[Everybody, please give a warm welcome to Matt Drake of stellar review site Drake’s Flames. Matt’s going to be dropping by from time to time with reviews of giddier board games than we usually cover- think miniatures, dice and prolonged whooping.
In other words, it’s his job to make sure SU&SD doesn’t disappear up its own bottom. Take it away, Matt!]
In the future, sporting events will be part displays of athletic prowess and part gladiator death matches. You will be able to watch your favorite player dodge past the defense to score a magnificent shot on the goal, and then you can watch your OTHER favorite player grab that first guy by the scrotum and throw him like a frisbee. This sport of the future will be called DreadBall, and it will be awesome.
Since today is not the future, however, we are relegated to playing board games about this magnificent sport. And the great game that will allow us to take part in this exciting game is, appropriately enough, called Dreadball. It would not seem like a particularly creative name, until you consider that the creators of Dreadball were able to see into the future and divine exactly how this non-stop, action-packed, brutally hilarious game will be played.
Dreadball is a bad-ass sport where two teams of six players each (sometimes seven, if you are cheating) face off on a high-tech playing field and throw a metal ball at speeds up to 200 miles an hour. The board game version of this kick-ass game comes with two full teams of hard-hitting, no-nonsense bruisers who will wow spectators and be incredibly fun to look at, especially once you glue them together and paint them.
The first thing that made me want to try Dreadball was actually a picture I saw of the miniatures. They look great in photographs, but when you get them up close, they look AMAZING. The detail on these things is absurd. It took me over an hour per figure to paint the human team, because I got all down into the weeds and painted the crap out of these bad boys. The details are so well-defined and exceptional that you could probably get away with that dip thing where you dunk them in furniture polish. I don’t know, because I didn’t. Maybe if I had, I would have found time to paint the Orx, too.
When I actually played Dreadball and found out, to my complete lack of surprise, that it was a crazy fun game, I was very happy that I had spent all that time painting the humans, and a little saddened that I had not put more time into the Orx and Goblins. Do I dare say this is my favorite sports game of all time? Yes, I do. In fact, I believe I just did.
Reading the rules, you get a good sense of how you will have lots of choices as you play. You will read about how you will run and throw, slam and dodge, cheat and prosper. You will read about earning fan cards for hitting a dude so hard his spleen pops out of his forehead. You will look at the beautiful, full-color rule book with its descriptions of play and illustrated examples and photos of the miniatures that will make you wish you could paint as well as the guy who does this for a living at Mantic, and you will be simply itching to play – so excited, in fact, that you may jump ahead and play it before you manage to paint both teams.
Once you play, though, the real magic of Dreadball begins to make itself known. When you look at the field and see five different plays, all equally viable but with varying levels of long-term strategic value, you will see how a sports game should be made. You will begin to concoct tactical fall-backs, in case your guards cannot slam those defenders properly, or decide how you will position your back field in case the ball changes hands before you can score. You will manipulate the field to your advantage, distracting the referee so that you can stomp that downed opponent without penalty or score a couple extra points and get the fans on your side.
In the years that I have been reviewing games, there have been very few sports games that grabbed my attention. Sports games tend to come down to somewhat obvious maneuvers coupled with ridiculously fickle die rolls. They often tend to overlook the thing that I love about a board game – pitting my wits against that of my opponent. Dreadball, however, hits every high point for me. It’s fast and smart, with enough luck to keep it interesting but not so much that you feel like you lost to the dice.
This tactical depth and intellectual complexity is arranged by combining a huge range of tactical options with relatively predictable dice odds, and marrying those to some interesting elements that raise the thinking factor to engage the analytical part of your brain even as you’re hearing the screaming of the fans, the grunts of pain from the players, and the buzzer going off when the clock counts down. But the two things that really take Dreadball beyond most sports games I’ve seen are the cards and the coach dice.
The cards look tricky on the surface. You don’t get many, and the only way you get more is to skip an action (and when you only get five actions, skipping one can hurt). But the cards can be your ace in the hole, granting that extra burst of speed when you need it, getting your players back on their feet when they’re beat down, or getting the fans on your side when it counts.
And getting the fans on your side is critical, because that’s how you earn those game-changing coach dice. When you really get the fans riled up, when they are jumping out of their seats at your impressive feats of prowess, you’ll be able to earn extra dice that you can use to tilt the odds in your favor. Use the coaching dice well, and you’ll see the scores pile up as deep as the opponents’ bodies. Use them poorly, and you won’t have them when you need them, and you’ll wind up pissing and moaning about how you should have been able to make that critical shot – but you will have nobody to blame but yourself.
All this brilliance does come with a bit of a price tag, however. The first game we played was painfully, horribly delayed as I had to keep looking up rules to remember which ability to test, what dice to roll, and for the love of GOD where is the rule that tells me what happens when I put a seventh guy on the field and then kick another guy in the face while he is on the ground?! All these options, and the flexibility you have to play the way you want to play, mean that you need a lot of rules to cover those options, and all those rules mean Mantic most certainly should have included some kind of quick reference to tell me what dice to roll when I’m taking a shot on goal from the back of the scoring zone with a striker who is being threatened by a particularly surly neck-breaker with a hangover.
I got around this problem by spending about two hours putting together a miniature reference book of my own. With the aid of this little cheat sheet-slash-booklet, we sped through our next game like it was on rails. If you can find some sort of game aid for Dreadball, I highly recommend it, and seriously, Mantic ought to make one, because this game can be daunting the first couple times, even for veteran game nerds.
Once you play through a couple games, you’ll probably want to start thinking about playing a full season. Dreadball has detailed rules for tracking wins and losses, injuries and awards. Handicapped teams can hire free agents for a single game to even the odds, and your players can get better as the season progresses. Your team roster may change a little (players are sometimes prone to work-place homicide), and you can track that, too. These extra rules take Dreadball from being a great game to play when you’re killing an hour to being the kind of hobby that will keep you up late planning out the best team for tomorrow’s tournament.
DreadBall isn’t just an exceptionally fun sports game. Dreadball is an exceptionally fun game, period. It transcends the limitations found in a lot of sports games, moves incredibly fast, and keeps you engaged and in the game until the final buzzer. Add in some of the coolest miniatures I’ve painted in a long time and a game that feels like you’re actually there, and Dreadball might be your next obsessive hobby.