Introducing Blockers!



One of the more perplexing challenges that we face as devotees of the board game hobby is how to evangelize to the great mass of unwashed heathens out there who know nothing of the world beyond Monopoly. Undoubtedly you’ve had the experience of trying to convince someone that they should just step quietly away from that game of Uno they’ve been playing and take a look at a new game that you think they might just like. And that’s when the glazed look of confusion sets in and the excuses follow hard on its heels: "Oh that game has so many rules and I just don’t want to think when I play a game!" "Huh – where are the dice?" "Whaddya mean I can’t eat this cow without a fireplace?" One can only wonder why so many of them, even when confronted with the good news that they can shake off the shackles of Trivial Pursuit and free themselves from the tyranny of Candy Land, choose instead to shut their ears, harden their hearts, and begin yet another game of Scrabble!

Well friends and neighbours, relief may finally be in sight in the form of a shiny new game called Blockers! – which is a re-implementation of the game Uptown. Gone is the pasted on Roaring 20s theme, and in its place is a blissfully unthreatening collection of abstract tiles placed on a board that that looks comfortingly not too dissimilar to a Scrabble board, and also bears a close kinship to a Sudoku puzzle. "Come", you can say to those unconverted family members and friends, "see it’s just a few tiles and a single board – you can even have a tile rack just like you would in Scrabble. There’s nothing to be afraid of here!" And if you can just hold their attention for the three minutes that it will take to explain the rules – if you can get them to just start placing tiles on the board – well, then you might have found a way to get them on board the train – we’ll call it the Ticket to Ride Train – to a new world of gaming goodness. Sound good? Well read on to find out if Blockers might just be what you’ve been waiting for!



COMPONENTS

Game box

The box for Blockers has been well constructed and it certainly has been colourfully illustrated! Both in presentation and size, it's the kind of thing we've come to expect of abstract games like Blokus, and indeed it could even be considered as a distant cousin of the same, if one only examines the tree of modern abstracts closely enough. It certainly has the eye-catching look needed to hold its own against competing titles in your local department store, and gives the game a reasonable chance of being picked up for closer examination by a browsing customer who has never heard of it before. What you see here is the International edition of Blockers - the exact colours and artwork may vary slightly, depending on where you get the game.


The new box cover (International edition)

The back of the box gives us a concise overview of gameplay - and if you take the trouble to read the fine print, you just about know how to play already! Notice the Scrabble like board, and tiles in different colours that players will put on the board. Strategize, Block & Capture, Win!


The back of the box

There is a nice and surprisingly solid plastic insert for holding all of the tiles – conveniently separating them by colour. Everything fits snugly inside and not much more can be said except that it’s a good, solid functional box!


The plastic box insert

Component list

Here’s what you’ll find inside the box:
● 1 board
● 140 tiles (28 in each of five player colours)
● 5 tile racks (1 for each player)
● 1 rules sheet


Everything inside the box

A brief comment about each of these components in terms of quality and function:

Game board

The board has been divided up into nine rows (denoted by the letters A – I), nine columns (denoted by the numbers 1 – 9) and nine 3x3 square grids (indicated with a number of symbols). Over the course of the game you will be placing the tiles that you draw onto the board in locations that match the letter, number, or symbol on that tile.


The game board

A key feature to be noted in terms of design and production, is that each space on the board has been surrounded by ridges so that the tiles played in these squares stay securely in place. Wonderful! This is a significant upgrade from the components in Uptown and goes a long way in terms of smoothing out the actual game play. Kudos to whoever made this happen!


Ridges help keep the tiles in place

Tiles

The thick square cardboard tiles come in one of five different colours: red, yellow, green, blue and purple, such as the ones pictured here.


The five player colours

Each player will receive 28 tiles in their player colour, and each set consists of the following:
● nine tiles numbered one through nine
● nine tiles with the letters A through I
● nine tiles illustrated with a variety of symbols
● one wild tile with the word Blockers! written on it


Complete set of tiles for one player

You will place these tiles on the board in locations corresponding to the number, letter or symbol indicated on that tile and in ways which form larger groups of connected tiles in your colour. The tiles are brightly coloured, and have been well made from good, solid cardboard stock, with a pleasing high gloss finish to them.

Tile racks

You place the tiles that you draw from your supply on plastic racks as a means of keeping them organized and secret from the other players. Their similarities with the Scrabble tile racks may help ease die-hards into a brave new world of gaming.


One of the five player tile racks

Rules

You will also find a double-sided full-colour rules sheet included with the game. The rules for Blockers are very straightforward and the rules sheet itself has been clearly written and organized. There are also a number of illustrations that are quite helpful in explaining concepts like tile placement and capture. The back of the rules sheet also provides an explanation for the two-player game, as well as number of strategy tips. The concise rules help keep the game accessible, and the bright colours may add to the appeal for folks coming from traditional abstract type games, or similar titles like Blokus.


The rule booklet

By way of summary, there aren’t a great number of components inside the box, but the ones that you get have been well made, are aesthetically pleasing, and should stand up to repeated play - good work here overall!

GAME-PLAY

Set-up

Each player begins by taking all the tiles of their chosen colour, placing them face down on the table and shuffling them thoroughly. You then randomly draw five of those tiles and placing them on your tile rack.


Random starting tiles for a player

Choose a starting player, and you are ready to go!


Complete set-up for a four player game

Flow of Play

Placing tiles

On your turn, you will take one of your tiles and place it on the board in front of you. Rules for placement are simple: A number tile must go in one of the nine spaces in the corresponding number column. A letter tile must be placed in one of the nine spaces in the corresponding letter row. And a symbol must go in one of the corresponding symbol spaces. Your wild tile (the Blockers tiles) may be placed in any space on the board. That wasn't too hard was it?


Tiles are placed by letter, number, or symbol

Making groups

In placing your tiles, what you want to try and accomplish is to create connected groups of your own tiles on the board while, at the same time, trying not to capture too many tiles from any one opponent. In terms of forming groups, a group is any connected set of like coloured tiles. To be legally connected and considered as a group, the tiles must be connected orthogonally – diagonal connections don’t count. A single tile that isn’t next to any tiles of the same colour is also considered to be a group. The aim of the game is to create as few such groups as possible. In this example from the end of a two player game (where players have two colours each), Red and Yellow both have a single group, while Blue consists of two groups and Green of three groups.


Red and Yellow have one group, Blue has two groups, Green has three groups

Capturing tiles

When you place a tile, it's usually in your best interests to place it on any empty space on the board, mostly adjacent to one of your existing tiles, rather than beginning a new group. Howeve,r you may also capture an opponent’s tile by replacing it with your own. But there is a restriction: you may not capture a tile if it would result in a larger group being split into multiple groups of tiles. Capturing can be important if it helps you join two of your own groups, or helps you avoid starting a new group - but it can come at a cost, because you don't want to capture too many tiles from one opponent! Here's an example:


How capturing works

After placing a tile, you will draw another tile from your supply, place it on your rack and end your turn. Play then proceeds clockwise around the table.

Game End and Scoring

After each player has drawn the last tile from their supply, everyone has one final turn and then the game ends. This means that at the end of the game each player will have four unplayed tiles remaining on their tile rack.

Your final score is the cumulative total of your groups, and captured tiles of the colour that you have the most of. So to calculate your score, count the number of groups of connected tiles that you have on the board and add to that the number of tiles you have of the colour of which you have captured the most. The winner is the player who has the lowest combined total of groups and captured tiles. In the event of a tie the player with the fewest captured tiles is declared the winner.


Scoring example from a three player game

Variants

Wild tile

One variant worth mentioning is one that originated with the designer, but for some reason isn't mentioned in the rules, and that's to begin the game with the Blockers! (wild) tile face-up in your possession. This is in addition to your five starting tiles, and it can be played at any point in the game, although you don't draw a new tile after using it. I'd agree with Richard Breese's assessment of this variant: "This reduces the luck element resulting from the timing of when you draw the games most powerful piece. Out of choice I would now play this rule as standard." Sterling Babcock concurs: "I think it improves the game. I never liked the variability of when each player got the wild. It gives four things: No one starts with the wild, you can choose it when you need it, choosing it takes up your tile draw action, and others can see when you take the wild tile." The wild Blockers! tile is easily the most useful tile in the game - it can play an important role in helping rescue you from a difficult position, so ensuring that the moment its drawn isn't reduced to luck-of-the-draw can only be a good thing, especially in an abstract game of this sort, where there's definitely room for skillful play. I'd also concur with the recommendation not to play without this small variant rule, because it gives an extra amount of flexibility, and removes a element of luck that is really unnecessary, and could otherwise prove frustrating and unbalanced. For further discussion on this, see:
Recommended essential variant: face up Wild tile


The wild tile is face up from the start of the game

Two player game

The basic game plays quite well with three, four or five players, although expect to end up with a lot more captured tiles in a competitive five player game! But the good news is that Blockers! is also an excellent two player game. The back of the rules sheet provides instructions for two ways in which the game can be played with two players, and I'd recommend skipping the `basic' game that involves playing the game as described above - there's just too much open space and it becomes almost too easy to find places to put your tiles. Instead, go straight to the `advanced' game. It's not really a more `advanced' level of play, but just requires each player to control two colours, and your score is the cumulative total of the groups for each colour, added to the largest number of captured tiles as in the regular rules. This makes for considerably more satisfying two player game that isn’t overly taxing in terms of required brain-power, and proves highly enjoyable.


Scoring example from a two player game

COMPARING EDITIONS

How does it compare with Uptown?

Blockers! is essentially a reimplementation of Uptown, so how has the game changed from the original? Overall the changes are quite small, but substantial enough to consider the new version an evolvement into a better game. Here's what's changed:

The theme has been removed

The Roaring Twenties theme was never going to light the gaming world on fire, and let's be honest, it had a very narrow appeal, not to mention that it was pasted on. Removing the theme and making the game a simple and colourful abstract makes the game more accessible. We all know that there's no real theme, so let's not pretend that there is one - the game is just better this way. And it only helps make the game easier to pull out with a variety of people.


Box cover for Uptown

The components have been changed

The obvious change is that instead of icons representing different aspects of life in the Roaring Twenties, we now have simple shapes that are easily distinguishable. The overall box is much larger, to match the size of games like Blokus - and appeal to a similar market. Instead of a folding cardboard board, there's now a one-piece board. It's smaller in size, which means that the tiles are also smaller, but the biggest change is that there are ridges to keep the tiles in place on the board. The colours are now also primary colours instead of pastel colours. Overall, I'd consider the component changes to be improvements.


Comparing the Uptown and Blockers components

The scoring has been improved

In the original game, your score was simply the number of groups you had on the board, and the amount of captured tiles was only relevant as a tie-breaker. This often meant that games were won with a score of 1 or 2 groups, and the pile of captured tiles tended to be quite significant, and some of the gameplay was about chipping away at the edges of your opponents' groups, while extending your own. Including captured tiles as your score increases the score, and is a small change with a significant effect on gameplay - in a good way. You no longer can capture at will, since you need to `manage' the amount of captured tiles you have, as well as diversify, since the colour that you capture makes a difference. So capturing is still a big part of the game, but you need to ask yourself: is it worth the cost? This makes the gameplay much more tense and decisions much more interesting. The board tends to be very full at the end of a game, and scores are higher. The change to scoring is an excellent improvement which gives additional things to consider when playing, and makes games more enjoyable. A minor change to the two player rules worth mentioning is that you can now capture your tiles (of your other colour) - the reason for this is naturally related to the scoring change. For further discussion on this, see:
Recommended official variant: scoring includes captured tiles


Captured tiles are now considered part of scoring

Overall the changes are all solid improvements, and help make the game more accessible for gamers and non-gamers alike, as well as enhance the gameplay significantly, resulting in a better and more enjoyable game.

What different editions of Blockers are there?

International edition

The game I have been reviewing is the International edition of Blockers, as it is available outside of North America, for example in Asia and Europe. Blockers is being distributed in Europe by Amigo - they've changed the box cover to yellow instead of red, but the components inside are identical to the ones pictured in this review.


Chinese edition (left) and European edition (right)

North American edition

The North American rights to Blockers are owned by BriarPatch, who are putting it out in Canada and the US with the same rules, but slightly different components again. They've used a white plastic molded base and plastic molded tiles, and the result also looks very attractive and of good quality.


US edition from BriarPatch

Either way, Blockers is the superior form of the game. And if you do have the original Uptown, it's easy enough to play with the minor rule change to the scoring for a better game.

CONCLUSIONS

What do we think?

Scalability: The game scales well for different numbers of players, although the amount of competition for spaces will vary. It works particularly well as a 2 player game, and 3 and 4 player games also work very well - as it happens we've not yet played a five player game, but we've probably played close to twenty 2, 3 and 4 player games, and they are all equally satisfactory in their own way.

Accessibility: Anybody can play this game – seriously. The rules are so simple and quick to explain that you can be up and playing in matter of a minutes. In addition, the abstract theme actually works to its advantage here as you shouldn’t have difficulty selling it to anyone but the most hardened anti-gamer. The quick play time – with very little down time between players turns – ensures that this is the kind of game that will work perfectly as a light filler to start or end an evening of more serious gaming. It’s also the perfect kind of game to have on hand at the family cottage, or to pull out when grandma comes over, and fills the same kind of niche as successful abstracts like Blokus, but in a slightly different way.

Strategy: Blockers! is hardly a substitute for the head-to-head and mind-numbing experience of pure abstracts like Chess or Go, and although it takes a minute to learn, it won't take a lifetime to master. The publisher has put a twist on this old adage by this slogan on the box cover: `A minute to learn, a lifetime of fun’ - and that's well said. But although it's not as serious as something like Chess, the game does require some tactical and strategic thought, and the winner will more often than not be determined by skill rather than luck of the draw. Yet it's not the kind of abstract that turns this into a brain-burning exercise that's an intense and stressful battle of the minds. Ultimately, it’s light enough to be fun, and challenging enough to provide a sense of having made some thoughtful decisions, so despite the luck of the draw, the potential for strategy is high. You will need to strike a balance between forming groups and capturing tiles. In thinking about where to place their tiles, a thoughtful player will not just think about the tiles they currently have, but also about those tiles which remain to be drawn. For this type of game, the mix of strategy and luck is just right, and there's enough there to make you want to come back to the game over and over.



Recommendation

So is Blockers! a game for you? For an abstract game that has pleasing components, broad appeal, simple rules, and enough possibilities for strategic play without becoming brain burning or losing its casual feel, Blockers! hits all the right buttons. The new edition turns what was already a decent game, into a very good one. Highly recommended!



Credits: This review is a collaborative effort between EndersGame and jtemple.

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mb The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596

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Kevin Garnica
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I had no idea Uptown was reprinted. Very nice review, Ender. I alway regretted not picking this up in its previous incarnation. I may do so now that it is available once again. Thanks!

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Shawn Woods
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***** *****, Ender! Er... I mean, 10 star review, as always.
 
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Patrick C.
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Glad to see the game promoted regardless of version. And a great review.

However, referring to Uptown as having "pastel" colors isn't exactly fair given the theme. The font, patterns and the color are all in the Art Deco style. I have old college yearbooks of my grandfather that all have artwork that resemble what you see on the Uptown board. As for being pasted on . . . well, war is pasted onto Chess. A little theme on an abstract is a good thing IMO. Not a major fan of abstracts without any theme at all.

My only gripes about Uptown were the lack of ridges (which they fixed in Blockers) and I wish they had gone even further with the Art Deco chrome. But regardless, I'm glad I own this version. I might pick up Blockers if I see it in my thrift travels, but I wouldn't pay retail for it.
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Joseph Arthur Ellis
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Thanks Ender, all your reviews are must-reads.
 
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Jimbo Sutherland
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Nice review of one of my favourite "filler" games - I will be sorely tempted to upgrade if this version comes into one of my preferred game suppliers.

I most certainly will be playing with two variants from now on - they look like the will definitely make the game more interesting.
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B C Z
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I actually prefer the muted colors of the Uptown set, along with the Art Deco style of letters and numbers, combined with the imagery choice.

I like the raised edges for the board and that they shrunk the footprint a bit.

The colors seem a bit too saturated and the blockiness of the letters/symbols, at least in the pictures, seems to meld together a bit.

The alternative scoring is definitely interesting - many of our games end up with 1 group on the board and 8-10 captures. Changing that dynamic will mix up play a bit.
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travvller wrote:
However, referring to Uptown as having "pastel" colors isn't exactly fair given the theme. The font, patterns and the color are all in the Art Deco style. I have old college yearbooks of my grandfather that all have artwork that resemble what you see on the Uptown board. As for being pasted on . . . well, war is pasted onto Chess. A little theme on an abstract is a good thing IMO. Not a major fan of abstracts without any theme at all.

I was not familiar with the Art Deco style from the 1920s, and thus not at all aware until now that the font, patterns and colours were closely connected to the theme. I'm glad to have been corrected on this point, and knowing this does add to my appreciation for the attention to detail that went into the original Uptown edition - even if that particular theme didn't exactly grab me personally.

Thanks for posting this!
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byronczimmer wrote:
I actually prefer the muted colors of the Uptown set, along with the Art Deco style of letters and numbers, combined with the imagery choice.

The alternative scoring is definitely interesting - many of our games end up with 1 group on the board and 8-10 captures. Changing that dynamic will mix up play a bit.

It's easy enough to try the new scoring method using the original version of Uptown, should you prefer those components. For more on that, see this thread:

Recommended official variant: scoring includes captured tiles

As you mention, sometimes games can end with just 1 or 2 groups, and many captured tiles. The changed rule forces you to think more carefully before capturing tiles (and to try to diversify the colours you capture) - more tiles stay on the board, and decisions are harder and more interesting. Give it a try, I think you'll like it!
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Ralph T
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The US edition looks the best of them all. The font on the international edition seems a little too dark, and the black backing is quite dark as well. I worry about that US box being too big though... One good thing about Uptown was the box was modest sized.
 
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Sterling Babcock
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EndersGame wrote:
Wild tile
One variant worth mentioning is one that originated with the designer, but for some reason isn't mentioned in the rules, and that's to begin the game with the Blockers! (wild) tile face-up in your possession. This is in addition to your five starting tiles, and it can be played at any point in the game, although you don't draw a new tile after using it.
My understanding from the author is that the wild tile was face up, but not available for play right away from off the rack. You had to place a regular tile from your rack, then DRAW the face up wild tile into your rack (as opposed to a face down tile draw) before it was available for play. So people knew when you drew your wild, but not when you played it from your rack.
 
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J Chav
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I've only read your opening paragraph and I'm sold!

...

Back to reading...
 
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