Warhammer’s hilarious fantasy football game Blood Bowl makes failure half the fun
The quarterback has sprinted three-quarters of the way across the pitch. They reach the touchdown line, only to slip and fall flat on their arse. The ball goes flying, tumbling across the pitch straight into the open hands of a waiting opponent, only for them to fumble it and send it bouncing in yet another direction. It shouldn’t be funny, but it’s impossible not to laugh - especially when the players in question are a ratperson and a beefy armour-clad warrior.
Such is the nature of things in Blood Bowl, Games Workshop’s long-running fantasy football spin-off - with particular emphasis on the fantasy - from its Warhammer universe. Blood Bowl is a sports game where you can be about to score a pivotal goal one moment, carting your deceased star player off the next. It’s macabre, ridiculous, unfair - and absolutely brilliant.
Part of what makes Blood Bowl so entertaining versus the likes of Warhammer: Age of Sigmar and Warhammer 40,000 is its complete embrace of failure. Like those miniatures games, players (called coaches to distinguish from the plastic players they control) roll six-sided dice to determine how successful their units’ actions are. Here, though, it’s for things like throwing, catching and tackling instead of blasting a Space Marine in half or chainswording your way through a Tyranid’s guts.
Like many traditional miniatures games - not to mention combat-centric tabletop RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons - Age of Sigmar and Warhammer 40,000 often suffer from a deflating sense of anticlimax when you fail a roll. Swinging your sword at a skeleton warrior or lining up a blaster shot across the battlefield at an enemy commander can instantly go from the excitement of executing your careful strategy to a disappointing “nothing happens”. Sometimes even success can be underwhelming, as armour deflects most of an attack or two models spend half an hour chipping away each other’s health like a glorified game of slaps.
In Blood Bowl, failure doesn’t just lead to something happening - it’s ramped up to the very extreme. Pushing for an extra space of movement can result in a player falling over, as if a banana peel had been planted in their way. Tackling can end up with the attacker knocked out instead, or even a double KO. In the most extreme cases, taking down a rival player can lead to injury - and, if the injury roll is high enough, their sudden demise. Fouls aren’t just possible, they’re encouraged - if the ref doesn’t see anything
It’s a darkly hilarious mixture of slapstick comedy and sports satire, made funnier by the OTT nature of the players themselves - ranging from hulking Chaos Warriors and orcs to the rodent Skaven and unfortunately fleshy humans. A terrifying armoured death machine can stomp a decaying Nurgle Rotter into pulp or shoulder-barge a rival off the pitch to be torn apart by the crowd, only to suddenly trip over their own feet and eat turf.
Because the stakes are so heightened and both players are playing by the same rules, it’s hard to ever feel frustrated by bad luck. The random scatter of the ball’s bounce and difficulty in simply picking up the blasted thing from the floor - presumably it’s smeared in blood, which may as well be butter for all my players’ failed attempts - results in hilarious, unpredictable moments that add to the chaos. It often resembles less of a professional sports match than a circus performance of pratfalls and mishaps, dressed up in high-fantasy cosplay. With the risk of turning control over to your opponent with a flubbed roll, deciding which players to move first before going for broke gives every turn a dramatic arc.
That’s not to say that skillful play doesn’t have a place in Blood Bowl. As the game’s thriving community and tournament play attest, there’s plenty of room to win through careful risk-management and knowing when to push your luck. At the same time, half the fun is in knowing that even the brightest star player could suddenly be turned into dog food by the sole of an ogre’s boot. Like the greatest sports matches, a peppy, unproven newcomer can stand a chance against a veteran side and cause a memorable upset. Making every match fun to watch becomes a secondary layer of the experience - putting Blood Bowl closer to the realm of wrestling’s “sports entertainment” than the pure athleticism of actual American football.
Blood Bowl understands why people watch sports, and why people play games - and in finding the best of both in its no-holds-barred, extreme portrayal of fantasy football, it creates one of the most entertaining spectacles on the tabletop. Whether you win or lose isn’t the point - seeing the failure unfold is half the fun.