Everybody Shuffling – A Smash Up Review

From time to time in this great hobby, I come across a company that seems to be firing on all cylinders, cranking out hit after hit and yet I find it difficult to join the loving throng. AEG is, unfortunately, one of those companies. Don’t get me wrong, I love AEG and the people behind the scenes, but time after time I’ve given the big games a shot and time after time I just don’t seem to be part of their key demographic. For instance, Thunderstone was promised by many to be the game that brought me back around to appreciate deckbuilders; in the end – when every game lasted more than two hours or more – it couldn’t deliver. Nightfall held a similar promise, and although I could appreciate the unique chaining system and the high player interaction, it wasn’t enough to convert me. Infinite City, Tomb? No and no. And, so, I continued to admire the passion, love for the hobby and attention to quality that seemed to thrive at AEG without feeling quite that same admiration for many of their premiere titles.

Then I was sent Smash Up. And now I feel like I want to take AEG by the hand and frolic in a patch of sun-drenched daisies.

The premise of Smash Up is dead simple: Take two really geeky factions with unique abilities like, say, Ninjas and Pirates, shuffle them together and then duke it out with one to three other conjoined factions over several faction-themed bases which are worth points. The first team to reach 15 points is the winner. See? Dead simple.

The rules for Smash Up aren’t much more complicated than the premise. Each turn, a player may play an Action and a Minion from his hand in whatever order he pleases. When a player plays an Action, he follows the usually-straightforward directions on the card and places it somewhere – typically in his discard, but occasionally on another card in play or on a base. Actions depend greatly on the factions being played, but many of them are typical of things like “draw two cards” and “return a Minion played on a base to its owner’s hand.” Some Actions can be played to create a handy combo that may result in getting more cards and then playing more cards in the same turn.

All your base... you know the rest.

Minions are played in front of a base. Each minion has a number that indicates strength, and their underlying function is to pile up on a base so that the player controlling the minion can break the base, scoring points. A base is broken when the total strength of all minions on the base from each player exceeds the break value. Typically, the player with Minions equalling the total greatest strength scores the biggest points on the base after it’s broken, but there are special bases that may award the most points to the second-highest total strength or the players who had the most Minions in play there. Some Minions also have a special ability that is activated when they enter play or when something happens during a game, such as when a base is broken.

One of Smash Up‘s greatest strengths – and, really, the heart of its core mechanic – lies in the interaction between the factions, both smashed up in one player’s deck as well as across the table. Since each faction has a certain strength and a different style of play each game can be pretty unpredictable. However, it’s incredibly fun to see the small surges of chaos that occur, especially when you’re playing two factions that you have yet to combine. Let’s take a look at the factions in the base game and what sort of mischief at which they’re best:

Dinosaurs – with lasers!

The Dinosaurs are the most straightforward of all the factions. Basically, they have lots of minions, and they’re all big. Like, really big. The biggest hoss, the T-Rex, has strength of 7. Trust me when I say that’s really, really big. They’re not really all that sneaky, and most of their actions only act to reinforce how big they are, but you can almost certainly rely on them for not only breaking bases, but obliterating them for the first place points.

Pirates

The Pirates are seemingly one of the most reliable factions, with medium-strength minions and lots of handy actions. Their biggest strength is in maneuverability; typically when a player commits a minion to a base, they’re stuck there until that base is broken and then the minions are placed in the player’s discard pile. The Pirates can usually beat that, with minions that can shift around the table and actions that can save them once a base is broken. The only drawback to the Pirates faction seems to lie in a two-player game when playing minions on multiple bases is far less likely.

Ninjas

It will come as no surprise to most when I say that Ninjas are sneaky. But they are – incredibly sneaky. Most of their minions have some sort of sneaky power built in, and their actions are so sneaky that you’re almost surprised that the card doesn’t just appear on the table in a puff of smoke. One of the sneakiest things that Ninjas can do is pop up out of turn on top of a base as it’s being broken, usually giving the Ninjas the upper hand and, therefore, the most break points. There are typically lots of curses around the table when the Ninjas are in play.

Aliens

I will admit fully that the Aliens are my favorite faction to play. They have a good mix of medium-strength minions, many of which have some really fun and quirky abilities that make for interesting combos. They can also mess with other players quite a bit, with minion powers and actions that can return minions to owner’s hands. That power is particularly enjoyable when combined with the Alien minion that immediately grants a victory point. Simply play him to a base, return him to your hand, rinse and repeat! Guaranteed hilarity, and lots of threats of opponent violence.

Tricksters

The amount of mischief that the Aliens can cause to opponents is mere child’s play compared to the Tricksters. They don’t have terribly strong minions, but their actions are designed to wreak maximum havoc on the table. With tons of actions that can protect their minions and minion presence on bases – think “touch my gnome and I’ll blow you up with dynamite” – combined with a tendency toward violent practical jokes, the Tricksters are for those players who not only aren’t afraid of the occasional punch in the face, but who actually welcome it!

Wizards

The Wizards are masters at deck manipulation. Want to draw five cards in a single turn? Try the Wizards. Want to summon a minion, then search your deck for another minion and play it immediately? Try the Wizards. Want to make your opponents pull out their hair while you take five minutes to take your turn because your hand is so full of fun and interesting cards to play? Try the Wizards. Seriously, they’re pretty awesome. And a totally pain in the butt to play against.

Robots

Speaking of a total pain in the butt, meet the Robots. They have minions – lots and lots of minions. Most of them are pretty weak, but they more than make up for it in numbers. They’re a lot like cockroaches; if you see one of them, chances are there are thousands more behind the walls. Robots often have the ability to summon more than one minion in a turn, and quite often those extra minions also give the other minions a +1 to strength. So, yeah – Johnny Five is quite alive, and he brought 700 of his closest friends.

Zombies

The Zombies play almost exactly as you would expect; no Zombie minion is likely to stay dead for too long. Most of the minions are on the weaker side, but they tend to swarm and there’s practically no fear of them getting blown up during a base break or from some sneaky action card of another opponent. In fact, as a Zombie player, you want your minions to start dying off in droves so you can bring them back in larger numbers!

As fun as Smash Up can be – and make no mistake, Smash Up is plenty fun – the game is not without its drawbacks. First of all, there’s math involved. Every time someone plays a minion to a base, everyone has to do a quick total strength calculation to see if the break point has been reached. This doesn’t typically slow the game down by much, but it’s a minor irritation for those of us who are, shall we say, not Rain Man. One other slight drawback comes from some analysis paralysis that may occur in a few gamers who have a handful of cards and no clear plan in how to play them. For the most part this is mitigated because of the lighthearted nature of the game and the fact that the overall rules are very straightforward. And, finally, as with any card game where random distribution abides, there will be a few times in many games when you just can’t do what you really want to do. For most gamers, that feeling will soon pass when you manage to do something ultra mega cool that makes everyone at the table go “whoaaaa.”

Overall, though, Smash Up is smashing good fun, especially among gamers who can relax, revel in the sheer audacity of some stupid-good plays, and aren’t ashamed to let loose and let their geek flags fly.

Gameplay/ReplayComponents & ThemeFun
Smash Up is truly one of the easiest games to learn, play and, later, teach that I've come across in quite some time. With such easy-to-grasp rules and a streamlined turn sequence, one would think I would be hard-pressed not to give the game a full six rating in Gameplay. However, because of the sometimes-complex interactions between factions and the occasional vagaries of card play according to the in-game text, players will experience some hiccups during play. These hiccups are also often not clarified in the rulebook. However, these instances are typically few and far between, and most game groups can just agree with a vote as to how to proceed. Replayability for Smash Up is off the charts; most gamers won't encounter the exact same card mix when playing the same two factions, and even then, they have eight factions to smash together, with plenty more on the way! The card stock is excellent and easy to shuffle and handle. The art and design are both fantastic, with easy-to-read card text - a stunning feat considering that each faction has it's own theme-appropriate typography! Overall, the theme is engrossing, even if there's no real story as to why each of these factions are fighting over the particular bases. But, there really doesn't need to be; the game isn't intended to be taken very seriously - it's more an homage and anthem to all things geeky, and it succeeds in delivering the goods without pandering to the players.More fun than a barrel of cybernetic alien monkeys flinging ironclad poo at ninja pirate zombies riding dinosaurs. Seriously.
Overall score: 16 out of 18 Proof that you don't have to spend a whole game building a deck to enjoy a good card game.

Smash Up is a game for 2 to 4 gamer geeks, by Paul Peterson for AEG. It’s set to hit stores in September for about $30, so ask your friendly local game store to save you a copy!

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Comments
5 Responses to “Everybody Shuffling – A Smash Up Review”
  1. My favorite game of GenCon. Thanks for sharing it with me, Chris. Great review, too. Nailed the good and noted the itty bit of bad (or at least annoying).

  2. Matt Riddle says:

    I do NOT like Smash UP. At all. BUT let me be clear the problem is me and not the game. It was fun I guess. I just cant handle that many cards being tossed around. I like the chicken aspect of the base fighting. A lot actually. As a core mechanic, its really sound. The idea of being handed a pile of cards and “Do your best!!” I do not like so much. Its just a litle too crazy and a little to errr i dont know, a little too somthing else. In deck builders you can blame the draw, BUT atleast you picked the dang cards!

    Smash up deserves its success. Its cool, its apealing, and I think I can see the fun especially as AEG pushes out mine deck expansions and you get to play Cthulu Wolves against Robot Zombies and Space Nuns (I mean, if I was doing smash up , I would do a nun deck). I can see the fun for people that are not me I mean :)

  3. Brian Frahm says:

    Great “commentary” (wink-wink) on Smash-Up! I enjoyed playing it at GenCon, and not buying it at GenCOn is one of my few regrets from that weekend (aside from sleep deprivation).

  4. Patrick says:

    Great review Chris. I’ve got a couple plays under my belt and I’m really enjoying it. What I like most is that it is worker placement, area control all done with cards. It’s a super clever game and one that I think has a tremendous amount of depth for a game of its kind.

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