Review – Men At Work

Balancing workers and materials in an increasingly unstable construction site – what could possibly go wrong? Let’s take a look at Pretzel Games‘ 2019 dexterity game, Men At Work, and find out.

the front of the box
The Men At Work box art

I have a soft spot for dexterity games. I love the way they break down barriers between geeks like me, and people who would never normally play a board game. There’s very little thinking and planning involved, and any strategy as such is usually only as far ahead as the next turn. If you’re not sure what constitutes a dexterity game, I think of them as any game where the physical movement of pieces constitutes the game, not necessarily what happens when they get there. Think of classic games like tiddlywinks, marbles, Subbuteo, even throwing playing cards into a bowl.

Let’s have a look at a modern dexterity game, Men At Work.

What’s In The Box?

A dexterity game can live or die on the quality of its components, because the game is built around how they interact with one another, how they feel, and how they move. Men At Work is packed with really nicely made wooden pieces. In the box you’ll find girders in four colours (orange, purple, black and white), big grey support blocks, bricks and beams that the workers sometimes have to carry, a deck of cards, a cardboard hook and crane, and finally the star of the show, the workers themselves.

one of the worker meeples

How adorable is that? Construction meeples with hard hats!

The hook I mentioned above is for hooking fallen meeples and pieces out from under the construction, which turns into a part of the game itself. If you want to change things up, the cardboard crane can be built and placed in the middle of the starting construction. It adds an obstacle to build around, but also use as support.

crane and hook from the game
The crane and hook. The hook doubles as a measuring stick for highest piece bonuses

How To Play

Setup

To setup the basic game you take three of the big grey supports and place them on the table. If you want to make things easier, lie them flat down, but if you like a challenge, stand them on end. Now place one of each of the different coloured girders however you like, as long as each of the supports has at least one girder touching it. Finally, take a worker and balance them anywhere on a girder.

basic game setup
The basic setup for the game

The construction cards get shuffled and the boss card, Rita, gets put in the deck about a quarter of the way down. Give each player two safety certificates, then make sure there’s a good supply of all of the pieces all around the table so they’re within reach of the players. The last thing you want is someone bumping the table while reaching for something.

Now we’re ready to play.

Playing The Game

On their turn each player turns over the top card of the construction deck and places it next to the deck, adding to the discard pile. Now you look at card you just turned, and the back of the next card in the deck. This combination will tell you two things. Firstly it tells whether you’re placing a worker or girder, and if so, which colours to choose from. A worker has to stand on one of the two colours available, and a girder has to be one of the colours. Secondly, you’re given some rules for placing them.

add a worker card
Instructions to add a worker
add a girder card
Instructions to add a girder

The back of the rule book has a full of explanation for each of these rules, and every card is numbered, so finding the one you’re looking-up is nice and quick while you’re learning. By way of examples, a worker might have to be placed and then have a brick and a beam balanced on them, or they might have to be placed right on the end of a girder. A girder however might have to touch two girders of different colours to itself, or might have to balance on a single other girder.

Players take turns placing pieces -with one hand only – and the precarious structure grows ever-bigger. You’re allowed to move other pieces as you place your own, but only if you move them with the piece you’re trying to place. Once the Boss Rita card comes out of the deck, if the piece you place is now the highest one in play, you win an Employee of the Month award token.

London Bridge Is Falling Down, Falling Down…

As you’ve probably guessed by now, stuff breaks in this game. Beams and girders fall off, workers plunge to their doom, even their cute little hard hats can get knocked off. It’s an inevitable, and hilarious, part of the game. If the piece which succumbs to gravity’s irresistible pull hits the table, the player who caused it to happen loses one of their safety certificates. However, it that piece never makes it to the floor and stays clinging onto the structure, things are okay, and you keep your certificate.

a game in progress
Here’s a game in progress, things are going well… for now

If pieces do fall, that player immediately ends their turn, and the next player, instead of turning a card, grabs the cardboard hook. Before they can play, they need to use the hook to extract any fallen things from underneath the structure. If they knock anything down doing this, they then lose a certificate too, and the hook passes to the next player, and so on. Any pieces you rescue get added back to the supply.

Play continues this way until one of the three game end conditions are met:

  1. The best worker wins – depending on the number of players, earning a certain amount of Employee of the Month awards wins the game.
  2. The safest worker wins – if there’s only one player left with any safety certificates, they win.
  3. Construction halts – if you run out of building materials, or the last worker gets placed, the game ends and the worker with the most combined safety certificate and Employee of the Month awards wins.

Final Thoughts

I really like Men At Work. Sometimes it’s nice to play something that requires almost no thinking and strategy, and I love how just about anyone, of any age can play this, and do well. As your construction gets taller and taller, it becomes more and more dangerous, and you’ll end up with workers wedged between girders where they’ve fallen but not made it to the ground, girders precariously balanced and swinging around under the weight of a badly placed exhalation.

All of the chunky pieces feel nice, there’s a good weight to them, and they make a really satisfying noise when you put them back in the box. The workers are so cute, and the little hard hats are just the icing on the cake. Their arms have little indents in them just to make balancing beams and bricks that little bit harder.

There’s tons of replay value, as the game turns out different every time. The way the cards use the back of the next card in the shuffled deck adds a lot of variety to the game, and there are plenty of other ways to keep things fresh. You can add the crane to the game as I mentioned before, which simultaneously gets in the way of your building, but also gives you something else to use as a support for your architectural wonder (or monstrosity). There’s also a variant called Skyscraper, which sees you building on the bottom half of the box the game comes in.

Men At Work is a game I think most people will create house rules for. I quite often play with more than two safety certificates per person when playing with my son, or we’ll have a rule that if a brick or beam fall, you can replace them without penalty. I have a great time playing it with people my own age too, and after a couple of drinks peoples’ judgement and overconfidence come through, with hilarious and disastrous results.

the box insert
This is possibly my favourite insert ever

If you ever played something like Rhino Hero, or built a house of cards, and enjoy creating these teetering erections, you’re really going to like Men At Work. There’s very little to dislike about the game, unless you just don’t like balancing or dexterity games. The production values are really high, even the box insert is perfectly formed to hold everything in place, with the worker meeples lined up like a little terracotta army. Designer Rita Modl has taken the game we all play when waiting our turn – piling up components – and refined it into this charming, funny, and at times fiercely competitive game. If you’re a fan of the type of game, pick it up, you won’t regret it.

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