Game Night Verdicts #66 – Bloc by Bloc Uprising

A game by Greg Loring-Albright & T.L. Simons for 1-4 players, ages 13/12 and up.

Bloc by Bloc is not a game that is fun. It’s far more interesting than that. It’s “not fun” in the same way that a game like Spirit Island is “not fun”. There is a demanding challenge at the center of the game, and all you want to do is beat it. But it is not a game that is awash with moments of your group erupting with laughter, because some dice roll went in an unexpected direction or a card flip concluded a particularly tense conflict. These situations are all pretty fun, but Bloc by Bloc is not the kind of game that is designed to reliably create them.

It presents you with a city map that is best described as Anyplace, USA (or Cityburgh, Europistan or any other hypothetical urban area) in which two major forces face off against each other. The police are on one side, and a coalition of 2-4 social groups on the other trying to occupy and take over certain parts of the city. Your challenge consists of mobilizing and maneuvering as many of your wooden cubes to the places they need to be, while also resisting the police forces trying to break up these crowds forming on the streets.

If you can overrun a place with your cubes, you get to liberate it. That is to say, you turn the city block to its more colorful side. Underneath it is a liberation card, that delivers a vignette, painting a rough sketch of a community coming together. These feel less like chapters of your ongoing story, than small victory cheers for having gotten a little closer to your goal. In one of the subtler design choices, a liberated city block can not slide back into oppression. This not only helps keep the playing time in check as you rarely have to repeat hard-won victories. It also lays the groundwork for making Bloc by Bloc feel uplifting and optimistic. Positive change is not rolled back.

Even then, your tactical considerations have less to do with communities but with attacking strategically important chokepoints on the map. You will set up barricades (to hinder police movement), organize supplies (to better defend yourself) and recruit people to your cause (to help you liberate city blocks easier). Sometimes you even sacrifice some of your own blocs to trap the enemy in a spot, to buy you enough time to act elsewhere.

There is not just love in the air tonight

This isn’t “fun” like most cooperative games. The decisions don’t feel engineered to be entertainingly difficult or tense. Cooperative games are fun, because you get to, well, cooperate. You get to find neat and clever ways to overcome whatever stumbling block the game’s engine throws at you next. You cleverly coordinate your individual actions. You give each other shrewd hints within the game’s rigid communication constraints. You might just bet it all on the dice coming up in your favor this one time, when you really need them to. All those are tried and true situations in which cooperative games are fun. That is why many of them are designed to create them at the table.

But as I said, Bloc by Bloc isn’t “fun”. Because I’d argue that Bloc by Bloc isn’t a cooperative game. Sure it has all the trappings of one. There are player-specific special abilities. There’s a rules engine to put constant but never quite predictable pressure on you. But when you really drill down to its core, Bloc by Bloc is not trying to make you smile. The challenge it throws at you, is not “fun”. But it is very gratifying to overcome.

You find yourself organising civil unrest against a repressive state force. You analyze the city map for strategic chokepoints. You look for ways to crack the defenses of your enemy’s strongholds. You consider ways to build supply lines and set up base in certain spots. Spaces that you can easily vacate, should the enemy come at you in full force, but from which you can also easily reach the spaces on the map you need to hold to declare victory.

Bloc by Bloc might look and read like a cooperative game, but it feels like a wargame. And that is, as they say, the point.

Arguably, board games have always been political. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that people started to scrutinize the political potential of games. Or to be more accurate, it didn’t broach the hobby’s admittedly consumer-driven conversation until recently that a game’s theme may imply political messages. The critical conversation surrounding board games has certainly picked up steam since then, interpreting a game’s theme and trying to discern what it really says about its subject.

That said, I’ve grown uncomfortable with the idea of deconstructing a game’s theme to better understand its messages. Because in comparison to film audiences or book readers, players in games take on a far more active role in creating a game’s statements. They frame a game’s theme in the context they want it to be in. They connect individual mechanisms to an overarching motif of their choosing. In some cases they even replace the game’s terms with those they deem more fitting and coherent, effectively changing the building blocks that make up the game’s theme.

Because of that, the theme we articulate as we play the game says at least as much about ourselves as it says about the game. To deconstruct and inspect a game’s theme is to some extent to form a critique of the assumptions we’ve projected onto the game. It tells us less about what the game actually says, and much more about what we can hear.

Barricades for safety reasons

So if we want to look at a game’s politics, we need to look beyond the trappings of its theme. We need to look at the fundamental conceits the entire game rests on. In Bloc by Bloc these conceits are the reason why playing it feels like a war game. Because the core assumption Bloc by Bloc asks you to accept is that an uprising is a form of war. Everything else – from how the groups are identified to the names of the places being fought over or even the way the enemy combatants are depicted – illustrates this assumption with examples that we can recognize.

The only language the enemy in Bloc by Bloc understands is violence. While we can occupy buildings or liberate places on the map to weaken their morale, we interact exclusively though physical violence. Which in this case translates into removing opposing blocs from the board.

When I wrote that Bloc by Bloc is not “fun”, I didn’t do it to call the game bad. It very much isn’t. But a “fun game” suggests something frivolous. Playing Bloc by Bloc has not felt frivolous to me. The first time I sat down to play it, the news from Iran were just starting to show up on my social media channels. Iranian people were taking to the streets to oppose (and hopefully depose) a violent and tyrannical regime that held on to power through monstrous forms of oppression. The stories people told online were devastating. Their moments of successful resistance were cathartic.

Playing this game was a welcome form of escapism to me. Not because I harbor some juvenile fantasies of heroically fighting pigs on the streets of my city. It was escapism in the sense of – at least for an evening – imagining a world in which I could actively oppose the scary visage of political oppression enforced by police brutality. It was a game where people fight back against the violent forces that oppress them.

It was escapism in the way that the best kind of escapist fiction impacts reality: because it gives a vague sense of what hope might look like. Bloc by Bloc Uprising is not a game that is “fun” for me. It is far more interesting than that.

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