Kaosball Review – A Little Rugby, A Little Powerball, A Lot of Fun
I’ve never been a huge fan of ‘sports based’ games, be it miniatures games or actual board games. Despite the rave reviews I’ve always heard about Games Workshop’s beloved Blood Bowl, I’ve never played, never owned a team, and never really had a desire to. Similarly, I couldn’t convince myself to care about Mantic Games’ ‘Blood Bowl for a new generation,’ Dreadball. Sports games, even on consoles, just never did it for me. Maybe it’s because I’ve been an athlete most of my life and ‘simulated sports games’ always feel like they’re ‘sports based games’ created by someone that never actually played the sports they’re simulating, and thus never felt right. I don’t know. But they never grabbed my attention.
With that in mind, I initially passed on Eric M. Lang’s (Quarriors, Star Wars: The Card Game, Chaos in the Old World) newest endeavor with Cool Mini or Not (CMoN), Kaosball. I followed the Kickstarter from start to finish, and considered jumping in on it on simply because Mr. Lang was the designer and I always find myself enjoying his designs. In the end, I couldn’t pull the trigger, despite Lang’s appeal, because it was a ‘sports game.’
Man, what a mistake!
“Well, it is a contact Sport!” – The Gameplay
Kaosball is a 2-4 player game where, like its subtitle suggest, is all about ‘Total Domination.’ When I first looked at the Kaosball board, I thought that the game was going to be the standard sports game amalgamation of American football, soccer, and rugby, like most of the other sports games out there are. In reality, the game feels a lot more like a sort of board game version of the American Gladiator classic Powerball game. The goal of the game is to get your runners into minor scoring zones in the middle of the board or in major scoring zone on the opposite end the board with the Kaosball in hand (or have them in scoring zones at the end of the period). This, of course, is all while trying to avoid getting the ball stolen by other runners or getting tackled or killed by opposing bruisers. Gameplay lasts through the course of four periods, with bonus scoring happening at the end of every quarter and special scoring occurring at halftime and at game end.
Runners and Bruisers differ in a few ways, both aesthetically and in terms of gameplay. Most noticeably, the models are different. They’re not always different enough to be able to tell at a glance (bruisers aren’t automatically larger than Runners, for instance), and that would be a problem were the models not based on different shapes, Runners on circles and Bruisers on squares. This makes it really easy in game to determine which pieces are bruisers and which are runners. Additionally, how they’re used in game is very different. Like I mentioned before, Runners are your scorers, who’s primary job is to get into scoring zones with (or without) the ball. Bruisers, on the other hand, are your only pieces that can attempt tackles or attacks, utilizing their adjacent, non-diagonal squares called “Kill Zones” to make enemy movement more difficult. Basically, any time a model moves into a Bruiser’s Kill Zone, the model can chose to try and tackle or attack. With this really simple mechanic, it turns runner movement into a very tactical decision.
But Bruisers don’t automatically get to tackle you, at least not without some resistance. These showdowns are presented in the form of Contests and are performed any time a direct conflict occurs in the game, be it attempting to steal the ball, tackle a runner, or attack another player. Contests are resolved by using the game’s card deck, which is composed of three different types of cards: Energy, Tactics, and Cheats (of course there’s cheating!) Energy cards give you a bonus to your basic statistics used to resolve conflicts (Handling for steals, Tackling for tackles, and Fighting for attacks)
Further adding to the game is the presence of upgrade tokens which utilize one of the most ingenious methods of tracking I’ve seen in a board game: magnets. Every team player board is a magnetic surface, and all of the upgrade tokens are printed on magnetic sheet, allowing you to stick them easily to the board and retain them for league play. It’s a simple but brilliant addition to the game that makes me wonder why no one has really done it before. Gone are the days of someone sneezing and all of your upgrades flying all over the place. And while they’re super functional and well designed, they also add a ton to gameplay.
Upgrades are assigned using an auction mechanic at the beginning of a game, with each player given the opportunity to bid on upgrades, which vary on starting bid cost. One team could conceivably win four upgrades while another wins zero, but this is balanced internally with the fact that the more you spend on upgrades, the less you have to spend on in game bribing of the officials! Not all of your upgrades must (or can) be used in the first half of the game, either. You can even save some for after halftime to give your team that late game boost. It’s a really fantastic system that I’ve found over the course of twenty or so games to be incredibly balanced. Now, the game functions incredibly well without the upgrades for beginners or quick play, but the upgrades truly upgrade the game and the tactical choices you make.
In addition to upgrade tokens, Ringers – special players with unique abilities that can take the place of one of your team members – are also auctioned off at the beginning of the game.
The auction process is the same, with a minimum bid being required for every Ringer, with more powerful ones typically requiring more for a starting bid. Again like your upgrades, Ringers don’t have to be played in the first half, but can rather be subbed in at halftime to provide some needed oomph to your team late game.
On top of the normal in-game scoring, some special scoring also occurs both at the end of each period, at halftime, and at the end of the game. While during game play only runners that possess the ball can score on a minor or major scoring mound, at the end of each period any runners simply standing on a scoring mound are also awarded points. This scoring system is pretty integral to the game, as it really forces players to utilize all of their pieces and not just activate a single model (a runner with the ball, for example) over and over again. At half time and at game end, players also are awarded points for kills and have points deducted for their cheats. These scoring tables are nicely printed on the board, making keeping track of them very easy over the course of the periods. It’s a nice feature that the player can score points for kills and their ability to bribe officials, as it gives a fair amount of increased depth to the scoring system as a whole and makes it feel very complete.
If My Uniform Isn’t Dirty, I Haven’t Done Anything – The Components
Great rules can really be undermined by poor components and models, as has been the case with other recent sports games. Fortunately KaosBall doesn’t suffer from this ailment in slightest, and being a product of CMoN it really comes as no surprise.
All of the cardboard components for the game are top notch, with the Crossfield board and the scoring board both being sturdy and linen coated. The Crossfield board has simple, but really effective graphics that clearly delineate the scoring zones and lines of scrimmage, while also maintaining a playing surface that really ‘looks’ like a sports field. With poorer art direction, the lines of scrimmage and scoring zones could have looked odd against the field of green, but the muted red and yellow that are ‘transparent’ make them almost feel like they’re the added lines of scrimmage you get on broadcast television. It’s simple, it’s functional, and it makes sense. The scoring board, again while simple, does its job effectively. I really appreciate the fact that the scoring track doesn’t snake like many other games. While a personal choice, snaking scoring tracks always end up throwing me off at some point. It has space to track your game periods as well, and does exactly what it should do: keep score. In the initial mockup of KaosBall I saw at CMoN Expo 2013, the two boards were connected. The decision to make them separate is a really good one, as people concerned about play space could potentially only use the Crossfield board and keep score in another way.
The plastic components are, to be expected, pretty impressive as well. CMoN continues to push the envelope and raise the bar with what it can put in a boxed game with PVC plastic. The basic Kaosball box comes with four starter teams: the ghoulish Fangs, the 70s inspired Ogres, the hellish Demons, and the really-obnoxious-to-play-against-due-to-their-team-ability Amazons. Each team comes with a compliment of 14 figures: 7 runners, 6 bruisers, and a Coach mini bust. Additionally, 8 ringers are included with the base set.
The runners, bruisers, and ringers all look pretty fantastic. Runners and Bruisers have unique sculpts in addition to their differently shaped bases, with the Demon Runner standing out as my favorite. The model material is firm and holds detail well, and although I haven’t yet painted any of them, it’s pretty clear they’ll take paint well. The coach busts are, in my opinion, where the models REALLY shine. Each bust stands about the same height as the player models, making them the perfect canvas for painting. To the touch, the busts are a firmer PVC than the player models, and the depth and clarity of the detail on the models seems to support that, though I can’t be sure. Regardless, they all look stunning and will be really fun to paint.
In addition to the base game teams, Kaosball has a full leagues worth of expansion teams available for purchase. Ranging from the diminutive Goblins to the sky bound Valkyries, there are 13 other teams that can be had (and an additional promotional Zombies team), all of which include their player board, miniatures, and coach busts. I’m one that usually dumps expansion boxes for all my games in order to store it all together but the Kaosball team boxes are so well done, with vacuum formed trays to hold the models and clear labeling on both the long and short sides, that I couldn’t help but to keep them all.
And while the miniatures are really the stars of the components game, all the other plastic components in Kaosball are high quality as well. CMoN opted to put all of the damage, Kaosball, fire, and stone wall tokens in plastic as well, and they really add to the ambiance of the game while you’re playing. My only qualm is that the additional scoring zone tokens are simply alternatively colored kaosballs that don’t look like the other scoring zones; I think they’d actually have been better served being flat, square counters that filled up an entire board space and looked like the actual minor scoring zones they’re supposed to represent. It’s a small complaint, but I know through demoing the game that has been a point of confusion for some players, who think they can simply pick up the ball and move with it.
You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else. – Final Verdict
Kaosball wasn’t a game I expected to like. Like I said before, sports games usually aren’t my bag. I’ve tried Dreadball and watched people play Blood Bowl and neither really captures me. I don’t even play a ton of sports video games. But with Kaosball, Lang and CMoN have struck a chord within me that has me itching to not only play the game, but also to run leagues and get others interested in it. Its tight rule set, which is one part rugby, one part powerball, and 100% chaotic, gives you just the right amount of tactical decision making to have fun. Add in the hand management and bluffing aspect of the energy cards, and Kaosball has become the only sports board game I’ll play. It’s quick to play, easy to teach, has great components, and continues to be actively supported by CMoN. All in all, it’s a win for me.