Reviewed by: Dave
Do Zombie Pirates make sense to you? What about Robot Wizards? Or Alien Tricksters? If they do--or if they don’t but you’d like them to--enter the world of Smash Up.
Smash Up is a self-described “shufflebuilding” game for two to four players. Where a deck-building game involves players starting with a small starter deck and building it up by purchasing cards through the course of the game, Smash Up has players choose two factions, each with twenty cards of their own, and shuffle them together to make one unchanging forty-card deck to use during the game. The base set includes eight factions (the six above along with Ninjas and Dinosaurs); seven of Smash Up’s current expansions work four more factions each into the mix, and the Big Geeky Box adds the Geek faction (based on Geek and Sundry of internet fame) with its organizational flair. So, if the original eight factions lose their flavor, you can build your set up to thirty-seven with more to come.
Games of Smash Up are played to fifteen points. Players score points by attaching the minions in their deck to bases. Each base has a break point; when the combined point total of all minions on the base matches or exceeds the break point at the end of a turn, the base is scored and players with minions on the base score points depending on whether their minions are worth the most, second-most, or third-most points. Not every base gives points for all three spots; not every base gives the most points to first place. Some give points based on completely different criteria. Reading the base cards, and the cards opponents play, is extremely important to strategizing as the game progresses.
However, just as important as knowing what the cards on the board are doing is understanding what your chosen factions can do and how to play them. Some of the faction themes are obvious (e.g. Zombie cards routinely return to your hand or are put into play from the discard pile), while some are less so (e.g. Wizards are largely based around drawing cards). Certain expansions add abilities to their factions that factions in the base set and other expansions don’t have. This creates a level of complexity that belies the cartoonish aesthetic and the relative ease of play that most deck-builders offer--it’s often difficult to make maximum use of a faction’s abilities without playing it and seeing it in action, or at least playing Smash Up enough to understand how a new faction’s cards are likely to work.
The upshot of this is that Smash Up is somewhat of a different game in practice than many people think it will be at a glance. This is neither bad nor good; as always, there is an audience for games of every level of complexity, as long as those games are well made. It does lead to a greater possibility that people will buy the game and be disappointed, most likely because it seems as though they’re picking up a bit of light fun and find themselves contemplating the interaction of pixie magic and rampaging robots far more thoroughly than they ever could have imagined.
And that’s unfortunate. Smash Up can have balance problems (most combinations of the original eight factions are reasonably competitive with each other; try keeping that up through eight expansions), and the core gameplay can get a little old after numerous plays. But the fact that each faction combination requires a bit of a different approach, especially when facing off with all the other faction combinations, means the game will not often be played by rote. It also makes it worth picking up at least some of the expansions, while the number of expansions means a person can pick and choose which look the most interesting.
Overall, Smash Up is a good game with more depth than a person might initially think. A lot of people will like it, but it may be worth trying to play the game before buying it to make sure it’s your type of thing.