Games Workshop’s Dungeon Bowl is frivolous and incoherent in the best of ways. This subterranean take on Blood Bowl was originally released in 1989 and returns this year with a deluxe boxset. It’s an over-the-top zany thing where randomness trumps strategy. Each play unfolds as a silly story with weirdos reliving the glory days of the Old World.
The randomness defines this game. It utilizes all of the rules of Blood Bowl proper, but it adds in bouncing balls off walls, teleporting unpredictably between rooms, explosive traps, and a hidden ball. You field teams of mixed races, something foreign and outside the spirit of every other Games Workshop title, as you thrash about the dungeon bashing skulls and searching through treasure chests for that spiked squig-skin. I don’t actually know if Old World balls are made from the flesh of squigs, but they should be.
Ridiculously, the whole match is only played to a single touchdown. This fosters a sudden-death tension that fuels the frantic search for the ball, emphasizing the do-or-die attitude literally stitched into the narrative. On the downside, this can result in plays lasting anywhere between 40 and 90 minutes. It’s as unpredictable as that tackle your Gutter Runner is attempting on the Ogre. So let loose and get lit. That’s what the game wants.
This absurd nature is endearing. Hopping into a teleporter requires you grumble a prayer to Mork and hope you end up closer to the ball. There’s a chance you’re flung to an entirely different location and ejected from play permanently. When you flip the lid off a chest, you wince, hoping to find the ball and not an explosive trap. Usually, you’re picking up scattered chiclets from the ground and trying to scoop them back into your mouth.
Yeah, I can hear your curses through the speakers and feel your spittle upon the black mirror.
What about us peons, those who haven’t played Blood Bowl?
Blood Bowl is a great game laypeople. The flow of play is where it flies high. It has you activating models until you suffer a turnover, basically a failed roll. There’s this wonderful tempo of performing several easy actions before attempting the riskier ones. It reframes how you think strategically, turning the activation system into an organic audible of play-calling. I dig it. It’s a classic for a reason. All of that goodness is here in Dungeon Bowl. Read my review of Blood Bowl if you remain unsatiated.
One thing that is particularly clever is the specific setting of Dungeon Bowl. This is an underground sporting event put on by the Colleges of Magic to settle disputes and establish their own internal hierarchy. Standard sporting fare.
But what I adore is how this functions as a collegiate amateur league. It serves as player development for the larger Blood Bowl scene, slotting in nicely as a goofier and more unregulated minor league. Those who have attended minor league sporting events can attest to the wackier antics and adjacent entertainment offered during half-time or between whistles. Chainmail t-shirt guns and zombie cheerleaders wouldn’t cause Dungeon Bowlers to bat a swollen eye. Everything is pointedly kitsch and that’s central to the appeal.
Part of me loves this game. I’d certainly place it above Blood Bowl. It could block out some space in my top 10 of the year and no one would question it. But there’s just too many factors working against Dungeon Bowl. They’re almost entirely external to the magic pumping through the veins of the Dark Elves, Dwarfs, and Snotlings bouncing about the dungeon walls.
The first foul is the price. The box set itself is incredibly expensive, more so than Blood Bowl: Second Season Edition. The value is not pitiful, but it’s not great. You get dungeon tiles, two teams with some incredible miniatures, and a nice hardback book. It’s fine and care was obviously put into the package. It’s just pricey.
But going beyond this core set is a challenge. Anyone who doesn’t already have a few Blood Bowl teams is going to struggle. Since factions in this game are representatives of one of the colleges of magic and composed of mixed races, you will need to pull characters from different Blood Bowl miniature sets. If you’re starting from scratch, you are just boned. It would require a large outlay of money and picking up many different boxes to field a proper team.
It’s possible Games Workshop release products specifically for supporting Dungeon Bowl, but I would actually be surprised if that was the case. This feels like a one-and-done release. The game itself is positioned oddly in that it functions best as an event for a Blood Bowl league to partake in over a weekend. True, there are full league rules included and you can go squig-wild leaning full-tilt into long-term play, but I imagine that to be a rare occurrence. Most people will prefer to dig into the more popular Blood Bowl and you will need to convince a group of opponents to acquire teams and convert to this game. That’s a tough ask.
Sadly, this could function as a really spectacular board game where it sits on your shelf and is pulled out occasionally for enjoyable one-off sessions. It works well like this from a gameplay perspective. But you have limited options to expand or flesh out your options due to the lack of teams. It also struggles in that the Blood Bowl ruleset is relatively dense for the weight of the game. We’re not talking about a Vital Lacerda ruleset here, but it would require a re-read of the tome to re-familiarize yourself with the nuances that seep from your brain like a leaky faucet. You have scatter, inducements, blitzing, tackling, throwing, interference, fouls, petty cash, and many more things over the 50 or so pages of details. Each room even has its own special rules – which is incredibly awesome – but no easy reference besides flipping to a random section in the middle of the book and looking them up as you go.
Setting up a team for your first game requires you understand the roster rules, even if you’re just fielding the included miniatures. No cards or pre-filled rosters exist so you can’t simply start playing, you will need to print off a sheet and fill in all of the details.
When I was first digging in, I thought it may replace Blitz Bowl in my collection. Nay, that isn’t the case. This requires much more dedication and can’t simply leap from the shelf and onto my pitch without preparation. It occupies a space where it competes with several lengthier titles, including the peak of football designs: Techno Bowl.
Dungeon Bowl is an excellent game. I’d heartily recommend the experience if it sounds like you can hack it. But it epitomizes my issues with Games Workshop’s product strategy. They release many, many titles and they all seem so scattershot. Bladeborn, a brand-new release that simplifies War Cry, highlights this issue. Why play it? Most will either fully commit to War Cry or partake in the exceptional Warhammer Underworlds if they want a 30–60-minute experience with depth and speed.
This is also mirrored in their supplement strategy. If you randomly show up to a Necromunda game night with a new group, do you know which trading post list you will be using? What supplements are fair game? Good luck, juve.
All of this is found in Dungeon Bowl. It feels a hodge-podge release, a bag of Chex Mix. This is best displayed by the lack of cards or pre-filled rosters, as well as the mix of simple push-fit models and annoying spikey jigsaw dudes.
I enjoy Games Workshop’s worlds, particularly the one that is Oldest, and I find many of their games absolutely lovely. But Dungeon Ball epitomizes the lack of focus inherent in their product lines that has become so frustrating.
So, do you embrace Dungeon Ball? Maybe buy it, play it, love it, and then shelve it for a couple of years. Or buy it and never play it because you can’t find an opponent. Then sell it many moons from now for $400. Perhaps you get a league going and everyone adores it for a week or two until the next boxed release comes along. I weep because this game is excellent, as so many of them are.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.