Hello, TechRaptor readers! Today we’ll be heading out to the pitch to take in the spectacle as angry, drunk not-Scotsmen, nimble anglers, and clockwork creators run, kick, and bash their way to victory and glory in Guild Ball. All the joy of an exciting football match without the hassle of ticket prices, overpriced food, or being stabbed in the bleachers by angry Oakland Raiders fans. A net win overall, I’d say.
Guild Ball is a skirmish-level tabletop game, developed by Steamforged Games, pitting teams representing and backed by various guilds from the Empire of the Free Cities against one another in soccer matches to win glory and renown for their cities, their guilds, and to hopefully keep the unwashed peasants distracted from the harsh realities of their lives. A newcomer to the tabletop scene, Guild Ball was initially released in 2014 and released Season 2 last year, adding new characters along with additional campaign rules.
Setting: Game of Thrones meets Friday Night Lights
The backstory is surprisingly in-depth considering the game’s small size and focus. In a nutshell, the various nations spent a century engaging in pointless, brutal wars with one another with practically nothing to show for it in the end. Populations were decimated, royal coffers bled dry, and nothing solid to show for any of the effort put forth. The nations’ governments were severely weakened during the fighting, which forced the various guilds to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) apply pressure to the warring nations to end the wars and stop hurting their bottom line. These guilds became richer and more powerful, and soon began plotting and conspiring against one another nearly as much as they did against the various ruling powers left standing after the Century Wars.
A simple game traditionally played around harvest time was picked up, expanded, and popularized across the entire Empire of the Free Cities as a way to bring the various peoples of the empire together, and provide the various guilds a chance to show off their wealth and power. Various guilds built, trained, and financially backed teams of players along with elaborate pitches, season schedules, and tournaments. The game became hugely popular among the people and provided a massive revenue stream to the already rich guilds, permanently embedding them into the political fabric of the empire.
The overall story is broken up into two parts, divided by season. The Season 1 rule book outlines the basic history of the Empire of the Free Cities and is loaded with various stories and tales of the various guilds and their players, while the Season 2 book focuses more on the individual players. The stories are well-written and provide an excellent insight into what could have been a hastily dashed-off page or two. This is one hallmark of many that shows how much the creators love and care about the game.
The various guild teams currently available are:
- The Butchers: Straight up brawlers and damage dealers. They care less about scoring goals and more about taking out other players.
- The Fishermen: Super quick and agile players that crumple like a wet paper bag when hit. This team is more focused on scoring goals than anything else.
- The Brewers: The tankiest team currently available. They’re decent at dealing damage, but have lots of damage mitigation and knockdown abilities available.
- The Engineers: The shootiest team on the field. Lots of knockdown abilities available, but struggle with the ball at long range.
- The Alchemists: A team specializing in debuffing opponents and controlling the board through area effect abilities.
- The Morticians: Not the best at soccer, but are loaded up with plenty of debuffs and control effects, including taking control of enemy models and repositioning them for maximum trolling opportunities.
- The Masons: The jack of all trades team that focuses on buffing everyone else and lots of teamwork.
- The Union: Mercenary players that have little to no synergy, with each player being very self-contained in abilities. Union players can join other teams as well, allowing them an opportunity to shore up the weak points in others.
- The Hunters: A recent addition to Guild Ball, the Hunters focus on board control via traps, area denial, and interactions with terrain on the pitch. Yes, there are rocks and trees and whatnot on the pitch in this game.
There has also been mention of a new team, the Farmers, coming soon. Artwork for the first model, Tater, was recently released via e-mail earlier this week along with a small blurb about the team’s playstyle. The Farmers will revolve around planting “harvest tokens” on the pitch to reap later on in the game. More information on the Farmers Guild is expected to be released around GenCon.
Miniatures: Little Giants
The miniatures themselves are very well-designed and well-casted. The 30mm minis available in either metal or resin, with the latter being a recent addition. They come with Warmachine-style slotted bases, which will require additional greenstuffing to secure the model to the base and fill in the leftover gaps. If you’re used to Games Workshop style slotted base models, this additional step will be a bit annoying to deal with, but it is necessary. If you’re new to greenstuff, a quick way to cure it is to stick it in the freezer for about an hour or so. Just make sure you ensure the models won’t slowly fall over five minutes after you close the door. Otherwise, your players will look like they’re seconds from faceplanting, which will not only be a pain to paint properly, but you also run the risk of being accused of modeling for advantage.
The Brewers metal models I received from Steamforged Games came with little flash and mould lines, and only required a minimal amount of greenstuffing to fill in gaps. My preference for plastic and resin models is rather well known here at TechRaptor, but I must say these metal miniatures were almost effortless to work with. I still prefer plastic, but I have to say I definitely dislike metal models a great deal less now. I’m sure that will change the next time I drop a particularly small and sharp bit in the carpet and rediscover it later on with my bare feet, but for now I’m content.
The model count for Guild Ball is very low, even among skirmish games. Smaller, introductory games can be played with only three models per team without omitting any major game rules. A full sized game only requires six models per team in total, drastically lowering the barrier to entry compared to other games. It’s entirely possibly to field a full team for roughly $100 USD, if you use the free tokens available from the company website. If you’re looking for a new game and working on a rather small budget, Guild Ball is an excellent option.
The minis are where I run into my first gripe about the game: The Steamforged web store featured 3D renders of the various models available, along with the stylized line drawing artwork used throughout the books. What the store lacks, however, is images of the actual painted models. These are available in the rule book, however, as additional artwork scattered throughout the margins. I’m a firm believer in the idea that painted models sell minis, and thus sell games. And while Guild Ball isn’t having any issues in popularity at the moment, providing images of the painted models not only helps drive interest, but also provides new players with inspiration and ideas for painting their own models.
As is the current trend in wargaming, Guild Ball makes heavy use of tokens and markers to keep track of various abilities, stats, and so forth. Steamforged Games has both a set of free, printable tokens to use a la Infinity along with sets of themed acrylic tokens to fit various teams. The token sets come with both the more generic markers for Influence and ability markers fitting that particular team. A bit of a warning for potential Brewers players: the token set for this team features white images and text on a fairly light yellow background, which can be hard to make out at a glance. Doubly so if you have trouble seeing colors properly. If you fall into this category, as I do, it may be best to look for an alternate token set for the time being.
Rules: All The Right Moves
One of Guild Ball’s many strengths is the easy-to-learn rule set. Perusing the Quick Start rules gives you everything you need to go through your first match with one of the team starter sets of three models. The main rulebook fleshes out the Quick Start rules without adding a daunting amount of additional information a la more complex games like Infinity.
The game plays out quite simply: A d6 roll-off determines which team is kicking and which is receiving. After the initial kick is resolved, players generate and allocate Influence to their team members, take turns activating one model at a time to move, take possession of or kick the ball, or spend Influence to buff a friendly model or attack an enemy model. Attacks are important, as they can not only damage your opponent’s models but also generate Momentum, which is required to score goals. Generating Momentum is also important because it can also be used to gain an additional attack die, recover a small amount of health, or help determine initiative for following turns. Each player’s Momentum pool is added to the initiative dice roll at the start of each turn, meaning players with more fragile teams can better dictate the terms of play at the start of each turn.
Players also have an additional surprise for their opponents in the form of Guild Plots. During set-up, players draw five Plot cards and keep three of them, keeping them hidden from their opponent. At any point during the game, if the Plot condition is met (for example, if an enemy model attacks one of your models) the card activates and its effect is applied (your model targeted with an attack gets a bonus to their defensive roll). There are a large number of Plots available, from the generic Plots to Guild-specific Plots to campaign Plots, all listed for free in the rule book and available to purchase as cards from Steamforged Games or your FLGS.
Points are awarded in two different ways: scoring goals gets you 4 Victory Points, while taking out an opposing player gets you 2 Victory Points. A standard Guild Ball game goes up to 12 Victory Points, while a quick game only goes to 8 Victory Points.
And to be honest, that’s really the core of the game. There are plenty of additional rules and character abilities, but they are all rather straightforward and easy to pick up. When I played an introductory game this last weekend with my local Guild Ball Pundit Brandon, the basic run-down of the rule set took maybe five minutes. After the first turn of actually applying all the information, the game went rather smoothly rules-wise. The biggest slowdowns I encountered were simply trying to figure out the best way to do what I wanted and constantly flipping my stat cards back and forth to see exactly what my models were able to do on the field.
Starting Out: Necessary Roughness
Steamforged Games has done everything right in regards to getting new players into their game. Not only have they released the Quick Start rules, the core rule book, and the player stat cards for free, but they also have a Vassal module available as well, giving potential players a chance to try the game completely for free. While other games have made their rules (Infinity) or their stat cards (Wild West Exodus) available for free, what makes Guild Ball stand out in this regard is its embrace of Vassal, a game engine specifically used for simulating tabletop games. This is an excellent way to give potential players a chance to see exactly what all the fuss is about without spending a dime. And in today’s gaming world, it truly takes a great deal of effort to stand out among the huge assortment of games currently available.
Rather than the traditional two-player starter set that’s currently seen just about everywhere in wargaming, Guild Ball offers a range of starter sets based on teams. Each team currently available has a three model starter set, including one team captain, one striker, and one additional player. These starter sets also come with a ball marker and stat cards, giving players the perfect start to a new team. This style of starter set also avoids the typical issue of players buying a two person starter set with nobody else to share the models with, leaving them with a collection of models they really have no interest in. While this style can work well for more narrative-driven games like Warhammer 40K, it wouldn’t quite fit with Guild Ball.
Currently, the biggest drawback to the game is the overall size of the teams available. Each team has a very small number of teammates available, and there's at least one model in every team that's sub-par in comparison to the others. This gives players a very limited selection to choose from and can eventually lead to a feeling of stagnation within the community. The primary reason for this is simply due to the game's age. Guild Ball has only been out for about two years, and was released by a a brand new company, so Steamforged Games doesn't have the same amount of available resources as a company like Corvus Belli or Privateer Press does. However, it's entirely possible to go overboard in this regard and end up adding new teammates and introducing a sense of power creep, with new models being stronger with more powerful abilities that throw game balance out of whack and practically force players to buy them just to stay competitive within their local meta. Anyone familiar with the introduction of the Wraithknight in Warhammer 40K knows exactly what I'm referring to.
The rule book itself is rather small in comparison to other wargames, but still well-crafted and easy to use. The writers assume the reader is at least passably familiar with wargaming rules, so the text is written in a very concise, no-nonsense fashion that makes using it as a reference guide incredibly easy. Individual rules and details aren't buried in paragraphs of explanatory information that only hinder people trying to find a specific nugget of information. The rulebook also features images of well-painted miniatures from the various teams to either help illustrate various rules interactions or just to break up the monotony of pages of black text on a white background. Why Steamforged Games doesn't use these images on their web store, I can't say for sure. But, as I mentioned above, doing so would go a long way in helping to sell models.
Guild Ball also has a robust and rather unique campaign system, again available completely for free. Not only will players be involved in matches with their teams, they’ll also be taking part in trades, garnering and cashing in favors, loaning players out to other teams, and more. The campaign system is much more robust than a traditional system and emphasizes the shady back door dealings that are a quintessential element to the Guild Ball world. It also gives players an additional level of engagement during the campaigns and honestly, gives them something to do in between matches.
Steamforged Games also has an outreach program for new players interested in the game. The Pundit program works much in the same fashion as Deputies for Wild West Exodus and Talons for Dropzone Commander. The Pundits provide demo games for prospective players, organize and run league games and campaigns, and provide a line of communication between the playerbase and Steamforged Games. The biggest problem currently with the Pundit program is their tracking method. It can be somewhat difficult to find a Pundit in your area, due to the fact that the company uses a forum thread to track new Pundits and their FLGS. The names and locations are put into a Google map showing their name and location, but updates to this list have been sporadic. The Google map method can also be somewhat difficult to use on mobile devices as well, which only adds to the frustration level. What I’d really like to see is an easy to search database of Pundits and their FLGS and a method for sending a quick message to either find or schedule a demo game. While this may seem a minor quibble that would take quite a bit of back end effort to implement, I think it will end up being a more robust and easier to utilize system than what’s currently in place.
Final Thoughts: Big Fan
All in all, Guild Ball scratches a very particular itch for me: it’s a small, inexpensive tabletop game that’s easy to learn, easy to teach, and requires a very small investment in both time and money. While Infinity and Wild West Exodus can fulfill a need for deep, intense skirmish level combat, Warhammer 40K and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar can give me a chance to immerse myself in a truly epic battle of titanic forces, Guild Ball provides a quick, easy, and yet wholly fulfilling gaming experience in a very small package. It’s safe to say that I wholly and unabashedly recommend this game to anyone looking for a new main tabletop game.
- Easy to learn rule set
- Excellently crafter miniatures
- Very low barrier to entry
- Metal models can be difficult to work with
- Locating and communicating with your local Pundit can be tricky
- Small number of teammates to choose from currently
The Guild Ball rule book, Brewers team, and Brewers tokens used for this review were generously provided by Steamforged Games. Also, thanks to the /r/guildball subreddit for additional insight into the game.
Summary: An in-depth and tactically satisfying skirmish game that’s easy to pick up and highly entertaining to play.
An in-depth and tactically satisfying skirmish game that’s easy to pick up and highly entertaining to play.