18 January 2020

Board Game Review: Blokus

The box. It is divided into four quadrants, each a different colour in red, blue, yellow, and green, with a clear window to show the white game board covered in a number of shapes (also in red, blue, yellow, and green)  made up of one to five squares arranged on the board. The title is written across the middle of the box covering part of the window.

In the midst of the revolution in which a number of amazing companies produce some amazing new games and many small companies produce many more amazing games, it's easy to scoff at the large 'mainstream' companies who continue making games which are intended to appeal to the general public instead of the board game community. But that doesn't mean that some of their games aren't really good.

This is the case with Blokus (pronounced BLOCK-us), created by Bernard Tavitian and published by Mattel. Though it bills itself as a family game, it holds a surprising level of depth and strategy. It is a refreshingly thinky game that is easy to learn and play, but contains intense tactical challenges.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves! We'll start as we always do, with the numbers:

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.
Strategy: 6
Randomness: 0
Complexity: 1
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Average
Average Length of Game Play: 30 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Low

An overview of Blokus

A game in progress. A number of pieces in the various colours have been placed on the board, while the remaining pieces are piled at each corner.

The game consists of a white plastic board with ridges to form a square grid and four sets of plastic pieces, one each in red, yellow, green, and blue. These pieces are tetris-like shapes formed from one to five squares. These pieces fit onto the grid of the main board. Players take turns placing their pieces on the board trying to use as many of their pieces as possible. The first piece goes in the corner, and all subsequent pieces must touch one (or more) of their own pieces, but only on the corner. None of your pieces are allowed to touch along any side; only on the corners. Note that there is no restriction on touching other players' pieces; you are free to place your pieces adjacent to any other colour. Only your own pieces are restricted to touch at the corners.

The game is a simple abstract strategy game. You want to place as many of your pieces on the board as you can while preventing the other players from placing all of theirs. At the end of the game, the player with the fewest squares not on the board is the winner (note that this counts the squares, not the pieces; thus, if one player has a single piece remaining at the end of the game, but that piece is made up of five squares, and another player has two pieces remaining, one of one square and one of three, the second player wins, because even though they have two pieces, the total number of squares of those two pieces is four, which is less than the single five-square piece the first player has).

Permutations on Blokus

The game is intended for four players. To play with only three, the rules state that the unplayed colour is a dummy player, and the three players must take turns placing pieces of the fourth colour on the board. Likewise, in a two player game, the rules state that each player has two colours.

Obviously, this is not an ideal arrangement. To offset this, there are a number of fan suggestions online which describe an alternate board setup. For example, there is a sequel to Blokus called Blokus Duo which has a smaller board intended for two players. Many fans choose to use pieces from an unused colour to mark off a smaller section of the board for use with base game instead of having to buy a separate game set to play with a different number of players. 

The same board as before, but with several rows and columns blocked off by a number of the red pieces to provide a smaller playing area, which is occupied by several of the yellow and green pieces, the unused of which are piled next to the board.

In addition, there is Blokus Trigon, which is the same game, but with pieces made of triangles instead of squares, played on a hexagonal board. There's also Blokus 3D, which is based on cubes in three dimensions, and a few weird spinoffs like Blokus Dice and Blokus Junior.

Final Thoughts on Blokus

I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed this game. It's just the kind of abstract strategy game I like, especially as it's based on spatial reasoning, which is a skill that I enjoy using.

But let us not forget to consider the six characteristics of a good game:
  • It allows for upsets.
  • It's fun to lose.
  • It's relatively simple.
  • It ends decisively.
  • It has no player elimination.
  • It relies on player agency.
See? All six! Must be a good game!

Ok, sure, not everyone is going to like it. And that's fine! As long as you make your decision based on decent information, which I have tried to provide for you. So go forth, play some awesome games, and remember to

Game on!

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