Junk Art review

Junk Art (2016)

Game Details
NameJunk Art (2016)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityLight [1.26]
BGG Rank395 [7.48]
Player Count2-6
Designer(s)Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim
Artist(s)Philippe Guérin and Chris Quilliams
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: It's great! You should probably try it if you can!

There gets to a point when reviewing games where you look at a box laid out on your table and think ‘I’m not sure there’s anything I can really say about this that hasn’t already been said’. When you review things like Catan and Carcassonne it’s true – so much has been written about those classics that you almost certainly don’t have a new perspective. Sometimes though, as is the case with Junk Art, the problem is more fundamental. It’s a dexterity game of stacking things on top of things and waiting for someone to mess up and bring the whole structure down. Once you’ve reviewed one game like this, assuming you’re reaching for something beyond a rules recitation, you’ve essentially reviewed them all. The core of what makes these games worthwhile is pretty much universal and all each new iteration of the concept can do is fritter about at the edges.

Junk Art box

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. The nuances of rules and styles of play have a significant impact. Meeple Circus is not Rhino Hero Super Battle, and Junk Art likewise isn’t either of those. They have different things you stack, in different ways, within different constraints, and to different purposes. But still… in each of these games you’re stacking awkward shapes on top of awkward shapes as a way of staving off the catharsis of catastrophe. Like all these games, Junk Art is fun because it’s inherently satisfying to build something, and it’s somehow even better to see it all come crashing down. Stacking games are the call of the void, stripped of its risk and consequence. Gameified and brought into the home. They’re the safe and sanitised way of standing by the cliff edge and experiencing a pull towards the compulsive thought to destroy everything we worked so hard to build.

Structure in Junk Art

Okay, enough of the philosophising. At least for now. Let’s get the gameplay out of the way.

In Junk Art, you and your fellow players are going to be performing a ‘world tour’ around a series of cities that want you to engage in baffling acts of ad hoc architecture in exchange for prestige and fame. A tour consists of three randomly dealt cities, each of which has their own specific ‘play mode’ associated. Each city is basically a dexterity mini-game with its own setup, ruleset and win condition. Each player will be given a set of cards, or not, that depict shapes of particular configurations and colours. Depending the city, these might be individual or shared. Players might be working on their own structure or collaboratively building one in the centre of the table. They might be trying to place the largest number of pieces, build the tallest structure, or simply stay in the game long enough to avoid being eliminated through mistakes. Sometimes wins are individual, and sometimes they’re shared. Sometimes you don’t win – you just don’t lose. Sometimes it’s turn based. Sometimes it’s against the time-limit set by the the fastest player. It’s always essentially the same thing though – build a sturdy structure using unreliable parts thrown your way by the erratic whims of randomness. The player that achieves the largest total count of points by the end of the tour is the winner.

City cards

Consider Monaco as an example of the mini-games you might play. You get a stack of ten face-down ‘junk art’ cards. When the first player yells ‘go’, everyone flips their top card and searches for that piece in the mass of plastic strewn around the table. They find it, they place it, and they flip over the next card. This they do until they either work their way through their stack or cause their structure to fall. At that point they must rebuild it, in the correct order, before they can continue. The player that finishes first terminates the round, and players get points for the number of pieces they managed to place. It’s a typical Junk Art scenario – simple, challenging, and full of fun and comedy.

Junk Art is a tremendously competent game. Each of the individual game modes are enjoyable, and the world tour structure means that you never have time to get bored of what you’re doing before things get recontextualised. Some people will be great when they have time to consider their move from every angle. Others will have a reserve of composure that will serve them well when the key things are speed and determination. Insofar as a stacking game can be accommodating to different skill levels, and we’ll talk more about that in the teardown, Junk Art is as welcoming as it is competent. It’s a friendly, jovial game with a tiny learning curve and a great amount of enjoyable anarchy – especially in those circumstances where the failure of one player leads directly to the downfall of another. A piece falling off a tower at the right angle to bounce into the base of someone else will have an entire table laughing, and laughter makes it hard to be precise when placing down pieces. Failure has the agreeable quality of making everything more fun for everyone.

Pile of Junk Art pieces

But here’s where a review gets tricky – you likely already know whether this kind of game appeals to you and there’s nothing in the Junk Art pitch that really makes it a better suggestion than any other game in this wider family. It’s a little less obviously quixotic than Rhino Hero Super Battle. It’s a little bit less obviously ‘gamey’ than Meeple Circus. It is though basically the same game with different shapes and different structures and that makes it difficult for me to try and argue why you should go for one over the other. They’re all great games. They are all, within a generous margin of error, the same great game.

That’s the review. Get a game like this. It doesn’t really matter which one. See you on Saturday for the teardown.

Okay.

It wouldn’t be a Meeple Like Us review if it wasn’t long enough to really upset those that see the need to read something as a gross insult against the sanctity of their time. I’m a petty man and I enjoy the fact that there are people that get increasingly upset with me in a linear relationship with our article word-counts.

So if you’re still here, let’s broaden the topic a little to discuss why these games are all basically the same game. To be fair, it’s a claim that really does need supported. As I’d tell any of my students making a statement like that, [citation needed]. I don’t have a citation though. I just have a justification.

I mentioned above the Call of the Void. This is an idiosyncratically French concept that describes the feelings many people have when faced with a transgressive barrier between life and death, and between success and failure. When we stand at the top of a building and look down into the depths below the brain says, essentially, ‘Jump. Go on, I dare you’.

Most people will recognise this odd and alarming thought for what it is – a weird cognitive tic. However, it’s also likely to be driven into our consciousness by something more profound – it’s a way for us to imprint our own agency upon a circumstance that is otherwise alarming and difficult to deal with. Almost everyone fears death, but we fear death at a distance. It’s an existential fear, not an immediate one. When you’re in a dangerous circumstance the fear is of the circumstance, not the potential consequences of that circumstance. We tend to think ‘Look out, he’s got a knife’ rather than ‘He has a knife and therefore I am in mortal peril’. Our limbic system is rarely philosophical. It’s fast acting, reactive, and all about resolving things in the short term.

Junk art cards

When we are faced with a profound fear then, there’s a way to easily take control of it. We can de-escalate our emotional response. Afraid of heights? Then jump – because you are less immediately afraid of death and you can’t be afraid of the height if you’re not alive. Jump. That’s how you can resolve the fear. Go on, jump. Just jump.

Luckily our limbic system doesn’t act in isolation. It has other parts of our brain watching it warily to make sure it doesn’t do anything to get us killed. Our limbic system is That Weird Friend that is fun and enjoyable to be around but occasionally throws a wild punch at a police horse in an unexpected moment. Most people won’t jump. Most people can step back with a sense of profound unease that their brain is obviously trying to kill them. However, that unease is going to be tempered with a sense of release – that a situation of danger was resolved through a relaxation of tensions. Jump, or step back. Both work.

I think games like Junk Art take that basic experience and strip it back until it’s palatable for recreation. All the while you build a structure, you are looking into your own void – a future state where what you have built is going to be destroyed through your own incompetence. It’s inevitable. Skill doesn’t matter. What you build will fall. That realisation is stressful – enjoyably so, but stressful nonetheless. What we’re looking for when playing a game like this is a conclusion where the stress of uncertainty is eventually grounded into a final context of success or failure. Junk Art is constantly forcing us to prolong the enjoyable tension so as to make the eventual release all the sweeter. It’s not that the crashing down of things is inherently enjoyable – rather the return to normalcy has a strong, visceral pulse of pleasure to accompany it.

Like a lot of people, I get occasional leg cramps in the middle of the night. They are excruciating. They feel like someone has managed to put a vice into my calf and is just going to town on my muscles. There are ways to deal with these cramps – point your toes up in the air, dangle your leg slightly over the edge – but in the end you just have to ride it out. It’s horrible, and I’d happily never have one ever again.

But as the meme goes – sure, sex is cool but have you ever had an unbearably painful leg cramp slowly dissolve into the absence of pain?

I’m not good at memes. I don’t see that one catching on.

Large erection in Junk Art

The sudden removal of pain is as blissful an outcome as any genuinely positive sensation can be. Our brains are designed to see these things in relative terms. We see pleasure and pain in a relative gradient. BF Skinner showed that we react almost equally positively when we are given a positive stimulus (something good happens) or when a negative stimulus is removed (something bad stops happening).

In a game like Junk Art we play until we feel the absence of the tension. It’s risk free, consequence free tension but nonetheless it feels great when it’s removed. There are other things bound up in there too – the inherent satisfaction of physical construction being one of them. If that was where the fun was though, none of these games would spend so much time arranging the circumstances of the fall. Look at Jenga. That’s all Jenga is. Jenga is all about the fall.

When I say then that all of these games are basically the same, this is what I’m talking about. Sure, they give you different ways to handle the building but fundamentally they’re all about putting off the inevitability of collapse. They’re games where you take the entropy curve and squeeze it into an agreeable shape all the while knowing that it’s the order into chaos that has the most profound moment of satisfaction locked up in it. If you want to know what makes a great stacking game, you need to look at how it gives you opportunities to arrange your own catharsis. The building, and the mechanisms they provide to permit that, are just the choice between stairs, escalators or lifts. They get you to the top of the building. It’s in the way they deal with the jump where you’ll find true greatness.

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