BLOCKOUT - THE ESSAY

by Igor Vukomanovic




1.Introduction
2.Basics
3.Occurances
3.1. The Pits
3.2. Mistakes
3.3. 11th level
4.Tactics
4.1. Basic Tactics
4.2. Detailed Tactics
4.2.1. The Pits
4.2.2. Moving Pieces On The Floor (Dragging)
4.2.3. Other important tactics
5.Repairing Mistakes
5.1. Normal mistakes repair procedure
5.2. Difficult mistakes repair procedure
6. The Conclusion


1.INTRODUCTION

BLOCKOUT is a tetris-oriented game, the so-called 3d-tetris. It was made by California Dreams team, in 1989. I have been familiar with it for about 10 years now, and as it never gets boring, and I'm still playing it, I've decided to make an essay about it, a unique document on the Internet I believe. I think you would of course say Blockout is a very simple game - arranging the falling cubes to lower a layer, and why would someone be making an assay about it ? Well, I have to say, Blockout is a very complex game. It is even more complex than you can even imagine. If you don't believe it now, you'll probably believe it after you read this whole text :)


2.BASICS

This essay will concentrate on the FLAT FUN setup of the game (area dimensions 5x5x12, block set FLAT). Of course, the area dimensions can be changed, as well as the block set. Block set FLAT contains only the cube shapes similar to those in the TETRIS game (see the pic.), while BASIC and EXTENDED block sets contain some weird cubes about which you really don't want to read. The goal of the game, of course,is to make as much points with as few cubes. The cubes can be rotated by each of the x,y or z axis, and they can be placed anyhere in the area. (By 'area', from now on I will assume the whole playing area.) You can start the game with 10 levels of difficulty, 0 being the easiest (slowest cube falling speed) and 9 being the hardest (fastest cube falling speed). However, there is a 11th level, but I will describe it more detailed later. Each level of difficulty has its own scoring - the higher the level, the more points you get by doing the same things. The faster you put down the cube, the more points you get. Same thing as in TETRIS. Many sections in this Essay will assume you have started from difficulty level 8. This is a common starting level for making high scores, although ultimately you will start from dif. level 9.


3.OCCURANCES

3.1. The Pits

By the 'PIT' I assume the following situation : no cubes on the screen, not counting the start of the game. The pit is worth bonus points, approx. 2500 on dif. level 8. By the 'pit possibility' I will assume the situation when there are 1, 2 or 3 layers made in the area, with the possibility of the next cube being the exactly one which would cover the missing areas in the construction so that it would create a pit. Lets examine some pits and pit possibilities. Picture no.1 shows a 1-layer pit possibility : if the next cube would be a small square, the pit would be created. The same is in picture no.2, only here the needed cube is L. On picture no.3 we can see a 2-layer pit possibility. The needed cube is, of course, the small I. There is a nice 3-layer pit possibility (and soon to be the pit) shown on the picture no.4. We can see the pit on picture no.5. The pits are crucial element of the game tactics, they make huge scores possible.. We will continue to study them later on, in the 'tactics' chapter.
(1) 1 layer pit possibility. (2) L cube needed to make a pit.
(3) 2 layer pit possibility. (4) 3 layers soon to be the pit.
(5) The Pit.

3.2. Mistakes

Mistake is one very common occurance, even with experienced, master players of Blockout. This happens if a cube covers the hole in a layer, so that we cannot put a cube in that hole by any normal means any more. There are 2 types of mistakes : normal mistakes and difficult mistakes. However, both are possible to repair. We can see an example of a normal mistake on pics no.6 and no.7. and one difficult mistake on pics no.7 and no.8. We will study how to repair mistakes later on in this essay.
(6) Making a normal mistake. (7) A completed normal mistake.
(8) Making a difficult mistake. (9) A completed difficult mistake.

3.3. 11th level

Yes, it's true. 11th level, or better to say, level 10, really does exist. When 1500 cubes are played, the game switches you from level 9 to level 10, or the so-called 'skull level'. It's called that way because instead of a number, it has a symbol of a skull. That level is crucial for making a huge score, and it's very fast, designed to force you to end the game. Master players though, can lower several layers before ending the game - they can even make a 2 or 3 layer lowering, but I will discuss that in the 'tactics' chapter.

4. TACTICS

4.1. Basic Tactics

Basic tactics for Blockout game, surprisingly, isn't lowering a layer of cubes; It is, in fact, lowering 3 layers at once. That way, a whole lot more points are gained than in the case of 3x1 layer lowering. 3 layer lowering at once can be easily achieved if, during play, 1 square is left empty, until surrounding cubes are 3 layers high. Then, when an I cube appears, by rotating it properly and putting it in the missing place, (usually called the main hole), 3 layers will be lowered at once. See the pic no.10. So, in order to make a high score, you MUSTN'T lower 1 or 2 layers alone. The reason is somewhat complex: (bt dif. level I assume difficulty level) Let's say you've started the game from dif. level 8. (Normal starting level for making huge scores). You have got 1350 cubes at your disposal to make a good score before computer switches you to dif. level 9. On dif. level 9, you will have only 150 cubes before skull level. And on skull level, you die. Now, in order to make a good score, you have to keep up with the two basic rules :
a) moving and rotating the pieces as fast as you can
b) making the most of your cubes.
b) is your problem. It means that if you don't make the most of your cubes (e.g. lowering exclusively 3 layers at once) you will lose the chance to do so later. Why ? Let's say you are playing on 8th level, and you are lowering 3 layers at once all the time, but once, you lowered 1 layer accidentally. What's wrong with that you'd ask ? Well, when you lowered 1 layer, you 'spent' your cubes (for making that layer you lowered) for gaining a significantly less points than in the case they were used for making the 3 layer lowering. Now, when you reach 1350 and then ultimately 1500 cubes, you will be forced to end the game with less points.
(10) General principle - lowering 3 layers at once by putting the 'I' cube in the main hole.

4.2. Detailed Tactics

4.2.1. The Pits

The pits can be used very effectively to increase the score for they, as already explained, bring extra points along with them. Some of the pits won't be very effective (like 1-layer pits) but some of them will play crucial part in making a good score. 2 and 3 layer pits are what you're looking for. Because, when you get a 3 layer pit, not only you receive bonus points, but you don't lose points like it's the case with 1 and 2 layer pits. The pits are about 80% a result of a chance, and 20% of knowledge. Knowledge because certain amount of skill and thought are generally required for creating a pit possibility. Chance - luck - because, when once in the pit possibility, you really have to be lucky to get exactly the cube you need, and to actually create a pit. And imagine a pit on skull level. A thing that happened only once or twice to me in all those years of playing. Creating a pit possibility is not an easy task. Theoretically, you have to arrange your cubes equally in depth and height, that means no "hills" and "valleys", and one step before making a pit possibility, if you have the chance, you have to think where to put your cube in order for it to make a good terrain for the upcoming cube which could, in some cases, make a pit possibility. This feeling really grows with time and experience. One little risky and tempting situation is when you have made more than 3 layers in the area, but the top layer is flat - and then a small square appears. Now, there's a chance - if you lower that one layer, you will lose points, but you will create one 3 layer pit possibility which could turn into a 3 layer pit (one of the best things that can happen to you). Generally, if you're at the beginning of a game, go for it. If not, don't.

4.2.2. Moving Pieces On The Floor (Dragging)

One very important thing to mention is moving cubes when they have already fallen down to the floor. When you put the cube on the floor, you still have a few milliseconds to move it until it 'freezes'. Depending on your skill, you can move it up to 3 squares away from the falling spot in any direction (if the sorrounding space allows such cube manipulation). That tactic is crucial for mending common mistakes. However, there's a small catch here. I have always thought that, no matter what I do with a cube on the floor, I'll get more points if I press space bar (put down the cube) as soon as I can. So, for years I have been playing by that principle : In the second I noticed a good spot for the cube, I would bring the cube near it, put it down, and while on the floor, I would 'drag' it to the desired spot. (If that was possible, of course). Well, that's completely wrong. Because, no matter how fast you put the piece down, if you drag it on the floor, you will get less points than in the case of bringing it above the spot, putting it down and not touching it while it's on the floor. (Despite the fact the latter method is much slower.) The score difference may seem insignificant - but remember how many cubes you play in a game and then multiply it. Those things sometimes mean a record score. As I have been using the earlier method for years, I still have problems with instinctive impulse to put down the cube as soon as I can, and then drag it to the right spot.

4.2.3. Other important tactics

Other important things not mentioned until now are level transitions. When you're approaching level 9, approaching 1350 cubes, and you have 3 layers constructed, sometimes you have to judge if it is a good thing to lower them when you get an 'I' cube. Because, if you wait, you can switch to level 9, and then lower it for a higher score of course. Sometimes, it's kinda risky because it's really a slim chance that the computer will give you 2 'I' cubes in a short period of time... and when you switch to level 9, if you're pretty high, and the 'I' cube won't come - you can die very easily. The same thing applies when you switch from level 9 to the skull level, only now the score difference is much bigger - lowering 3 layers on skull level is very rare thing, and very valuable.

5. Repairing mistakes

Mistakes happen very oftenly, even with master players, and it's very important to know how to repair them without losing the precious points and cubes. Here we will discuss both simple and hard errors repairs.

5.1. Normal Mistakes Repair Procedure

This procedure is quite simple. 'Normal' mistake goes for a mistake which you can easily repair using the dragging method. Simply, you put a corresponding cube next to the cube of mistake, in line with the hole, and drag it beneath the cube of mistake, thus filling out the hole - and the mistake is repaired. Sometimes several cubes have to be used, and then sometimes you have to decide is it better to wait for the , (example), small I cube, or is it better to put down 1 square cube and wait for the next. Those things really depend on the situation. On pics 11-15 you can see the normal mistake repair procedure.
(11) Repairing the normal mistake from (6) and (7). (12) Big square cube is now underneath the cube of mistake.
(13) After some time, a needed small square appears. (14) After more time, second needed small square repairs the mistake completely.

5.2. Difficult Mistakes Repair Procedure

This procedure is really a complex one, so it will be necessary to explain it step-by-step following the pictures (15-19). Basically, a difficult mistake is the one where you can't drag the repair cube underneath the mistake cube because there isn't a free space around the mistake cube to put the repair cube in the proper position for dragging. The idea of this repair procedure is to intentionally make another 'mistake' - to close the main opening (the one square space in which you put 'I' cubes) and make the current layer the new 'ground floor', and then - by carefully arranging the upcoming cubes so that they form another 3-layer construction, but that the cubes above the 'new' 3rd layer (created while waiting for the I cube) are not above the mistake and not above the main opening, (and of course the new main opening is created on some 'neutral' grounds) - you can repair the mistake by now lowering those 'new' 3 layers (when the I cube finnaly appears) in that manner that they - when lowered - will reveal the main opening AS WELL as the mistake, (the mistake cube is lowered among the other in the new 3-layer construction), which can now be easily filled. By this method, you have repaired the mistake, and you haven't lost any points (because you did, in fact, lower a 3-layer construction - just as you have been doing all the time). Sometimes this method is virtually impossible, in the cases when the mistake is made too high, and the new 3 layers construction would make the whole construction too high for careful manipulation.
(15) Repairing the mistake from (8) and (9). (16) Closing the main hole, to establish the new ground floor (blue)
(17) The new 3 layers are created, with the new main hole. Waiting for the 'I' cube. (18) The 'I' cube finnaly appears.
With the new 3 layers lowered, the main hole is opened and the mistake is repaired.

6. The Conclusion

Blockout is one very complex game indeed. I would even go as far as to call it "The Game Of A Lifetime" (The only game given that title so far is Elite) as it really occupies an experienced as well as a novice player a lot. My personal record so far is 179535, made on August 13th, 1998. During that game, I started from level 9 and made 3 pits - one 1 layer pit and two 3 layers pits. On skull level I lowered once 2 layers, and three times 1 layer before I ended the game.

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If you have any comments or suggestions, e-mail them to:
Igor.Vukomanovic@fer.hr