Power has risen to the top and those in charge are keen to keep it that way. Censorship and misinformation rule the day in an effort to keep the masses docile. But an undercurrent of discontent flows beneath the surface. We meet in shadows, our whispers carry through alleyways, and our ideas of freedom crystallize in the hearts of the people. We won’t stand for these blatant abuses of power any longer. We will unite. We will rise up. And we will take back this city, Bloc by Bloc!
How it Plays
Bloc by Bloc can be played fully or semi cooperatively. I’ve only played the semi cooperative version as it seemed to add more interesting elements to the game and I’m generally not a fan of fully cooperative games. As such, every player will be dealt a secret agenda card which will define how each player can achieve victory. Each agenda card has two separate win conditions. Every round, players check to see whether or not they’ve met one of the conditions to determine a winner. Over the course of the game, you’ll be manipulating the board state through your actions in order to meet your agenda conditions and hopefully win the game.
The game takes place in an urban city with the players acting as different factions to overcome the police presence and occupy various locations. Players control groups of rebels, or blocs, and move them around the grid of city to fight or evade the police presence. On a given turn, you will roll a number of dice which will dictate what actions you are able to do.
By expending a die, you can either move a group of your blocs around the city or set up a barricade that will impede the movement of the police forces. The number on the expended die makes no difference, only that you have dice remaining to take those actions.
Certain districts in the city allow you to take specific actions if you have at least one bloc there and expend a die that is equal to or higher than the difficulty number printed on that district location. These actions include looting, which allows you gain a loot card. Loot cards are one time use items that will give you advantages when played. You can also set up bases of operations called Occupations that expand your influence in the city as well as give you a special ability or advantage. You can also swap an existing Occupation, either another player’s or the police’s, with one of your own. And finally, you can fight the police and remove them from the district or the board entirely.
After every players’ turn, a number of Police Ops cards are drawn which will give instructions to the police forces on the board. These cards will cause them to move and/or multiply in numbers.
After all players have taken their turns, the Sunrise phase of the round begins and the police forces fight back. They will eliminate player blocs and dismantle occupations if they weren’t dealt with adequately earlier in the round. Once the police have meted out their particular form of justice, players check to see if any districts have been liberated. This occurs when the number of blocs in the district is greater than or equal to double the district’s difficulty number. The district tile is flipped to reveal a liberation card which gives the players there a benefit and generally weakens the strength of the police. Finally, you check to see whether or not the game is over.
If players have built occupations in all the state districts, the insurrection is successful and any players who meet their cooperative agenda card criteria win together. If any player has an individual win condition and it is met at this time, they will alone. If any player has no blocs on the board at this time everyone loses together. And if it is the end of the 8th round, the military is called in and all players lose as well.
Anarchy and Revolt
I was originally drawn to Bloc by Bloc due to the story of its creation. Its designers have certain anarchist affiliations and have participated in social protests and movements as described on their website. They’ve also licensed all of the game’s assets under a Creative Commons License so that you can download and make a copy of your own if you are so inclined. I won’t even pretend to know what it means to be an anarchist. I mean, I play board games for fun. Following rules is what I do best! But I have to say I was definitely intrigued to experience a board game as social commentary and political statement.
However, I’m not sure it ever follows through on my expectations. Aside from the setting and informational pamphlet, I didn’t take anything away from it that I wouldn’t have gotten from most board games. Sure the enemies are police and perhaps that in and of itself may raise some eyebrows or be a starting point for discussion, but with the advent of mobile video devices and social media it’s (unfortunately) not uncommon to see blatant abuses of power and actual acts of insurrection. The game is black and white about it’s morals. The police are bad and the people are good. There’s little room for nuance. The city is a generic one and doesn’t root you in any specific place or time. I didn’t feel like an anarchist or like I was standing up for any larger ideal other than win the game. I felt like I was playing a themed take on Pandemic. Even though it fell short of my want for a board game as art piece, I have to admit that it holds up on its own as a pretty decent game in its own right.
Right off the bat, Bloc by Bloc had my attention when I learned about the secret agendas. I’m predisposed to like any board game that employs hidden goals that dictate how they’ll score or, as in this case, win the game. It means there’s room to play a game within the larger game. It means scrutinizing other people’s actions, trying to discern the reasoning behind the moves. It allows for feints, parries, fragile alliances and subtle betrayals. The game being played in the minds of the players is just as important as the one being played on the table. It engages the players’ personalities in a way that a strictly mechanical array of systems has a hard time doing. Suffice it to say, I was excited to find out how exactly Bloc by Bloc would employ this particular facet.
Every agenda card has two separate win conditions which allows for you to have some flexibility on how you approach the game. If, for whatever reason, you find that one of the conditions has criteria that are proving too hard to accomplish you can shift your focus to the other one. It’s a nice touch that I would actually like to see implemented in more games. It’s no fun losing the game having the feeling that you only lost because you drew a bad card. This simple design choice really cuts down on that phenomena.
Some of the agenda cards allow you to be the sole winner of the game, but they all require the insurrection to be unsuccessful. That doesn’t mean that you want the police to win because if they do, everyone still loses. Instead, you want to complete your objectives before the other players can successfully complete the insurrection. You have an incentive to help fight off the police presence in order to keep the game going, but help too much and you might propel the other players to end the game before you can complete your goals. It’s a tricky tightrope and one of the more enjoyable elements of Bloc by Bloc. You might think that any player who shows hesitance is tipping their hand as someone looking to win individually, but not so.
The other agenda cards allow you to win cooperatively. You can only win this way if the insurrection is successful and you meet the conditions on your agenda card. That means there can be multiple winners, but it could also mean that you might not win if you haven’t met the additional criteria. You could very well stall a successful insurrection just so that you can partake in the victory.
Better yet, 40% of the agenda cards allow for the option of winning cooperatively or individually. You can choose how you want to try and win the game. You have no particular allegiance to the cause, you just want to win. And if you don’t just want to win, you wouldn’t do well in my gaming group.
Bloc by Bloc gets a lot of mileage out of these agenda cards that plays out in some really memorable ways. You’ll discuss your plans and intentions. You might lie to the group, saying you just need one more turn to gather loot and satisfy your win condition and then you promise to build the last occupation for a successful insurrection. But instead you just wanted to deplete the last loot spot so that you could win alone. Not that I’ve ever done such a treacherous thing.
The underlying game supporting the agenda system is adequate. Nothing that really captivated me like the agenda cards. AI controlled enemies are prevalent in many cooperative games and the dice as action points is functional if uninspired. It is worth acknowledging the possibility of having your turn go wrong due to poor dice rolls, but in actual practice it never voided a player’s turn completely. You always roll at least 3 dice and you can increase the number you roll per turn by increasing the number of blocs you control. Additionally, certain Occupations that you construct will give you additional dice to roll or different ways to use them. Movement is forgiving and because of the variable difficulty ratings of the different districts on the board, there’s usually at least something useful you can do even if it’s not exactly what you hoped for.
If I were to judge Bloc by Bloc purely on these underlying systems (or I suspect as a fully cooperative game) it would be average at best. There’s nothing terribly exciting going on, but it is the medium by which the truly engaging agenda system is delivered. The game systems are unobtrusive and easy enough to execute that they allow for the social dynamic to play out above the table. In an ideal world, both halves would be equally compelling, but what’s there is enough for me to derive enjoyment from it.
I will take a moment to deride the 2-player rules for Bloc by Bloc. I can’t recommend it in good conscience. Right off the bat you miss out on the cool interactions and bargaining that happens when playing with a full group. But most egregiously, the game must be played cooperatively and makes both players control 2 separate factions, essentially simulating a 4 player game but with more mental overhead and less of what makes the game special. Keeping up with 2 separate factions isn’t as difficult as it may initially seem since the game is largely tactical in nature, but it still requires you to mentally spread your resources over a wider swath of responsibility. It technically functions as a 2-player game, but it really comes to life as a 3 and preferably 4-player one.
My expectations for Bloc by Bloc was to have an interesting political statement backed up by a ho-hum game experience. Instead, I found an interesting game with a thin veneer of social commentary. To be fair to Bloc to Bloc, it’s really difficult to make any sort of commentary in a board game and it turned out to be a pretty good game in the end. It would have been easy to fall into the trap that many educational games fall into. Slap some art and captions to an established, but well worn mass market game and call it a day. I have to applaud the designers of Bloc by Bloc for attempting to make a modern board game first and foremost and mostly succeeding. If you have an anarchist bent or just like to mess with your friends a bit, be sure to check out Bloc by Bloc.
Review copy provided by Out of Order Games.