Work it

The language of tabletop games has evolved with the growth of the hobby. This is an inevitability in any hobby, but can mean that conversations become more incomprehensible to outsiders. Comparison with existing games becomes useful. When I say Men at Work is a dexterity game, you imagine flicking pieces at targets. More specifically it is a stacking game, like Jenga. See. Comparison can help.

Men at Work comes from publisher Pretzel Games. It is designed by Rita Modl with illustrations from Bernard Bittler and Chris Quilliams. Pretzel Games is an imprint of Plan B Games which is itself now owned by Asmodee.

In the unlikely situation that you are unfamiliar with Jenga, let me explain. It’s a stack of wooden blocks, with 3 blocks per level. You remove these blocks 1 at a time putting them higher up the tower. Players destabilise and build like this till one person loses by knocking the stack over.

Men at work near the beggining of the game. Long girders balance on grey blocks that are placed on a table. A couple of worker meeples with blue overauls and yellow hard hats rest on the girders.
Near the start of the game

Men at Work takes this formula and puts you in charge on a building site. You start with a simple set of foundations. Thick short supports have long girders placed on them, and one worker balanced upon one of the girders. From these humble beginnings you will build a towering structure of teetering steel and delicately balanced workers.

Unlike Jenga this game presents you a series of differing challenges. At the outset it asks you to conduct these challenges without knowing anything to the playing surface. Fail this task three times and you are out. Place this girder such that it balances, supported only in the middle of its length. Put this worker on a girder, then balance a brick on one of their arms. Do that but this time put the brick on them first and transport the whole thing to the work site. You get the idea.

This variety is provided by a simple, but effective, deck of cards. When you turn over a card it gives you an instruction like I just mentioned. It gives you one for a worker, and one for a girder. You know which one to perform based on the back of the card that is still on top of the deck. This back also tells you the colour of the girder you are going to add, or place the worker on.

You stack away, looking for opportunities to cause issues for your opponents and an easy time for yourself. The varied components make this construction site look like the pipe dream of MC Escher.

If you do drop something on the playing area, two things happen. First you lose one of your safety certificates, taking you closer to being kicked off the construction site. Secondly you give the next player the task of cleaning up the site. This can be a tricky task and it is possible to cause further accidents while doing it!

The game develops. Long girders balance on grey blocks that are placed on a table. A couple of worker meeples with blue overauls and yellow hard hats rest on the girders. There are many more girders and workers than previously.
You have to start taking pictures in portrait.

So far, so stacking game. However, Men at Work hides a trick that reveals itself after the first few turns. About a quarter of the way down the deck of tasks, you reveal the card for Rita.

Rita is the Boss of the site. Rita wants players to impress them by putting objects as high up as possible on the site. After you’ve placed your girder or worker, if that piece is the highest one you get an employee of the month award. Gain a few of these, based on the number of players, and you win.

Alongside being careful to not get eliminated, now we are in direct competition. This new rule pushes players to try the ridiculous. It encourages dangerous play, bold balancing, and teetering towers of terror. In doing this Men at Work transcends the ‘stack everything until it falls apart’ core of its origins. Rather than being a game with a core of caution, it becomes one that pushes you to excess. Higher, says the game. Bolder. Riskier.

What starts out as a relatively flat construction site suddenly spirals upwards. Girders point at ridiculous angles. Workers balance at dizzying heights. Every move becomes a balance between getting points for the bold, and safely completing your move.

Every game of Men at Work feels unique. From the initial setup having loads of possibilities, to the sequence of tasks the players undertakes. Building this structure together feels like collaboration, even as you compete. You are invested in it as a group. The usual high fives of victory, and head slapping disasters of a stacking game are heightened by a sense of ownership. On top of this the game offers some different modes, allowing you to build around a crane, or on top of the plastic insert of the box for an extra challenge!

Men at Work feels like a perfect expression of its genre. A stacking game that brings more game to the mechanism than I have seen before. Much as I love Rhino Hero and its sequel, this has replaced it for me as the best expression of the idea of stacking to win. Men at Work pushes you into making the sublime and the ridiculous. It revels in the joy and challenge of building something together while encouraging you to risk bringing it all tumbling down.

I bought Men at Work with my own money

Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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