Review: Smash Up – All About Variety
I wrote briefly before about my first play of Smash Up. That play lead to another and another. Smash Up is a bit on the addicting side. But don’t let that dissuade you. In fact, the most interesting thing about Smash Up isn’t the game at all; it’s the deck combinations. Ever want to combine an army of Alien Zombies? Or team up Pirates and Ninjas? Then this game is worth checking out.
The Basics. At its core, Smash Up is a simple area majority game. Players have decks filled with minions and actions. Minions get played on various bases. When a base accumulates enough minions (measured by the “power” rating of the minions), then the base scores. Whoever had the strongest minions gets the top points, with lower points for second and third place. First player to fifteen points wins. Along with minions, players can play action cards that generally have a one time effect (though ongoing effects do occur).
What makes Smash Up unique is its “shuffle-building” approach to gameplay. The game comes with 10 factions (such as Tricksters, Wizards, Ninjas, and Dinosaurs) that have their own 20 card decks. Each one advances a unique style of play. For example, Wizards allow you to play more cards while Zombies allow you to play cards from your discard pile. Then you take any two factions and smash them together into one forty-card deck.
So if you have Zombie Wizards, your deck will allow you to play more cards from your hand and cards from your discard pile. If you decide to go with Aliens and Dinosaurs, then you will have the biggest cards in the game and the ability to beam opponents’ minions back to their hands.
The Feel. The lion’s share of the fun comes from exploring new combinations of cards and how they compete against other combos. Even though the Robots (for example) will always include the same 20 cards, they play remarkably differently when you combine them with Ninjas vs. combining them with Pirates. Additionally, although Wizard/Tricksters was a powerful combination in one game, it may be overwhelmed when facing Robot/Pirates.
At its core, Smash Up really is a simple game. Play minions, play effects, and have the largest pile of minions when a base scores. But the feel of the game is dramatically different. For example, Ninjas like to do things at the last minute, so they have cards that can move a minion to a scoring base. Done correctly, that could give the Ninja player the ability to snipe the highest scoring position. With a Ninja in the mix, the other players have to be careful to watch out for that last minute ninja snipe.
Similarly, playing with Tricksters means that they are going to put up all kinds of barriers to entering certain bases. For example, they have an action that kills the next minion played in that base by another player. Someone has to bite the bullet or the base is going to be the sole property of the Trickster player.
As weird as it is to say, I haven’t noticed a “best combination” in my plays thus far. Of course, I have yet to try every combo, but they all seem to be about the same power level but in very different ways. The one exception is Ninja/Dinosaurs. That combo seems considerably weaker than most. When you think about it, the size of the Dinosaurs really does not compliment the stealth of the Ninjas. Maybe that makes sense thematically.
The strange thing about Smash Up is that the core of the game – actually scoring points – seems to be almost an afterthought. In a sense, Smash Up is an experience game. The mechanics of the game itself, and the win condition, both take a back seat to how the game feels when playing. Players will find more enjoyment through their own interaction, and in discovery new combinations, than they will from actually scoring a particular base.
In fact, Smash Up is very much a game of discovery. I’ve been feverishly attached to the game because I keep wanting to try new and different combinations of decks. My Alien/Zombie combo was pretty brutal. In a two player game, I was able to bounce the other player’s stuff and to keep playing everything of mine that they killed. Mage/Trickster seemed incredible with the way it allowed the player to play multiple trickster actions each turn that hampered everyone else.
Some players are not going to like the discovery aspect of Smash Up. Players who are looking for a meaty game or a brain burner will not find what they are looking for (which isn’t to say that Smash Up doesn’t have tactical and strategic elements).
Components: 3.5 of 5. Smash Up’s cards are fantastic. They feel a lot sturdier than even your average deck builder. And, given the need to shuffle them together frequently, that was a good decision. I’m not particularly worried about card wear. Plus, the artwork is pretty great. It all is very evocative of the creatures being represented. The box has plenty of space for additional expansion factions.
On the negative side, the game comes with no method for keeping track of points. No tokens, no chits, no cards. Even the original Thunderstone had cards for experience points. And those were later replaced by tokens. It seems a little odd that AEG would take a step back and essentially require pen and paper record keeping.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 3.5 of 5. As a card game, there will inevitably be an element of luck. But the strategy begins even before the game proper, when the players select their factions. Really, what players are selecting is the kind of game that they want to play. From there it is all about execution of the plan.
Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. Despite the relatively banal area majority point scoring structure, Smash Up has a phenomenal mechanical structure. It has ten very different factions, with ten completely different play styles, and allows them all to be combined together for unanticipated power and novelty. It’s a wonderful experience and one that you’d think would have implementation problems. Smash Up, though, plays very smoothly with a simple ruleset.
Replayability: 5 of 5. Smash Up is probably one of the most replayable games out there. It seems like the whole concept of different combinations of factions was designed to give the game limitless replay value. Of course, the danger exists that if you tire of the area majority element that the game will eventually become stale. But, frankly, the enjoyment of the game comes from the interaction of the factions and players, not from the area majority mechanic.
Spite: 3.5 of 5. The spite level really depends on the factions. Aliens, Tricksters, and Ninjas might all be considered high spite. But even relatively low spite factions still have a few mean cards. When playing Smash Up, you should be prepared to take a little punishment, and dish it out to the other players, too.
Overall: 4 of 5. Smash Up is enjoyable, expandable, and has numerous combinations to make the game feel different and varied with every play. And, even though the area majority element is a bit “bleh”, that really isn’t the point of the game. The various powers and cards have a wide variety and are unique to the individual factions. It’s almost like each game is a science experiment where you have a controlled environment (the scoring of bases), but then you throw a bunch of stuff in a beaker and see what happens. In this case, something pretty awesome happens.
(A special thanks to AEG for providing a review copy of Smash Up)