Back in 1986, designer Jervis Johnson had the bright idea of making a fantasy sports board game based on American Football, but with no-holds-barred violence. That game became Blood Bowl, and its mixture of strategy, comedy and brutality has sustained it through multiple editions into the present day. But despite its breakneck premise, it’s actually quite a ponderous game that takes a while to learn and play. Enter Blitz Bowl, a much smaller, faster game based on the same idea although mechanically it’s very different from its big sibling. Blitz Bowl: Ultimate Edition is the third edition, but can it live up to its ultimate billing?
What’s in the Box
This being a Games Workshop game, one of the primary draws are the plastic miniatures included. They compose two teams of six players each: some heroic humans and the devious, rat-like Skaven. As we’ve come to expect from the publisher the figures are top-notch, giddy with detail and dynamism. The Skaven, however, are quite fragile and even experienced modellers may break a tail or two during assembly. Care and a very sharp craft knife are needed.
Along with the figures, there are some plastic footballs and a coin and a scoring marker for each team. The play takes place on a double-sided game board, giving you a choice of pitches with various obstacles to play around. One side has a single starting space for the ball, while the other has two: a dice roll determines which one the ball pops out of.
Rounding out the contents is a deck of cards, some custom dice, a range ruler and a stat card for each team you can field in the game. This extends way beyond the two included across the whole Games Workshop universe, running from Orcs to Ogres. You can buy extra teams of six for some factions, for others you’ll have to buy the full twelve of a Blood Bowl team and choose the six you want to use. All the cards are decent quality and decorated either with solid art or photos of painted miniatures.
Rules and How it Plays
On your turn, you can take three actions, split between your players as you see fit, as long as no one model takes the same action twice. The actions available to you depend on whether the figure is “marked” – that is, has an opposing model in an adjacent square – or not. Unmarked figures are free to run, throw the ball or make a short two-square movement to mark an opponent. Marked figures can only attack an opposing team member, which requires a dice roll, or step a single square away.
If you read that carefully, you’ll realize that this means running players can’t move into squares next to opposing team members. It also means that it often takes all three of your actions in a turn to attack an enemy: a run to cover the group, a mark to move adjacent and finally the block action to undertake the attack. These two aspects are critical to the strategy and action economy of the game. You need to spread your players out among the pitch scenery to try and stop runs into your end zone, which scores points. You also need to be careful with your tackles because if you fail, you’re open to a one-action tackle in return.
Players who manage to score a goal by carrying the ball into the opposing end zone win their team four points and are taken off the pitch in the celebrations. It takes a special reserve action to get them back on, the same as players who are injured in a tackle. But there’s no pitch reset: a new ball pops up in the middle and play continues even though you’re a player or more down. At first, this can lead to a lot of end-to-end dashes, especially when a lot of players are off injured or celebrating. With experience, you’ll learn to hang back, cobble together a defensive line, and make more strategic plays.
Goals are not the only source of points in Blitz Bowl, however. There are always three cards next to the board that will get you from zero to three bonus points for completing particular actions. Injuring an opponent, say, or completing a risky pass. What’s the point of a card worth zero, you might ask? Because in addition to the points, the cards also have a playable effect on the reverse. That might be a dice reroll or even an extra action. So winning one is a double whammy improving both your score and your options. These cards are also the game timer: when they run out, the game ends.
Between them, positional play, card management and dice rolling hit a beautiful sweet spot amid strategy, tactics and the excitement of random dice rolling. This is very much a game that rewards good play, whether that’s planning to keep your scrimmage line together or working out ways to snaffle cards alongside moving the ball forward. At the same time, it’s also a game that rewards venturseome decisions that lead to thrilling moments, whether that’s putting the boot in to down a defender or chaining cards during a last-ditch dash to the goal line. And it only takes an hour or so to play, too.
In this respect, Blitz Bowl is actually better at recreating the feel of a sports game than its big brother Blood Bowl. With a full complement of twelve players and more complex “turnover” mechanics, the latter takes longer over each turn and longer to play overall. It feels more like a chess match with dice than any kind of ballgame. Blitz Bowl, by contrast, is lean and exciting, packed with last-minute gambles and matches that go down to the last field goal, just as you want the very best football games to feel.
What’s New in Ultimate Edition?
Owners of one or both previous editions of the game may be wondering what’s new here. Especially since it’s the same human team we’ve seen both those boxes, making this feel a little samey. The good news is that the changes are almost all positive, thanks partly to the unusual step of involving the fanbase in the design via The Crush podcast. The rules are mostly the same but with a few rough edges smoothed out. There are new stats for all the teams which should help balance issues. And finally, the card deck has undergone a complete overall to encourage more dynamic, aggressive play.