Woah Nellie: Block Ness, a Gumbo Review

Fifteen or so years ago, right around the time I was just starting to discover hobby board games, I walked into my local hobby shop (the kind that sells model trains and R/C cards, not your typical D&D / board game store) looking for some parts for my son’s plane. There on a display case near the front door was a big giant stack of colorful boxes, with a strange name: “Blokus”. I looked at the back of the box for a second, and was instantly intrigued.

We took the game home with us, and for the next few months, played it almost every night. There was a simplicity to placing the tiles and battling for position that my whole family enjoyed. Eventually, we tired of the fact that it does not play well with three players in our opinion, and discovered games like Ingenious that gave us that same abstract flavor but felt a bit more gamery.

But my wife and I still enjoy playing abstract games, especially when we find something that gives a unique twist to the genre. Newer games like Shobu or classics like Qwirkle and Ingenious still get us excited. So, when Blue Orange Games sent us a review copy of Block Ness, their new family friendly abstract game, my interest was piqued right away.

And of course, it’s got the perfect Dad Pun Title.

Block Ness today, Paco’s Party soon (spoiler alert: Evie’s favorite of the three) and Wilson & Shep later…

Block Ness is a 2021 family friendly game designed by Laurent Escoffler with art by Simon Douchy and published by Blue Orange Games. It scales well from two to four players, and says it is geared for ages eight and up, but we have successfully played it with little game bugs as young as four years old.

GAMEPLAY:

A big, well-illustrated rule book lays out the game play pretty simply. Players compete as colorful Loch Ness monsters that inhabit a board made to look like a giant lake. You’ve seen the iconic photo, right? Then you already understand half of this game.

Each player will use the head and tail and body of their monster to dip in and out of the lake until all players have used all of their pieces or no one can place another piece. On their turns, players will add a piece of the body of the monster to their existing head and tail pieces, move the head or tail to that piece, and plan out the next move. Each of the pieces represent a part of the body at different heights, and players can only cross over other player’s pieces if they are not doing it at the head or tail.

The board easily accommodates two to four players, using the Ingenious tactic of a shrinking “lake” for two players, or using wider parts of the lake for higher player counts. Each player takes their turn quickly, and it does not take long before the lake is filled up with the nearly fluorescent pieces diving one way and emerging in other places on the board.

The stated play time on the box is 15-20 minutes, and honestly, this is a dead solid estimate based on our numerous plays. Since there is the combination of limited space and limited pieces, it really does not take long to play the game. Even the most AP player has just a few things that they need to evaluate on their turns, so this is the kind of game you could play with your family two or three times after dinner and still have plenty of time for other things.

PRODUCTION:

Blue Orange Games is well known for excellent productions, for me going back all the way to New York: 1901. Block Ness doesn’t disappoint. The four colors chosen (green, black, purple and red) all stand out on the table, (especially the “lightning” green). The box fits all the pieces perfectly in the channels, and the game board conveniently fits over those channels to provide an easy space to make the lake.

Each of the monster pieces feels thick and chunky in your hands, so the toy factor is there, and seeing all of the monsters intertwined in different colors and at different heights is very much a photographer’s paradise.

The closest I’ll ever come to a Loch Ness monster?

The head and tail pieces were made to be easily changeable and attachable to the different body pieces, but that may have been the only slight hiccup. The game’s colorful nature appeals straight away to younger kids, and yet, detaching and re-attaching the head and tail pieces is a little bit more tricky than it looks upon first glance. The pieces have to be attached in just the right configuration to make them stick, which for most adults is not a problem.

Let’s face it, part of the attraction of any game like this is going to be the visual appeal, and Block Ness will entice just about any young gamer for a look see. The first time you plop this box o’ cardboard on your game table, you won’t have any trouble getting the younger set interested in checking it out.

However, while the rule book scores points for many photographs and illustrations showing the proper way to play, and things to avoid, some of the rules could have been just a bit clearer, in particular, where and when you can legally place the pieces. But these are tiny quibbles, as the production is outstanding, something we have come to expect from Blue Orange Games.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

Who doesn’t want to place colorful dragon shaped monsters on a lake to score points? I am not going to be the one to say anything negative about the theme at all. I love the pun, I love the box cover, and the theme certainly carries through in the game.

And yet.

Block Ness is an edge case for me. On the one hand, the box art, silly name, and toy-like pieces seem to be geared for the younger set, but at the same time, the pieces are a little tricky to handle for smaller hands. Plus, the strategy of boxing in opponents definitely takes cognitively higher decision making than the wee set will likely be ready to plan.

On the other hand, the rule set is so doggone simple — place a piece, move the tail or head — that accommodations can be easily made for even the youngest players in your family. And a four player game with adults is downright thinky and cut throat. Plus, the game time is so short that it is easy to have a Yeti full of Abita Root Beer icing down while you and your friends knock out three or four games of Block Ness in a row.

Yes, the bugs were having fun switching up the colors. Games are fun, right?

I measure a lot of games like this against that Reiner Knizia classic, Ingenious, or against Blokus itself. Our family has played so much of the latter that I’m frankly not interested in playing Blokus anymore, but we are no where near tired of playing Ingenious. Block Ness does not have the depth of play and strategy that Ingenious has, at least not for me, and the short playing time while great for multiple plays or playing with your family also means that it feels a little too short, almost as if you are only eating half of a raspberry cheesecake cookie from Subway. Where’s my other half?!?

But my criticism is not really very fair. I do not think the designers of Block Ness set out to make a game that is a meaty, thinky abstract one hour wonder. I think their goal was to give you the kind of fun game that can be played three or four times in that span, for families to enjoy after dinner, with kinetic energy bursting out of the lake. In our games, we have almost always had a moment where there is one particular move made that has one of the players howling at another, but even then, it is so easy to set up and play again, that there are never any hard feelings.

As for the littlest ones in your family, I’m pretty sure that you will have a similar experience to the one I had with our little bugs — the adults will be focused on beating each other, while the little ones are just happy placing all of the pieces to their Block Ness monster out on the board in crazy angles.

CONCLUSION:

I’m always on the lookout for fun abstract games that appeal both to my wife and me for two player date nights, as well as for the younger set to play with us on family nights. We had fun as adults playing, and there’s some thinky strategy moments as we plotted out whether diving across the center was the strongest move (like in chess) or skirting the edges to stay away from the other players was stronger.

The colorful art, the funky pieces, the tactile satisfaction of crossing over other player’s monsters, and the quick playing time all add up to a great family experience, one that I can heartily recommend especially for middle school families, but I’m not so sure that I would bring it out with my regular game night buddies.

The best description I can give Block Ness is that any family would enjoy playing this together after dinner: it’s a shared but competitive experience that sets up quickly, can be introduced to guests with ease, and gives good puzzly game play in a package that looks visually appealing on the dinner table.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

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