How Blokus Works


Whatever you call it, this game is addictive!
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks.com

First of all, let's get something straight. It's pronounced "block-us."

Sure, it looks like it could be "bloke-us," "bloke-use" or some variation thereof. But the name Blokus -- a popular hobby game -- is easily recalled when you realize that the title indicates what happens in the game. You're blocking your opponents, stymieing them at every turn for game domination.

Blokus hinges on a pretty simple concept: In a traditional game, four players select a color and are assigned 21 game pieces in that color in a variety of geometrical shapes. The goal of the game is to put as many of your pieces on the board as possible. The trick? You must position your shapes so they touch other pieces of your color -- and only on the corners. That is, no sides touching and no pieces free-floating without touching your color.

You can also play Blokus as a two-player game or on teams, with players or teams controlling two colors. Three people can play if one player adopts two colors or if the pieces in the fourth color are placed on the board randomly.

Easy as (several pieces of strangely shaped and noncontiguous) pie, right? You wish. Blokus hasn't won handfuls of awards in the past few years without requiring a fair amount of strategy and skill. And the list of prizes is impressive: Since its 2000 release, Blokus has snagged the Grand Prix du Jouet in France, the Spiel des Jahres award in Germany, Best Game Award in Japan, Best Strategy Game Award in the United States and Vuoden Peli in Sweden, to name only a few.

Along with all the sweeping acclaim and gushing speeches that no doubt come along with winning national game awards, as of 2012, Blokus has already made itself at home in about 3.4 million households worldwide [source: Blokus]. In other words, this game isn't just for insiders; it's a proven hit.

It's no wonder that people have embraced it, and many have cited it as more than just a good way to spend a half hour with the family. In the next pages, we'll explore how educational studies have pointed out Blokus' ability to teach problem solving, and hobby games in general have been shown to help people with long-term and short-term reasoning -- including investment strategy.

While it's an absurdly easy game to learn, it can be mind-bendingly frustrating to master. Let's get the easy part out of the way first.

Blokus Rules and Instructions

These are the 21 Blokus game pieces.
These are the 21 Blokus game pieces.
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks.com

First, peek inside the brightly colored box. There, you'll find 84 geometrically shaped game pieces in 4 distinct colors (21 in each color), a 400-square board and an instruction booklet.

As we mentioned, some of those pieces might look strangely familiar to Tetris fans. Here's why -- All 21 pieces represent different types of polyominos, geometric shapes made up of unit squares that border each other in various patterns [source: Weisstein]:

  • 1 piece consisting of 1 square (monomino)
  • 1 piece consisting of 2 squares (yep, it's a domino)
  • 2 pieces comprised of 3 squares (triominoes)
  • 5 pieces made up of 4 squares (tetrominoes, your old buddies from Tetris)
  • 12 pieces made up of 5 squares (pentominoes)

So, the goal of Blokus is to put all 21 of these babies on the board. Sound easy? Consider that there are only a certain number of legal placements.

Let's say you picked blue, so it's your turn first. (The game is always played in order of blue, yellow, red and green turns, no matter what, and play proceeds clockwise). Start by placing a piece in the corner of your choice -- note that one square unit of your inaugural game piece must actually cover the corner square of the board. Your fellow players will then do the same with their respective corners. On each subsequent turn, each player will strategically place his or her Blokus pieces on the board. Two rules govern placement of pieces:

  • You must position your piece so that it touches another piece of your same color.
  • Those pieces CANNOT touch sides; they can only meet at corners.

In other words, you can't simply jam the pieces together like a puzzle (or Tetris). The pieces can touch the sides of your opponents' different colored ones, but -- again -- only if one corner of your piece is touching a corner of another piece belonging to you.

Best-case scenario, you'll be able to fit all your pieces on the board. If you're new to Blokus (or simply not a born Blokus prodigy), you'll run out of eligible moves before you run out of pieces. In that case, you're done playing. But just wait to see how the game ends, because each block (or covered unit square) you've played scores you a point at the end of the game.

When all the players have been foiled, the game is over. Count up all the squares on the board for a point each and then subtract your unused squares from that total. In other words, +1 for each square on the board, -1 for each unused square. If you were some kind of amazing Blokus genius and placed all 21 squares, good for you: You get 15 extra points! If you were even more amazing and managed to use the single square on your very last turn? Add another five points to that 15. You, my friend, are a Blokus champ.

Blokus Tips and Strategies

In Blokus, it pays to take note of your opponents' strategies (and remaining pieces), not just your own.
In Blokus, it pays to take note of your opponents' strategies (and remaining pieces), not just your own.
Robert Nickelsberg/News/Getty Images

Think Blokus is for babies? Think again. (Especially since it's been noted that the sound of a Blokus board being knocked over by a toddler is a terrifying, shattering noise that leaves parents with curdled blood.) The truth is, although it's technically simple to understand, Blokus can be maddeningly strategic. Not only are you attempting to thwart the advances of other players, but you're also on an offensive attack to save space for your squares, as well.

Luckily, there are a few easy tips you can keep in mind while you're playing to leverage your chances at Blokus success. When placing your first pieces, make sure to move toward the center. Remember, you want to keep as many corners of your pieces open as possible -- so lining them up on the side of the board is going to immediately point you out as a Blokus amateur, and all your friends will laugh at you.

Also, be aware that the more squares you cover on the board, the more points you get. So use your shapes strategically. Positioning the smaller squares first is not only going to leave you less room to place the bigger ones; you're also handicapping yourself when it comes to getting the most points on the board fast.

In terms of playing against your opponents, it's Blokus -- and not WatchUsWhileWeBlokYou -- for a reason. Be aggressive about making sure the other players have few options for their own pieces. The Blokus instructions refer to the corners that are unprotected and jut out the most as "advanced" corners. Be proactive about surrounding your opponents' most available, advanced corners. Remember that while you can only touch the corners of your colored pieces, you can abut all sides of another player's piece. Use this ability to surround your opponents.

Want a fast, sneaky way to try out Blokus strategies on your own? Lucky for you, there are many ways to play Blokus apart from the board games. There's an app available for various smartphone platforms, as well as free online versions at the Blokus Web site. You can even go the old-fashioned route and play a solitaire version of Blokus, where the goal is to get all the pieces on the board legally.

Before you go rogue, meet the clever mind behind Blokus -- and discover why you might actually (gasp) learn something from playing it.

Blokus Background and Brain Games

Blokus is Mensa-approved!
Blokus is Mensa-approved!
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks.com

Blokus is a so-called "hobby game," meaning it's a bit more specialized than more mainstream games. Usually played at a clip (a Blokus game is generally a half hour long), these games prize strategy above, say, the luck of the draw that comes with Uno [source: Thai].

The game was dreamed up by a French designer, Bernard Tavitian. Apparently not one to loll around on the couch and watch reality shows in his free time, Tavitian boasts a master's degree in mathematics, an engineering degree and a doctorate in biophysics, among other accomplishments [source: Blokus].

Not satisfied with book smarts, Tavitian was also a painter. One day, he was attempting to frame a painting he had finished of an orchestra represented by geometric figures, and he decided that he wanted colored shapes to frame the picture. With the thought that each similarly colored piece should never touch, the game of Blokus was born [source: NAGC].

Another influence? The four-color theorem, first introduced in 1852 by Francis Guthrie [source: Thomas]. The theorem states that on any given map, you only need four colors to distinguish separate territories -- that is, without any borders of the same color touching each other, side by side. Well, it's a nice theory. But only a computer program has been able to prove it, and mathematicians are still searching for the ultimate human proof [source: MegaMath].

Theorems or not, you're still playing a brain game. As we said, it's gained a huge following in general and has been heralded by smarty-pants organizations like Mensa (a society for those special folks with the highest of high IQs) as a "Select" game, which "indicates that a game is original, challenging and well-designed" [source: Mensa].

Even scholarly journals like Mathematics Teaching in Middle School have highlighted the game's brain-boosting potential. An article published in the journal in April 2011 studied the use of Blokus in math classrooms as a learning tool. Authors Michael and Paula Maida determined that investing a short period of time in playing the game yielded improvements in students' geometric and spatial reasoning, as well as problem-solving skills [source: TeacherWeb]. (Middle schoolers, be sure to keep this article handy when you're caught playing Blokus on your phone in math class.)

Blokus can help you with more practical things, too. For instance, the financial investment Web site The Motley Fool even suggests that making agonizing decisions about where to situate your squares on a Blokus game board teaches you patient investment strategies. By judging priorities in a board game (should I attack aggressively or build patiently?), you're able to plan for the future while keeping an eye on what resources you need on hand [source: Maranjian].

How Blokus Works: Author's Note

Writing about Blokus is difficult. Not because the game is hard (I'm confident that a seven-year-old playing online beats me regularly) or because there's loads of background and research -- this isn't exactly Dungeons & Dragons, where a thorough history of the story is required. No, it's difficult to write about Blokus for the miserable excuse that it is fun to play Blokus. The game is addicting. So addicting, in fact, that every time I sat down to write, I instead found myself thinking of reasons to play the game -- research, you know -- instead of writing about it. One of the reasons Blokus is so satisfying is because although it is easy and doesn't require background, it's still a challenge to design and implement a strategy. Even educational experts see it as an intellectually beneficial game, which only leads me to drop what I'm doing to play another round. For my brain, you know.

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Sources

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