Aliens. Ninjas. Robots. Pirates.
These tropes have been central to the geek culture for years. Hours upon hours have been dedicated to discussing and arguing which group would win in a fight. They have been smashed together in fiction, and now, they’ve been smashed together for an all out knock-down drag-out fight to see who is the most awesome in Alderac’s new card game, Smash Up.
The tagline on the box claims that Smash-Up is the “Shufflebuilding game of total awesomeness.” But does it live up to the hype?
How It Plays
Smash Up is a pretty concise game. At the start of the game, each player chooses 2 of the available factions, takes the 20-card decks belonging to each of those factions, and shuffles them together. (Congratulations, now you know what “Shufflebuilding” is.) Then, players draw 5 cards, and take turns playing cards from their hand.
Each turn a player can play 1 Minion, and 1 Action. These cards can be played in any order, and neither of them HAVE to be played. Minions are played to one of the available Bases, and feature both a Power level and usually a special ability. Actions do a variety of things, from protecting your minions, to destroying other minions, to drawing more cards – it all depends on which faction you have.
After a player has finished playing cards, you check to see if any of the bases have scored. Each base has a Breaking Point – when the power level of all the minions on the base adds up to that point or higher, the base scores. Each base features 3 numbers – the amount of points awarded to the first, second, and third-place players respectively, which is simply determined by whoever has the most minion power.
Finally, the player can draw 2 cards, and play continues around the circle.
The game ends immediately after a player scores 15 (or more) points, and whoever has the most points wins!
So, How Awesome Are Ya?
Much of the hype surrounding this game has been about the theme of it, so lets talk about that first. Yes, the game is dripping, oozing even, with theme. The 8 factions – Pirates, Ninjas, Robots, Aliens, Wizards, Zombies, Tricksters, and Dinosaurs – are not only well chosen but very well implemented, the the box insert promises a lot more where that came from. The art is excellent. Excellent, I tell you! I’m not sure it could be any better. It is bright and vibrant, and each faction is visually consistent and very cool-looking. Even the typography for each faction is unique and thematic. The card layout is very easy to read and allows overlapping so your minions piling up on each base don’t take up ridiculous amounts of space.
Did I mention the art was excellent? It’s beautiful stuff, people.
I also think it’s a clever, if small, twist that you choose two factions and mix them together. Sure, Pirates vs. Ninjas is all well and good, but we’ve seen that plenty of times before and it’s a little cliche. Now we can team up the Pirates and Ninjas against someone else; or pit Pirates and Dinosaurs against Ninjas and Aliens. The combinations can be humorous, for certain.
Eurogamers, wait up! Don’t leave yet! There’s more, I promise, that might interest you.
Let’s be honest; a joke, even a joke of context, like sticking Pirates with Dinosaurs, is only funny a few times before it can no longer carry the weight of a game. So the question is, once the gold spraypaint wears off and you have nothing left but the game, is it still fun? Is it still a good game?
I’ve seen a few other reviews of this game, most of which seem to focus entirely on the theme. Some have lauded the thematic ooze and the humor and left it at that; some have dared to say that hey, this joke isn’t going to be funny forever. I think both sides miss out on something important.
I can’t honestly judge how this game will hold up after 50 plays, or after 3 years. But I do honestly think that the game itself holds up after the jokes wear off, and you can enjoy the game if you don’t put all your focus on those jokes. If you only play the game because Ninja/Dinosaur teams are funny, you’ll soon be trading the game away, or leaving it to collect dust on your shelf.
But if you remember that there is, in fact, a card game under there, you will be able to get enjoyment out of it for some time.
Each thematically colorful faction also focuses on a fairly specific type of mechanism. Pirates are good at moving around the different bases; Ninjas can swoop in at the last minute to nab points from a base or even take the lead. Dinosaurs rack up the power very, very quickly because each card is pretty darn strong. Robots are weak, but when joined together they multiply each other’s power exponentially, and have the ability to put a lot of minions on the table quickly.
The point is, not only does each faction have a delicious coating of frosting, the cake beneath it is also quite tasty. I have played every faction at least once, and seen a wide variety of combinations; and I’m always impressed at the unique and effective ways the different mechanisms can be used together. Some combinations work together quite obviously (and some factions are just easier to figure out what to do with them. I’m looking at you, Zombies). Other combinations seem like they aren’t that useful… until something clicks and you realize, holy smokes I can do this and it is AWESOME. And I’m talking about the mechanisms here, not the concept that your UFOs are dropping off Zombies in the park. Every faction has a general strategy, and every faction has something ridiculously powerful they can do, and every faction can be combined with every other faction to accomplish amazing things.
At first glance, the game may seem imbalanced but honestly, I don’t think it is. I don’t think there is any one combination that overpowers all the others. As I said some of the combinations work well in an obvious way, and some you have to figure out or know the kinds of cards that you might find in your deck. The latter kind seems weaker at first, but trust me, there is a mighty powerful way to use it. On a side note, I don’t recommend giving Robots or Wizards (especially not the two combined) to a newbie. Wizards let you get a lot of cards in your hand, but that gives a player waaay too many choices if they’re new, and Robots have more of a long-term strategy that’s difficult to use if you aren’t familiar with the cards available in the deck.
Fortunately this game completely avoids the “smash the leader!” element that often props up in point-based games. Even if everyone tries to stop the “leader” that person can still score points in second or third place and pull out the victory. And the game tends to avoid runaway leaders; in every game I’ve played, at the end of the game each player was within 1 first-place base score of winning, and most times even less than that. And aside from player analysis-paralysis, the game will fit in the 30-45min landmark, especially with experienced players.
The game works great for 3-4 players; it works with 2, but some cards are definitely much weaker while others are significantly more powerful with only 1 opponent. There are only a few of those, and it’s still pretty balanced even with 2 players, but you’ll get more enjoyment with the 3 or 4.
I think, like many “x-building” card games, the longetivity of Smash Up will depend on new factions being introduced. Much like Dominion – which is an excellent game and very enjoyable to play – it can get stale if you play with the same exact setup every single time. The base game comes with 8 factions – which means every faction will be used in a 4-player game, and if you stick with the same factions every time you play, you’ll probably get bored. While it would have been nice to have a few extra factions from the get-go, the ones included are definitely well crafted. And AEG has already announced an expansion pack for the game; hopefully, due to the expansion-friendly design of the box, expansions will land on the very cheap side.
Finally, let me talk about something that every publisher of board games needs to pay attention to.
The rulebook for Smash-Up is the best rulebook for a board game I have ever seen. Ever. Forget the colorful art and quality graphic design in the book; the rules are laid out cleanly, clearly, and concisely. Even with the inclusion of flavorful text (which often distracts without being helpful in rulebooks), this rulebook is so well written it virtually eliminates any “blurry” areas that might exist. I have not yet met a rules question that couldn’t be answered clearly from a quick flip through the rulebook. Extremely consistent game terminology, clear and concise card text, and a clear and logical presentation of the game with helpful diagrams all add up to a beautiful, easy to read and understand, rulebook. Congratulations, AEG. It’s like you realize that the rulebook is one of the most important parts of the game and put some actual effort into it. Keep up the good work.
On a side note, the game doesn’t include anything for tracking points. You’ll have to provide your own tokens or dice or scratch paper and pen. I used mancala stones or dice and it wasn’t a big deal.
Allow me to sum up. Smash Up is a beautiful and highly thematic geek-fest layered on top of a very enjoyable card game. If the humor wears thin quickly, the mechanisms of each faction and the way the mechanisms of different factions collide lasts much longer. The game is good for what it is; a mid-level card game playable within 30-45mins with a variety of strategies and plenty of player interaction. At a $30 price tag (and the ability to find it for $20 pretty easily) it’s definitely worth the price of admission, especially if you don’t get distracted by the thematic elements and miss the game beneath.
And I’m looking forward to the many new factions that will be released. I can’t wait for superhumans, cowboys, and princesses. Booyah. (although as far as I’m aware, none of those are actually planned as of yet. Call me up, AEG.)
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank AEG for providing a review copy of Smash-Up to us.