This is the twenty-sixth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Our next random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is Blockara, by Haunted Bees Productions. Its tagline in the bundle reads:

Head-to-head competitive puzzle action!

That’s right, folks. None of that staid, boring puzzle stuff here. This is pure, intense, white-knuckled puzzle action.

I was concerned by the “head to head” part of that description, fearing Blockara would require two players. Fortunately, while playing against another human is possible, Blockara lets single players go up against AI-controlled opponents. The competitive puzzling resembles a tile-matching game, but works a bit differently to most. Players have a grid of red, blue and green tiles (the options menu includes alternate display options for colorblind players) at the bottom of the screen, while the computer opponent has a grid at the top of the screen. To defeat the enemy, players must break through the enemy’s tiles by launching tiles of their own, via a rock-paper-scissors hierarchy. Green earth tiles beat blue water tiles, which beat red fire tiles, which beat green earth tiles. Launching tiles at one’s opponent, however, requires lining up at least two of the same tile type in a vertical stack. This is accomplished by moving a cursor around the tile grid and shifting individual rows left or right until tiles align. Then, players can shift the entire stack left and right until the aligned tiles match a tile on the enemy grid, and launch them.

Of course, one’s opponent is constantly shifting their tiles also, and firing back. This makes Blockara a very frantic affair, even more so due to extra complications that arise in the later stages of bouts: destroying tiles in the last three rows of the opponent’s grid requires lining up three of a kind before firing, instead of just two, and larger stacks can blast away more than one tile at a time. Pulling that off while one’s own grid is being whittled down is no small feat. I found I would glance at my opponent’s grid, see some fire tiles that needed blasting, then align a few water tiles on my own grid, only to look up and see that my opponent had shifted their tiles to protect the fire tiles. Meanwhile, they’d zapped three or four of my own tiles while I was fiddling around.

Blockara never quite clicked for me. I always felt I was flailing around. I did manage to make it through the short story mode once, on the lowest difficulty setting, but I didn’t feel I’d learned much about how to play effectively. There’s a grid that supposedly indicates what tiles will replace those that I fire off, but I never figured out how to interpret it. Nor did I have time to glance at it, focused as I was on lining up any shot I could. The rule about back rows taking more tiles to break seemed arbitrary, and I felt I should have gotten some sort of bonus for lining up more than the minimum two tiles in a shot, but only really large tile stacks work for that. My three-tile shots weren’t any better than two-tile shots when aiming at the front rows of my opponent, so it just felt like a waste, leaving me with less ammo for later.

In the later duels I started to see some subtleties that arise when both parties have lost a lot of tiles, barely able to line up three tiles for a shot when they only have three rows left. With the smaller possibility space, I started to see how moves could be made defensively as well as offensively, covering one’s weak points while striking back at the right spots. But everything changes too fast for me to do much planning. The closest I got was trying to aim for columns deeper into the enemy grid, hoping to break all the way through and fire that finishing tile into the hole for the win. But I suspect that tactic is only viable on the lowest difficulty settings, since it’s easy to shift tiles over to block off holes like that. Perhaps the best way to go is a slugging match, shooting at anything and everything until one’s opponent can barely fire back.

Sadly, I’m not that inclined to keep playing to find out. It’s a shame, because I enjoyed the lighthearted presentation of it all. The puzzle-battles of Blockara are framed as an alchemy tournament, to impress the September Dragon who will grant a single wish to the victor. A cast of ten cartoon characters, clearly inspired by the rosters of fighting games, battle each other in increasingly difficult duels, with humorous dialogues in between. Characters include a ghost dog, a skeletal pirate, a robot with a cool hairdo, and a girl with a mailbox for a head. The writing is often funny, and it’s even partially voiced, with the cast relishing in intentionally silly voices. The quips uttered during a match get a bit repetitive, but since there’s no mechanical difference between characters, players are free to choose ones they like, or try each one to find all the personalized pre-match conversations.

I suspect that many players will get on much better with Blockara. My failure to instinctively grasp its play is likely just a personal thing, but for those who are similarly stymied by the duels, there are practice and puzzle modes for a more relaxed experience. I briefly dipped into the puzzle mode, but ironically found it a little too simple without an active opponent. The duels really are the heart of Blockara. If a tile-based puzzle that forgoes careful planning in favor of quick adaptation to changing circumstances appeals, Blockara is worth a look. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s for sale for a minimum price of $6.99. PC, Mac, and Linux versions are included.

That’s 26 down, and only 1715 to go!