Gaming Unplugged: Blokus

July 18, 2010

Back when I reviewed FITS, I mentioned that it took the “multiplayer Tetris” title away from Blokus. It later occurred to me that I haven’t covered Blokus in this column. Let me correct that oversight now.

Based on a design by Bernard Tavitian and published by various companies over its lifetime (currently in the hands of Mattel here in the States), Blokus is an award-winning abstract strategy game for up to four players featuring a 20 x 20 game board and four sets of 21 tiles ranging from a simple 1×1 cube to various pentominoes.

Each player takes one of the colors of tiles and begins by placing any tile they choose on the corner of the board nearest them. On each subsequent turn, you have to place one of your remaining tiles in such a way that it only touches your other pieces on corners (and it has to touch at least one) — no adjacent sides allowed. That restriction only applies to your own pieces, however; it’s perfectly legal — and often sound strategy — to place your pieces alongside those of your opponents. This is especially true if you can block off avenues of play by occupying key corners or making it impossible for certain pieces to be played in a given space. Everyone has the same assortment of tiles, so it’s important to keep track of what they have left to play.

If you have no legal plays, you are eliminated. Play continues until either everyone is eliminated or everyone left playing has played their 21st tile. Scoring works as follows: you lose one point for every square of your remaining tiles (5 points for every unplayed pentomino, 4 for every leftover tetromino, etc.). If you managed to play all of your tiles, you instead gain 15 points; playing your 1×1 tile (which is always legal somewhere on the board unless you were blocked off like crazy) last is worth an additional 5 points. Of course, if one player is able to place all of his tiles and nobody else can then the winner is sort of obvious. 

What makes Blokus such a solid offering is the quick yet strategic play. Even given the propensity for analysis paralysis early on when you have a wide array of options at your disposal, late game plays are often quite constrained. A typical game of Blokus should be finished in under half an hour. Blokus accommodates from two to four players, although the awkward mechanics for three players makes this less desirable than two or four; two players each have two colors of tiles and alternate between them as they place, with like-colored tiles still only touching at the corners but no restrictions on placing your two different colors adjacently. There are also variants for team and solo play.

Blokus really shines as a family game, as there is no reading and very little math required, so children as young as five should be able to play. As long as they’re old enough to not put the gem-like tiles in their mouths (since the smaller ones are choking hazards) they should be fine. You should be able to pick it up for less than $30 just about anywhere.