Every time I clean out my house, I wish for a better way to dispose of the junk that mysteriously seems to accumulate. Sure, I can take things to the thrift shop or have a yard sale, but I think I’ve been going about it all wrong. What I need to do is call Elon Musk, buy a spacecraft, and start flinging my junk into outer space. Ah well, since I’m about a trillion dollars short of that dream, I guess I’ll just have to satisfy myself by playing Junk Orbit and flinging other people’s junk into space.
How It Plays
Junk Orbit is a pick up and deliver game with a thematic twist: Every time you fling junk in one direction, your spaceship moves an equal amount in the opposite direction. If you remember your physics from school, Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So if your spaceship exerts energy to fling junk in one direction, energy is also exerted to fling your spaceship an equal distance in the opposite direction. This turns pick up and deliver into a bigger challenge as you have to plan your movements both “forward” and “backward.”
To begin the game, each player is given a ship, and a starting pile of junk is placed in your cargo area. Your ship gives you a special ability that lets you bend the rules of the game (or physics) in some way. Use it wisely!
The moon/planet boards are placed on the table and seeded with yet more junk. (If playing with 2 or 3 players, only the Earth, Moon, and Mars boards are used. Four or five player games add the Phobos and Deimos boards.) The remaining junk is sorted into piles and placed face down next to its corresponding board.
On your turn, you will do three things:
1. Launch junk. Choose a tile from your cargo area and move it around the boards. You must move it the number of spaces indicated on the tile and you can move it clockwise or counterclockwise away from your ship.
If the junk stops on a space that matches the place name on the junk tile, you have delivered that junk. The tile is placed face down in your delivery area and may count toward your total score at the end.
If the junk’s name does not match the city it lands on, it simply rests there with any other junk already accumulated on that space.
If your junk lands on a space occupied by another player’s ship, you’ve hit that player and they must choose a junk tile from either their cargo or delivery area and place it on their ship’s current city.
2. Move ship. That junk tile you just launched? Now you must move your ship the same number of spaces in the opposite direction. You’re allowed to pass through or land on the same spaces as other players with no consequence. If your ship stops at a city that matches any of the cities of the junk tiles in your cargo area, you can deliver that junk. Any delivered tiles are moved to your delivery area.
3. Pick up junk. Once you’ve moved and landed on a city, take all of the junk tiles from that city and put them in your cargo area. The city is refilled from the corresponding tile pile.
When you’re moving your ship and launching junk, you can switch “orbits” around the boards. Certain cities are transfer points. When you hit a transfer point, you can choose whether or not to continue on in orbit around your current planet, or sail on off to the adjacent planet. The catch here is that you have to maintain the same direction of travel, so you can’t make a hairpin turn to double-back around a planet (unless you have a special ability that allows it). That’s just good physics.
There are some variants included for a more “take that” game and added difficulty. Each person’s ship card comes with a “B” side. The B side’s special ability is more interactive and aggressive. The planet boards also have a night side which adds a little more difficulty and more scoring bonuses to chase.
The game ends when you need to refill a city with junk but there’s no more junk in the corresponding tile stack. Everyone gets one final turn and then points are tallied. Add up all the points of the tiles in your delivery area. That’s your final score and the player with the most points wins.
Over the Moon or Crash and Burn?
I’ll state it up front: Pick up and deliver is not usually my favorite mechanism. I find it boring to get something and then truck it around the board to its new home. For me to like a pick up and deliver game, it needs to do something different and interesting. Happily, Junk Orbit delivers. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)
What makes it stand out is the thematic movement. In Junk Orbit you’re not simply moving things in a forward, linear fashion. It’s not “pick up here, move forward until you get to the delivery area, deliver.” You begin from a central point where your ship is located. You fling junk away from your ship, ideally toward its destination city. Much like regular pick up and deliver, right?
But the twist is that your ship doesn’t go with the junk. You’re not carrying it, you’re flinging it. Which means that your ship is going to fly an equal distance in the opposite direction from the junk. This means that every turn you have the opportunity to make essentially two moves. Ideally, you set yourself up so that you can deliver both ways. But if that’s not possible, what do you do to set yourself up for future turns?
While the game isn’t difficult, it does challenge your brain. The orbits around the boards limit the directions you can travel and fling. You’re always looking at where you can throw junk, and where your ship will end up as a result. If you fling that junk worth two you may get to deliver it, but you’ll end up on a space that doesn’t have junk that will be easy for you to deliver on future turns. But maybe if you throw the junk with a value of one, the opposite happens. Throwing the junk doesn’t have a great end result, but you will get to move your ship to a space you want. Which do you choose?
Or maybe you can hit another player with your junk, forcing them to give something up, even if you get nothing useful in return. And don’t forget your special ability. It can come in handy, allowing you to do more or better things than you normally could. You want to set yourself up to use it well.
Speaking of hitting people, I appreciate that the take that in this game can be dialed back. If you play only with the A sides of the ship cards, the only take that is flinging your junk onto an occupied space to force another player to give something up. And that’s avoided easily enough if you want to play super-nice. The B sides of the cards allow for more aggression if you like that sort of thing.
Similarly, you can change up the difficulty a bit to make it easier or harder. The day sides of the board play the standard game. However, if you flip to the night sides, you can play for extra bonuses and change some of the movement/pick up rules. Even on the harder sides it’s not terribly difficult, but there is a little bit of added thought involved to fully maximize the scoring potential.
The base game is great for families and non-gamers. There’s nothing difficult to learn here, although young kids might struggle with some of the movement rules at first. The age of 10+ is about right. I mean, they don’t teach physics in kindergarten, so little kids are probably not familiar with Newtonian principles.
The advanced rules make it a little more interesting for hard-core gamers, although it’s still far from the meatiest game out there. At its heart Junk Orbit is a simple game to learn and play, however it does require some mental gymnastics to plan your moves and choose your orbits. The nice thing is that you’re always thinking, even when it’s not your turn. While others are moving, you’re looking forward and backward and figuring out where your junk can take you next turn.
The production of Junk Orbit is nicely done. The tiles are thick and the artwork is vibrant and fun. Sci-fi fans and space geeks will appreciate all of the in-jokes and references on the tiles and city boards. All of this combined with the idea of flinging junk around for profit makes most people smile and leads to some fun table-talk.
The single biggest negative of this game has nothing to do with the game itself. It’s the fact that it comes in a relatively large canister, not a box. I know, I know. This shouldn’t be a consideration; we should simply evaluate games on the game itself, not the storage system it uses. But real life intervenes and for anyone with a large-ish collection and limited space, this canister is going to be a problem. Creativity in packaging is great, right up until it runs into real world storage considerations.
If you have to play shelf Tetris when you acquire a game, you’ll know the pain. This canister will have to go on the top shelf, or the floor. Either that or it will take up the space of several boxed games on your shelf. It’s not going to fit neatly into a bag for game night transport, either, and it’s going to roll around your trunk. For a family with just a few games it might not be a problem. But for gamers, it’s an inconvenience that might dissuade them from purchasing Junk Orbit. The components aren’t huge so you can use an old expansion box or shoebox to store it in, but that means giving up the cool cover art.
Sigh. It’s a shame because there aren’t a ton of other negatives to the game. For me, I didn’t find it to play as well at two players as it does at higher counts. Even though the board size is reduced and the amount of junk in play is less, it’s simply not as interactive. There’s no one else to get in your way and it’s possible to avoid each other for most of the game. It plays fine and it’s not broken, it just loses some of the fun. At higher player counts, you have more people in your way and you have extra locations to play with. The junk moves around more so it’s a bit more chaotic, which fits the theme and lightheartedness of the game. If you choose to play with the heftier “take that” options, you have more people to torment.
The only other thing that bugged me was the fiddliness of Junk Orbit. It’s kind of a pain to set up. Not difficult, just a little time consuming to set up the boards, line them with junk, and stack the remaining junk into piles. During play, you’ll be taking tiles off the stacks and the stacks like to slide. The tiles and boards tend to shift around as you’re moving, so you’re always straightening tiles. It’s just a lot of fiddly moving parts, especially on a slick surface or with people who aren’t terribly dexterous.
The game would normally get an 8.5/10 from me on our scale. It’s a fun, light game that doesn’t take itself too seriously or overstay it’s welcome. The artwork is lovely and it’s a blast to play. (Pun intended.) The basic game is good for families and non-gamers, and the added variants provide ways to change it up for gamers and those who really want to go after each other. Sci-fi fans will enjoy all the puns and references in the game. It’s a good, solid design that entertains and yet also requires your brain to think in multiple ways.
But, sigh, that canister knocks off a point for me, making it a 7.5 overall. It’s just too tough to store and I don’t think I’ll be keeping it for that reason. Since Junk Orbit is fun but not exceptional, I’d rather have three really good or exceptional games in that space. That’s simply a personal preference from someone who is space-strapped. You may feel differently and this consideration may not mean as much to you.
If that’s the case, I certainly recommend Junk Orbit for a fun family game, or a lighter game for gamers and sci-fi fans. If you like to think in multiple directions, this game will certainly scratch that itch.