Blue Peg, Pink Peg Minority Report is an occasional review series where I gush about games that the Pegs hate.
A good, opponent-ravaging combo can reveal itself like the elegant solution to a complicated equation. As a non-mathematician, I can attest to the satisfaction you feel when something that previously made no sense suddenly resolves itself in a way that feels almost inevitable. Smash Up! gives you an opportunity to experience that feeling – and the accompanying chance to gloat – with a straightforward card game mechanic and a dizzying variety of ways to combine factions and their thematically-appropriate rule-breaking powers.
Smash Up! is a deckbuilding game (it refers to itself as a shufflebuilding game) for 2 to 5 players, where players will form a deck of 28 cards from two of the game’s multitudinous factions. Players will compete to break bases by playing minions and actions from their hands, developing powerful offensive and defensive combos that interact with other players in a surprising variety of ways. At the time of this writing, Smash Up! consists of a core set with 8 factions, four expansions that contain four factions each (Awesome Level 9000, The Obligatory Cthulhu Expansion, Science Fiction Double Feature, the recent Monster Smash and the upcoming Pretty, Pretty Smash-Up), and a Big Geeky Box expansion that is primarily a storage solution for the cards but also contains a single new faction, The Geeks. The review will touch briefly on all the Smash Up! releases to date.
The game starts with each player choosing two factions to combine into her deck. There are a number of ways to go about this – we’ve used everything from random assignment, to a drafting mechanic, to simply choosing what we’ve wanted. Once the factions are selected, a number of Base cards will be played on the table – one more base than there are players. Players will shuffle their starting deck, draw 5 cards, and begin play.
Decks consist of two types of cards: Minions and Actions. In general, Minions have a power score that is counted against a Base’s breaking score. Actions have a number of effects – from modifying a Minion’s power score, to affecting how cards may be played against bases, to moving, modifying, or discarding another player’s cards. At the end of a player’s turn, each Base is checked to see if it is broken; that is, if the sum of all Minion’s power scores played on that base meet or exceed the Base’s break score. If a base is broken, players receive victory points according to each base’s scoring range. Generally, there is a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place score on each base, based on which player has the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd highest total Minion value.
If this brings a player’s total score to 15 or above, the game ends (though this may not mean this player wins – see the reference to Madness cards later in the review). If there is no winner, the broken Base is discarded and a new one is drawn. The active player draws two cards, and play then continues clockwise.
That’s it. The mechanics of the game itself are incredibly straightforward. It’s the rulebreaking mechanics of individual cards that make the game incredibly rich and dynamic.
If you’ve listened to the podcast you know that the Pegs are not fond of Smash Up!. Well – and there’s really not a nuanced or diplomatic way to say this – they’re wrong. Flat out wrong. I first saw Smash Up! At Gen Con 2012 and was not that intrigued. I’m suspicious of deckbuilding games in general, having been burned – emotionally and financially – by Magic: The Gathering in my youth. I ended up picking up a copy as a Christmas gift for a friend, since I had read that Smash Up played well with two players and he had been looking for some two player games to play with his wife. Eventually, he broke it out and taught me, and I fell hard. I picked up the core set and the first two expansions almost immediately, and have been a first adopter of the subsequent three expansions.
As mentioned in the rules, the mechanics of the game are incredibly simple. The fun and challenge of the game comes from the factions – each of which has a unique play style, art style, and power set. This makes for a game with a massive amount of variation – there are 276 potential faction combinations across all available expansions as of this writing, so you can imagine that no two play sessions will be alike. This allows the game to scale very well – I have mostly played two players, but have logged many games of three or more players and noticed no real change in the game. Because of this scalability and the permutations of factions, this game has one of the highest – if not the highest – levels of variability out of any game in my collection.
Game components consist of the cards themselves and victory point tokens. The tokens – small cardboard discs – have art styles that match the expansion they are distributed with. The tokens in the Cthulhu set, for example, bear tentacles grasping at the number on the token. The box the core set comes in has enough slots to hold the core factions and the factions contained in the next three expansions. By the time you get to Monster Smash, you are better off getting the Big Geeky Box (or your own storage solution), though at $14.99 the Big Geeky Box is a steal and offers more than enough space to handle future expansions for years to come. The game art is gorgeous, varied, and often hilarious. Some of the factions are played straight – Ninjas and Pirates look like ninjas and pirates, for example, and the zombies look like zombies. In others, they are played for ridiculousness or camp. In the Dino faction, for example, the dinosaurs all bear lasers and mechanical armor. The new vampire expansion features characters resembling the traditional Count as well as Elvira and Blacula. In a few cases I think the theme fell flat – the Spies faction relies too heavily on James Bond images and jokes, the Time Travelers faction is a 70s theme that I guess is OK but for some reason did not click with me, and the Investigators faction from The Obligatory Cthulhu set was built entirely around Scooby Doo jokes that just didn’t work given the straight-faced approach to the other factions in the expansion.
Where the theme shines is in the unique mechanics each faction brings to the game. I have been pleased and surprised at how much variation AEG has gotten out of such a simple set of mechanics, and how each faction manages to pull off a set of powers that fits perfectly with their theme. The Wizards, for example, have cards that allow them to play additional actions and minions, allowing them to build powerful combos given the right partner faction. The Zombies, as you might imagine, simply keep coming back – once killed they are easy to retrieve from the discard pile and get back in play. Pirates are mobile, swinging from base to base. The Bear Cavalry are masters at moving people away from them, while the Aliens are master of beaming people to them. The Cthulhu expansion introduced a Madness card mechanic that can reduce the effectiveness of an opponent’s deck while also threatening to reduce end-game scoring (a player loses a point for every three Madness cards in their hand, deck, or discard pile, which can result in a player ending the game with 15 points but still losing by the time Madness is figured in). The Monster Smash expansion introduces Power Tokens – essentially, using victory point tokens to assign power bonuses to Minions – but each of the four monster groups uses and moves these tokens in interesting ways entirely appropriate to the faction. Spies allow you to look ahead at you and your opponents’ draw decks, Time Travelers move cards between the draw and discard decks, etc. This is not a comprehensive list of all the factions, but it should give you a sense of the variation that exists. The designers have done a pretty good job of making sure each faction has its own flavor and mechanic so that it doesn’t feel like a reskin of an existing faction, and without adding much in the way of new components to the game. It makes integrating new factions a breeze while adding new play styles to the game.
For the most part, any faction can work with any other faction, though there is a spectrum to how effective any combination might be. I believe Robb’s experience with the game is soured by having played one of the very few combinations that are broken – he had combined a faction that required the player minimizing the number of cards in his hand with a faction that worked best when hand size was maximized, so he was never able to play effectively – but these kinds of interactions are few and far between and, in my mind, offset by the equally occasional truly brilliant grouping.
If there is a major downside to the game is its presence on the table. Organizing and keeping track of factions on each base and modifications made to minions can become messy. In our game, we create snaking lines of minions, one overlapping the other to conserve space, that extend from each of a base’s corner. Sometimes during play the cards get bumped, causing them to get hidden. Minions or Actions with ongoing powers can be difficult to keep track of if their card text has to be covered by another card, and with 3+ players each base will have multiple lines of minions extending from them that can eat up a lot of table space. I’m sure we have miscalulated points or missed using a power because of this.
While the Big Geeky Box is a great deal if you intend on sticking with the game for the long term, I was very disappointed to see that the faction included with it – the Geeks – is a Geek and Sundry licensed product. I think the most interesting part of Smash Up is when it plays around with themes and genres, and the Geeks just feel awfully specific to me. I worry this indicates Smash Up may follow the route of Munchkin – a game I have learned to loathe anyways – opting for licensed properties that require you to understand them and get the “in-joke” to enjoy the game. That said, the Geeks do utilize a pretty interesting mechanic – they make significant use of interrupts, blocking other players’ plays and canceling their cards – with one exception: The Felicia Day minion. Her power causes all minions in play to move to her base, and it smacks of an “OH MY GOSH LOOK ITS A GIRL!” vibe that feels a bit insulting to me. Women in gaming have it hard enough, and when one of the most prominent women in geekdom is assigned a power that boils down to “isn’t she so pretty?” it feels objectifying. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but it just rubbed me a bit wrong – I am raising a gamer daughter, so I am a little more sensitive to how women are portrayed in games. Also, that power kept routing my path to victory on several games in a row, so perhaps I’m just bitter.
This is not a game where you can build a grand strategy, though, carefully crafting a deck of well-balanced powers. It is difficult to build an engine, as Patrick says; basically, you’re stuck with the engine you’re given, and you just need to chug along and enjoy the ride.
Smash Up! is light, irreverent, occasionally hilarious, and sometimes frustrating, but I have yet to play a game I didn’t enjoy. Its excellent artwork, well-crafted themes, and smart mechanics keep the game fresh every time you play, and its variety and reasonable game time will make sure you don’t stay away for long.
Smash Up! makes a great two player game; indeed, I have played it almost exclusively with two players and have never felt the game wasn’t as robust as it could be. It scales up well in terms of play, though beyond three players the physical space the game can take up, and its corresponding fiddliness, can get in the way.
This is one of the best values in gaming. You don’t get a ton of factions in the core set but what you do get can fuel a remarkable number of variations. AEG has done a great job on the expansion front, generally releasing two 4-faction expansions a year that come in at roughly $15 a pop. In fact, before I finished writing this review they had announced “Pretty Pretty Smash Up” for March 2015 . The expansions have been a bit uneven, but they have been consistent in terms of timing.
This is the stuff of geek dreams. Pirates and Ninjas vs. Zombies and Aliens? Man Eating Plants teaming up with Bear Cavalry to take on Elder Things and Time Travelers? Picking your factions is half the fun of the game, even if it turns out that they don’t end up working that well together.
Smash Up! is ultimately a pretty light little game – good for novice gamers and playing with kids, or for when you don’t have time to get into anything too deep. However, I’d love to see the concept explored in a deeper way somehow. There’s a light touch on these various bastions of nerd culture that would be fun to explore as a strategy game.
I think I understand why Robb doesn’t like this game, but I honestly don’t understand the hate from all the rest of the pegs. I have another couple of gaming friends who also don’t like the game on a deep level after only a few plays. This seems to be something that you either like or you don’t – it doesn’t appear that multiple plays either cause you to warm up to it, or to become increasingly annoyed with its flaws to the point of putting it away. Ultimately, I think its the theme that carries it, not the mechanics. If you’re charmed by the theme, you’re going to be pretty forgiving. If the theme doesn’t really do it for you, or you’re less compelled by a game’s theme, I think its (in my opinion few) flaws will be a turn-off.
Review written by Honorary Peg, Jeremy Holmes