I had played Blood Bowl: Team Manager a couple of times before this weekend, but was waiting to do a review until I had played it with two players. That’s done, so I’m ready for the buzzworthiness review.
Here’s a brief overview: BBTM was designed by Jason Little and published by Fantasy Flight in 2011. The game is for 2-4 players aged 14 and up, and takes around 90 minutes to play. It specifically revolves around the sport of Blood Bowl, a kind of cross between American football and rugby with the various races of the Warhammer universe – in short, it is actual fantasy football. In BBTM, you are managing one of six teams and competing to have the most fans after five rounds. Each team begins with a unique deck of 12 cards from which they will draw a hand of six. On each player’s turn, they will play one card on one of a series of match-ups (aka highlights) or a tournament. They will then use special abilities (passing to move the ball, sprinting to draw new cards and discard junk, tackling to try and hurt the other players, or mandatory cheating) to affect the outcome. After all players have played all of their cards, the strength of each side will be compared. Cheating tokens may increase a player’s strength, gain them new fans, or get them kicked out of the game. Whoever has the highest strength wins the highlight or tournament, and they get a big payout, which could be in the form of fans, new star players, staff upgrades, or team upgrades. Each player participating in will get something, which is generally a smaller payout than the winning one. After all match-ups have been resolved, a new round begins. The game ends after the fifth round and the Blood Bowl tournament, and the manager with the most fans wins.
COMPONENTS: BBTM is a card game, so the main component is the cards. The cards are of good quality. There are six different team decks, each marked on the face with the team symbol. This is useful for differentiating them when they are in match-ups, but some of the colors are very similar and easy to confuse at a glance. As the game progresses and you pick up star players, you’ll need to use tokens mark the ones that belong to you. There are only three tokens per team, and I’ve never seen a game where more were needed. The dials are very nice – Fantasy Flight seems to be in love with dials at the moment, and they do make life easier for keeping score. The box insert is Fantasy Flight’s standard cardboard confession that box is bigger than it needs to be, but it’s just enough to hold all of the pieces. I’m sure I’ll toss it as soon as an expansion comes out.
THEME: I am not at all familiar with the Warhammer universe, nor have I ever played the actual Blood Bowl miniatures game. And to be clear, this game is NOT a card game version of Blood Bowl, but is its own thing that just uses some of the ideas. You are not playing the Blood Bowl games, you are managing the teams. You are making crucial decisions about who to keep, who to cut, who to play, who to bench, the order they should play, and where each player should compete. If this isn’t what you want, then steer clear of the game. For me, the theme is very well done, and the card art is very evocative of the characters you’ll meet. The idea of stripping down each game into a highlight helps keep the theme alive despite the shorter games. And, since you are a manager, the game is not about winning or losing, but about bringing in fans. Sure, winning helps, but so do getting star players and upgrading all the behind the scenes stuff. It’s kind of a cynical commentary on modern sports in our society (as is the mandatory cheating, which is usually good for the team as long as you don’t get caught). I think the theme is a great match with the mechanics used.
MECHANICS: And speaking of mechanics…when BBTM was first announced, it was going to be a deck-building game. The game underwent significant revisions after that, and the result has only a slight deck-building aspect to it in the acquisition of new star players that immediately go on top of your deck, or that replace other cards in your deck with the Freebooter ability. The main mechanism in play here is hand management. You get six cards, and you’ll be playing all of them (unless, of course, you pass). The secret to the strategy is figuring out where to use each card, and when. It’s important to know what you have available, and what you should get rid of when you have a chance. BGG lists area control as a mechanism in the game, and I’ve been thinking about that. It’s definitely applicable – you want the highest strength for each highlight you’re involved in, and you’re doing things to the other team to knock them down a few pegs.
The other big mechanism in play is the variable player powers. Each team deck has its own specializations – humans are well rounded with a good mix of skills; dwarves are built for defense; elves do a lot of passing; skaven are the all about getting the ball; orcs are the hitters; and the Chaos All-Stars are the biggest bunch of cheaters on the field. All the decks seem very well balanced – I’ve won all four games I’ve played so far, and I’ve used a different team every time. None of them have seemed to be more powerful or weaker than others. My favorite one so far is the Skaven.
The game plays very well, and fairly smoothly. The biggest complaint I would have is about how it scales, and I’ll talk about that later in the accessibility section.
STRATEGY LEVEL: As I mentioned, it’s important to figure out when to play what and where while playing this game. Generally, you’ll want to put out your guards first as they are the weakest players in the game who will almost assuredly not make it to the end (though they are hugely important, especially since they can block hits to your bigger players). You also want to try to get and keep the ball since that increases a player’s strength by two. You want to save your heavy hitters and cheaters to the end when they can make maximum impact. Then, too, you want to try to maximize your payouts at the various match-ups. The goal of the game is to get fans, so the payouts that give you more fill up quickly. But sometimes it’s good to go for star players, particularly if you can choose between several. Or you may want to be going for staff and team upgrades – not only do you get some nice special abilities, you may be able to collect fans for the end of the game. I played one game where I managed to win solely on the strength of my upgrades.
This isn’t to say that luck doesn’t play a factor. Every card draw is random. Dice are used to resolve tackles, and while you can put yourself in the best position to do damage, you can still wind up tripping over your own feet and falling flat on your face. But, it’s all about putting yourself in the best position to win, and that’s often the case in real sports. It’s a pretty random game, but there’s still enough strategy to keep you coming back.
ACCESSIBILITY: This is a fairly easy game to pick up once you figure out what all the symbols are for. I’ve found that you need at least a round to figure out exactly what’s going on in the game, sometimes more (depending on the people you’re playing with). But it’s such a fun game, you’ll find yourself cackling when a tackle fails, or cheering when one succeeds. The dramatic reveal of the cheating tokens at the end of the round always elicits cheers and groans simultaneously. I think the 14+ age is probably a little high – I played with a 10-year-old, and he did just fine. Granted, he spent the entire game trying to draw blood rather than going for fans, but he had a blast.
I think the biggest barrier to entry on this game is the time. The game plays very well with 2-4 players, but the time does not scale. A four-player game is MUCH longer than a two-player game, primarily because you have to wait for 24 cards to be played rather than just 12. With more experienced players, the time probably goes down, but with new people, I’d suggest smaller groups to start off with (no more than 3).
REPLAYABILITY: BBTM is very replayable. There are a ton of star players that can change up your deck, lots of upgrades to be had, and the six different teams make each game different. Plus, you get lots of highlights, headlines that change the rules slightly on occasion, and four tournaments. OK, I want more tournaments. Put that in the first expansion, and there have to be expansions for this game. More teams, more star players, more upgrades, MORE. This game just begs for the FFG expansion machine, and I’m sure we’ll see some soon.
IS IT BUZZWORTHY? If you haven’t been able to pick it up, I love this game. It has become my favorite game from 2011 that I’ve played so far. The amount of interaction, the decisions of where to put your cards, and the great theme just help me to have a great time during each play. I prefer the two-player game to four, and I haven’t played with three, but I’ll play this any time, and I’d suggest it to anyone. So thanks to my Secret Santa (whoever you are) for the game. It’s going to get a lot of play over the years.
Thanks for reading!