The first time you loot a shopping center in Bloc by Bloc—"The Insurrection Game"—you'll leave the streets covered in mutinous graffiti. The second time through, you'll set the buildings ablaze and salt the earth. (Don't worry, it's not a huge loss, considering the landmarks on the board include a garment sweatshop, an underfunded junior college, and an immigrant detention center.) You can spend dice to fend off the police on your tail, but the armored, militarized SUVs are far tougher. For that, you're best off lighting up one of the molotov cocktail cards to clear a path. You win if you engineer the revolution, and lead the citizenry of this occupied, carceral state into a glorious new self-actualized destiny. You fail if you're rounded up by shocktroopers and left to rot in subterranean jail cells.
Nominally, Bloc by Bloc is a board game. It's design can be slotted alongside the other major names of our current tabletop renaissance—namely Pandemic and Dead of Winter—where players work together to stymie an airborne megavirus, or a colony of zombies. However T.L Simons, the 35-year old author of the game, sees himself as a bit of an insurgent. Board games are traditionally regarded as apolitical texts, and are presented to customers without a point of view. (Nobody is demanding to see the Monopoly Man's tax returns.) But in Bloc by Bloc, victory can only be achieved through liberty, and liberty can only be achieved through violence.
"There are other games out there, none of them are widely available, but there have been other games that have simulated some sort of riot. But in pretty much all of them, there's pretty much an assumption that one player plays the cops," says Simons. "We knew that we wanted to make a game where all the players, even if they're not entirely on the same side, they're all participants in an uprising. That's the perspective we wanted each player to have. We were trying to simulate what it'd be like to be in an urban insurrection in the 21st century."
Simons first dreamt up the concept for Bloc by Bloc back in 2010, shortly after the 2006 teacher's strike in Oaxaca, the 2008 anarchist insurrection in Greece, and the 2009 protests that swept through his native Oakland after the murder of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer. Simons had never designed a board game before, but was still captivated by the thought of bringing citywide unrest to a tabletop framework. The idea would rattle around his head for six more years until the release of the first edition of Bloc by Bloc in 2016. (The second edition was successfully Kickstarted this year, and will be released on November 13.)
The design itself is uncompromising, and imbued with a rascally, anarchist spirit. It's touchstones are obvious—there aren't many board games that paint the police as unambiguous antagonists. (They're also represented by white cubes on the board, which was first pointed out by the excellent tabletop YouTube channel Three Minute Board Games, and intentional or not, that's pretty funny.) However, there are other, subtler flourishes that give the game a surprising nuance. For instance, Bloc by Bloc is semi-cooperative; meaning that while you'll need to work with other players in order to topple the hegemony, everyone at the table represents their own throng of vigilantes—be it students, or workers, or prisoners—who are each angling for their own vengeance. According to Simons, this is intended to represent the factionalism present in practically every radical movement on earth. "The players should be fighting against the state, but we wanted to make sure that there was tension between the players," he explains. "There are all kinds of competing interests in social movements. That's one of their strengths, that diversity, but sometimes it becomes intensely sectarian, and that determines the outcome of popular uprisings."
That said, Simons encourages everyone, regardless of their personal ethics, to enjoy Bloc by Bloc as a game first and a political treatise later. (The only people he could see being turned off by the theme are ultra far-right fascists, a group he doesn't mind irritating.) Certainly, that intention is clear in the game's graphic design, which could never be mistaken for revolutionary apotheosis. It's downright cartoony; multi-colored, anthropomorphized cubes with arms and legs, storming the highways of "Bloc City" to fend off the ambiguous incursions of an imaginary government. Simons tells me he often had doubts while outlining the game's splashy, mirthful aesthetics, fearing the world at large might misconstrue its cheerful levity as a direct repudiation on the Movement. But, he says, he managed to tamp down his anxiety about it by remembering Bloc by Bloc is a board game, not a piece of anarchist literature. He doesn't want to overstep the boundaries, or get too big for his britches.
"It's important to be clear that [Bloc by Bloc] is not actually part of the struggle. There are other ways that I choose to contribute to the struggle, but this is a game. That's not to say that it isn't a great way to explore the ideas, and hopefully it introduces people to collective liberation, but it's a game," says Simons. "It needs to not take itself too seriously. In that sense, we wanted the artwork to feel playful, and cartoonish, and take the edge off a little bit, and not put itself on the same level of projects that are very much embedded in the real struggle, and that have real consequences."
Simons is putting his money where his mouth is. Right now, he's sending out copies of Bloc by Bloc's second edition to social movement headquarters all over the world as both a gift and a sign of solidarity. He also includes a print-and-play variant on the website, so nobody is forced to spend their hard-earned wages in order to appreciate the design. So far, the responses have been universally positive. The Overton Window might not be pried open by toppling a tiny wooden police van in a board game, but you know what? It's a decent start.
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