You’ve heard the saying – one man’s trash is another’s treasure. In this case, we’re straight up talking literally. You’re a rising artist in the junk scene, taking what others have relegated to the garbage dumps and attempting to put them together in fantastic, beautiful, moving, and even meaningful ways.
Or, just trying to make the tallest stack of junk that doesn’t fall over.
Get ready for a world tour and see if you can gain the most fans in Junk Art.
How It Plays
Junk Art is a stacking game using a mish-mash of different oddly shaped parts which you must build scultures out of. During the game you embark on a “world tour” – essentially 3 different mini-games from a deck of about a dozen.
The core rules are pretty straightforward: you put one piece on at a time. You can use one or both hands, but the piece can’t touch the table; it must go either on the starting base block or on any other piece(s) in your… um… art. You can even use a hand to steady the base, although you can’t touch any of the pieces already on the sculpture. You can use the active piece – the one you’re trying to place – to nudge other parts of your sculpture around. And, if the active piece falls off immediately, you still get a chance to fix it.
The different cities you visit on your world tour provide different goals, restrictions, and methods of play. In Philadelphia, from a hand of 3 cards you’ll pass one card to each of your neighbors, then add the 3 pieces matching the cards you have (the one you kept and the 2 given to you) to your sculpture. In Paris and Pisa, everyone’s building on a single central sculpture. New York earns you points by adding pieces of the same shape or color as pieces already in your sculpture, which you draft from a central set of 3 cards. In Montréal, you’ll choose 3 cards to give to the neighbor on your left to add to their sculpture (and you add 3 pieces to yours given by the player to your right), but after those 3 pieces are placed you rotate positions around the table and you’ve got to work on the new sculpture. Some cities are turn based, some real-time races.
Depending on the scenario, you may earn points in the form of “fans” for how you play (touching matching pieces, for example), avoiding fallen pieces, building the tallest structure, or not being eliminated. After 3 cities (or more, or less per preference), whoever has the most fans wins the game!
The Art of Junk
Junk Art is one of those games where the points are kinda there as a motivator, but ultimately they don’t matter. It’s just a flimsy excuse for why you’re trying to out-build the other players with these weird sculptures.
The fact is, there aren’t a lot of ways to score points in most of the cities. It’s usually an all or nothing 5-pointer with a few bonus points scattered here or there, and unless you’ve got all night to play every city, there’s not enough going on to feel any real competition. There’s usually no way to make a comeback, for example, by doing exceedingly well in the last city if you flub the first 2.
But you know what? That’s all right.
This is a game of silliness, if a bit more toned down silliness than, say, Happy Salmon. You’re not generally going to be running around the table or throwing pieces or doing weird dances. You are going to be studying oddly-shaped pieces in greater detail than you ever thought you would, trying to figure out just the right way to place the durn thing on your sculpture so that it doesn’t bring the whole contraption down.
And yes, these pieces are quite oddly shaped. Cylinders have flat sides, flat sides have angled corners, and there’s that one piece that’s basically a sphere. How does it all work? I don’t know. But then I’ve seen some impressive builds, players finagling ways to balance curves against hollows and hold it all together. I’ve been great at this game more than once, cobbling the stones into a near unshakeable formation. I’ve also immediately afterward assembled pieces that should go easily and soundly together, only to watch them collapse on me moments later.
The different scenarios provide nice changes of pace throughout the game. You’re certainly welcome to play with the rules you prefer – pick your three favorites, or do one three times in a row, or shuffle to your hearts content. Some of the challenges are more vapid – you are given pieces to stack with little direction other than “make it tall.” In other scenarios, you are awarded points and bonuses for not only keeping your structure standing but achieving miniature milestones. Now, do you choose the easier piece to stack or the one that matches color so you can earn a point? Do you go for the bonus that lets you place another piece (and hopefully secure the tallest structure), or play it safe to make sure yours still stands at the end?
I particularly like the challenges that force interaction between players in clever ways. In the “Hometown” scenario you draw 4 cards, choose two of them, and hand them to the next player. From those 2, that player chooses one to keep for themselves and one to pass back to you. This is a scenario where you earn points for placing pieces that touch matching colors or shapes, so if you want the piece that works best you have to make sure the next player wants the OTHER card you hand them.
In Montréal (mentioned above already), you choose 3 cards – one at a time, of course – from your hand to pass to the next player. This scenario is an elimination round, so you want to pass along difficult pieces that won’t stand up very well so that player gets eliminated; however, after you pass 3 cards, you’re going to be taking over that sculpture that you just tried to knock over. If you’re too cruel and the next player does just well enough, you’ll be stuck with a rickety old thing yourself.
These sorts of playful interactions make for a thrilling but low-pressure atmosphere. Most of the scenarios don’t involve elimination at all, many give you the opportunity to recover after your structure loses a few pieces, and it’s fun to watch even when you get the boot. While a steady hand is a boon here, it’s not a guarantee you’ll run away with the victory. You can take risks or play it safe, and i’ve seen both roads lead to victory.
If it’s very important to you to have a competitive, meaningful score, there are just a few scenarios you can stick with to make this happen. However, you might be looking at the wrong game if that’s what you’re going for.
Components-wise, this game is excellent. I have the wooden edition, which feels pretty nice to handle and hold. Certainly, there are plenty of bends and warps and imperfections in the pieces, but I think that is just part of the game. I don’t know if it was intended, but it doesn’t ruin the experience. Just know that certain pieces will not fit where you think they might, and sometimes they fit in places that seem impossible.
I will say that while the deck of cards that matches the junk pieces is clear and easy to see (for the most part – there are 1 or 2 pieces that look similar from a certain angle), the city cards are nearly indecipherable. I consider myself pretty good at remembering and interpreting icons, but for this game I just keep the rulebook on hand. There’s too much information to impart to the players in the form of icons. Maybe once you’ve had a few dozen rounds under your belt you those icons will trigger the memories of how they work, but don’t expect to rely on them.
Junk Art is a game that can be enjoyed by anyone. You may not need it on your shelf. It’s not something I would play all the time, and it’s certainly not providing a deep strategic experience. But it’s a bit goofy, a lot of fun, provides some clever mixups in the “stacking wooden pieces” genre, and you get to make a bit of art along the way. In the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?