Blocks in the West – Boardgame Review
Passed Inspection: rules are easy to play without being too basic, Tech Levels allow for a healthy mix of unit capabilities
Failed Basic: very confusing set-up for the game, rules book needs better organization and editing
Most WWII wargames of recent years fall into one of two patterns: tactical simulations of specific battles with a great complexity of rules, or simplified strategic-level games where German infantry is the same as Russian infantry is the same as British infantry. New kids on the game design block VentoNuovo Games have created a solid system that provides both strategy and tactical nuances. Unfortunately the rules are riddled with the sort of editorial errors that new game companies are apt to make.
Blocks In The West is a stand-alone game that can be combined with the previous Blocks In The East (Russian Front). Blocks In Africa is on the horizon. When you first open the box it’s like opening a toy chest. You get the full-color rules book, oversized scenarios book, two player aid cards, designer’s notes sheet, three decks of scenario cards, two 34.5 x 24 inch maps of western Europe for campaign play, one 23 x 16.5 inch double-sided map of Italy and its environs and northeastern France (for shorter scenarios), two sheets of beautifully illustrated sticker sheets, three sets of cards, twelve dice, dozens of small plastic factories and oil drums, about 100 small blocks (production point markers), over 300 large wooden blocks in 10 colors, 31 other wooden markers (including ships and trains), and a tee-shirt. What do you do with all this stuff?
Well, first, you apply the stickers to the blocks. And therein comes Blocks In The West’s biggest problem. The game provides you two sticker sheets to choose from; you can use the military symbols sheet (marked as NATO on the sticker sheet), or you can use the beautifully painted unit stickers that show German soldiers standing around a mortar, the Desert Rats with a kangaroo symbol, US paratroopers dropping from the sky, etc. Artistically and aesthetically, these are very pleasing units that look great on the gaming table. The catch? The rules and scenario set-ups use the military symbols ONLY, so if (like me) you choose to use the nicely painted “Icon” sticker sheet, you’ll find yourself at a loss during the game. Which guys are motorized infantry and which are marines? Is that tank a light or a heavy? Use the military designation stickers and leave the nicely painted ones to look at.
Now the second problem. The units are a dizzying array of colors. The German units are kind of grey and black, but the stickers explode in color, and they’re thrown haphazardly across the sticker sheet, so there’s no clear delineation where the Italian units end and the US units begin. The units are provided with unit designations in the upper right and lower left corners, so if you know the division numbers of every unit that fought in the Western Theater you’ll be okay. Even then, however, things get squirrely. The Free French are considered US ally units, but they’re put on light blue French blocks. Canadian units are placed on dark blue UK blocks, but they can’t use UK supply routes (?). Given that the game provides about twenty different nations, mixing the stickers all together without a clear color code for each side was A Very Bad Idea.
Where to Find the Right Stickers
To alleviate your frustration, here are tips culled from my two days of experience with this painful process. Use the military symbol “NATO” sticker sheet. Remember, each block gets a sticker placed only on one side. First, apply the forts and mulberries on the orange blocks; you’ll find those stickers along the left side of the sticker sheet. Next, take the four German subs (found along the lower right edge of the sticker sheet, nowhere near the other German units) and apply those to the four grey blocks. The US Morale (Found next to the German subs—where else?) is applied to the bright red block. The Axis and Allies stickers at the very bottom of the sheet are applied to each side of the tan block; this is the only block that gets stickers on both sides of it.
Starting at the top left, all of the stickers are German for the first 9 rows; rows 10 and 11 are all German except for the units with small flags in the upper left; those are Minor Powers. The Germans (134 total) get put on black blocks. The Minor Powers go on dark brown blocks. The next two rows are Italian units, placed on light green blocks (25 total Italian units).
Now start at the right edge of the next three rows. All the units with small flags in the upper left corner are Minor Powers and put on dark brown blocks; you should have a total of 28 Minor Power units when you’re done. The remaining units of these three rows are all US units and are put on dark green blocks. All the units of the next row except the dark bomber are also US units, as are the five paratroopers in the row after that. There are a total of 43 US units.
The dark bombers and all of the units remaining in the next two rows are UK (dark blue blocks), along with the first six units of the next two rows for a total of 32 UK blocks. What’s left are the French, 42 of them, and they are put on light blue blocks.
(Click here to see a diagram of the Blocks in the West sticker sheet with different-colored lines drawn to show the locations of the various stickers for each nationality that the designer provided on the BoardGameGeek site. – Editor)
It is unforgivable in a game of this price to have this level of confusion on something as basic as setting up the game.
The thirteen scenarios (ten plus three alternate set-ups for the invasion of France) run from the early days of blitzkrieg through to The Bulge and Nazi Germany’s fiery end. The scenario book uses the military designations to show set-up—except when it doesn’t. One scenario I tried had one or two units shown with the fancy artwork side, complicating an already difficult set-up. Units are not shown with nationality but just the military symbol and the unit designation; worse, they are shown “stacked” on top of each other, so at times you can barely make out units below the top one. Add in that at least on one occasion the designers forgot to show the unit’s division, and in another they got it wrong and listed a unit that does not exist in the game—giving you more reasons to wonder if they even bothered editing this before production or if some information got changed translating to English-language rules.
Once you are past this nightmare of the blocks, you’ll find yourself with a pretty good game.
The rules are broken into Basic, Advanced, and Optional. The basic game is a solid mix of common wargame conventions and other block games. Units have four combat strengths, based on which block edge is at the top. As they take damage rotate the block to the next lowest (weakest) edge. The combat strength is the number of dice the unit rolls in combat; rolls of 6 count as hits. Movement for most ground units is three or four hexes per turn. Air units move five (fighters) or 10 (bombers). Ground units exert a ZOC into most adjacent hexes; stacking limit is three ground units plus one air unit; one additional air unit can move in for combat only and must retreat (withdraw) by the end of the combat phase.
Turns alternate between Axis and Allies, with the bad guys going first. The supply rules are good; a unit out of supply (more than three hexes away from a friendly supply hub or rail line, or that has enemy ZOCs between it and supply) gets marked with a white oil drum at the start of the turn. If it can’t get back in supply by the turn’s end, the unit surrenders and is removed from the map.
A good mechanism in Blocks is the Tech Level of nations. Depending on the month and year, different classes of units (infantry, armor, fighter, bomber) are given Tech Levels from 1 through 3, which provide a variety of game effects. For example, Marines at Tech 1 are regular infantry; at Tech 2 they can perform amphibious landings in clear terrain; at Tech 3 they can land in rough terrain. There are nearly 20 different benefits for Tech Levels, which help differentiate the units. German units can follow-on in blitz attacks from the war’s start, of course, but it takes the British some time to develop that ability. The USMC is quantitatively better than their Italian counterparts. And so on.
The Advanced Game adds a comfortable layer of rules to the basics. Weather begins affecting movement and combat, some units are elite and score hits on 5 and 6 in attacks and defense instead of only on a 6. The basic production rules—each turn, each side gets x number of points to rebuild (strengthen) weakened units—get a nice boost with points now divided between several unit types (armor, air, navy, support). The Optional Rules are like gravy—small rules that add flavor to the game, such as air recon and partisans. The one Optional Rule that should be part of the Advanced rule package is strategic bombing, targeting enemy factories and supply lines.
I like the anti-aircraft and artillery rules. They are incorporated nicely into the game and feel right. The Tech Levels add a great element to the game; I’d like to see players able to influence TL increases by spending production points rather than have them be static and based on dates alone. Game play is smooth, I appreciate the use of cards for influencing play (Volkssturm card allows the Germans to gain one infantry unit at 1 strength in every city every Production Phase but activates only when an enemy ground unit enters Germany). I think the combat rules do a great job of simulating blitz warfare and rapid advances. A good effort.
Sadly, not a great one, due to the sub-par editing. I can let the constant reference to malus instead of penalty slide, and bonuses are presented as boni, but I have to wonder why these Latin words were used in the English-language rules. The rules book could be better organized and cross-referenced; all the basic rules for supply, movement, and combat appear in one section (Sequence Of Play), special supply and movement rules for nationalities appear in the section before that one, and if you blink you’ll miss the rule that the French AA fire is at half strength. (Don’t look for it in the section on AA fire.)
Some of the rules almost seem intended to confuse. Strategic Rail Movement allows you to move a certain number of units along a rail line. Got it. But only along a friendly rail line. What’s a friendly rail line? Can you capture enemy rail lines and use them? The section on Supreme Leaders seems confusing, but check out the illustration and you’ll see that Supreme Leaders have orange around their “1″ strength—a fact not mentioned in the rules. Don’t look for the partisan discs that the rules keep referring to; they give you ten little people figures instead to use for partisans. At least I think that’s what the little people figures are for …
I already griped about the stickers and set-up. Here are some more gripes. All through the rules I keep seeing that there are no naval units in the game other than the U-boats. So why do I have a dozen wooden ships? What are the mushroom cloud shaped wooden markers for?
Seriously, they would have been better off saving the stickers and blocks and wood and tee-shirts. Give us counters, color-matched to different nationalities but with the cool artwork, and replace the small wooden blocks with cardboard markers for production points (but keep the little plastic factories and oil drums, those are cool). In short, spend a few more weeks on the rules book to make sure everything is referenced properly, make sure the scenario set-ups are correct, and put out a better game for about half the price.
As it is, Blocks In The West is a good game, and I look forward to combining it with a friend’s Blocks In The East for a really massive campaign game—not sure where we’ll play it since the map will be six feet on one side! But it could be far better, and I hope that the designers build on this. Blocks In The West can become the base for a truly classic WWII system. Even with all the mali that crept into this release.
(Click here to find VentoNuovo’s downloadable rules to Blocks in the East and Blocks in the West.—Ed)
Armchair General Rating: 83% (would be higher but for the confusing set-up)
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 3 out of 5
About the Author:
Sean Stevenson is a writer and games enthusiast from Pittsburgh. When not playing wargames or tableside roleplaying games, he is usually found reading a book on the Revolutionary War.