The Socialist Bloc
It’s impossible to separate T.L. Simons’ Bloc by Bloc from recent events. I can’t imagine it isn’t intentional. Black Lives Matter. January 6th. Anti-vaxxers outside public health professionals’ homes. The ban on peaceful protest handed down by Brigham Young University. That last one was two weeks ago. Yesterday, the university tweeted about Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Has irony died or did somebody seize control of the company login? We may never know.
To be absolutely clear, I’m not placing these examples on equivalent moral footing. I suspect most people would agree that at some point a government may become too corrupt or too detached from the will of its people to continue, and that when peaceful action is no longer possible then more dramatic measures become necessary. But if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that we all boil at different degrees. Also, we boil at very different degrees of truth claims. And while some pots boil, others explode feces all over the walls.
Thankfully, Bloc by Bloc isn’t ideologically agnostic. It’s radically and refreshingly committed to egalitarianism, clear-eyed about the contradictions that tug at modern efforts to effect change, and both deeply angry and hopelessly idealistic.
Inequality is written into the city itself, chiseled into the avenues and metro stops. Bloc by Bloc doesn’t spare on description. Prisons are labeled “supermax” and “overcrowded.” Neighborhoods are “gentrifying” or “polluted.” Colleges are “bankrupt” or “privatized.” Not far from the commercial districts are smartphone factories, garment sweatshops, and global shipping and receiving centers. Money is being made. There’s more than enough for everybody. So how have times gotten so lean?
Simons doesn’t dwell on that. Anyone with a sliver of historical literacy knows the causes all to well. Anyway, the moment is too fraught to think about yesterday. Every play opens with its own city, starkly divided between the have-nots and the have-everythings. The former are your domain, people from all walks of life coming together to make their voices heard. Students, neighbors, workers, prisoners. Different as can be, but similar in that they’ve been pushed to the side, tread upon, borne the brunt of judicial exceptions and legal abuse. The latter are protected by goons and armored vans. These are, for reasons more deliberate than Puerto Rico’s accidentally brown worker cubes, harshly white.
The game’s opening moves read like a beginner’s guide to protest. Factions have their own strongholds, but those are tucked away in unfrequented corners. To make themselves heard, it’s essential for protestors to spend the first night or two converging on public spaces. Parks, plazas, street markets. Places where their shouts for justice will echo from the walls of power rather than being lost among the urban neglect. So: Convergence. Cops pushed out. Barricades erected. Equipment gathered. But wait, where will all those medical kits and molotov bottles and building materials come from? Will they be looted from nearby shops or painstakingly gathered and distributed via mutual aid centers? The tightrope between tearing down and building up is the first of many contradictions that Bloc by Bloc is eager to confront. The next might be the uprising’s death blow if they aren’t careful. When a district is finally liberated, it gets flipped over. The protestors earn a bonus. There’s a big party. But that same public space also makes an easy kettle for incoming unmarked vans. It isn’t enough to make yourself heard. To liberate an entire city, the uprising must be exported, block by painstaking block.
This doesn’t mean victory hinges on flipping every district in the city. Thank goodness. Not only would that be tedious, it wouldn’t say anything about how power concentrates. Instead, you’re given specific targets and told to liberate and occupy those.
Except victory is a surprisingly large topic. There are two separate game modes, cooperative and semi-cooperative, and although the game systems don’t receive any major alterations between them, they offer starkly divergent portrayals of how insurgencies function.
For example, the cooperative mode represents the best of all possible uprisings. Everybody is on the same page, resources and goals are shared, and protestors never need wonder if one of their fellow factions hosts more exclusive ideas about who should be permitted to vote or work or rule over the rest. This isn’t to say the going is easy. Each faction is required to accomplish their own goal, itself a dynamic process that requires attendance at distracting meetings, careful juggling of priorities, and probably a concerted full-court press to secure those final corridors of power. Still, it’s a hopeful, feel-good way to play, almost propagandistic in its idealism. If it weren’t for the contrasting perspective, it might even qualify as naïve.
But the contrasting perspective is there, willingly engaging with perhaps the least comfortable reality of revolution. Historically, plenty of uprisings have come within a hair’s breadth of realizing their ambitions to birth a better world, only to watch in despair as they’re suborned by bad actors and ulterior motives. That’s the danger: when the body politic requires surgery, cracking open its chest cavity grants vital access to any number of tinkerers. In the chaos and the noise, it can be almost impossible for the right hand to see whether the left wields a suturing needle or a killing scalpel.
In game terms, the semi-cooperative mode is filled with feverish anxiety. Each faction is given their own agenda. Most factions, possibly even all factions, will be “social.” They know the stakes, they care about the cause, and they’re in it to succeed together. Their goals are similar to that of the fully cooperative mode: work in tandem to achieve multiple victory conditions. But even though it’s possible that everyone is on the same page, there are two other agendas, sectarian and vanguardist, that both intend to hijack the revolution for their own purposes. Their methods are slightly different. While they’re happy to go along with the usual process of careful liberation, they’re more brute-force in nature, seizing either the city’s public or state districts.
It’s a subtle distinction, but absolutely essential. It is also, in a game that unabashedly yearns for a dictatorship of the proletariat, a warning. Where egalitarian protesters strive to shed light and spread word by folding in as many fellow citizens as possible, the sectarians and vanguardists grapple for nothing but a transfer of power. The first is a revolution. The second is a coup.
This has a stirring effect on Bloc by Bloc. The cooperative mode is no slouch, but the possibility that one’s comrades harbor ulterior motives infects the proceedings with an appropriate case of paranoia. It’s well known that plainclothes police officers roam among protestors. Bloc by Bloc doesn’t codify that exact detail, but it does cause its players to reflect on the validity of every action. Is a faction being uncooperative because they’re trying to seize the city’s public districts? Or does their recalcitrance stem from their own suspicions? When assessing objectives, is it wise to claim the interior ministry? Or is that one more opportunity for a hidden vanguardist to snatch power from the people?
These questions are the beating heart of Bloc by Bloc, and they persist despite the occasional stumble. It’s a smooth game, so don’t read too much into this, but sometimes the artificiality of the police kicks down the door. Armored vans that bypass major uprisings to protect some remote airport, jackbooted squads marching back and forth between two state districts, phalanxes of police that never seem to budge from a secure district to the harried neighborhood down the street. Sometimes this inscrutability works; other times it can be used to your advantage. And sometimes, it comes across as the gamiest element in a title that’s usually so careful about drawing connections to reality.
Doubly so when those connections are precisely what makes Bloc by Bloc so interesting. This is a continuation of the same design ethos that produced the like of Suffragetto, and it understands that the fiction we consume can teach real ideas, elicit real feelings, even embolden real-world action.
Fortunately, board games have come a long way since 1909, and T.L. Simons knows better how to portray a street clash than Suffragetto’s anonymous author, if only because Bloc by Bloc contains the occasional sage tidbit on how to liberate an urban environment while only the rarest specimen will master jiu-jitsu via Suffragetto. The point is, change begins somewhere. The bug of hope must first be contracted. Whether it speaks of suffrage, liberty, civil rights, opportunity, or true equality before the law, Bloc by Bloc is no mere polemic. It understands its contradictions and grapples with them. It speaks a message while remaining playful. Most importantly, it instills a yearning for something better.
A complimentary copy was provided.