Board Game Review – Dreadball

The board game Dreadball, one of a number of Kickstarter success stories begun late last year and now developing into their own product ranges looking to the future, is frequently compared to the classic Games Workshop game Blood Bowl; both are based on fictional sports derived from rugby or American football, with stock genre fiction races and archetypes forming the teams. Yet Dreadball has several crucial points of difference which make it not only its own game, but also a significant improvement.

Blood Bowl is a slow game of positioning where a point may be scored once or twice a half – its sixteen turns per player can range from over almost instantly to full-length decision sequences based around mitigating the odds. It favours quite defensive play, with its heavy-hitting teams generally very poor at handling the ball and scoring points and so strategies such as “caging” where the ball slowly moves up the field are favoured. By contrast, Dreadball has all teams moving roughly the same amount; even heavy-hitters can get a turn of speed and move the ball as needed. Furthermore, the movement actions generally move a figure a good distance – around a quarter or half the length of the pitch – and so it is a game much more based around running play and positioning than hunkering down and grinding through the opposition. This immediately addresses the main criticism of Blood Bowl; for a game based around something as fast-moving and exciting to watch as sport, it is very slow and based around cautious moves to avoid a “turnover” (failing an action and ending the turn). Dreadball still has “turnovers” but they are less likely to disrupt play because it rewards risk-taking and exciting actions rather than discouraging them.

The essential method by which Dreadball promotes, rather than discourages, risks and aggressive play is by making the base threshold for success very low, and then introducing a second tier of success for when luck is on the player’s side. Blood Bowl is quite binary in comparison. For example, a simple action like picking up a dropped ball has three possible outcomes – failure (which causes a turnover), a simple success (requiring one dice roll out of two to four to usually come up as a 4, 5 or 6) or a critical success (if two or more dice come up as a 4, 5 or 6). A critical success immediately gives the player who completed the “pick up ball” action a free move or pass action – if they pass, and the recipient scores a critical success, they in turn gain a free move or pass. This mechanic of chaining player activations as a reward works well within the game’s action economy; while in Blood Bowl one can activate players while there is time on the clock or until they fail an action, in Dreadball there are five activations to be divided between a team of six, and any single player can be given two. Thus it depicts the virtuosic aspect of sport; complex plans being carried out with one move chaining into another, and then a heroic run to score at the end. The result is in almost every turn there is a chance to score, which is a simple pass action at slightly lower odds of success.

What this does is keep the player’s interest by making success usually quite likely – a dice pool mechanic rather than a single roll also allows for much more granularity in stats with each player effectively having two stats for a single aspect of their profile – the number of dice in their pool, three as standard and modified in-game by piece position and player type – and the target to roll, defined by their statistics themselves. In this way a weak player might still be able to succeed at a task (rolling four dice needing a 5 or 6 rather than three needing a 3, 4, 5 or 6, for example) but is less likely to gain the critical effect. Game balance is based around a constant risk of failure set against the actual chance of failure; players do not like to repeatedly fail simple actions but equally having no chance of failure limits the challenge. The granularity of a dice-pool mechanic, and the opposed dice pools used for tackling and catching (where both the attacker or thrower and the defender or catcher’s stats and dice pools are compared) make the game weighted towards success over failure but with enough of a chance element to necessitate optimising board position. This is done through piece placement and the tackle action, which allows a player to push defenders away and clear lines of movement. Poor positioning reduces the size of dice pools, while the optimum position can add dice.

The emphasis on choice and economy of actions continues into the scoring mechanic; while a successful shot at goal each turn is certainly possible it is counterbalanced by a risk-reward system. Simple shots to the two forward goals are worth one point, but by making riskier moves (aiming for the furthest goal, taking shots from a greater distance) the number of points gained increases. The scoring, too, encourages risk-taking; it is on a sliding scale which begins at zero and each goal pushes it a number of points towards the team who scored. If they can reach seven, they win. However, goals conceded push the score marker back towards the opponent; if team A are on 4, and conceded a 2-point goal, their score becomes 2. Thus a team with a commanding lead can either be ground down by simple one-point goals, or a player can risk failure to aim for a 4-point goal and remove it instantly. Since each shot – successful or failed – triggers a turnover (and thus is best reserved for the final action of a turn) then often it is necessary to work out if there are enough turns left to win without taking those risks. That the board situation is not reset after a shot, the ball simply returning to the centre-line in a random position, adds further complications; if a team has completed a number of complex aggressive maneuvers they might have no players available to contest the opponent’s subsequent run on goal.

Managing team composition during the game is a defining feature of Dreadball; a team comprises 10 or more players of which 6 are active at any one time. Since the range of actions available rely on a player’s role (Guards cannot pass, Strikers cannot tackle) picking the right range of players – and having enough reserves available for if a player gets tackled, which sends them off the pitch for 1-3 turns – is paramount. Yet while there are many things to keep track of – team composition, player positioning, managing dice pools, using cards to gain bonus actions – they all use very similar mechanics and the game is thus very consistent in how it plays. Decisions can be made based on knowledge of the systems involved and the game state, rather than large numbers of special rules and exceptions.

Thus there is much to like about Dreadball; its 14-turn (7 per side) structure is a lot faster in basic terms than Blood Bowl and its shift of the balance towards rewarding risk rather than accentuating failure makes it much more exciting to play. In terms of its future as a game there are ever-more teams being planned, and expanded optional rules such as giant players, unique characters which can be added should further complexity be desired. Its success is in part due to its efficient and focused design as a board game which permits it to be strongly thematic; Blood Bowl‘s miniatures and setting are flavourful and fun but the rules do not really get across the sense of a sport, in part owing to their basis in a wargame.

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