Sports games exist in a weird niche. The Venn diagram of sports and board game fans results in a pretty diminutive cross section. While there’s been an explosion of Blood Bowl and Battle Ball influenced miniatures games over the past few years, the number that actually lives up to those designs is virtually nil. With Techno Bowl, a game has finally arrived to challenge for the throne.
Techno Bowl succeeds out of the gate due to its more widespread appeal. It adapts an 8-bit uniform and hearkens back to the glory days of Tecmo Bowl. Don’t know the difference between a safety and a tight end? No problem. Techno Bowl doesn’t rely on positions in a strict sense. Don’t understand the flow or structure of the game? No worries, designer Brent Spivey captured the process faithfully while streamlining rules and overhead into a discernible board game ruleset.
Offering a friendly welcome isn’t enough. Once you’ve sold the ticket you need to convert the butt in the seat into a lifelong fan. The way you do that is by capturing what makes sports special. The dynamic nature of a sporting event is integral to its enjoyment. Players colliding, balls flying, and powerful movement are the prime cuts. Table top games struggle in this department because you need to break down a real-time process into discrete turns and micro activities. The sheer pace of momentum struggles under this translation.
The trick here is the Apocalypse World-inspired activation system. Whenever you perform a maneuver–typically blocking, passing, or tackling–you perform a check and propel the action forward regardless of the outcome. You roll 2d6, apply some modifiers, and measure your level of success. A partial success of 7-9 means you achieve your attempt, but your opponent gets to respond with a more restricted half action. If you outright fail (6 or below), the enemy gets a full activation of one of their players. Finally, if you succeed with a 10+ on the roll then you get to chain your momentum into a second player activation.
All of this occurs in an overarching streamlined flow of back and forth play where I punch a hole in your defensive line with a huge block, then throw out a long bomb to a receiver downfield. Then you attempt to tackle the ball carrier but fail and push up past coverage. This fluidity is paramount to capturing the intensity and emotion of a live sporting event and the command of the dramatic moments of the game is unbelievably satisfying.
Techno Bowl’s sheer degree of cleverness is pretty astounding. There are rules and processes to force fumbles and turnovers. You can apply pressure on the quarterback and sap their options. You can “truck” the opposition by pushing them up the field as you’re carrying the ball. At times it feels as though you’re a superhero or giant stomping upon the heads of a team of mites.
In addition to wide range of outcomes spiraling from each series of action, there’s a great deal of variety in the modes of play. You can play with seven or eight players on the field each game. This changes up the feel of the game somewhat substantially as space tightens up and every inch becomes a battle. There’s also an enticing Inferno mode where players can catch fire and explode in power. If you want a deeper experience you can utilize player skills which offer special abilities and fuel interesting decisions.
With so much going on and so many options at the tips of your broken fingers, there’s certainly a complexity cost that must be paid. This isn’t a light game like Battle Ball and it’s not something you’d pull out with newcomers to the hobby. There’s also a possible analysis trap where you can get lost in the myriad possibilities of building your formation and setting up the free-form play structure. Those who can’t go with their gut or hurry it up will need to be spurred forward with a timer or risk derailing the sheer pace of play and undermining Techno Bowl’s greatest attribute.
Many of the processes here are well-developed and clever in their assertion. They internalize extremely quickly and those who commit will exhibit command after running just a couple of plays. This speaks to the strong symmetry of the design and how well the different sub-systems dovetail into a cohesive whole. To achieve that dynamic flow you need to feel in command quickly and Techno Bowl accomplishes just that.
The physical production of the thing is enormously impressive as well. The large oversized box features 32 teams with varying star players, a neoprene field mat, two gorgeous classic NES inspired controllers to hold your team’s bench cards, and many more small touches of care and brilliance. Expansion products already exist in team specific fields and custom league inspired carrying bags at Inked gaming.
At the end of the day, a game with these unique qualities is a tough one to sell in writing. You really need to sit down and ride the dragon to see the sparks fly. Much of the accomplishments here are in conveying a specific feel and establishing an infectious atmosphere. Techno Bowl nails it in this regard as it pins you to the turf and fills your mouth with dirt and blood. More often than not you’ll come away with a toothy grin choking back the grit.
Have you played many sports themed table top games? What’s your favorite? Let us know in the comments!
Image Credits: Brent Spivey/Bombshell Games
In addition to Geek & Sundry, Charlie Theel writes for Miniature Market’s The Review Corner and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. You can find him on twitter @CharlieTheel