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Saturday, 8 May 2021

1987: Block Mania

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

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Sometimes the choice of game to review is not yours to make. So, it is with this review. The death of Richard Halliwell, the co-designer of Warhammer Fantasy Battles, as well as Space Hulk and Dark Future was announced on Monday, May 3rd, 2021. Although not a player of wargames, I am a fan of what he designed and created. This is a review of one of his many designs, all of which were popular and well received.

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In the twenty-second century, the majority of the citizens of Mega-City One live in vast tower blocks, each a cramped claustrophobic world unto its own. Each block has its own shops, schools, hospitals, parks, and more, its citizens resigned to a life of rampant unemployment and welfare benefits and rarely needing to leave the confines of the block. Everything they, if not want, can be found within the confines of their block, so as boring and as frustrating as their lives are, to each citizen, their block is their home and their identity, and if their lives are boring and frustrating, it is not the fault of the government—there is no government, then they need someone else to blame. That someone else is their neighbouring blocks. Perhaps the citizens, or blockers, of these neighbouring blocks are too rich or too poor, too noisy or too quiet and untrustworthy, too arrogant or too cowardly, unfriendly or hostile, or… Or the reason does not matter, because it is enough to turn a simple insult of one blocker made by a blocker of a rival block, a juvie rumble between rival blocks, or even a pre-emptive strike by a rival block is enough to aggravate the rivalries between blocks into an all-out confrontation between their citizens and their city-def squads. And an all-out confrontation between the citizens and the city-def squads of rival blocks can turn into a war! A war that can escalate into one block invading the other and planting bombs and setting fires sufficient to bring the whole block down! Of course, that is until the Judges, the combined policemen, judges, juries, and executioners of Mega-City One respond to the conflict and intervene to bring it to a permanent end!

This is the set-up for Block Mania, a two-player board game for players aged fourteen and up set in the Judge Dredd universe. In Block Mania, each player takes control of a single block—Sammy Fox or Buddy Holly Block—and the enraged citizens or Blockers who reside there. Armed with flamers, missile defence lazers, missile launchers, spit guns, and stump guns, City-Def units, Crocks (senior citizens), Juvies, and Spugs (really mean Juvies) will attack their rival block or defend their own. Futsies (suffering from Future Shock) will go crazy and attack anyone, Fatties rolling on belliwheels will charge and squash their rivals, Mobs will go on the rampage, Juvies and Spugs can scrawl really demeaning and demoralising graffiti, the alien hungry, hungry Kleggs will fight for anyone and chomp anyone they can, and demolition charges can be laid, firebombs places, and fires set, both of which will severely weaken a Block—and may even bring it down!

Block Mania is played out over two boards placed side-by-side and which each depicts a vertical side view of each Block. Laid side-by-side, they are connected by Mega-Ways for vehicle traffic, Pedways for foot traffic, and a Sky-Rail for quick transit. Both Blocks have balconies from which attacks can be launched and targeted, and upon which units aboard Power Boards or wearing Bat Suits can launch themselves or land. Inside movement can be eased up down the Block via the Elevators, down via Grav Chutes, and across the open spaces of Civic spaces. Once inside, Banks can be looted, really demoralising graffiti can be left in Civic spaces, Shopping Malls can be looted, and Power Houses can be switched off, which turns off the elevators, pedways, and lights! Besides the two boards, Block Mania includes some one-hundred-and-eighty counters, depicting the various units and pieces of Armoury (guns) and Hardware (equipment). Each unit has three stats—Command Value, Strength Value, and Movement Allowance. The Command Value is its cost to be activated, the Strength Value is its defensive score, and the Movement Allowance how many movement points it has when activated. Armoury counters have a damage bonus and a range value. Most of the counters are an inch-square, though the conditional marker counters, such as Fire and Collapse are a little smaller.

As well as moving his counters around the two maps, a player also has Mania cards, which give him certain bonuses and advantages during play as well as adding flavour. There are fifty-four of these and they are double-sided. One side is the Justice side, and depicts the forces and equipment that the Justice Department will deploy against the two warring Blocks—and thus both players—in the End Game phase, such as ‘Stumm Gas’, ‘Kleggs Go Home’, and ‘Riot Foam’. On the other side, the Mania cards depict events and bonuses which will benefit a player when used. For example, ‘Reinforcements’ lets a player deploy two units without paying the Command Point cost, ‘Kleggs’ allows a player to hire the mercenary aliens or take control of the Kleggs already in play (so control of them can switch back and forth), and ‘Kaboom!’ which has a player’s City-Def secretly plant a thermo-Bomb in the rival Block and allows him to place three Fire markers anywhere in the enemy Block. Throughout the game, each player holds three Mania cards and always draws another one at the end of his turn, so each player should play one every turn. Lastly, there are two books in Block Mania, both in landscape format. One is the Rulebook, the other is The Blockers’ Manual, a reference to the various counters and Mania cards.

Set-up involves placing the two boards side-by-side, each player receiving three Mania cards with another sixteen set aside for the Endgame phase, and receiving four random Blocker counters and their Hardware or Armoury counters if necessary, and again drawn randomly. They are placed wherever a player like sin his Block. The rest of a player’s counters—Blockers, Armoury, and Hardware—are placed in cups or stacks face down, so that they can also be drawn randomly. The game is played in turns each comprised of four phases—Command, Defensive Fire, Combat, and End Phase. In the Command Phase, the active player rolls the game’s two six-sided dice to generate Command Points, and then spends them to deploy new Blockers, activate Blockers in play and use their Movement Allowance to move, and spend on extra movement. No Command Points need to be spent in the other phases, but the limited number of Command Points per turn, except when a player rolls very well or plays the right Mania card, will force a player to focus on a few—even just one or two—units per turn, and thus make a few choices per turn. Overall, this should keep play relatively brisk.

In the Defensive Fire phase, the non-active player can shoot at adjacent enemy Blockers and in the Combat phase, the active player can attack—shoot or close assault—with his Blockers, make Loot, Arson, or Firefighting attacks against a target square. Rolls of six or more on the dice succeed for most actions, although in combat, the target’s Strength is deducted from the roll, whilst the damage bonus for the Armoury counter is added. During the End phase, rolls are made for chances of Collapse, Fire damage, and Catastrophic damage. Both Collapse and Fire damage causes Structural Damage markets to be added to a Block, though Fire damage can be prevented from spreading by firefighting. More Structural Damage markers in a square increases the likelihood of a collapse and the addition of a Collapse marker, and if a player rolls five dice and the total is lower than the number of Collapse markers, down comes the Block!

Play continues until the Mania cards run out and the Endgame begins. This means that a game should never last more than thirty-six turns before the Endgame is triggered. When it is, the discard pile is then shuffled, along with the sixteen cards set aside at the start of the game. A player must play one card on his turn and must use the Justice side of the card, not the Mania side. A Justice card will typically remove a Blocker from play, so the Endgame turns into a race to do as much damage to the rival Block before a player runs out of Blockers. The game ends when the last Blocker is removed from play or if both Blocks have collapsed. At this point, each player receives Defeat Points for damage done to his Block, locations Looted, graffiti left in his Block, Blockers defeated, and a whole lot of Defeat Points if his Block was brought down. The player with the least amount of Defeat Points is the winner and is given official permission by the rules to taunt his actually defeated opponent.

Block Mania is raucous, silly fun, and chaotic from start to finish. Which it should be, because none of the Blockers are necessarily trained soldiers and they are not acting in a co-ordinated fashion, often just grabbing what Armoury or Hardware that they can and rushing to attack the rival Block or defend against the invading Blockers. Which is modelled with the random drawing of Blockers, Armoury, and Hardware counters, and the randomly determined number of Command Points a player receives each turn. Plus, once any fires are set alight and bombs placed, there is always the increasing chance of the whole thing, including a player’s Block collapsing. And arguably, there can be no greater joy than seeing your rival’s Block collapse. It does not matter that you are going to spend decades in an Isocube when your inevitable arrest by a Judge comes to pass. Ultimately, the forces of the Law and Justice—and no to say life (or the game)—are against you, but after all, your rival’s defeat is greater than yours!

Block Mania is also complex fun in places too. The idea that you would get so angry and so crazy as to actually attack our neighbours is satirically funny in a dark way, especially with some of the Blocker units each player gets to deploy. Of course, much of this is drawn upon the satire of the Judge Dredd comic strip and universe, but in Block Mania, a player can have a Futsie scrawl in Civic space, Crocks fly between the Blocks on Power Boards and Loot a Bank, and Fatsies with Belliwheels trundling across the Pedway to slam into the City-Def on the other side. Which is all great fun, but thirty years on some players might have an issue with the idea of actively working to bring down a tower block. That said, this probably less of an issue than it would have been in the past. The complexity comes in some of the fiddley little details, such as working out how movement works, as it is often dependent upon where a Blocker is and what means of movement a player wants it to use—by foot or Elevator or Grav Chute or Pedway, and tracking elements of the game, such as fires and collapses. In comparison, combat is fairly simple.

Physically, Block Mania is well presented. The boards and counters are done on thick cardboard and illustrated in full colour with artwork drawn from the Judge Dredd universe, as are the Mania cards. The two books, the Rulebook and The Blockers’ Manual are done in the shades of blue and white and are neat and tidy. The Rulebook includes both Designer’s Notes and Players’ Notes, the latter some advice for play. The Rulebook does need a careful study, because there are lots of little rules that apply in different situations, and that does mean that Block Mania is anything other than a casual game.

Block Mania was originally published by Games Workshop in 1987. It was not the first time that Games Workshop would visit the Judge Dredd universe, having previously done so in 1982 with the Judge Dredd board game. However, despite Games Workshop being better known for publishing the much-loved Judge Dredd The Roleplaying GameBlock Mania always remained a fondly remembered game. The subject matter was also popular enough to be the subject of another game, Judge Dredd: Block War, published by Game and A Curry in 2018. Then in 2020, Rebellion Games, the games arm of the publisher of 2000 AD republished Block Mania and its sequel, Mega Mania, as a pair of handsome limited-edition replicas. This is the version of the board game being reviewed.

It would be inaccurate to describe Block Mania as being wholly British Ameritrash. Yes, the game comes with an H-Wagon or two’s worth of theme and applies that throughout, and yes, the game includes a fair degree of randomness, whether that is the random drawing of Blocker, Armoury, and Hardware counters, or the random determination of Command Points from turn to turn. Yet, Block Mania is also a classic counter and dice wargame, no surprise given that it is designed by Richard Halliwell, the co-designer of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, and in the use of Command Points, the game has the feel of a miniatures wargame where the limited activation of units from turn to turn is a feature. Plus, there are some complexities in the mechanics which means that it is not as much of a throwaway game.

Rowdy and clamorously chaotic, Block Mania is a darkly funny, satirical game. It is far from a perfect game, but it is a fun game to play and it is a brilliant adaptation of its source material.

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