Board Game Review: Bloc by Bloc

For better or worse, board games tend to be a popular form of entertainment in radical spaces, and yet there are precious few games that explicitly deal with anarchist ideas. For those exhausted by games glorifying nationalistic conquest, monopoly capitalism, and settler colonialism, Bloc by Bloc: The Insurrection Game may offer a breath of refreshing (if tear-gas-scented) air. According to the introduction in the manual, Bloc by Bloc is “a semi-cooperative game simulating protest movements, riots and popular uprisings in urban areas of the world during the first decades of the 21st century.” The name refers to the black bloc, a tactic used to anonymize and thereby protect participants in these uprisings, and in the game refers to the literal wooden blocks that represent such participants.

Released by Out of Order Games in 2018, the latest edition of Bloc by Bloc features randomized map generation, area control strategy, and hidden agendas, where each player is a faction of revolutionaries fighting against the police in an attempt to liberate their city. Each of the various factions (workers, neighbors, prisoners, and students) has a special ability giving them an advantage in their struggle against the state. For example, the students can more easily and freely move about the city, whereas the neighbors are better at building barricades to slow down the movement of the police.

Bloc by Bloc is a game for 2 to 4 players and it typically takes 2 to 3 hours to play. Players new to strategy board games might find the learning curve a little steep, but the instruction manual is clearly worded and includes reference cards that remind players of their available actions. Experienced board gamers will probably find many of the mechanics familiar. Board game comparison site gives it a complexity rating of 2.7 out of 5; compare this to the 2.3 / 5 of the classic competitive mainstay Settlers of Catan or the 2.4 / 5 of the popular cooperative game Pandemic.

While it can be played in fully cooperative mode, the game’s unique semi-cooperative mode is the recommended way to play, and in this Final Straw Radio interview, the game’s designer TL explains why. In contrast to fully cooperative games, where all players are on the same team and playing against the game’s “cardboard AI,” the players in Bloc by Bloc might all be on the same team — but they also might not. In fully co-op games, there is a tendency for everyone to follow the lead of the most experienced player, at its worst becoming a de-facto game of solitaire with less experienced players acting as mere extensions of the most experienced. This dynamic (while perhaps a rational strategy, the players want to win after all), isn’t necessarily encouraging of the critical thinking and anti-hierarchical mindset that anarchists seek to cultivate. But by introducing uncertainty about other players’ agendas, Bloc by Bloc instead forces each player to autonomously evaluate any particular move on its own strategic merit. 

Each player is randomly assigned a hidden agenda card at the beginning of the game: either a social agenda (which wins along with all other social players), or one of two different anti-social agendas, (nihilist or vanguardist, which can only win alone). This hidden agenda mechanic not only makes the game more fun by centering each individual player’s agency, it also arguably makes it more realistic. In real life, we can’t always necessarily judge others’ intentions with perfect accuracy, and the possible infiltration and coopting of social movements by those seeking to derail the movement or attain personal power are unfortunately all-too-real phenomena.

The gameplay is based on four tactics widely adopted by modern insurrections: occupying, looting, barricading, and clashing with the police.

Occupying physical space and turning it towards radical ends is perhaps the tactic most central to liberation. It exemplifies “building a new world in the shell of the old” and the prefiguration of our aspirations. Whether this manifests as workers seizing the means of production by taking over their workplace, or neighbors organizing a rent strike to take back their homes from landlords, these occupations can directly address people’s unmet needs and serve as hubs from which other radical actions can be organized and carried out. Bloc by Bloc gives a nod to this importance by making at least some occupying a necessary victory condition of every agenda, as well as occupations being able to form new blocs and produce useful items (“loot” in the game’s terminology).

Looting, or popular expropriation, is an important aspect of liberation insofar as it consists of systematically exploited and marginalized people taking back those resources that have been stolen from them and enclosed by the capitalist state. Whether these stolen resources are the product of land and water previously held in common, or the surplus value extracted by depriving laborers of their full product, looting can be a means of restoring property to its rightful owners. This bottom-up form of redistribution directly addresses people’s unmet needs to the extent that it gives them access to goods, like groceries or tools, that they may not be able to otherwise afford. But it can also be a way of striking a blow against those institutions that are complicit in their oppression and, by shattering the invulnerability of the status quo, it can inspire resistance in others. In Bloc by Bloc, players can loot shopping centers to acquire items that help make other actions easier or more effective, and may even be required to burn these sites of exploitation to the ground as part of their victory conditions.

One assumption that the game implicitly makes, but that more market-friendly anarchists may not share, is that “commercial districts” are unavoidably exploitative and therefore cannot be occupied or liberated, leaving them only as places that must be looted and/or burned. There is of course much to oppose in our existing capitalist hellscape of strip malls, commercial zoning laws, and suburban sprawl. But aside from perhaps reasons of game mechanics, it’s not clear why prison buildings, for example, are not so structurally and architecturally oppressive that they can’t be occupied and turned to liberatory ends, whereas grocery stores apparently are.

Barricading consists of blocking or slowing movement and redirecting flows through space. In order to defend ourselves and our communities we must sometimes structure our spaces in ways that work to physically exclude cops and other clearly malicious actors. These barriers must be selectively permeable in the sense of actively preventing the passage of those seeking to cause harm while still enabling the passage of friendly actors. In Bloc by Bloc, barricades are placed between districts and stop police from entering, whereas blocs can move through them freely.

Finally, directly and physically confronting state agents is an unavoidable element of insurrections. De-arrests, shield walls, and kicking back the tear gas canisters that the cops shoot at protestors are examples of such confrontation. In Bloc by Bloc, players clash with the police to defend occupations and strategic areas, and successful clashes send police back to the staging area, keeping police morale low and slowing the countdown to the arrival of the military that will quash the uprising if players fail.

This way of losing the game by running out of time has been more common in my experience compared to being completely wiped out by the police. The police often take unstrategic actions, but if players don’t focus on keeping the police morale low, the cops can still overrun the city and prevent the players from accomplishing their objectives. The police are controlled by random dice rolls and cards drawn from the police ops deck, which is arguably a fair simulation of the knowledge problems inherent to their hierarchical organization in the face of illegible and dynamic insurrectionary forces. The game’s difficulty can be adjusted by adding or removing reinforcement cards from the police ops deck, but it’s balanced and random enough that losing on “easy” and winning on “hard” are both real possibilities. A combination of good strategy and good luck is required in order to win.

What such a victory might look like after the insurrection succeeds is left to the imagination. One might imagine the uprising spreads to other cities, regions, or the world, overturning privilege and abolishing power structures throughout society at large. Or maybe authorities just retreat and give the movement some concessions. If the insurrection fails however, according to the manual, “all factions lose and years of repression follow.” The stakes are high.

The physical components of the game are sturdy and the cute grungy cartoon art style is aesthetically attractive. The board is made up of thick cards that are shuffled and arranged randomly to generate a brand new city every time. These cards are laid out on a cloth grid, itself actually a stylized black bandana, (just in case players need to use it to bloc up irl).

All in all, Bloc by Bloc is a creative exploration of insurrectionary anarchist ideas as well as a challenging and fun game in its own right. It might prompt interesting questions, like “why are the police our enemy?” and “how is looting and burning justified?” but it doesn’t in and of itself provide compelling answers. It could maybe serve as supplementary material for a playful propagandist willing to thoughtfully and carefully address the questions it prompts, but don’t expect to convert someone to anarchism just by handing them a copy. As of this writing, the game is currently sold out on the Out of Order Games website, but fortunately, they’ve made everything you need to play freely available as print and play files.

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