‘Hate is such strong word’, is a phrase people with small imaginations like to parrot. Personally, I find that the words ‘kneecapping’ and ‘fuckcake’ far exceed ‘hate’ on the vocabulary strength-o-meter and I just had to use both while phoning to reserve a library book. Besides, hate should be recognised as the important emotion it is, especially in the context of computer games. As I’ve recently discovered the games that really stay with you, that really affect you, are the ones that make you think they bloody hate you. There’s one particular title that has helped me reach this conclusion; it’s a daft, fantasy American Football game called Blood Bowl.
Blood Bowl is an aged Games Workshop table-top game set in the Warhammer world. Developers Cyanide have done an ok-ish job of bringing the turn-based glory to the digital realm so now teams of fantasy races can slug it out over the internets. Like all good games the premise is simple: get the ball to the touchdown zone. Agile teams like to dodge and throw the ball (and beat their opponents up a bit), muscley teams like to grab the ball and charge with it (while beating up their opponents a lot). This is all very jolly when playing the odd one-off match but when you enter a league you need to make sure your team can last the duration; the stakes go up. With success your players gain valuable skills yet there’s also the ever present danger of them becoming a hopelessly crippled waste of money or even getting kicked to death completely.
What makes Blood Bowl the gaming equivalent of that psychotic friend who you’re never sure will greet you with a hug or a kitchen knife through the sternum, is one little mechanic harking back to its tabletop origin: dice. Almost nothing is certain in Blood Bowl and games essentially become frantic bouts of statistical analysis and risk management. Far too often my brain has to compute something like this:
OK, my thrower has agility 4 so can make a pass with a 3+ dice roll to gain the ground needed for a touchdown next turn. Of course, the receiver is marked so it’ll be 4+ to catch so should I just risk a blitz through an enemy linseman who has equal strength? Then I’ll only have one block dice rather than two which decreases my chances of a successful block to 1/3 or something, but if I do that my guy’ll be exposed to a tackle if my opponent can make two 2+ dice rolls to ‘Go For It’ and increase his nearest players movement allowance, which if he manages it, I’ll then need to make a 3+ dodge to reach a scattered ball and a 4+ pick up to recov…. nrrrghh, aaarh, AAAAGH.
Not only do I have to deal with more maths than my flabby grey matter can reasonably process but there’s also the crushing, ball-shrivelling frustration of almost absolute statistical certainty failing on you like a parachute that turns out to be made from damp pages of Amiga Format. Take a recent league match where my Wood Elves were in with a shot of scoring against an opposing coach’s Chaos side. I’d painstakingly arranged my team so that only three easy dice rolls stood between me and a crucial late lead: a 2+ roll to pick up the ball, a 2+ roll to throw and a 2+ roll to catch would see me home. I checked over my move and clicked to confirm, my eye immediately darting to the scrolling window that displays the dice results.
(Before you read on, do this: place your right hand on your mouse. Go on. Put your left arm’s elbow on your desk and lean forward. Ball your left hand and hold it near to your mouth. Now, with your thumb nearest to your mouth raise your index finger slightly so that the its largest joint protrudes above your other fingers in a little triangle. Open your mouth slightly and tap your left top incisor with this finger joint at about the rate of three taps a second. Continue. This is my Blood Bowl pose; my brain leaves my body in this kind of standby mode while it’s busy focusing entirely on the match in hand)
I manically tapped away awaiting the results of the dice.
1 Critical failure, reroll
1 Critical failure.
Turnover. Failed on the first effing move. GAAAH! Those little simulated six-sided bastards. I lose my turn and my opponent moves in to grab the ball from my now effectively undefended half.
It’s the total randomness of the dice, and the fact that you can actually see the numerical results, revealing not just failure but spectacular failure with mindboggling mathematical improbability, that imbue Blood Bowl with a sense of giggling capriciousness from which I can only conclude that the game totally bloody hates me. And it’s just this that has made playing Blood Bowl among the most scintillating of my gaming experiences from the last few months. With every veteran player tripping over and dying there’s a breathtaking long pass to win a hardfought match; with every game where I’m left with three players standing and a 5-1 against score-sheet, there are those where I’m the one dishing out the carnage. There are highs and there are lows but they seldom come along with any care for fairness or reason; you can always expect drama and you can always expect, um, the unexpected.
Although you can become good at Blood Bowl with a strong understanding of the tactical strengths of your team, there’s none of this tiresome inevitability that we often see in our online games where an experienced player knows all the winning tricks and has honed them into robotic precision, the dice see to that. There need to be more games with brutal mechanics like Blood Bowl’s that leave all its players treading a brittle path of uncertainty betwixt glory or crashing, icy failure.