|Interaction||Components & Design|
“… welcome back to the deciding phase of the Junkyard Races GP. And here is Orlando, using a bomb to blast away a glue trap before using his jet engine to go up to 11, leaving several competitors in his wake. Carefully he avoids the oil trap near the water, jumping the bridge – just making it to the other side before running out of momentum. ‘One more turn and sweet victory…’, he thinks, just as Candy launches the missile that spins his car in the opposite direction, before flying past him …. only to be humourlessly thrown back thanks by a mean spring trap she herself set up there in the previous lap. And so, the Professor is set to take the crown… unless he is pulled back by Jack’s magnet… who in turn just lost his mud tires on the acid spilled in front of the pit lane…”
You might think now that mayhem is the name of game, which is correct – and not. Junkyard Races is its official title, but mayhem is certainly what it is all about. Bombs and missiles, traps, mean bumping and reckless overtaking are some of the most striking features of John Yianni’s (Hive being probably his most famous game to date) most entertaining board racing game, that brings out the meanest Michael Schumacheresque traits you possess.We had the immense pleasure of getting an expert first-hand explanation round by the game’s creator at the 2010 SPIEL fair in Essen, which convinced us to not only to like but also get a copy of Junkyard Races – a decision we have certainly not regretted.
As Junkie, as affectionate fans (or junkies) sometimes call the game, has a full-fledged racing theme, you will expect a board with a racetrack as well as cars and some method of propulsion. Voilà: all of the above are present in the game, but there is quiet a lot more: You not only get a two-sided board with two different race tracks as well as eight plastic kart models in different colours and a corresponding player kart-card (if this sounds silly, well, I guess it is) each with a distinct in-game character, lots of dice and plenty of part cards used to upgrade your kart into a moving earthquake, and junk tiles which turn you into a shooting star and your opponents into smudge on the wall; or so you hope. Apart from these essentials, you also get chequered flag markers and bottle top tokens, which double as your in-game funds. Don’t forget, this is a junkyard you’re about to race on!
Each side of the board consists of walls and areas of water as boundaries to the race track, which features the obligatory start/finish line, pit stop areas as well as different terrains (tarmac, grass, mud and bridges) which have a bearing on how fast your kart can go. Since there are two sides to the board, you can choose which track you want to be mauled on by the other players, and while the two layouts don’t differ in a significant way in terms of speed or difficulty, it is nice to have more than one layout to race on.
When you set out to race, you start by throwing three green dice, and move across the start line, following the path across bridges and around walls and water areas. Before you move, however, you take a junk tile from the supply and put it face down on a field on the board corresponding to your roll; more on those junk tiles in a second. Once you have finished your move, it is already the next player’s turn. You can always roll three dice when you are on tarmac or in the pit area, enabling you to go pretty far in one turn (considering the racing line on one map only covers 37 fields, if free); on all other terrain, however, one die is all you get, making ground-covering progress harder to come by. You are free to bump other players (according to certain rules), block their paths and force them to take detours, all while proclaiming ‘That’s racing!’, thus cutting short their complaints about unfair tactics and FIA appeals.
When moving across certain bridges you receive bottle top tokens, the currency for which you can buy much-appreciated add-ons (weapons, defensive equipment, saddlebags and tire upgrades), to your kart in the pit stop areas. And, of course, when you cross the start-finish line you are awarded a chequered flag marker to document your progress to yourself and the competition, which will be out to get you any time you threaten to build a sizeable lead.
Back to the junk tiles, as they are one of the key elements in the game. Once a junk tile is placed face down on the game board, it stays there until a player reaches or passes this field and takes the tile to his supply. Just to be clear: these tiles are mean, and you can do exceedingly mean things to other players with them. There are, for example, three kinds of explosive devices aimed at spinning your challengers around their axis, potentially losing valuable gear on their karts. You get glue, oil and acid spills to stop your opponents in their tracks, or even send them hurtling into the river; and there are spring traps and magnets aimed at putting your competition in its place – which is behind you, obviously. On the other hand, there are two different types of fuels which, combined with the corresponding engine, can give you an additional blast to make up some ground lost while accumulating your arsenal of hard candy.
Using these tiles to ‘influence’ the other players is easy. You place these little helpers around your kart’s current position (face up) before rolling, and depending on their type you just leave them there for someone to run into them, or they have immediate effect on other players – or even yourself, which is less frequent, but usually more amiable to your goals. Thus, after a short time the racetrack is literally paved with ‘kart droppings’, especially in key spots and narrow passages, turning Junkyard Races into a truly unique driving experience.
While the junk tiles have one-off effects, the add-ons you can buy for your kart are more of a lasting nature. You can buy special tires helping you go faster when in areas with mud or grass or saddlebags that allow you to store more tiles; you get missile and bomb launchers which allow you to use certain tiles more effectively as well as their defensive counterparts to thwart other players’ attacks, and of course there are turbo and jet engines which combined with the right fuel make you go ‘wroom’!
As you may have noted, Junkyard Races is not a game of the deep-thinking kind. While there is some consideration into where to go (there are alternative routes with varying length and hazard level), what to buy in terms of add-ons and how to strategically place junk tiles to aid your cause, you realize pretty soon that there is no foolproof way to make it safely to the other side (Very much to the contrary, the more you (seemingly) get a leg up on the other players, the more you will experience an onrush of friendly aggression to your vehicle), and the junk tiles you get are also random.
So no, this game is not highly strategic, but rather a fun game geared to keep you entertained while playing. And this, it must be said, is one thing the game truly excels in. You can have plenty of fun trying to edge the other players for the jump across the bridge while leaving spinning karts in your tracks, and accept the fact that every once in a while you have to realise that running out of steam at the lakeside was more than an inconvenience, just as someone is bumping you into the water, making you start over the current lap.
For a fun racing game, Junkyard Races for the dominant part has a very nice balance of luck and strategic considerations. The mechanics are mostly straight-forward, and due to the multiple-lap set-up even players who have a significant lead are not assured to win, thanks to junk tile traps and some long-range weapons, which usually keeps the game close and entertaining until the end. The easy basic mechanism also allows you to play the game in plenty of variations, e.g. a team racing event (3 vs. 3, 4 vs. 4, or in teams of 2), or to any length you want to play by simply adjusting the number of laps to any number other than the standard (five). Also, you have the option to start with some pre-installed equipment already, thus making the game more eventful from the get-go, in which case each character has two characteristic start configurations to choose from.
The game materials have a nice design that blends in well with the cartoon-like theme and feeling of the game, and board, box and cards/tiles make a very durable impression. The dimensions of the board are good to manage, neither oversized nor finicky when playing and moving pieces, even for sometimes-clumsy me.
What you need to keep in mind, however, that due to the means (pun intended!) at your disposal, the game is apt at bringing out the meanest streaks in your friends (never in yourself, of course, heaven forbid!) while battling for position with the ammo so handily left along the wayside. Therefore, exercise caution with people who have a hard time differentiating between in-game and actual demeanour. It is certainly nowhere near Junta in this regard, but there is a chance someone will cease talking to you after getting blown up or bumped into the lake several times in consecutive rounds.
In connection with the team racing set-up, this is one of the very few issues I have with this game. Winning a team game requires you to get all players to collect five chequered flags to win, which implies that to keep your opponent from winning, all you need to do is blow one of your opponents into oblivion on a regular basis, and with the equipment you get this is actually quiet easily done. So even though players who have completed their five laps are free to continue racing to support their lagging team mates, it can be hugely upsetting to be targeted by four players on an every-round basis when you are not doing so well anyway. A different mode (e.g. based on points) might be more suitable for the team game to provide all players with a lasting attraction to the game.
Of course, there is a simply remedy to these ails by playing according to milder house rules; but then again: mayhem is the name of the game. Even if the box says Junkyard Racing. Ladies and gentlemen: start your engines, and keep your bombs ready!