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Review: Smile

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Somehow all the beautiful creatures you’ve been carefully taming have escaped. (Apparently you need to work on taming them not to pry open their cage bars next time.) Thankfully, you have a stock of fireflies on hand, and it is proven fact that creatures like nothing more than fireflies.

Unfortunately, this applies across the board, both to your prized pets and to the feral creatures of the forest. Keep a stiff upper lip and try not to cry, and maybe you’ll walk away with all the animals you’ve come for…if they don’t scare each other off, of course.

How It Works

Smile is a bidding/speculation game for three to five players. Players have captured creatures, and these creatures have escaped. The players use fireflies to lure the creatures back. The player with the most points wins.

Smile set up for four players.

To begin, cards are removed for each player up to five not in the game. Each player receives six firefly tokens, which they are allowed to conceal. The deck is shuffled, and one card per player is revealed and placed in ascending order. Play begins.

On a player’s turn, a player must either place one firefly on the lowest-valued card or claim a card with a firefly on it, taking the fireflies into their personal stash. If it is a player’s turn and that player has no fireflies and there are no cards with fireflies, the player takes a tear token and places a firefly on the lowest-valued card.

Once a player claims a card, that player is out of the round. Once all players have claimed a card, a new round begins with one card turned up for each player.

Cards are valued -5 through 6, and some cards also have a splotch of color on the upper-left corner. If a player ever collects a second card with the same-color splotch, both cards are discarded.

After ten rounds, players add the face value of their cards and score one additional point for every five firefly tokens they have and lose one point for every teardrop. Whoever has the most points wins.

Schadenfreude Is the Best Kind of Freude

Michael Schacht is known for creating very tight, very clever designs that offer good decisions with a slender ruleset, and Smile is no different. It’s quick, tense, and quirky, with just enough difference to stand on its own as a top-tier filler game.

Smile takes as its basis an earlier Michael Schacht design, Mogul (whose auction system was later popularized by the filler game No Thanks!). In Mogul (and in No Thanks!), the center of the action is a pay-to-play auction, where players are bidding to either win or avoid winning an auction. In either case, the compensation for taking the worse option is winning the other players’ currency to be used in future bidding. This system is brilliant because it focuses on player interaction and heightens tension as players try to get the cards they want.

The cards range in value from -5 to 6. Getting a high score can be…difficult, especially since you can only have one card of each color.

What makes Smile so tense is the variable value for cards for different players. Sometimes in an auction game, it’s hard to properly evaluate what other players are interested in. Smile simplifies this by putting colored splotches on the corner of cards: if you collect two of the same splotch, you lose both cards. It’s easy to tell at a glance that if someone has a high-value pink card, they probably don’t want another pink splotch, or if someone has a negative-value blue card, they probably do want another blue splotch. It’s simple to see this. And the splotches are ingenious: they betray the speculation game that Smile covers with a whimsical veneer. Anyone can take a high-valued card; the trick is to keep it, and you have to balance spending fireflies to get a card and having enough fireflies on hand later to avoid losing it.

But just because it’s simple to tell what other players have and want doesn’t mean it’s easy to get the best card for you. Smile is dependent on other players’ decisions, and players can surprise you with their choices. Smile, more than anything else, is a speculation game, and by bidding fireflies, you’re betting on a future opportunity to get something better.

Tears and fireflies. The glass beads are a wonderful choice for the game. They’re small enough that they fit in the hand, but the way they catch the light can induce greed in even the most prudent players.

The firefly system is clever, though, because it often tempts players to act against their immediate interest. As fireflies pile up on cards, you can see the glint in players’ eyes. If I take the fireflies, they reason, I’ll have better choices later. Am I likely to be better off with the best card now or in a future round? And as you can see, even this is speculation.

Further, there are risk management decisions in which cards to attract. The cards in the splotch suits are always a risk: if negative, that you’ll be stuck with them; if positive, that they’ll be scared away later in the game. This can make the non-suited cards very attractive…but these cards often have lower values. A 1 will never be scared away, but it’s also not worth a lot of points. A -1 doesn’t hurt you too much, but you’re stuck with it, with no chance for it to go away. I like the constant push and pull of risk and reward in the game, and even when things don’t go your way, it’s still a fun game to play, and you feel like you have more agency than in a simple roll of the dice or flip of a card.

Players place fireflies on the lowest card until someone takes it. There can be a big points spread between cards.

But things won’t always go your way, and despite player agency, some players might not like this. Beyond having to deal with other players’ decisions, sometimes cards will come up at inopportune times, or you’ll be forced on your turn to do something you don’t want to do (usually place a firefly on a desirable card for another player). There are some “dead” turns here, devoid of choice, and that can be upsetting. For me, this is a quick and simple filler game, so I don’t mind a few dead turns: it’s a natural consequence of the tension in the rest of the game, and it’s a space for clever manipulation. Also, there are far more turns that offer good decisions than are dead. But there still is some luck here, although nothing that seems to me out of the ordinary for a filler game.

If you collect two cards of the same color, you lose both. This can be good or bad.

Smile can also turn nasty. Players can try to extort fireflies from other players if they know the other player really doesn’t want a card or take a small hit in their own scoring to tank someone else. Tears can become cyclical if other players really want to make another player cry (they are aptly named), although there’s usually a point where self-interest wins out over schadenfreude. This isn’t a take-that game by any stretch, but it’s also not multiplayer solitaire. You are forced to reckon with other players, and they are forced to reckon with you.

It’s easy to sort out cards based on the number of players.

Smile is a good game on its own merits, but the components here serve to really elevate it. The cards are large and beautifully illustrated with whimsical characters. The firefly and tear drop tokens are glass beads. Beyond being satisfying to hold, they are easy to conceal in your hand, and they look beautiful on the table. They catch the light just right to reflect the twinkle of greed in players’ eyes. The theme, as in most filler games, is, admittedly, thin, but in my estimation, it provides just the right level of charm to separate this from a game like No Thanks!, which is just numbers and chips. (Although this game is nearly double the price of No Thanks!, so components are a trade-off.) The fact that players bid fireflies and occasionally have to take tears highlights the lighthearted nature of the game.

The insert. The cards are close to tarot sized, and the glass beads fit in the bottom of the box.

The game supports play for three to five players, and it’s easy to determine which cards to remove for each game. I like the game at all player counts. It’s easier to control at three and there are potentially larger swings of fortune (and more currency in the game) with five. I wouldn’t refuse it at any count, but I think I like the four- and five-player game a little better than three, but that’s how I usually feel about filler games: the more, the merrier.

Smile is a superb filler game in the same vein as Mogul and No Thanks!. It’s much faster than Mogul and more interesting than No Thanks!, and I expect it to get a lot of play over the coming year. I’m not sure if it will live up to Michael Schacht’s filler masterpiece Coloretto, but if you’re looking for a beautiful and quick game that still offers tense choices and will put a smile on players’ faces, well, don’t let this title flit away.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Z-Man Games for providing us with a review copy of Smile.

  • Rating: 8.5
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Summary

Pros:

Rules are simple to explain and understand, but game offers fun decisions
Lots of interaction
Gorgeous components help to elevate the simple game
Many opportunities for feeling schadenfreude

Cons:

Some turns have no opportunity for choice
There is a healthy helping of luck in the game

8.5 Alluring

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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