Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cyanide’s Blood Bowl: A Two-Faced Monster

I’ve been playing Blood Bowl--the PC game made by Cyanide--recently. There’s a lot to be learned from both the base Blood Bowl tabletop game and Cyanide’s implementation, so I’m going to make a series of posts discussing both the Cyanide implementation and the tabletop game. This post is an introduction to the game itself (I’ll try to let you know as much as is necessary to read my review of Cyanide’s implementation) as well as a brief review of Cyanide’s PC game.

If you want to skip the intro and the specific issues I have with Cyanide's game, you can move on down to the summary and my rating at the end of this article.

A 1,000-foot view of Blood Bowl (The Tabletop Game)

Cyanide’s game of the same name is a rather faithful adaptation of the tabletop game Blood Bowl. In Blood Bowl, you control a team of fantasy characters, each team being confined to one race (standard fare like Elves, Dwarves, and Humans as well as some Warhammer races like Skaven and Chaos), as they play through single games or seasons of a sport that is vaguely similar to American Football. The sport of Blood Bowl has a small number of rules, you’re only forbidden from stomping on players when they’re down, and the ref doesn’t even eject players reliably for doing this—or the ref may be bribed by either side to look the other way when players on that side do something untoward. Players alse have to stay on the field because if they stray beyond those confines the fans will beat them to near-death, putting them out of commission for as long as a couple games or perhaps even killing them.

Blood Bowl is a turn-based game. Teams alternate taking turns, but turns can end abruptly when certain unfortunately events happen, like when a player fails to pick up the ball, fails to complete an attempted pass, or tries to block an opponent only to get knocked down himself. Players move around the field on a square grid. Only one player can be on a given square at once. Players can perform a few basic actions: move a number of squares up to their movement allowance, pick up the ball, throw the ball (and have someone else catch it on either team), block an opponent, or foul a prone opponent. These actions are resolved by comparing the attributes of the players involved to see what chances of success the action has and rolling dice to see if the action is successful. The game uses two types of six-sided dice, a standard pair of dice you’re familiar with and special “block” dice that have faces representing the different outcomes possible when a block action resolves.

That may sound like a lot, but it’s actually quite simple for a tabletop game. It takes only 15 pages of standard-sized paper for the current rulebook to relate the rules of the tabletop game (the core rules—there are more rules and information after the core rules are enumerated, but you don’t strictly need to read them in order to play), and that is including numerous illustrations, sidebards, bits of world trivia, and examples of play. Compare this to Dungeons and Dragons, which requires a 200+ page rulebook, most of which you’ll be referencing at some point if you want to play the game with a full group of five players and a dungeon master.

The game’s rules have been through five significant iterations; It’s quite mature. Most of the sides are balanced, though some of the sides are designed to be more difficult to win with than others. The strategic depth of the game has impressed me. I’ve read through the current iteration of the rulebook and found myself excited to play the game. I’ll go deeper into the game mechanics as I analyze them in future articles.

The part that Cyanide had no real part in—the tabletop rules—are awesome. These rules are the good face of the game. The other face is everything Cyanide has put around the game to adapt it to the PC.

The Uglier of the Two Faces

Cyanide has implemented the rules as they are written with a few exceptions. The game seems to flow as the tabletop game would. This is great, because the years of players banging on the rules and repeated revision has produced a great, fun-to-play set of rules.

Once you get beyond the rules, things get worse.

Graphics

The 3D graphics are a little bit behind the times, but not terrible. They look good when they are relatively static. Animations are passable. You will watch these animations hundreds of times, though. There are not multiple animations for frequently performed game actions, so they get boring quickly. As I played more of the game, I began to see the graphics as getting in the way of my experience. I wanted to be able to easily differentiate player types and I couldn’t do that relying solely on the graphics. Some characters looked very distinct, while among others it was hard to tell without staring for a couple seconds or longer.

The game features “instant replays” of important plays. This is moronic because you see the one player either bashing another to the ground or running into the endzone the same way you’ve seen them do those things a hundred times before, but from a different camera angle which makes the graphics and animations no less boring.

Summary: The graphics are passable as graphics, but are not as useful as well-illustrated 2D tokens would have been.

Interface and Presentation

The interface is passable. The graphics on the menus are flavorful and well-done, but the text is often poorly localized to English, which can lead to confusion. The campaign screen that allows you to negotiate with sponsors is one of the worst offenders. The interface elements just don’t make sense and there aren’t tooltips or any helpers to assist you in figuring out what the hell the game means by some of the options presented (like a “Rankings” option that allows you to select a number between 1 and 15: It’s completely unclear what it’s supposed to mean).

When you’re in a match, because some characters take up a couple squares from different perspectives it isn’t difficult to mistakenly click on a player instead of the ground behind him. One time I just couldn’t select the ground behind an opposing player, the game made me block the player which failed and caused a costly turn-over.

There’s also a nauseating cinematic camera that swings around ridiculously on your opponents turn to try to “dramatically” show you what’s going on.

The camera pans across the benches of both teams before any kick-off is played. I find this to be a complete waste of time; the game would’ve been much better off if it had simply provided you an interface letting you know that certain players are knocked out or badly injured or in reserve.

Everything Else

Outside of playing individual matches, Cyanide has done a questionable job of implementing the league play that contextualizes the matches. I doubt this works as it should, because there are enormous money imbalances between human and CPU teams. I have 160,000 gold after winning a cup. A human team that finished second in the first cup now has 600,000+ gold. I don’t understand how when I’m frugal I end up with 5x less gold than my opponents. This would be more annoying if the teams actually spend their money wisely, which they do not seem to.

Out of match AI is suspect and doesn’t make sensible decisions with its money, whereas the in-match AI is generally passable except for not understanding urgency when they’re behind or tied late in the game.

Cyanide has not implemented the inducement system correctly, which makes or some whacky team compositions if teams have low overall values. The Inducement system is intended to balance out team values, giving the weaker team at boost in competitiveness so that the lower-value side isn’t always getting creamed. For teams that cannot field a full 11 players, Cyanide has failed to implement “journeyman” basic players that fill out the roster and are counted towards team value before inducement money is handed out. This leads to situations where a team will be able to buy star players and a lot more bonuses than they otherwise should have. Perhaps this is to artificially make the game harder for the human player, but I don’t really see the purpose of making a balancing mechanic unbalanced in the opposite direction. It comes off as being hacky at best. I’d be surprised if this slip-up was intentional.

This game has loading periods that are over a minute in length! This only happens when you go into the match engine. Still, this is pretty much inexcusable for a modern game. Crysis can load in less than a minute on my old system, why can’t a game with comparatively little in the way of graphics load within a few seconds? It’s not like this is a Playstation One game.

Sound? Well, after one match I was thoroughly sick of hearing the sound in this game and a turned it off. There is some commentary voice-over while the game happens, but it gets repetitive fast. I don’t think sound is worth noting in this game. It has no effect on my judgment of the game.

Summary

After 10 hours of playing this game, I feel like the tabletop rules are the strongest part. The implementation of them at the match level is good enough to be very fun and rewarding. Unfortunately, just about everything that Cyanide did themselves outside of match play is either half-assed, poorly implemented, incorrectly implemented, hard to use, or just plain annoying.

I give the Blood Bowl rules a solid 8.8 out of 10.

I give Cyanide’s contribution 5.9 out of 10. They are above a 5 only because they implemented the match play very close to the tabletop rules.

Overall, Cyanide’s Blood Bowl gets a 7.5 out of 10.

(Ratings: Below 5 is not worth even thinking about playing. Around 6 is where the game is good enough for hardcore fans to eke out some enjoyment. 7 is average. 8 is worth playing, perhaps justifying a purchase. 9 is a very enjoyable game that has a few minor flaws but should be experienced and probably has at least 50 hours of game play. 10 is practically unreachable, it’s reserved for masterpiece games that can stand hundreds of hours of play without enjoyment fading noticeably.)

4 comments:

Gregg said...

I agree with your review. I am a die hard blood bowl fan - have been waiting for this pc game since computers were first capable of playing games, (at the time I couldn't afford to go out and buy all the minitures that go along with the TT version.) I hope against all hope that Cyanide make it easier to skip all the crappy cinematics in-game and bring in a steam-like application... this is a boardgame people, board games aren't anything if not social... we would like to talk to our opponents, the survival of this game in my opinon will rely on a strong online community and communication between players is key to achieving this

Anonymous said...

Heh, just get hold of the Java BB client and go to fumbbl.

It is BB, LRB4 not 5 admittedly, with a minimal client, against hundreds of opponents.

mrfoxtalbot said...

I agree with your review, I was very unimpressed. Localization to Spanish was appaling too.

You can´t really see the entire pitch unless you place the camera completely vertical, in which case you can´t distinguish the players.

I wounder who on earth tested this game. It surely wasn´t Blood Bowl players.

The Java Client + Fumbbl is a million times better.

Anonymous said...

Playing Chaos Edition now and with patches the game is amazing!Not sure why is this guy whining but its implanted perfectly well and little glitches from before are all fixed.