Review – Dreadball version 1

Dreadball is Mantic Games’ Tron style future basketball sports game. It was conceived as an attempt to get a slice of the BloodBowl gamers pie and launched on Kickstarter back in the day, its about to get a second edition soon like Deadzone but I gave the latest version a whirl to see how it played.
First impressions, I liked the board but the low resolution artwork and the blur effect on everything left it lacking in visual effect, the miniatures are some of the worst ever sculpted, even with nice paint jobs they eye wateringly ugly. Giant oversized spikes shoot out of the goblin’s hands while some of the human (Enforcer) sculpts looks like they were sculpted from scratch in one go and left next to a hair drier to melt and distort while the designer went to the pub, sadly this is endemic of Mantic and a serious issue that are only hair trying to fix.
The only benefit is that they are all plastic which makes them super light and durable although if you were going to invest in plastic moulds you’d have paid more attention to the models. The rules are both simple and abstract at the same time, your team has 5 activations a turn, you mark which players you activate on a table to the left on the board and can activate models twice if you need. I liked this a lot as its an elegant way of marking which models you use and ensuring that the turns get done quickly and saves the 11 player shuffle that starts off some games of BloodBowl. There are turnovers which also end your turn but they only trigger if you make a mistake while carrying the call, again I like this as explaining everything that can cause a turnover in BloodBowl to a new player is tricky to say the least.  The combat, dodging, picking up the ball and other tests are done by Mantics trademark dice test where you roll a number of dice and count the number of successes you get. It works well here but I did like the special block dice BloodBowl gave you that produced a much more thrilling result when double skulls get rolled. When you attack another player you count the number of successes you have against theirs then the difference is how many turns that player is out for, 4 turns means the player is dead, but before this happens the defending player rolls 3 dice and for every 5+ reduces it by one. Unfortunately this kind of streamlined, mechanical, elegance causes the game to lose a bit of the humour BloodBowl had in its slightly longer injury system. For instance in Dreadball your Enforcer Jack can be removed from the pitch for 2 turns after taking a strike from a opposing Striker, however in BloodBowl your Orc Blitzer can be pushed into the crowd and in the ensuring brawl get knocked out. Notice how one of these statements sounds good and the other sounds a bit bland.
Simple is all well and good and there is a benefit for having a lighter simpler ruleset, unfortunately when it come to Dreadballs turn to inject its own flavour into the matches everything takes a turn for the worse. One of the most evocative parts of BloodBowl is the invisible referee that is constantly abused by the players on the pitch and the crowd. He might send a player off for carrying a secret weapon or assisting a foul but other than that his involvement is minimal, in Dreadball you move a ref model around the pitch every turn, the only trouble is that fouls in both games are rare enough to sometimes never occur during a match. This is fine as fouling a downed player is a “Win More” mechanic and really something only high end players have to be worried about remembering to do but it does rub the wrong way against all the other streamlined parts. Another part I didn’t like was the deck of cards that sits at the side of the board and is dealt out to players at the start of the game to give random free additional actions during their activations, I really didn’t understand the need for this other than also being used to  generate movement for the ref and sometimes powerful random effects, it’s obviously a replacement for the Kick Off table in BloodBowl but the only problem is the Kick Off table used to add flavour into the game by depicting crowd riots and random gusts of wind to effect the ball however this just seems to churn out cards like “Your striker gets an extra move” and the like.
One thing I do like is that the game doesn’t wait till you stop the half before allowing you to send new players onto the pitch to replace those that are injured, you can move them on from the back of your side of the pitch with your standard action orders, this allows you to push up into the opponents pitch, lose some players and be pushed back down again only for fresh players to bolster your defence leading you to rebound back down the pitch, weirdly it reminds me of a multiplayer online battle arena game like League of Legends or Smite with the shifting focus on different areas.
All in all there is a mechanically sound game at the heart of this system although heart and soul is what the game is missing, there are 25 races for Dreadball but virtually no trace of any crowds watching, virtually no hint of a larger universe that can be gleaned from gameplay, no debris from previous matches in the roll out pitch just distorted figures moving around a hex grid system trying to move a ball into the glowing red or blue areas so they can make a dice test.
Sadly I wouldn’t recommend buying this, not just because of the poor quality of models or the flabby rules, it’s because you could improve the game immensely by replacing all the miniatures with hexagonal tiles like the ones in Hive with the position of the player and their stats and have the fast cheap experience that the core of the game is supposed to provide. That being said giving how Mantic have no problem in gutting their game and provide a better experience I wouldn’t be surprised to come back and find the cards and ref had all been replaced with the dice based order system in Deadzone.
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