Bloc by Bloc: The Insurrection Game
A game by R.D. Lee and T.L. Simons
The day is about to break, but the barricades hold fast against the enemy.
We are bruised and bloody and weeping, but we stay strong.
We feel it in our bones, and hear it singing in our blood: the city will soon be ours.
We shout in one voice, our hearts about to burst.
We raise our fists and touch our rags to the flame.
I imagine your mileage may vary depending on your political persuasion, but Bloc by Bloc is such a thrill. It’s a board game that simulates the mechanics of urban protest uprisings, while raising this instructive question in the player’s head: what does a Bankrupt Junior College have in common with a Polluted Slum? Or a Smartphone Factory with an Immigrant Detention Center? Bloc by Bloc heightens the connections between them by treating these ostensibly different zones, marked by demographic disparities, as analogous sites of capitalist repression and anti-statist resistance.
Your objective in Bloc by Bloc is to occupy and liberate a number of different city districts while building barricades, looting markets, and fending off the riot police—all before the tenth night, when the military is called in.
The crucial lesson here for the players—and perhaps true for radical social movements as a whole—is the necessity for cooperation and solidarity between seemingly different factions uniting against a common enemy.1 In the game, this common foe is the police, who act as the armed representatives of the capitalist state. There’s almost no way to liberate a zone on one’s own without the assistance of another faction. One faction builds the barricades; another brings the Molotovs.
The game design is gorgeous, starting from the black cloth playmat to the city tiles, both colorful and stark. And the art! Using bandana-wearing cartoon blocks with angry faces to represent the different blocs is a delightful abstraction and a stroke of genius. (In contrast, the police are simply faceless white blocks.)
And the stories it tells! Here’s a recent session of mine.
By the time the last night rolled in, the students were the first to occupy and liberate the Park, a public space.
The students aren’t overpowered, not exactly, but their special ability of not having to use a precious action die when moving from one of their occupied zones is quite powerful, letting me quickly gather students from different occupied zones to assist with clashes or liberating a zone.
The workers had also accomplished their objectives, including taking over a Telecom Network Hub.
The only problem: we still had to survive the night.
Then the police made their move: an Emergency Reinforcements card added a Riot Van back to the streets just after we successfully put one out of commission the night before.
This was not good.
But in a fortunate twist, the van was dispatched instead to protect the Gentrifying Residential Zone, so the occupiers passed the night without event and consequently won the game.
In another session, the police had taken over the privatized university next to the Financial District (a zone that my faction—the neighbors of an overcrowded slum—had occupied), but we successfully prevented the SWAT teams from entering with our barricades. Unfortunately we couldn’t liberate the financial district because of the cop that showed up—well, the escaped prisoners did burn a supermarket to the ground. But the medic kit they salvaged helped save a slum resident from being terribly injured.
If pressed to find a downside, I would point to the lack of variability in the faction objectives. There are really only three in full-cooperative mode: occupy a Public space, occupy a State zone, or burn 4 Shopping Centers. Sometimes you draw the same objectives two or three games in a row.
But this is offset by the sheer variability of the map, which is remade every game by shuffling and laying out cards representing different locations and streets. This is one reason why it’s such a fun nail-biter of a game; the game state is constantly mutating and evolving. A lockdown of the Metro can keep you from traveling to a zone surrounded by riot cops. One of your occupied zones may be a tempting target to an adjacent riot van, so you have to continually rebuild barricades. Or the police are all luckily concentrated in a different part of the city and your faction is free to run riot, no pun intended. Your moves are limited by the results of your action dice—and luck, of course, may not be on your side—so your rioters may have to shift tactics and cooperate with other factions.
All this makes for an exciting and tense game, with extremely smooth mechanics, that also happens to be quite easy to learn. It’s a shame that it’s out of print—I happened to get my copy from an unexpected source, AK Press—because it is such a powerful game; I hope it’s reprinted soon.
1 I should note here that Bloc by Bloc is officially a semi-cooperative game billed for 2-4 players; I just happen to play it two-handed and fully cooperative, which was not the game makers’ intention, since “a simulation of urban insurrection should always include the internal tensions that one always experiences within social movements and uprisings.” The phrase “semi-cooperative” is important, as a faction may draw “hidden traitor” cards, i.e. the “vanguardist” or “nihilist” secret agendas, that are at cross-purposes with the objectives of another faction. (I ignore these secret agendas when playing two-handed, of course.) It’s only at certain points, then—looting a neighborhood, or kicking out the police, for instance—where solidarity between factions is merely temporary and expedient. A bit of a downer, this, but realistic, I suppose.