of the dice.
To come out on top when the final whistle blows, you need to create gaps in the opposition's line of defence so that you can pass or run the ball through to score. Of course, your opponent is also trying to do the same thing, and the best counter is to make sure that you have tackle zones – the eight squares surrounding a player – covering all avenues of attack with as many of them overlapping as you can.
Planning out your strategy is both enjoyable and rewarding, especially when you put together a move that turns a stalemate into a touchdown. It's also great that with only 11 players – and a flat open playing area to worry about – you can complete turns very quickly, meaning that matches can in theory move at a good pace. You'll only wish that the AI – which seems to take an eternity to make their moves – could be just as quick as you are.
Even with Blood Bowl 2 doing a lot right, there's one thing that will make or break your enjoyment, and that's the uncertainty that the ever present dice rolls bring. This random element is meant to represent the unexpected event, however some will find having multiple players injured in a turn or a failed end zone catch after a flawless build up more frustrating than exciting. If this cornerstone of the game's design doesn't click for you, then your dislike will be heightened even more by the news that as soon as you fail in an action it'll also trigger a 'turnover' which brings your turn to a premature end.
While some may take a dim view of the high frequency – as well as the impact – of these unexpected events, others will find their inclusion exciting, as you just don't know how things are going to play out. That said, you're not completely at the mercy of Nuffle and his bloody dice, as the game gives you clear visibility of the chance of success for an action, as well as the opportunity to use a limited number of re-rolls.
A single re-roll can be used per turn to try your luck again. Now, there's still no guarantee for success as the original probability will still apply, but it at least gives you a chance to avoid those negative outcomes you really, really wish hadn't happened. On top of buying up to eight of these re-rolls for use each half, you can also recruit an apothecary for your staff who can be wheeled out once a game to help reduce the impact of an injury on a player. This is especially useful if your star player just happens to be pushing up daisies after a particularly brutal tackle.
As you play matches, your players will gain experience from completing certain types of actions on the field, and when they accumulate enough to level up you'll get a chance to select a new skill for them. These can nicely bolster their capabilities on the field and are fittingly varied, allowing you to bestow abilities that could, for example, give a player an additional chance to dodge tackles, or even throw team mates across the field.
On top of training up your team, there are other light management aspects to fiddle with between matches – such as developing your stadium, or buying in new players – which can also bring bonuses that strengthen your squad. While they're a little on the basic side, and aren't really that important in the campaign, if you jump into the online leagues and tournaments against other players it's best not to neglect them as you're going to need every advantage that you can get.
Taking on other players online is where the challenge really lies in Blood Bowl 2, and the step change in the quality of the opposition will be a bit of a shock – especially after spending a fair amount of time facing off against the AI which is a push-over in comparison. Before you can take part, though, you need to create a team, and you're able to use any of the game's races as the basis for your squad, giving you an opportunity to find the one that best suits your preferred strategy.
The availability of online games is always a concern for multiplayer modes these days, especially when they're from a niche genre – for consoles at least – such as this. Fortunately, there's a fairly healthy online community around Blood Bowl 2, with many different player-run leagues and tournaments open for you to jump into. As a result, you'll have no trouble playing against a good mix of opponents as you work your way towards tackling the players in the big leagues.
With its action taking place on a playing field, the scope and structure of Blood Bowl 2 initially feels smaller in scale than you tend to expect from most turn-based strategy games. After a few hours though – with its board game roots exposed – you'll find that there's actually plenty of depth to be explored. While the abundance of random dice rolls will put some people off, if you're the sort of person who relishes the unexpected, then there's a good chance – 70 per cent according to the God of Dice – that its bizarre setting and chaotic action will make it worth a punt.