Saturday, June 16, 2012

Dungeonbowl Review

Dungeonbowl, developed and published by Cyanide Studio.
The Good: Streamlined gameplay, quick matches, teleporters add uncertainty, level editor, $15
The Not So Good: Lacks a single player training mode and AI opponents, only three schools, no tutorial, deficient interface, significant reliance on luck
What say you? A multiplayer-only, stripped-down, more randomized, accelerated adaptation of Blood Bowl: 4/8

Games Workshop is most famously known for the Warhammer series of tabletop wargames, which have been licensed into several successful computer games. The board game design company is also responsible for Blood Bowl, a strategic American football-inspired game based in the Warhammer universe, which was also adapted into a computer game in 2009 (which I played but did not review). Branching off of that game is Dungeonbowl, which takes the turn-based/real-time sports action and adds treasure chests that may contain the ball (or a trap) and teleporters, with a single touchdown winning the game. The much quicker matches should result in wider appeal, so does Dungeonbowl speed up the game while preserving the strategic depth?

The graphics of Dungeonbowl are essentially identical to Blood Bowl, which is not surprising. The games take place in dark dungeons that recycle the same elements over and over again: dark stone walls, fire, violent decorations, and caged dancing nymphs (for some reason). Different maps are not distinctive visually, but vary only according to the specific layout. The character models cover a wide range of races, but you usually can’t tell the difference from the far distance you’ll typically be playing from. The units could have more detailed models and less jerky animations. The battle effects are repetitive, with simple “falling over” animations when players get hurt: none look painful enough. The interface is a hindrance: there is no list of players on the main screen, displaying helpful information like who has moved. It’s also very hard to tell who is on which team, as the red and blue backgrounds are too vague; I routinely moved the camera to obscure the characters, so I could view them through a wall and see the bright outline for team identification. You can cycle through players using the page up and page down keys, but there is nothing on the GUI that lets you perform that action. There is also no prompt to remind you to teleport a new player into the game each turn; I had to condition myself to call in reserves first thing. In addition, the minimap is too small to be usable, with tiny dots showing the locations of players and chests. The sound design is very basic, with sporadic effects for in-game events. The occasionally humorous announcers from Blood Bowl have been completely removed, and the music is generic for a fantasy setting. Clearly, Dungeonbowl uses the same graphics and sound as Blood Bowl, with some features taken out and the interface not improved.

Dungeonbowl is Blood Bowl with sudden death (the first score wins), teleporters, and the ball hidden in one of six chests. The game features twelve dungeon layouts that offer good strategic variety; all contain narrow hallways (for easier blocking) and pits that opposing players can be pushed in to. The editor also allows you to create you own maps, which can be shared online once approved by the developer. Dungeonbowl provides online matchmaking, LAN play, and hotseat modes, but no single player. It is very surprising that you cannot practice against the AI, especially since there was an offline mode in Blood Bowl that could be farmed for player experience. The hotseat mode doesn’t even let you play with your online teams, restricting you to three templates for each school in the game. As it stands, you are at the mercy of the online population to play Dungeonbowl: sometimes finding an opponent takes seconds, sometimes it takes minutes, and sometimes it takes much longer. Dungeonbowl also lacks a tutorial, relying on a manual. Interestingly, there are actually sound files in the game directory for a tutorial, probably copies over from Blood Bowl but not used here. I am greatly disappointed by the lack of single player content in Dungeonbowl.

The first step in dominating the dungeons of Dungeonbowl is to create your team. Each team has between eleven and sixteen and can take its player from one of the three colleges of magic featured in Dungeonbowl (Light, Bright, and Rainbow). Of course, the board game features ten different schools, so I suspect some future DLC is in order. You can supplement your team with an apothecary (to decrease injury severity) or bribes (so the referees ignore fouls). Each college has access to three races that essentially change the base stats of your players (plus some visual differences): dwarfs, orcs, goblins, high elves, norse, trolls, minotaurs, skaven, undead, and humans. The ratings used in the game are movement, strength, agility, and armor. These players must be bought (to prevent you from choosing all high-level players initially) and divided into different roles that basically boil down to throwing, catching, running, blocking, or all-around. Each player also has a number of different skills based on their position, such as tackle, block, dodge, thick skill, strong arm, strip ball, sure hands, and diving catch. New skills are added each time a player levels up, as experience is earned by the best players in each match. This adds a nice sense of attachment with your team (just like any good sports management game) as you watch your players grow over time.

Dungeonbowl is sudden death: first score wins. The turn-based game allows one team to make all of their moves during a two-minute window, and then control passes to the opponent. Players must be moved in succession (you must complete all the moves of a single player at one time), and your turn ends immediately if you get tackled or lose possession of the ball. The ball must be brought to your opponent’s spawn zone, and it is hidden in one of six chests scattered around the map. If you open a chest and it does not contain the ball, the player blows up and your turn ends. This is the first or many interjections of luck into the game that significantly impact the gameplay. The second is the teleported: there are six placed in the dungeon, and you end up at a randomly chosen destination. There is also a 1:6 chance of the player being completely removed from the game, so teleporter usage is not without hazard. The random nature of the teleporters makes it really difficult to keep your team together, and it leads to a lot of luck: you might end up right near the ballcarrier, or on the opposite side of the map, or out of the game. I like some element of randomness in strategy games to keep things unpredictable, but too much luck negates good tactics.

Each team starts with six players in their zone, but an additional player can be brought in each turn, appearing randomly at one of the teleporters. Players can be injured when tackled, and you can also block players into the lava/water/openings next to the pathways, although I found the actual number of instances of this happening during games to be quite low. Each player can move a number of squares according to their stats, and dice rolls can be used to move two additional squares. If you move by an opponent, an automatic dice roll is made to see if they tackle you (again, based on stats). This means you should position defenders so that the enemy ballcarrier (and other players) must move past you on the way to the goal; this is a large part of the strategy in Dungeonbowl (and, by proxy, Blood Bowl), partially negated by the use of teleporters. When players are attacked, dice are rolled to determine the outcome: the attacker can get hurt, the defender can get hurt, both could get hurt, or the defender might be pushed. Pushing someone into lava or a teleporter is an intriguing tactic. Additional options that require dice rolls include picking up the ball, passing the ball (and catching it), blitzing (which is a move then an attack), and fouling someone who is knocked down. There is a lot of luck in this game, much more so than regular Blood Bowl. For example, my ballcarrier was sent to a teleporter (because the direct path was blocked by enemies) and was killed (a 1/6 chance). The very next turn, the enemy spawned a reinforcement at the very same teleporter (another 1/6 chance), picked up the ball, and carried it into my goal. With that much luck in a strategy game, I think most purists will be turned off by how much chance may influence their tactics.

Dungeonbowl is a simplified, quicker version of Blood Bowl, and the random teleporters, traps, obstacles, and sudden death scoring result in a more hectic game. Some might not like this amount of unpredictability, however, as the teleporters send your players to a random location (or vaporize them completely) and five out of six of the ball-holding chests will explode in your face and end the turn. As a result, Dungeonbowl games are chaotic and unorganized, with team members spread around the expansive maps, and since a single score means victory, a single mistake (or bad roll) can cost the entire game. The teleporters make it exceedingly difficult to organize a plan, which may be the point. Luck also plays a large part in the game, beyond the randomness associated with attack roles: where will the teleporter send you? The best strategy with all of this instability seems to be to keep defensive players near your end zone and to move conventionally most of the time (unless the ball carrier is far away and the risk is worth it). The turn-based mechanics means you’ll have to wait for the opponent to complete their turn, but the two-minute limit keeps things moving quickly. I might suggest alternating control after every player, but that might result in an even more chaotic game. The basics of the gameplay remain intact, and the narrow passageways means blocking is even easier: just stick people in the middle of the hallway and the opponent is required to roll to dodge past them. The team customization options are typical, although only having three of the ten schools in Dungeonbowl leads me to believe the developer is purposely withholding content for a future date. The biggest disappointment is the lack of a single player mode (I guess the AI from Blood Bowl could not be taught the new rules) and removal of a tutorial. With no single player and no tutorial, I had to learn the game by playing with myself (not that I don't enjoy playing with myself). The interface could also use some additional work, as it was too difficult identifying teams and finding players. While Dungeonbowl is a unique version of the Blood Bowl system, the lack of single player content and high amount of randomness negatively impacts the game’s appeal.