Blood Bowl tournaments on the whole are great fun. That doesn’t stop me feeling that there are some elements about them that could be improved. As rosters have changed minimally over time and the majority of tournaments since 2002 have used similar restrictions, there is a clear and somewhat stagnant meta when it comes to preferred tournament races.
Seeing the same old races time after time doing well and thus getting the most representation, for me at least, became rather dull and boring. On occasion this is made even worse if you end up playing against the same race for 60% of your games. This is even more grating if you’ve travelled a long way to do so! With over 20 different races available I’d love to see more variation in teams that get taken to events.
What Makes A Race Strong At Tournaments?
If you take a look at the teams that are popular and get a lot of tournament wins you can see a pattern take shape. In order to do well your team really benefits if you can start with players who come with one of the “core skills”. Those skills are Block, Dodge, Guard & Tackle and to a lesser extent Sure Hands, Strip Ball & Wrestle. If you can supplement this by also having strong players or good agility, then those characteristics combined with the core skills is a winning combination.
If you take a look at the races with the most wins you can see this take shape, stats dated at the time of this article on 1st Jan 2020 over 270k+ games:
- Undead (41,283 games, 18,005 wins, 43.61%) have Wights with Block, Ghouls with Dodge and very strong Mummys with no negative trait
- Wood Elves (39,287 games, 17,987 wins, 45.78%) have Wardancers with both Block and Dodge, Catchers with Dodge, Treeman with ST6 and high agility
- Orcs (44,906 games, 16,229 wins, 36.14%) have Blitzers with Block, Thrower with Sure Hands (even if some coaches don’t use them), ST4 Black Orcs / Big Uns, ST5 Troll. Note that Orcs are also the most popular race, this stat is skewed by new players taking them as they were one of the teams in most of the base sets. They have a lot of wins based on volume but their win rate is lower than the first two.
- Dark Elves (34,903 games, 14,763 wins, 42.3%) have Blitzers with Block, Witch Elves with Dodge and high agility on everyone.
- Skaven (35,517 games, 14,529 wins, 40.91%) have Blitzers with Block, Gutter Runners with Dodge and high agility, ST5 Rat Ogre (though some coaches don’t take them)
- Dwarves (36,640 games, 14,468 wins, 39.49%) have Blitzers, Troll Slayers and Blockers all with Block which is nearly the entire team and the Blockers also have Tackle which are the most numerous of the players.
Following on from those you then have Norse (41.47%), Lizardmen (43.28%), Chaos Dwarfs (40.53%) and Humans (37.03%) like Orcs you need to factor in they are included in a lot of box sets, Necromantic (40.31%). All of those races have over 25,000 recorded games. Amazons (42.04%) are next on the list with 20,684 games with everyone else under 17k games.
If you compare Wood Elves (39,287 games), to Elven Union (14,734) and High Elves (10,886) you can see that the latter two races only have their two Blitzers with Block. Khemri / Tomb Kings (12,523) only have 2x Block (2x Sure Hands) but are hampered by the worst agility in the game which not even 4x ST5 Tomb Guardians can make up for. Chaos (16,246, 34.91%), Nurgle (9,450, 33.12%) and Vampires (7,287, 34.51%) don’t start with any of those core skills and you can see the win% drops off. Stunty teams are comparatively fairly popular (Goblins 16,958, Halflings 13,677) and also have a lower win rate, though for those teams it’s somewhat by design and most tournament rules already give them the biggest amount of extra assistance.
Extra Skills For Lower Tiers Doesn’t Address The Performance Gap
Over time in an effort to address these gaps it’s now fairly routine for tournament rules to offer extra skills and or double / secondary skills to the less popular races. Whilst having more skills will help a bit, it doesn’t address the benefit that comes from naturally starting with more of those core skills.
If you start with either Block or Dodge then it’s only one skill to get the staple skill combination by taking the one you don’t have. Even for players that need to take a secondary skill to get this combination, they can still get the nice combos of either Block + Tackle, or Block + Guard. Those skills on their own are not nearly as effective compared to having both on a player. Being able to take more players with a single skill doesn’t address the balance of power that comes from teams having those skill combinations. It’s no coincidence that Wood Elves have the best win percentage when they start with a high agility Wardancer that comes with Block and Dodge and then a single skill on them gives you one with Strip Ball and another with Tackle or perhaps Frenzy. What does an extra player on a Chaos team gain from having an extra player with Block on it compared to what that Wardancer can do?
The Case For Skill Stacking
Going back to 2002 we saw Games Workshop run the “Blood Bowl Resurrection” tournament which let you add one skill per game to your team but restricted you to putting that skill on a different player each game. This set the tone for what the majority of tournaments have done since (with a few exceptions). The first time I played in a tournament that decided to break this mould and let you stack two skills on the same player I was delighted with all the possibilities that opened up. Not only on those races that were less common but also the many different ways you could set up your team on the common tournament staples.
So my question really is that, what is the argument for not allowing skill stacking? It does add a little bit more complexity and can make games longer to play. Experience from playing multiple tournaments that have allowed it have proven that this isn’t an issue. Sure a league game with many more skills can take longer, though typically these are played at a more leisurely pace and have a lot more skills and combos to keep track of.
Another concern would be that allowing all the teams to stack skills is that won’t that just benefit the traditionally strong teams too? The answer to that is probably yes they will benefit from it, however they don’t benefit as much which would help close the gap and also make more races competitive.
Let’s go back to the Wood Elves and consider what they would do differently. The more skills you stack on a Wardancer the more you will miss them if they get injured from a blitz or foul. Will that extra skill help more than Dodge or Wrestle on a Lineman? They are still likely to take Leader on a Thrower to get a cheaper reroll. You might see them take Block and Guard (if the rules allow) on a Catcher. Perhaps they go Wrestle and Tackle on a Lineman? Some coaches like to go Grab on the Treeman. The upshot is that in order to stack a skill, that means taking it away from another player and I don’t think their power level really changes that much.
Undead teams might go with Block and Sure Hands on a Ghoul for a more secure ball carrier and make them immune to Strip Ball. In this regard skill stacking can actually negatively affect some of the power open to Wood Elves as they are the team you will most often see take Strip Ball. Again skill stacking for Undead means taking a skill off someone else who can benefit from having one, so I don’t really see a big shift in their tournament prowess and more a slight variation based on the coaches preference.
If teams can stack skills then we will probably see more Wrestle + Tackle players to counter those Block +Dodge + Sure Hand ball carriers. Given up to to this point no teams had a starting player who comes with Wrestle, (though the new Imperial Noble team now does) it’s not a combination we really ever saw, despite it being one of the best ways to combat the really common Block + Dodge players. The players that start with Tackle already have Block, so it’s not very efficient to spend a limited skill choice giving that player Wrestle as well.
For Chaos teams you can make some players who are going to be as useful as other teams have been able to create. You’ll now be able to get someone with Block and Dodge, Block and Guard, Block and Mighty Blow, Wrestle and Tackle are all now options open to you. For those tournaments just chucking extra skills at you, I bet a Chaos team with 3 players who have a 2 skill combo would have a better win percentage over a team that has 7 players with one skill. It also gives the choice for a coach to spread the skills as they see fit, maybe they want to just get one player with Block and Dodge to carry the ball and then have 4 players with a single skill. There’s also then the argument that 3 players with 2 skills is even easier to keep track of and if anything might speed a game up slightly over a concern that stacking could potentially slow play down.
The two less popular Elven sides would also then be able to get a Block + Dodge + Stripball (or other) player the same as Wood Elves can do (though it would cost them more of their skill choices). They can also Block + Dodge their Catchers, give Dodge to the Blitzers and have 4x Blodge players (assuming 6 skill allocation). It’s common to see Dark Elves just give Dodge to all four Blitzers and then Block and Wrestle to Witch Elves (or for teams with one Witch, they might go Leader on a Runner). Skill stacking would open up more variety here as well. One coach might favour Block + Dodge + Sure Hands on a Blitzer or Witch, another might want to go Wrestle + Tackle / Strip Ball on a Witch. Some coaches might do both, others might stick with what’s worked up till now. Hopefully this demonstrates that we might see not only more variation in races taken, but also in how roster choices are made.
Another potential variation we may see is more coaches experimenting with less of the core skills. Gutter Runners with Block + Side Step, or Wrestle and Dauntless for example. Will more coaches take Frenzy, perhaps in combination with Stand Firm or Tackle?
If you really want to mix skill selection up then you can stipulate that no two players on a team can be given the same increases. Want to stop that Dwarf Guard spam, this means only one player can be given Guard on it’s own and each extra player who is given Guard then has to combine it with a second skill, like Guard and Mighty Blow. The third Guard player has to take a different second skill such Guard and Stand Firm and so on. This will eat up their skill allocation quicker meaning less overall Guard in total. This would also hamper Blodge spam teams too if that’s what you’d like to see (I’m a fan of this stipulation too). Another alternative would be not as stringent and limit the same skill or skill combination on no more than two players per team.
Would You Still Keep Race Tiers?
Whilst I believe this would make more races “tournament viable” there would still be an imbalance between races. You can make use of tiers to adjust things over time as well, either at an individual tournament level, or using data from across events. Teams that aren’t proving to be as popular can be given more incentive with extra skills and teams that keep winning a lot and / or are taken in much higher frequencies can be hampered by being allowed less skills. Individual events can tweak these as they see fit, just like they are already able to do.
Hopefully this article makes you stop and think, if you’re a player reading this and likes the sound of it then let the organisers of events you attend know! If you’re organising an event then why not allow skill stacking? Are you just doing it because that’s how it’s always been since GW introduced it in 2002? If you’ve a strong argument against stacking that I’ve overlooked then let me know in the comments and I’ll see if I can counter it. My personal experience from playing events that allows stacking, reinvigorated the game for me and livened up the stale meta that’s not changed much for a long time.
Also I would urge tournament organisers to make your tournament rules easy to find. If you’re running a NAF sanctioned event then at a minimum make sure your tournament page on the NAF Upcoming Tournament list includes them, don’t just link to another page that requires a user to sign up in order to read the rules either! I tried to do some research into what tournament rules people were using but so many were impossible to even find. Do you ban skill stacking, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself why?