Blood Bowl: The Other Fantasy Football, Part 3: Chainsaws and Steamrollers

Editorial Note: This is the final part of a series on Blood Bowl. Part 1 offers a general background on the game, and Part 2 discusses the sociality of the EuroBowl Convention.


Day 2, Round 4: The atmosphere during games is largely hushed – an air of concentration predominates in the hall. The silence is broken by periodic emotional outbursts – shouts of joy or cries of despair. When not playing, players go to the bar, meet friends, examine the wares of a shop stall and talk excitedly about the weekend’s events. It’s surreal eavesdropping on conversations as people recite tales of luck and skill between goblins and amazons. One wonders what the venue staff make of it all!

It’s not all serious though, my next opponent is a case in point – his team ‘Aros Clowns’ comprise three Danes who, true to their name, are spending the weekend in clown costumes. They also have a horn with them which they use when particular results occur. They also signal that they are not taking things too seriously through the teams they use. My opponent is using halflings – one of the ‘unbalanced’ playing-teams that are more difficult to play with. Halflings are weak, slow and very brittle – the average result if one of them falls over is that they are knocked out! The match itself is most entertaining, highlighting both how a skilled player can make even a weak team tricky to beat and how big a factor luck can be in Blood Bowl. After one of my players fails to pick up the ball two turns in a row (pretty unlucky), the ball bounces off the field and is flung deep into my half by some energetic fans, right into the path of several of my opponent’s players who scoot off to score. I fight my way back into the game, dropping the number of halflings and scoring myself. It’s not enough to take the win, but fortunately my teammates come good against their clown opponents and we once again move up the leader board.

The way Eurobowl 2016 was organised arguably facilitated the making of social connections. For example, the ladder system seemed to be effective in allowing our team to find its level and for us it was thought-provoking to face new teams and players. Indeed, the degree of similarity between players, despite diverse national origins (see above) likely facilitates the forming of social relations, with different people having similar expectations about the nature of their social relationship and friendship more generally (cf. Bell and Coleman 1999). In other places, games can be seen to provide a structure and language for interaction and a grounding for social relations (Rapport 1999).

Round 5: Again I’m up against a fellow dwarf team. My opponent is a pleasant chap and we bond over our mutual love for ‘dem beards’. The game gets off to a good start for me as I kill one of his players straight from the off and get lucky with several other injuries. However this luck leads to recklessness and after an extended brawl too many of my players are out of position to stop him scoring at the end of the first half. In the second half I make a rush up the field but he is skilful in pressuring me and I end up forcing things, failing to score as time ticks away and he takes it 1-0. We finish early and have time to discuss tactics and he fills me in on some of his thinking in the game.

As a social event, it is perhaps fruitful to consider Eurobowl 2016 as a liminal space – highlighting the abnormal nature of the event from participants’ daily lives. Liminality refers to being ‘betwixt and between’ social identities (Turner [1969]1995). It is often characterised by the subversion of ordinary rules of behaviour and dress and the equality of those travelling through the space. The can be observed both in some of the special clothing worn by certain participants (for example the clown costumes worn by our team’s opponents in Round 4 or team uniforms worn by opponents in Rounds 1 and 3) and the tendency to refer to people by their ‘NAF-name’ (see picture 12) – this would occur usually when seeking out an opponent before a match. It was notable that the NAF name was more prominent than one’s own name on one’s badge. Several people had branded clothing advertising their NAF name. As a liminal space the social conventions differed from ‘normal times’ – conversation focused on Blood Bowl and concerns in the ‘outside world’ did not seem to intrude much. Likewise, people moved in a new greater group of people, often those who they would be physically and linguistically separate from. For a brief period a greater ‘Blood Bowl community’ is enacted.

12 Name badge

Name badge, showing NAF name, real name, team name and the tournament

As the opponent in Round 5 showed, many players saw Eurobowl 2016 as an opportunity for social networking – many teams had free gifts (such as dice) or flyers to give to their opponents (see picture 9). Ben’s Round 5 opponent maintains a podcast, which he advertised with a set of dice. Eurobowl thus provides a moment when a part of the Blood Bowl community is manifest, with the possibility for creating social relations, inviting players to attend tournaments and to learn from one another. As a liminal space such gift giving is fitting, indeed classic anthropological depictions of rights of passage often describe exchanges of gifts and the social role these entail, for example the payment of a dowry or bridewealth at or prior to a marriage in different parts of the world.

Eurobowl 2016 as a social space was clearly a site of play. Several different ‘frames’ of play (Fine, 1983) could be seen: social, game and fiction frames. As a communicative space made up of people united (at least initially) by their love of Blood Bowl a clear social frame was extant. Drinking together and sharing stories, participants could be seen largely as a group friends. The second, game frame, were the rules of Blood Bowl, which structured much social interaction. The final, fiction frame, structured both by the game rules and the ‘fluff’ (published stories and background) of Blood Bowl and the greater Warhammer world (see Part 1). In contrast perhaps to role-playing games, this perhaps was less overt. Comments were made reflecting the different characteristics of the different teams (e.g. most people like goblins as plucky, anarchistic, humorous underdogs), however I didn’t notice many instances of coaches playing ‘in-character’ themselves – with more discussion taking place in the game frame about effective tactics. Maybe as one of the most highly-ranked tournaments, Eurobowl 2016 did not lend itself to ‘fluffy’ play.

As a liminal space, Eurobowl 2016 was a site of specific rituals linked to players’ relationships to luck. It was notable that many players had rituals around dice rolling. In Round 1 my opponent would always discard the first dice he rolled for injury. Several other players also kept a large stock of dice – utilising the same couple until a failure occurred (usually a roll of a 1 or, the dreaded ‘skull’ on the block dice). They would then remove the offending dice and place them in a separate pile – steadily working their way through their collection. Indeed it seemed a standard form to explain ones habits to a new opponent before a game. Such rituals are reminscent of Gmelch’s classic description of ‘baseball magic’ – the efforts by professional baseball players to keep fortune on their side (Gmelch 1971). In this depiction, rituals associated with playing are attempts to bring a sense of control to actions that are inherently uncertain – the more uncertain the action, the greater the preponderance of rituals, at least among baseball players. It would be interesting to examine how and when Blood Bowl players’ rituals arose – certainly it was notable that the idea that a die’s luck was spoiled by a poor roll seemed to be fairly common. Uncertainty of course is not always a negative, as my match in Round 4 showed part of the joy of Blood Bowl is the possibility of ‘lucking out’. Indeed, in many situations people actively search for uncertainty – after all, the only certainty in life is that it will eventually end, so people seek the possibility that they will continue to survive (cf. Whyte 2004). I have met gamers elsewhere who are somewhat disparaging of the suitability of Blood Bowl for ‘competitive play’ – the importance of luck over skill is too high for some people’s tastes. Participating in Blood Bowl tournaments thus may also highlight a particular standpoint towards luck and the extent that it enhances or detracts from the playing experience. Based on the tales one overhead at Eurobowl 2016, part of the joy of in Blood Bowl is that there’s always a chance to pull off that ludicrous pass, against the odds blitz or incredible interception!

Round 6: the hangover is kicking in and I’m definitely beginning to reach my limit when it comes to dice rolling. Our final opponents are a group of people who previously did not know one another coming together for the opportunity to compete in the Eurobowl. My own opponent is a Swede using a norse team. I’ve never played against norse before and things go badly almost from the off and I my opponent quickly moves into a dominant positon. In the end, I lose 2-0. Both my opponent’s norse and his teammate’s wood elves are notable for their all-female pieces, with pronounced bosoms and buttocks sculpted onto the models. This is notable at this stage as these are the first sexualised models I’ve seen at the tournament.

Conversation with the tournament umpire also suggested that the make-up of Blood Bowl communities varied somewhat in different parts of Europe. For example, he noted that in comparison to the UK Blood Bowl scene Sweden has more women players (although he felt that the number of women involved was increasing across the board). He attributed this to the large number of women actively playing board games in Sweden noting that there was considerable cross over with the Live-Action-Roleplaying scene (LARPing). He also had noted an increase in the number of young people taking up Blood Bowl – most players were of an age that they were teenagers when Blood Bowl third edition was released in 1994 but we speculated that now these people were old enough to have children who could also join in.

Liminal spaces are often thought of as potential sites of social change – once aspirants leave the liminal space wider society is changed, with participants having passed through a ‘right of passage’. Potentially forming a role in changing political structure (after all, in a way, an election is a ritual of political change). By a similar token, however, some things do not change and indeed existing power relations may be reinstituted – a temporary symbolic inversion of ordinary power relations may serve as an outlet for revolutionary energy, leaving dominant social structures intact. Eurobowl 2016 felt very much to be a politics free event – I personally did not encounter any overt political statements (beyond the acceptance of the concept of ‘national teams’). Maintaining a politics-free social space is however a political act, however inadvertent. Indeed, the apparent evenness of the social field may conceal disparities within the Blood Bowl community and indeed of access to that community. As a game based on a collecting (through purchase) a team of model figures, those who cannot afford a team cannot play. Having said that, in comparison to many other Games Workshop games (for example Warhammer 40,000) the outlay required to play Blood Bowl is comparatively small. A notable omission in the data collected here is the lack of conversations with women gamers or players from minority ethnic backgrounds, with white, male voices dominant. It would be very interesting to speak to such players and get their perspectives on the implicit gender, racial and class politics of the greater Blood Bowl community.

The final games are over and we all gather in the main hall to hear the results. England has taken the EuroBowl for the fifth year and, in the EuroOpen the Italians who bested us in Round 1 were themselves defeated by a French team who are suitably pleased. There is clapping and cheers and then the crowd disperses – the European Blood Bowl community is once again more potential than present.

In the darkness of the Swedish autumn, myself and my team mates wend our weary way home. I’m shattered from lack of sleep and concentration and thoroughly sick of dice rolling. My teammates speak excitedly about entering next year’s tournament (in Porto, Portugal). Quite apart from the games, it would provide an opportunity for further fieldwork: it would allow me to compare a Swedish and a Portuguese tournament. At present, however, all I want to do is lie down and avoid small, metal toys for at least a month!

10 Prize giving

The moment of glory! Prize giving ceremony

Benedict Singleton is a postdoctoral researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. In December 2016, at Örebro University, Sweden, he defended his PhD thesis in environmental sociology entitled: From the sea to the land beyond: exploring plural perspectives on whaling. As a dwarf player he enjoys various combinations of ale, beards, gold and chainmail.

References

BELL, S. and COLEMAN, S., 1999. The anthropology of friendship: enduring rhemes and future possibilities. In: S. BELL and S. COLEMAN, eds, The anthropology of friendship. Oxford: Berg, pp. 1-19.

FINE, G. A. 1983. Shared fantasy. Roleplaying games as social worlds, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

GMELCH, G., 1971. Baseball magic. Trans-action, 8(8), pp. 39-41.

JOHNSON, J., 1994. Blood Bowl Handbook. Nottingham: Games Workshop.

RAPPORT, N., 1999. The ‘bones’ of friendship: playing dominoes with Arthur of an evening in the Eagle pub. In: S. BELL and S. COLEMAN, eds, The anthropology of friendship. Oxford: Berg, pp. 99-117.

TURNER, V., [1969]1995. The ritual Process. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

WHYTE, S.R., 2004. Questioning Misfortune. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

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About Benedict Singleton

I have a range of research interests and diverse academic background. I began my academic studies within social anthropology and proceeded into international development. I now find myself working within the field of environmental sociology, although I try to retain some foothold in other research areas. I am a theoretical pragmatist, utilising a variety of frameworks and methodologies. In general, I am a constructivist and all of my research to date has focused on discourses in some form. Generally, I am conducting research that is of practical value (whatever that means) and I try to translate theoretical concepts in ways that can be useful for those who are not social scientists. During my career I have conducted research in Zambia, Jamaica, the UK, Sweden, Norway and Belgium.

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