BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Junta: In which, amongst other things, nothing happens


I had my first game of Junta yesterday, along with six other intrepid gamers. Only one of our number, Andrew, had ever played before, and he took on the task of reading the rules and explaining the game to the rest of us. We were playing with an antique edition from 1985 which Tom had picked up for 80p in Sally Ann’s. An open question was whether 80p represented reasonable value for money; and after 45 arduous minutes of rules recital, I still wasn’t sure.

If you’ve never had the pleasure, Junta is a negotiation game, in which up to seven players (and seven is the recommended number) jostle for power within the unstable plutocracy of some unnamed South American banana republic. The trick is to syphon off as much money as possible into your Swiss bank account, which is difficult for a number of reasons. The bank closes its doors at the first whiff of trouble, and even when open the chances of being assassinated on the way there are startlingly high.

There was a lot to enjoy in the game once we got into our stride, and we all approved of how the core mechanism, by which El Presidente receives and assigns a budget to the other players, effortlessly fosters allegiances while sowing the seeds of mutual mistrust. And if things get too sketchy, there’s the ever-present threat of a coup. When a coup does occur the game breaks out of its cyclic budgetary negotiation, voting and haphazard assassination attempts into a mini dice-rolling war game, which was a curious, and possibly unwelcome, change of pace. We experienced one coup during our game, and it’s not clear it did its instigators any good in the long run. What it did do was slow things down; this in a game that took 4 hours. And we didn’t even finish!

The crazy thing is that all the players’ collective cunning probably makes precious little difference to who wins, since there seem to be so many uncontrollable factors that influence how successful you are at acquiring and stashing the cash.

I have spoken before about the classical and romantic view of games, and the classicist in me might look at Junta and despair. The game is arcane and chaotic; the rules labyrinthine and incomplete; the game takes too long, delivers too little in terms of meaningful strategy, demands too much complicity from its players to succeed, and — laughably — contains an ‘Event Card’ that literally does absolutely nothing.

The interesting thing is that, increasingly, I find myself at odds with the classicist viewpoint. Yes, all those statements are factually true observations about the game, but they are not ‘flaws’. The game isn’t ‘broken’ because of them; indeed, I rather think that it is set free. In my last post I quoted a Shaker philosophy that pleaded for the craftsman to respect usefulness and necessity, and this may seem like a classicist agenda.

But a game is not a piece of furniture — its utility is not one of purpose but of play, its necessity not born of comfort but joy. The Shakers may espouse the primacy of utility and necessity, but they acknowledge the supremacy of beauty at the same time.

But that might just be the romantic in me talking.

I bought Junta when it first came out. It's one of those games, perhaps typical for its time - less competition? - that isn't quite broken, but isn't quite all there either. It's a game for the gimmick (and for the storytelling afterwards), not the tightness of its design and certainly not its rules. In essence it only has two parts: (1) El Presidente saying "It's been another terrible year!" as he or she splits the budget; and (2) the inevitable coup in which the new President ironically (or should that be 'leadily') shoots the player who initiated it.
I'd describe it as Kingmaker without the nice artwork - the apres ski stories and myths are more important than what actually happened, and everyone can avoid mentioning the extra 4 hours of tedium.

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