Hot Men at Work
This probably isn’t something you would guess about me, but I can be a bit snobbish about stacking games.
Don’t comment on that. Instead, let’s talk about why Rita Modl’s Men at Work is one of the world’s perfectest stacking games ever.
I can imagine a situation in which some stacking aficionado, probably clad in a turtleneck with short sleeves — to eliminate the chances of brushing the tower with his cuff, you see — turns to me at a stuffy dinner party and says, in an affected accent from nowhere in particular, “It’s about the stacking, my good man. The stacking.” And then we’d bicker, because while stacking is obviously central to a stacking game, it’s the thing behind the stacking that matters. The reason we stack.
Men at Work is a stacking game about hot men constructing a skyscraper that would make M.C. Escher’s trousers take note. It arrives courtesy of Pretzel Games, creators of the lovely Junk Art and Flick ‘Em Up, the latter of which isn’t a stacking game but still requires tactility and dexterity. And it knows deep in its bones how to make stacking matter, mostly by stretching your balancing skills in ever-more uncomfortable ways.
Even the game’s method of assigning what you’ll stack is a perfect example of how Men at Work pulls you out of your comfort zone. It’s a simple deck of cards, split between draw and discard, with the back of the draw pile showing whether you’ll place a girder or a hot man — along with the color of the girder you’re being asked to place or the color of the girder your hot man will rest upon — and the front of the discard pile providing a twist of placement that must be observed.
Right up front, you should know that there’s no justice to these twists. None at all. Sometimes you’ll be assigned an easy work order, like placing a girder that touches two different colors, or the ability to add a new support to the skyscraper. Other times you’ll be asked to lay a girder across a hot man’s ample shoulders, or balance it atop only one other girder. Same goes for those moments when you’re tasked with placing a hot man. There’s rarely any difficulty in placing a hot man near the very precipice of a girder. Having them hold two wooden beams while teetering from an uncertain foothold is a different matter.
But that absence of justice is a form of justice in its own right, leveling the playing field as surely as a bulldozer prepared this edifice’s foundations. On any given turn, everybody cranes forward, hopeful that their rival will be assigned a work order that borders on herculean. Sometimes the surest-fingered player is tasked with the impossible, just as those with palsy might be told to plop a girder in any old place. It’s all the fairness of natural evil, as liable to pave your way with sunshine and roses as it is to flatten you with an earthquake. Cosmic inattention, weaponized.
Of course, none of this would work if the collapse of the tower ended the game. Men at Work knows this, which is why any failure, from a single dropped brick to the tower raining girders onto the unsuspecting city below, has two consequences that have nothing to do with the game immediately ending.
First, the offending player loses a safety certificate. Think of these like a hot man’s hit points. Everybody impales the occasional pedestrian with a dropped beam, sometimes even as early as the first turn. Fortunately, this particular construction company asks the important questions. Questions like, “Why should a man lose his career for only impaling one pedestrian?” and “Who’s to say that pedestrian wasn’t a vampire?” Naturally, there’s only so much damage you can do. Your corporate attorneys can’t use the vampire loophole every time, and after a handful of failures you’re sacked. Until that moment, though, losing a safety certificate doesn’t mean all that much. The game moves on.
I can hear your thoughts from here. The game moves on to what? you’re asking. What if half the tower fell down?
This is where the second consequence of dropping something comes in, and it’s one of the best things about Men at Work. Because now it’s somebody else’s turn — but before they’re allowed to draw their work order, they’re required to clean up the site. Which often includes dragging dead bodies out from under the rubble with a hook.
It’s a little ghoulish at times, especially after an entire square dancing line of hot men has plummeted to their deaths. But the cleanup is a crucial moment, resetting the tower to baseline compliance, no girders touching the ground, no castoff bricks lingering beneath the skyscraper, no bodies distressing the current workforce.
Cleanup can also be surprisingly challenging. When a fallen girder is resting against both the table and still supporting weight, how do you proceed? Shove it back into place or ease it out of the structure and pray that it wasn’t too load-bearing? When a hot man is lying in a narrow passageway, do you pluck him out with your fingertips, or drag him out with the hook and hope he doesn’t snag and cause further damage? A particularly bad mess can feel like plucking a single straw from a bird’s nest without unsettling the surrounding straws, while balancing on tiptoe atop a fully extended ladder. Don’t breathe.
Best of all, however, failure is robbed of its sting. Sure, you lost a safety certificate. But a mess becomes the cause for more mess — and more importantly, somebody else’s mess. Rather than crashing the game to a halt, cleanup is just one more balancing act in a string of them. In fact, it’s often better to fail big than to only drop a beam or brick. At least a tower-wide collapse forces somebody to pick through the rubble and possibly lose a certificate of their own.
Naturally, this also makes Men at Work a total hoot. When even your worst mistakes can be stepping stones toward becoming the hottest man, there’s no reason to regret them.
One more thing. After drawing through the deck for a while, your boss finally makes an appearance. Now there’s yet another wrinkle to consider, because if you can manage to make your piece the highest in the tower — which, again, might not be possible depending on the injustice of your work order — you receive the hot man of the month award. Well done, you. Gain enough of these and your hotness will be recognized by the entire company. The entire city. The entire world.
The problem is actually placing your piece higher than anything else. The surest footholds are usually closer to the table, while girders grow more skewampus with every inch of elevation, often in ways that aren’t immediately apparent because Men at Work doesn’t usually soar all that high. Despite its squatness, I mentioned earlier that Men at Work tends to stretch your balancing skills to their maximum, and the desire to please your boss is one more crucial element of that. Should you securely ensconce your hot man down below and survive one more round, or try to nab an award by teetering them somewhere risky?
Both options have their appeal, pitting caution and risk against each other, and either can ultimately lead to victory. If everybody else dumps their last safety certificate, you win, which rewards caution. But if you’re the first to acquire a certain number of awards, you also win, urging you to throw caution to the wind. Or maybe you just run out of construction materials, at which point both certificates and awards are worth one point apiece. Regardless, you’re always surging toward the sky while being tugged earthward by both gravity and prudence. It’s a potent contrast, and one that demands smart decisions and sure fingers.
This wouldn’t function without two final elements, and both are present in spades. First, it’s appropriately hefty. I recently dinged a stacking game for being too light, and I’m relieved to report that Men at Work is anything but flimsy. Its girders are sturdy until they aren’t, which is exactly as they should be. Second, a game like this cannot forget that, above all, it should be funny. In Rita Modl’s capable hands, Men at Work doesn’t forget that imperative for a minute. Its spills are hilarious, offloading the burden of cleanup to some other poor sucker, and although its risks are soaring and mighty, they’re adequately compensated when achieved. For such a short stacking game, height-wise, it’s both one of the sturdiest and awkwardest.
Sturdy yet awkward. Put that on your tombstone, Men at Work. Or the tombstones of all the hot men you’ve sent to their deaths. Their sacrifices were well worth it. After all, future generations will be able to look at the sky where their toppled skyscraper should have been.
A complimentary copy was provided.