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Level Up! (A Review of Smash Up: Awesome Level 9000)

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Smash Up, a clever little card game designed by Paul Peterson and published by AEG, turned out to be a smash hit last fall and it was no surprised when AEG announced the first expansion pack, adding 4 new factions.  This time Ghosts, Plants, Steampunk… people, and the Bear Cavalry (yes you read that right) join in the fray.  But is it worth adding these factions to the base game?

How It Plays

If you’re not familiar with Smash Up, you should probably check out our review before reading on.  However, Smash Up: Awesome Level 9000 is indeed a standalone expansion, meaning it can be played without the base game, albeit with only 2 players.

So here’s a brief overview.  On the table you have several bases, each with a “breaking point,” a set of 3 different scores, and a special ability.  When a base is broken (the total power level of all minions on that base meets or exceeds the breaking point), points are awarded.  The player with the most power receives the first (and usually most) points, 2nd place gets the next set of points, and 3rd place gets the last set.  4th place, if any, gets squat.

Fancy new bases.

On a players turn, they can play a Minion and an Action.  That’s it.  Order doesn’t matter.  After playing their cards, players check to see if bases score, then draw 2 cards, and on to the next player.

Of course this would be rather dull, if the Minions and Actions weren’t equipped with powerful special abilities.  These abilities run the gamut from allowing extra minions or actions to be played, to boosting friendly minions power, to destroying other player’s minions, and much much more.

What makes it even more interesting is that each faction has a particular “hook,” and at the start of the game each player chooses 2 factions and shuffles them together.  Factions interact in surprising and often powerful ways, and the first player to score 15 points wins!

These are the factions of AL9k: Ghosts are more powerful if your hand size is small (and can access powerful abilities by discarding cards). Plants are slow to arrive but once they get a foothold, they can get out of control quickly via delayed abilities.  The Bear Cavalry is powerful and tactical, and can force other factions to move to other bases, and the Steampunk faction is extremely mobile and resourceful, pulling minions and actions from where they are to exactly where they are needed.

And only 4 more slots left for new factions! (The tokens take up the 5th slot.)

While all the original types of actions – one shot, Special, and Ongoing – are back, a new type of action – Talent – is an ability that can be used once per turn.  It differs from “ongoing” because Ongoing happens automatically, while Talent is activated when and if the controlling player chooses.

AL9K also adds a set of scoring tokens, something that was missing from the base game.

What Level Of Awesome?

Do you like Smash Up?

If you already like the game, AL9K is definitely for you.  If you felt like the base set grew stale or you’ve tried all the combinations and are looking for more, AL9K will fill that gap.

It won’t convert anyone who hated the original, or even someone who found it mildly distasteful or even neutral.  Unless the thing you hated was providing your own scoring method, because this little box does include scoring tokens in 1- and 5- point denominations, which is very useful.  While I do have extra tokens and dice laying around, I’m always a little bothered when a game doesn’t include the complete set of tokens – if not for myself, for the non-gamers that might pick it up and be confused as to why parts are missing.

Most valuable point tokens.

But the most exciting thing about Smash Up in general is the fun way factions mix and interact both as allies and as opponents, so the important question is – are the new factions fun to play? Do they add something to the environment?

The answer is yes.  The 4 new factions are creative and fun to play, and mix seamlessly with the original 8 factions.  Even Steampunk, which at first glance seems very similar to Pirates, has its own twists and flairs which make it worth using on its own.  In fact, I played a game mixing Steampunk and Pirates together, and even though I didn’t win I pulled off some exciting maneuvers and came very close to victory.

Adventure fills the air like the thick, choking steam coming out of your pipes.

Ghosts are perhaps the most creative faction of all, and the most psychotically interesting hand of cards I’ve ever played in my life.  Okay, that might be a hyperbole, but the very concept – keeping your hand size low – is self limiting, but in a fun way.  In general, most of your most powerful abilities are unlocked with 2 cards or less in hand – if you recall, you always draw 2 cards at the end of your turn, which means if you want to keep your Minion’s strength up during other player’s turns, you’re going to need to ditch your entire hand on your turn.  Fortunately, Ghosts come equipped with abilities that let you discard (and some cards that do powerful, powerful things by discarding a lot of cards, which means you might save up a big hand for one killer move) and get these bonuses.  Doing so, though, means you have limited choices on your next turn, so you have to be careful to balance your hand size (or lack thereof) and your Minions.  It was a lot of fun to do this, and it was crazy, silly, and it was Smash Up through and through.

A chill runs down my spine whenever I use GHOSTS!

In a game like this, with wildly differing factions, there’s always a risk that certain factions will be weaker or stronger, making certain combinations optimal for victory.  While winning combinations may emerge over a long period of time, I honestly feel like all factions are extremely well balanced, and still are.  You’ll hear people talk about certain combos being better, but I haven’t noticed a particular combo winning more than others.

The truth is, there are some factions whose strategy is immediately obvious and rather blunt; and certain combinations which are easy to play.  But factions with more obscure strategies are still powerful in their own way, and if you have to learn them to be competitive with them, so much better the game.  And while some of the “obvious” faction choices are powerful, they tend to load up on a single base at a time, capturing 1st-place scores but few of them; while more subtle factions can sneak around, scoring points every time a base breaks -and maybe not first place every time, but if you score 3 2nd-place bases and everyone else scores 1 1st place, you’re winning the game.  And each faction has a definite weakness.

You’re screwed!

A lot of the fun in Smash Up comes in the theme, and the art here is just as beautiful and entertaining as in the base game.  The cards are creative and fun, the stock is good, and the inclusion of tokens is a big plus.  If you have the base game, you’ll already have storage space for all your cards in one box and room for more.  And this set comes with a complete set of base cards (which allows the expansion to be played apart from the base game with 2 players).  I should note that the game is best with 3 or 4; 2 player is still enjoyable, but prone to heavy swings of luck, and the more subtle factions have a harder time winning here.

Plants worthy of Mario.

While I do wish the original game had come with more factions (with 8, a 4 player game will use every base faction), the presentation and relatively low price point is worth it, and this expansion adds more to the fun.  12 total factions means a lot more mixing and matching, a lot more variety, and a lot more fun!

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Alderac Entertainment Group for providing a review copy of this game.

Summary

  • Rating 9
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Summary

Pros

  • New factions are creative and fun
  • Includes scoring tokens
  • Same chaotic fun
  • Simple rules, balanced factions
  • balance of luck and strategy
  • Playable as a standalone 2-player game

Cons:

  • 2-player isn't the best way to play
9 Excellent

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

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