Year Published: 2016
Designer: Rocket Lee, Tim Simons
Publisher: Out of Order Games
Playtime: 90-150 minutes
One Sentence Synopsis: Power to the Cubes!
It’s certainly an interesting time to live in the United States. We’re in an election year so politics is heating up in different ways on both sides of the aisle, and over the past decade we’ve seen the rise of various social movements that have continued to gain traction and change the cultural landscape and sociopolitical dialogue. Accompanying those trends is a rising tide of impassioned social protest and rhetoric, be it from groups like Black Lives Matter, or from anti-immigrant groups. As a result, or even as the motivation behind some of these movements, police and government conduct are topics that are once again heavily in the popular spotlight, and under extraordinary amounts of media/public scrutiny. Even in the most dramatic throws of upheaval experienced to date in the U.S., however, we’ve yet to see the worst a situation can devolve into given the right confluence of corrupt police authority and intent, and zealous, inflamed popular response.
Bloc by Bloc (now on Kickstarter) puts you and up to three other people in command of groups involved in just such an insurrection: workers, neighbors, prisoners, or students. Each faction of the insurrection is a different color and gets three common and two unique abilities, and are able to occupy different districts in the city. While players are multi-colored, the AI-controlled police only see in black and white, and will pursue players without prejudice throughout the game to try and defend the city and quell the insurrection. Opposing the police is part of every player’s goal to an extent, but your ultimate ends in Bloc by Bloc are determined by randomized agenda cards which may align you with other factions in the city, or possibly secretly against them in trying to reach different objectives before the end of the game. You’ll therefore both cooperate and work against other players during the rebellion’s eight days(rounds), to either help it succeed in specific ways, or fail while meeting individual tasks.
I undertook this Kickstarter review understanding I wasn’t going to be crazy about the theme (which I’ll discuss later), but deciding that while different people are going to react to Bloc by Bloc differently, that any potential backer or player could benefit from an analysis of the game itself. So, setting that aside, is Bloc by Bloc actually a good game? In short, if you’re looking for a lighter, semi-cooperative board game that’s got some length to it, there’s a decent game to be had here.
Bloc by Bloc’s insurrection plays out in a city of randomized tiles laid out in a 5×5 grid at the beginning of each game, with a little bit of space in-between each tile for the deployment of barricades. Each tile depicts a street layout connecting it to other tiles, and some also include shop icons players can loot during their turns in order to draw useful cards, and metro stations allowing for travel to any other metro station on the board. While it’s really not difficult to get around the city just using streets, the metros do allow for movement around and behind riot cops depending on how the police spread throughout the city. The majority of tiles also have an occupation circle on them indicating players can construct a building there for a permanent benefit; there are three tiles per person with occupations for their colored tokens, two neutral occupations anyone can capture, and four State districts where the government forces start. Those four latter tiles each get a riot van and three riot cops at the start of the game, and are the districts from which you can expect riot cops to deploy throughout the city.
The randomization of the board generally works well and aids replayability, but I did run into one instance where three of the State areas were deployed in very close proximity to one another, and the Police IDs (ranking numbers) of the surrounding tiles basically restricted police movement to a very small loop. Having the police confined in that manner really removes one of the main considerations from the game, so you’ll want to spot-check your setup to make sure the rankings around any clusters of three State districts near a corner won’t hamper their spread.
The police are controlled by an Ops deck that is shuffled before starting, and includes 1-3 Reinforcements cards depending on how difficult of a game you’d like to play. Most of the Ops cards will move police blocs towards a certain type of district or based on the surrounding tiles’ Police ID number, whereas others will potentially shift the position of riot vans or even tactically withdraw some police units. The system generally works for moving the police around the board, but you’ll find they’re often easy to stay away from until you actually want to engage them unless you’re slow to liberate sections of the city. The less liberated districts, the higher the Police Morale will stay, possibly forcing each player to draw three Police Ops cards at the end of their turn if the tracker has reached its “Deadly” space; at that rate the police have nine chances to move and then attack before things come back around to you, and things get serious.
At the start of the game you’ll receive your faction card with spots and explanations for the various buildings you can erect in areas of the city you control, cubes for your followers, and a secret agenda card tasking you with completing a varied set of victory conditions. Some victory conditions are aimed at making the rebellion succeed while controlling certain locations, whereas others are a bit more nihilistic and require the rebellion to fail while, for instance, having set a certain number of buildings on fire or having less than a specified number of police deployed. You’ll look at the city’s configuration and choose an occupation spot of your color as your starting district, and also receive two loot cards to start you off.
Play proceeds with each person taking their turn in full, rolling a number of dice indicated on the top of your faction sheet that’s determined by the number of cubes you have in play. You’ll start with three action dice, but by the end of the game should be rolling five dice to spend on actions available to you. Moving is the most basic action, and lets you take any number of blocs from one tile and move them anywhere else in the city that’s connected. You can move through barricades and districts occupied by other players, but must stop on districts controlled by police.
Placing a Barricade can also be done by spending a dice of any value, letting you put a barricade up between two districts, around an occupation, or to dismantle a barricade belonging to any faction. Barricades stop different numbers of riot police from moving depending on how many are stacked together, and prevent the police or other players from destroying occupations.
The rest of the options you can take are advanced actions, including Looting, Occuping, and Attacking, which can only be performed if the dice used to activate them is higher than the number in the middle of the district they’re happening in. Each advanced action is followed by making a reaction roll on a six-sided dice, where a one immediately deploys a riot cop to that district, a two makes you draw and resolve a Police Ops card, and a six nets you an extra action dice immediately.
Looting a shop for the first time lets you place a graffiti token on a shopping center and take a loot card, while looting a shop for the second time still lets you take a card but the shop is burned and can no longer be looted. Loot includes cards than can modify your dice rolls or combat values, or potentially even help you liberate areas of the city you control for better bonuses. Looting lots of shops may be helpful to gain loot cards, but you’ll have to keep in mind that doing so may aid one of the other factions in achieving their secret agenda.
Occupying districts is how you expand your faction’s control in the city, and gain permanent bonuses while your buildings are out. Each player has access to four special buildings that can be placed in any order on occupation spots of your own colors, neutral tiles, or on cleared State districts. Bonuses like being able to bring out an extra worker as a basic action from the Assembly Hall will help you expand your action dice pool and active blocs more quickly, whereas deploying something like Scavenger’s Hideout to draw free loot cards might help you expand or battle the riot police without needing to actually loot buildings. Taking an occupy action also lets you swap out any of your active occupations for another from your sheet, or swap out another faction’s occupation from a neutral or State district if there are no more barricades defending it.
The final advanced action, attacking, is taken against police on the same district as any of your blocs. Each bloc can attack once per day, and each attack action lets one bloc defeat one riot cop, or kick out two riot cops into an adjacent district. Riot vans must be destroyed in order to capture the State districts, but taking them out is particularly difficult needing three damage in the same day to finish the job.
You end your turn after you’ve finished all your actions by drawing Police Ops cards based on the current Police Morale. Morale builds slowly during the game, having players each draw one card to start, but potentially progressing to three cards at the end of each person’s turn if players haven’t done anything to deal with the morale. Reducing morale is generally accomplished by liberating districts, which is resolved during the End of Day portion after all players have completed their turns.
That’s when all riot vans repair to full health, and when riot cop blocs defeat one faction bloc or barricade apiece in any shared spaces, with riot vans dismantling all barricades in or around their districts. Any leftover attacks are used to evict occupations, and if it’s the last occupation of a given faction the insurrection fails immediately.
District Liberations finish up each Day, and are accomplished by having double the number of player blocs in the district than the district’s difficulty number, regardless of faction. Doing so lets you flip that district to its “liberated” side, and the Manifestation card underneath gives a good immediate bonus based on how high the district’s difficulty was, in addition to decreasing police morale. Occupations also become stronger on liberated districts, often receiving double effectiveness. The Day is then completed by moving the Day tracker forward by one, and passing the first player marker to the next person. If it was the last day the insurrection immediately fails, whereas if all four State districts are occupied in a four player game it succeeds, or three districts in a three player game.
Games of Bloc by Bloc will run you in the neighborhood of 120-150 minutes depending on your player count and how aggressive everyone is in working together against the police units. Extremely cooperative groups will find they can actually coordinate to do some very effective damage early on, making dealing with the police during the rest of the game relatively easy. That’s of course complicated by the secret agendas for each faction, which may make some players reticent to cooperate until it’s clear their individual objectives will be met. It really boils down to timing- balancing the police presence in the city so it doesn’t become overwhelming, while trying your best to only take actions that benefit you. Rushing to someone’s aid to stop the police from re-taking an occupation point, for example, may stop the police but help the player convert it to a liberated district and gain a more powerful bonus. Alternatively, opting not to help them may ultimately lead to the failing of the revolution…that may be a good or bad thing depending on your agenda. In the end, however, some degree of cooperation is usually necessary to achieve at least one of your objectives, and you’ll want to go about masking your motives for as long as you can.
The attack choices in Bloc by Bloc also open the option for manipulating police movement, letting you push back multiple police units into an adjacent district of your choice. Although kicking cops back into another district may be used as a saving grace in many instances, it also means you have the option of sending them into districts containing blocs from rival factions, or into spaces that strategically block access to something you know another player needs. That can be a dangerous game given the randomization of Police Ops cards you’ll need to draw once you’re finished, but with no risk comes no reward, and manipulating the fuzz may just end in your favor to the detriment of others.
While it’s possible to play a fully cooperative version of Bloc by Bloc, I think doing so really takes away from the strongest aspects of its gameplay. The secret agendas add an additional layer of thought to the actions you’re taking and your perception of what everyone else is doing, and it makes the police AI much more effective and relevant. In a fully cooperative game I find the police lose a lot of their menacing presence, and players are easily able to get their factions strong enough where winning by the fifth or sixth night isn’t out of the question. I also found it compounds an issue I had with movement which I’ll touch on soon. It’s not uncommon for a semi-cooperative game’s fully cooperative mode to fall a bit short, however, so I don’t necessarily fault Bloc by Bloc for not delivering what I’d consider a strong, challenging, fully coop experience- even Dead of Winter, which is probably my favorite hidden traitor game, is one I enjoy much less if there’s no chance of a turncoat to throw a wrench into the mix even though it’s still very difficult.
Having read my synopsis of the rules and some of the various elements at play in Bloc by Bloc, you might be wondering why I say it’s a good lighter game, since the gameplay may not seem so light. That’s because while I do think the game offers a good, semi-cooperative experience for players who want something a bit strategically lighter, but that still possibly lasts a couple of hours, Bloc by Bloc has a few aspects that may keep people wanting deeper strategic gameplay from really enjoying it fully. First, the relatively free movement around the entire board detracts from the strategy of positioning and moving blocs. We actually played a variant where you could only move in straight lines unless using a metro or highway(which is a curved section and connects you to a new row), and that ended up giving movement and bloc positioning around the city a much more consequential role to play throughout the game.
Second, there’s no direct player conflict in terms of attacking, and while that in itself isn’t necessarily an issue, I did find the inability to stop another player from swapping out your occupations on neutral districts a bit frustrating. You can use barricades to prevent someone from doing it with only one dice, but if they can destroy the barricades there’s no stopping them, meaning if you need it back then some future turn is going to be spent taking away their barricades, and putting your own occupation back down. That can devolve into a back-and-forth situation that really helps nobody, and isn’t fun. A house rule that your blocs must compose a majority in the district before you can swap occupations might fix this, but as it stands, when combined with the quick movement around the city, I think it makes removing other players’ occupations too easy, and is a missed opportunity to make you think more strategically about where your blocs are stationed throughout the city at any given time.
As far as theme, there are other games about social revolution and societal upheaval on the market, but for some reason this one struck a negative chord with me. Maybe it’s because Bloc by Bloc is set in modern times, or has aspects potentially comparable to recent situations in the United States, but it’s not a theme I particularly enjoyed; destroying a city and violently confronting police just doesn’t sit right with me as a legitimate response to State action without more historical information. I fully recognize my hypocrisy in saying this, however, since if you couched the game in general terms of a revolution against a genocidal dictator I’d be OK with everything going on, details-be-damned. Heck, I even like Letters From Whitechapel which puts one person in the role of the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper. In the end, though, the like or dislike of theme is really a personal choice, and I do think the mechanics are actually integrated well with the general theme of an insurrection, or a watershed moment of societal upheaval.
COG Takeaway: Setting reservations with theme aside, Bloc by Bloc offers a lighter, semi-cooperative experience that has enough depth to keep players engaged over its extended two hour playtime, and offers variable difficulties depending on your group makeup. The police units are difficult enough that players are forced to work together to satisfy more common objectives, while the secret agendas ensure not everyone is willing to cooperate at certain times towards the common good. You’re limited, however, in how you can affect others, and are similarly restricted in your options for defending occupations in neutral districts against human players. Even so, the modular city tiles, randomized agendas, and variable loot and Police Ops decks give the game a good amount of replayability, and learning what each faction agenda requires to win should make games progressively more interesting as players learn what tells and actions to watch for, necessitating even more careful timing and misleading feints. If that sounds like something for your gaming group, Bloc by Bloc is on Kickstarter now- check it out!