Hockey Blast is Keith Avallone‘s tabletop dice and chart game about professional ice hockey, available through his PLAAY website. Although released in 2010 (and bought around then) it has lain at the back of one of my game cupboards, making only fleeting appearances while I considered whether to get it on the table and give it a decent workout. I dabbled, and was impressed by initial experiences, but I needed to spend more time with the game. Recently, it finally made it to the table for a proper series of extended sessions, so I could get properly familiar with how the game worked, complete some matches, and even complete a couple of solitaire series.
OPEN THE BOX
The game comes in a sealed plastic bag, with the self-assembly box and box top side stickers neatly packed inside. The basic set comes with two sample teams, rules, charts, set of strategy cards (an advanced option), dice, markers, sample scoresheets, and game board.
Players are represented by individual cards. Out-of-the-box, these come in perforated sheets of thin card. Players have qualities, symbols, and ratings.
- Qualities: Skill, Power, Speed, Star, Smart, and Hit.
- Symbols: Stars (good) and Scissors (bad) for Shot and Assist ratings. (Goalies use stars for their Save ratings.) There are also Triangles (shot creation ability) and Squares (shot denial and defensive ability) and Circles (power-play and penalty killing skill).
- Ratings: Face-off, Fight, Injury, Penalty, and (for Goalies) Start. Goalies also have Save ratings for Play (shots from normal play), Shot (rebounds), and Spectacular shots.
Here’s a sample card showing Guy Chouinard of the 1979 Atlanta Flames:
At this point I want to mention one of the neat design features in the game: momentum. Teams win and lose momentum according to events on the ice. For example, a team wins momentum if it scores a goal. However momentum ebbs and flows, this affects some players: when a team has momentum, its players get the benefit of any white symbols. Without momentum, these are ignored.
For example, you might have a player with an Assist rating of two white stars. When his team has the momentum, this is a two. When his team does not have the momentum, it’s a zero. Winning and keeping momentum is a key part of the action, and does a good job of adding interest to game play.
Once you have sorted out your team lines (formed by stacking players in each position – three defense lines, and four forward lines), generally, this is how it works. From the face-off, one team gets control and a chance to roll on an action table. (A different one applies in power play and empty net situations. Unusual results and immediate shooting chances are also possible.) A 2d6 roll on that table generates the play action. This may be a potential fight, penalty, or action on the ice. The action might involve a comparison or check of individual players’ ratings, or those of the team. Depending on how these comparisons or checks go, there may be a shot, or a turnover.
For example, a roll of ‘6’ is a Zoom. The opposing players (determined by the numbers on each die that totaled the 6) compare a randomly determined quality. Assume it is Speed. If only the offensive player has it, he generates a shooting chance. If only the defensive player has it, there’s no shooting chance, and possession goes to the previously defending team. Ties are determined by Momentum, failing which in favor of the home team. .
The chance of a shot beating the Goalie depends on the Assist and Shot ratings of the attacking players, and the Goalie’s (appropriate) Save rating. If it looks like a goal when the dice are rolled, it can still end up as a spectacular save. Similarly, a missed or saved shot can sometimes end up with a rebound, leading on to more goalmouth action.
For example, a shooting chance occurs and the roll on the relevant chart produces a result of “O3-O2-O1.” This means you add the Assist ratings of players O3 and O2 to the Shot rating of O1 to get the Shot Power (SP). Assume the SP is 4. The Goalie’s Play Save rating, let’s say, is a 3. You then roll the 2d6, one black and one white, checking the black against the SP and the white against the Goalie’s rating.
- If the black die is 1-4, the shot is on target; if 5-6, it is off target.
- If the white die is 1-3, it’s a potential save; if 4-6 it’s a potential goal if the shot was on target in the first place.
This quickly becomes second nature and is fast to resolve.
The game is structured around time sections of a minute, with line changes made by putting the player card at the top of the position pile to the bottom.
Note that by avoiding any attempt at simulating every pass, shot, or move, this speeds up play and allows you to focus on the key action. This is supplemented with a simple Lull event that gets you even more quickly through the boring minutes. So, it’s a faster game than the other hockey games I have experience of (Face-Off, Strat-O-Matic, and National Pro Hockey) though the time to play will depend on what happens on the ice. For example, working out penalties is more time consuming than working through a quick shot. Typically, I was taking about one and a half hours for a complete game, including basic record keeping. I am a cautious player, more prone to check that my memory of the rules and procedures is right, so it may well be possible to get closer to an hour per game. For sure, it does not drag.
I played a five game series between the 1979 Atlanta Flames and Boston Bruins, and then another five game series between the 2013 Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers.
The 1979 series was won 3-2 by Boston, the climax coming in a 4-3 fifth game, when Jean Ratelle’s man-of-the-match performance (two goals, two assists) was the deciding factor.
The 2013 series was easily won 3-0 by the Kings. Anze Kopitar (with a goal and an assist in each game) and Jeff Carter (with four goals and three assists) dominated on offense, and Kings’ Goalies Jonathan Quick and Martin Jones shone on defense. New York never got close enough to mount a real challenge, with a 1-1 score at the end of the first period in game two turning in to a thumping 5-1 loss being just about typical.
The game gives a good feel for the intensity of the action on the ice, with lots of flavor and atmospheric elements. The procedures are largely logical, and easy to follow. (There are one or two minor loose ends, but this may be a personal failing of mine because I am not that knowledgeable about the sport. Oh, and Keith does excellent online support.) It plays quite smoothly, generates enough chaos to entertain, and overall does a good job of bringing the ice hockey experience to the game table.
Commendably, the game includes a good explanation of how the player ratings are arrived at, so you can do your own thing if you do not want to buy team sets from PLAAY, or you want to rate otherwise unavailable teams.
NOT SO GOOD STUFF
In essence the following are nitpicks, but maybe more material for other potential players.
The standard player cards are small and thin. For me, they are too small and too thin, making reading and handling them more of a pain than it should be. (You can buy larger versions in a PDF, so you can make your own to your own thickness.)
The rules are not bad, though I dislike the absence of a numerical paragraph structure. My version had one or two mistakes, like a table of contents listing – Grid Layout vs Stacks – that wasn’t actually in the rule book. There are also some inconsistencies in naming. For example, there is no Missed Shot Chart (it’s the Goalie SAVE Chart). Nothing critical, but potentially annoying.
If you do get the game, ensure you download Tim Chandler’s HB quick-guide from the PLAAY website. It’s a very handy play aid.
If you are a hockey enthusiast and a gamer, this is definitely worthy of your attention. If you have never played a sports game before, this is quite a good place to start. You do not need to know a lot about ice hockey to be able to play and enjoy the game, and it is generally very accessible. There are hours of, dare I say it, cool entertainment on offer with Hockey Blast.
Overall, to put matters in perspective, Hockey Blast has consigned my other hockey games, permanently, to the back of the cupboard. It’s unlikely I will play them again. And I am thinking about making more of an effort to follow the NHL…