TECHNO BOWL Review
on Jul 26, 2017
Brent Spivey at the moment is an unknown name in the board game world. He's designed several excellent miniature game rule-sets including Havoc: Tactical Miniature Warfare, The Battlefield, and Rogue Planet. When I heard he was entering the board game world my eyebrows arched skyward like my 75 pound horse of a dog hearing the word "walk". When I discovered it was an 8-bit American Football game I was dumbfounded, like my 75 pound horse of a dog trying to apply the Pythagorean Theorem to an obtuse triangle.
But this is Brent, right? Havoc won my heart as soon as I realized you could club a dude with a Giant. You haven't lived until you've Tiger Woods'd a Knight down the fairway into a formation of spearmen.
It's easy to slip into hyperbole when you get emotionally invested in a game and the experience it provides. Such it's hard for me to ascribe the word brilliant to Techno Bowl and actually command the respect that adjective deserves. But I'll try.
While this design’s heart lies in its activation system, its brain certainly persists in the programming of those activations via "building the play". Each team consists of seven or eight players, depending on the mode of play, and each player is represented on your bench with two cards. Before building your free-form formation you must program five cards in a stack. This is identical to the order system used in the fantastic Queen's Gambit. The beauty here is that you begin with control and a semblance of a plan, at least until the tanker full of chaos drives right through your offensive line and rolls your Quarterback.
The system is nuanced and deeper than it initially appears. When you simultaneously reveal player cards to activate, the person with the higher first digit number on their uniform will go first. These players may have been slotted into a rough position on the field - Center, QB, Wide Receiver - yet there are no true restrictions and you can hike the ball to a lumbering ogre or even line up nearly your entire team in the back field. This freedom bolsters creativity while it also lifts any requirement of football knowledge. It's fantastic and works seamlessly to promote enjoyment by placing control in the hands of the players.
The activation system of Techno Bowl is where the beef's at. When you trigger a player he can move or perform a half move and action. The number of squares you can sprint is equivalent to the player's number in the first digit on their jersey. This becomes more interesting as you exit threatened spaces surrounding players, having to pay additional movement points to fight through the pack. This system of threatening and slowing down nearby jocks adds a great deal to the formation building as you attempt to clog lanes and throw up walls of linebacker flesh for your opponents to bounce off. It promotes native strategy as you keep coverage tight and collapse around the ball.
Actions consist of block, tackle, and throw. The dice-based system used is influenced by the fantastic Apocalypse World RPG where you sum two six-siders. Modifiers exist due to a difference in player ability as well as supporting teammates and threatening nearby opponents. Modifiers can swing at a maximum of three in each direction which keeps results tight without eschewing their natural dramatic tension.
Player capabilities are brilliantly represented by their jersey number. As hinted at earlier, higher numbers can move farther and are more agile but will have negative modifiers when trying to tackle or block the lower numbered brutes. Additionally you can throw the ball a number of spaces equal to twice the number in the first digit on your jersey. This has a very Battleball-esque feel where the giants on the field hit hard but lumber about and the slick jukeing gazelles cover ground at insane speeds but eat it quickly if confronted.
After calculating your modifiers and committing to your act of aggression you chuck the dice-and hopefully fist pump. A result of six or below will feel like Von Miller slamming into your ribs at full speed. Your action fails and the opposing player gets to perform a full activation with any one of his team members. A 7-9 means you succeed, but again your enemy will get a half move with one of his dudes. What you're really hoping for is that sweet, sweet 10+ which means you pull off your move AND get to engage another one of your hooligans to push up-turf or truck an opponent.
This is where Techno Bowl sets fire to those other sports games and grinds their ashes with its cleat. This sense of back and forth, dynamic unpredictability and continual shifting of field position is unreal. Openings will emerge and suddenly your scrambling quarterback will be able to push beyond the blitzing defensive line. You'll have turns where you attempt to hit a huge block with your lineman just so you can chain an action to your Quarterback and perform an unexpected throw. Squeezing out these extra slices of engagement is where the battles of Techno Bowl are won and where huge plays can erupt.
It's dramatic and exciting in a way befitting the most ecstatic moments of sports entertainment.
Watch out for the kittens.
Techno Bowl is not a light game. This is solidly a medium weight design that has a hefty set of rules to work through. The first time I read the rulebook I was agog at the perceived complexity and began to worry that the 8-bit theme was mismatched with extremely heavy gameplay. And then I ran a play.
You see, while the rules may be daunting upon first read, everything internalizes very quickly. Resolution is simple yet produces deep and unexpected results at a great pace. The experience is beautiful and immersive.
Still, I won't be teaching this to my game-averse Mother who's perfectly fine connecting routes with plastic choo-choos. It requires 60-90 minutes and can be excruciatingly slow with someone who is prone to analysis paralysis. The rules look to solve this issue by dictating a timer to build your play but this won't be needed with most gamers (although I do enjoy the Space Hulk-like tension).
The game also features several modes which make tailoring the experience easy. You can play a more fast paced game with the standard seven players a side, or a slower more thoughtful experience with eight on each team. While standard play is meaty enough to consume your dome with strategy and engagement, I really dig the player abilities that grant several members of your team special traits. This will let you juke or perform a powerful block, increasing your ability for the dramatic and adding another layer of bluffing when building plays as you utilize your weapons in deceptive ways.
I could ramble on like Robert Plant and talk about the NBA Jam-like Inferno mode where players can catch fire, or dive into analysis of properly utilizing your "bench" where you manage your activation cards. The fact of the matter is this game sells itself. No downtime and extreme dynamism make for the best sports game I've ever played. All of this is coming from a guy who hasn't watched a full NFL game since Kurt Warner left the Rams.