So I swore I was going to stick to only playing two games seriously: DBMM and Malifaux. What I didn’t account for was most of the local competitive Warmachine players jumping on board the Guild Ball train and it taking over my Wednesday night gaming club. Months ago I heard a lot about it from podcasts and it had intrigued me, however I figured I’d give it a miss due to the lack of a local scene. So much for that plan.
While umpiring the Malifaux tournament at ValleyCon 2016 I got a demo game from the local pusher and long-time friend of mine, Mike Thorn. From what I had heard it was a slick system that was fast and easy to follow, yet allowed a lot of per-character variation. This is totally accurate! The combat is great and allows each character and team to have a lot of individual flavour, not to mention possible synergies once you get further into it. Like most sports games (and by “most sports games”, I mean Blood Bowl) it has to balance bash vs. skill. From my three games so far it seems to balance this out fairly well: skilled teams have to race off to an early lead as they find their options reduced the longer the game goes. One thing it has over Blood Bowl is that it feels much easier to actually play the sport – kicking the ball around is pretty simple when you’re not threatened and you can set up some great plays.
However there are a few bits that aren’t quite as smooth as I’d hoped: different kinds of plays are triggered completely differently (character plays by spending influence or specific combat results, heroic by spending momentum, legendary are free but only once per game), penalties and bonuses for kicks, combat and character plays are all slightly different, that sort of thing. Little sharp edges on an otherwise super-smooth system that I’m sure also bug the designers and, fingers crossed, will be ironed out in an eventual second edition.
Choosing a team
Now to the tricky bit: picking which one of the eight teams I’m going to get. With sports-based miniatures games I prefer to play the teams that focus on the game itself rather than just the bashing aspect of it. I just find it more interesting. So that narrowed it down a bit: one of the Fishermen, Alchemists, or Masons.
The next step was looking at the minis. Miniatures are my favourite part of miniatures games – the clue is in the title! So this was a lot of time poring over the website and checking out other peoples’ painted miniatures. Alchemists were struck off the list due to the odd pose for Vitriol.
The last step is a new one in my selection process: representation. It’s not something I really gave a lot of thought to until recently, but now it’s quite important to me that the miniatures I buy and paint (and the companies I support) not wallow in the grand tradition of geek marketing efforts everywhere and pander exclusively to the straight white male. I want to see a greater diversity of genders and races in my miniatures, just like I would love to see the same change in who they appeal to and might get into the hobby.
This really showed me how much Malifaux is ahead of the pack on this front: Guild Ball is a real boys’ club with a few token women. Only one team, the Masons, has a female captain and more than two female players in total. Most of the female players have their appearance be a key part of their character, and a lot of them have in-game abilities to go along with it (“Seduced”, “Charmed (Male)”, etc). As for non-European characters, the Fisherman are the only ones to have any: their second captain, is styled on Arab pirate, and the art for Greyscales show him with dark skin (though the studio paint job is a lot paler)
This left Fishermen and Masons tied – the Fisherman won out when I saw that the Masons range has some scale issues, and there were already five Masons players in the local group and just one Fishermen player.
I’ll preface this section by saying that I really don’t like miniatures game fiction. I view reading it as homework. Guild Ball did nothing to dissuade me from this attitude: opening up the rulebook and you get hit over the head with dense prose, pages and pages of text in a tiny font. Then a map! Which means a painstaking description of the world and all the cities and races, oh my.
The good bit is that it’s surprisingly well-written and easy to read. The last major story simply takes us through a game and it flows really nicely – everything that happens (except the first trick shot) you could see happening on the tabletop.
What I don’t like is the tone. It’s just so serious! This is something that Blood Bowl did wonderfully – its goofiness and art took the sting out of the brutality of the game. Guild Ball takes the opposite approach: it is Tarantino to Blood Bowl’s Wile E Coyote. Some of the fiction is downright nasty: we are told in grisly detail how in one match Brisket is stalked by a player on the opposite team intent on murder, how she panics and is eventually tacked, stabbed multiple times and is left to bleed out. One of the union leaders is captured by another guild and we hear in detail how he is tortured and mentally and physically broken. The term “bitch” is thrown around a lot and I got the sense the author would have preferred to use stronger terms if they knew they could get away with it.
Also the more brutal stories don’t quite match up to the actual game they’re meant to be describing. Some of the games seem to take place in this strange foggy battlefield in which the players stumble on to one another and then engage in one-on-one fights with lethal weapons. It reads more like a world war one comic than a five-on-five football match. What makes this weird is that the game itself manages to capture a fluid brawl like no other game I’ve played – people charging in, throwing a few punches, tackling the ball and pushing off again to make a pass – and most of the stories ignore this and pretend it’s just Warhammer.
One of the things that Steamforged Games does superbly however is getting you into the game. All the rules, cards, and even print-out cardboard standees are all available free on their website. I have no idea why other games companies don’t do this! I suppose giving out your rules for free seems a little counter to most business practices, but getting into a miniatures games is a serious commitment and being able to try it out without spending a couple of hundred dollars will certainly increase the reach of Guild Ball. And no-one’s going to be happy playing with paper minis, everyone who’s keen will be splashing out on the real things.
So right now I’ve got my cardboard Fishermen’s Guild team and a few games under my belt. I seem to be losing by less each time which is certainly movement in the right direction. I’m not ordering any figures yet as I want to make sure they’re the team for me (so far so good) and also don’t want any more minis while I still have unpainted figures for Malifaux, Infinity and Blood Bowl left. 17 to go!