Sunday, 1 November 2015

A Shadow on the Table - Dreadball

I was originally going to talk about this game in a video, but I ditched that idea because I just wasn't satisfied with what sort of video it could end up as (no background music and with how I tend to ramble on god-knows how many images I'd have needed).  So, in light of that, I figured I'd start a new series of posts here looking at various tabletop games I play.  I'll still talk about tabletop games on the channel, this blog series is just a backup for the ones I can't do a good video for.  In any case; let's get onto the game.

Dreadball is a sci-fi sports board game from Mantic Games.  It was one of the first companies, alongside Reaper Miniatures, to use Kickstarter not to fund the game itself, but to expand and accelerate its development and release.  Dreadball was always going to come out, but it would've happened over a much longer schedule without Kickstarter and would have been missing a lot of stuff that it ended up with.

So; full disclosure before I go on - I did back this on Kickstarter for a fair amount.  I've tried to stay as impartial as I can, but I am very happy with how the game turned out and I encourage you to do your own research into the game after reading this before you go spending money on it.

Now, there was a concern when it was on Kickstarter a few years ago that it would just end up like a sci-fi copy of Blood Bowl, not an unwaranted concern I'll admit.  A fair few former Games Workshop employees are currently working at Mantic these days, but I figured that fact also meant it was less likely to be a copy of Blood Bowl - they'd already done a game based on American Football, why do another?  A fact that was confirmed in a making-of book the backers got a while after launch.  Perhaps the best summary of the game I've ever read came from a surprising place - the 1d4chan wiki.  The summary I read there (which you can find on the site's page for Warpath, Mantic's sci-fi wargame and the setting Dreadball occurs in) described it as "like Blood Bowl, but is set in space, uses aliens, is played on a hex grid, isn't based on American Football and has completely different game mechanics."  Gets the point across quite well, I think.

The game seems to draw elements from a lot of sports - basketball feels like the big one, but there's elements of hockey, lacrosse and probably a fair few others I'm not recognising (not a big sports guy myself).
That's the pitch there.  At the start of the game, you randomly decide which team is the Home team and which is the Away team.  Home team goes first, Away team goes second, pretty straight-forward.  They even colour-coded the turn counter along the bottom of the board for you.  There's no fancy restrictions on where players need to be; just place six of your players anywhere in your half of the pitch.  Can't be on the centre-line, though (the bit between the yellow lines), because that's where the ball's launched at the start of the match.  Gets launched on from the active team's left (so if it's launched on a Home team's turn, it would come from the top of the image) and you roll a d6 to see which of the hexes with the Dreadball logo it lands on - if you get a six you have to roll another die to see which of the two end-hexes it lands in after hitting the opposite wall.

The objective is simple; carry the ball into one of the highlighted areas in the opposing team's half and then throw it into that area's Strike Hex (the ones marked with a dot in the middle).  The two zones closer to the centre are each worth one point while the rear one is worth three.  The extra hex projecting from the front end of a Strike Zone is called the Bonus Hex, a throw from there is harder but will earn you an extra point ontop of whatever that zone is worth (so the bonus hex for the rear Strike Zones will net you four points).  You don't track score totals, just the difference, by sitting a token on the score tracker at the top of the pitch and sliding it back and forth as the score changes.  So if the home team has a 2-point lead and the away team gets a 3-pointer, the score becomes a 1-point lead for the away team.

Player stats and dice mechanics are pretty straight-forward - each dice test starts with three dice, modifiers that make the action easier or harder add and remove dice to this pool.  You're trying to get as many dice as you can to roll equal to or above the player's relevant stat.  So a Human Striker trying to pick up the ball would make a Skill test to do so - he'd get three dice as the starting point, a fourth because Strikers get a bonus to Skill tests and as his Skill stat is 4+, he needs at least one of the dice to come up a four or higher.  Most tests just need one success, most of the ones that don't are opposed tests you make against another player who has to make a dice test as well (ie; Slamming someone, you make a Strength Test to hit them, they get to make a Strength Test to slamback, whoever rolls the most successes wins).  There's plenty of quick-reference sheets out there; Board Game Geek have one I grabbed a while back, there'll be a link in the addendum at the bottom of the post.

Another clever side to this is that doubling the number of successes you needed (ie; getting two or more successes on an action that only needed one) will give that player extra actions.  So if a player doubles on picking up the ball, they get a free run or throw action.  Succeed on a slam and you push the target back a hex, double the number of successes they got when opposing it and you knock them down and force them to make an armour check which can take them out of the game for up to 3 turns or kill them outright.  The reason these actions are big are because a player cannot act unless you play an Action Token on them and you start each turn with 5 tokens (always the same number, no point hoarding them).  So there's always going to be at least one of your players on the pitch who won't be acting that turn (unless that sixth player is catching a pass and gets two or more successes on the catch, giving them a free run or throw action).

Combine all of that, plus that each coach (the game's term for the actual people playing the game, just to avoid confusion with the players on the pitch) only has seven turns over the course of the game and that the pitch never resets and you get a very fast, very fluid game.  If both players have a handle on the rules or have access to a reference sheet, you can bash out a game of Dreadball in about 40 minutes or so.

It also feels more forgiving than Blood Bowl; where GW's entry in the genre will end your turn with a single bad dice roll, Dreadball will only prematurely end your turn if you lose control of the ball (ie; the ball carrier failing to evade away from an opposing player).  Dodges and passes feel far more reliable unless you're playing a team who are purposefully bad in those areas (ie; Forge Fathers have a Speed stat of only 5+ thanks to their stunty, dwarven legs, so they'll have a harder time dodging away from anyone) and most of my games have come down to the wire, where one team was only one throw away from taking the lead on their last turn.  It's rare that you'll ever be truly out of the running in Dreadball.

Dreadball does have mechanics for league play, where you have a persistent team you try to improve over the course of several matches, and some of those mechanics I find quite interesting.  For one; the MVPs - these are named, freelance players, big stars in the Dreadball scene who you can hire for a round in a league.  Unlike Blood Bowl, where you simply pay their asking price and get them for that match, the MVPs are auctioned off at the start of each round of the league, after calculating the Underdog Bonuses (a balancing factor - if your team has the lower value than your opponent's for that round, you get extra money).  Even if a player won't play for your team, you can still bid on them to drive the price up or, if you win, are basically paying them to not play for that round.  It adds an extra layer of strategy to a league that I rather like.  There's also how Free Agents are handled - after the MVP auction, if you have at least 10 megacredits (the currency used for the game) left of your Underdog Bonus, you get to roll on a table in the book to see which Free Agent you get for that round.  You get one roll on the table for each whole 10mc of the bonus you have unspent.  But with how the table's designed, you could end up with a player from a totally different species - a slow Forge Father team, for example, could end up with a speedy and nimble Veer-myn Striker for a round.  This can make a Free Agent more valuable than just another player as it can give your team enough of an edge in one aspect that throws a wrench in your opponent's strategy.  Later seasons' expansion books have their own Free Agent tables and you get to pick which table you roll on.

I honestly don't have too many gripes about the game.  It's easy to learn without sacrificing strategic depth, it's fast, it's fluid, the teams feel and play very distinctly from each other.  The actual models are very good-quality and extensive use of L-shaped plugs and other irregular shapes for them mean you'll never end up gluing an arm on the wrong body or the wrong way around.  Actually that's it; the one complaint I can see people having with this game is it being harder to convert the models and give them a distinct pose of your own.  That and certain teams (I'm looking at you, Veer-myn) can sometimes project out beyond the edge of their hex base, making it difficult when they run adjacent to another model.  Personally, for those situations I'd suggest just holding the models to the base with a bit of blu-tac or the like and have a mark on the base showing which direction they're facing - if the model interferes with others, just pull it off the base until there's room for the model to go back.  In any case; as long as you take your time and dry-fit the pieces of a model before gluing them, you shouldn't have any issues.

Pricing-wise it's not too bad either, the basic set (pictured above) has everything you need, including ten models each for the Corporation and Marauder teams and a decent-sized pad of team rosters for league use (and you can always photocopy them to make more pages if you need to), and it will only run you £50 plus shipping if you buy direct off Mantic's website.  Expansion books are another £10 each while teams will cost you about £18 for a set of ten-to-fourteen models (most have a full roster of 12-14 models, but the newer teams from Seasons 4-6 are only in packs of ten).  MVPs are £5 each while you can get a pack of 3 or 4 for about £15-£18 depending on the pack.  If you want a higher-quality pitch than the one in the base set, I'd recommend the Gruba-tek VII Coliseum.  It's reasonably affordable and, if the Dreadball Ultimate pitch (which is used for 3-6 team games and that I'll talk about in a future post) is any indication, it'll be good-quality.  Don't have one myself because I bought the much-more-expensive acrylic plastic one before the Gruba-tek VII was released (and by a pretty small margin, too; been kicking myself about it, believe me).

Either way; if you like the idea of a fast-paced board game about a fictional sport involving a titanium ball launched at a couple hundred kilometres-per-hour (so, yes, you can throw the ball as a weapon) that you can learn to play in no time, check it out.  And if I had to compare it directly to Blood Bowl; I have no problems claiming that this is the superior game.  Your tastes may vary on that, of course, but in my personal opinion, Dreadball blows Blood Bowl out of the water without even trying.


I've got a few links at the bottom of this article, one is a gameplay demonstration from Mantic Games, another is the first episode in a series on the game from Beasts of War called Dreadball Academy that goes into more detail on the game, though I do have to warn you that that one's about an hour and a half long (and Warren had a bad habit of interrupting guests back then which probably accounts for a chunk of the runtime).  I've also linked a post from another blog showing how to get a way to play the game online for free.  You will still need the rulebook for it, the program doesn't automate anything, but you can get a free copy of that from the Mantic Digital service (which I'll have a link to under the blog post's link).  It'll only have the rules for the Corporation and Marauder teams (so Humans and Orx) but it should be enough for you to get a feel for the game and see if it's worth picking up.  If I ever do any videos on Dreadball in the future, I'll have those linked down below as well.  I'm tempted to do a series of team summaries, but they'd be hitting the same issues as the ones that made this a blog post and not a video of its own.

Mantic Gameplay Demonstration:
Dreadball Academy Episode One:
Reference Sheet:
-Small Error in Sheet - Judwan Strikers are Speed 4+ as of rules adjustments made in Season 3.  They were kinda OP with Speed 3+.
How to play Dreadball online through VASSAL:
Mantic Digital:

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