Who It’s For:
My Number Beats Your Number, time-filler, pop-culture blends
The Actual Review:
The TL;DR may have given you a hint, but I feel I should explore and explain the game before just rating or slating it.
So what is Smash Up? Well to quote the box, it’s a “shufflebuilding game of total awesomeness”. More specifically it’s a 2012 competetive card game by Paul Peterson for 2-4 players, all duking it out to be the first to fifteen victory points. It gets it’s name and main idea from the numerous decks of cards which come in the box, each with their own faction. There are eight base factions in the core game – and with an intimidating six expansions, that number can get a lot higher, but the game is still the same. Each faction has it’s own cards, it’s own flavour and it’s own mechanical theme. Ninjas destroy things and can switch around, ghosts can make use of their discard pile, and so on. To start the game, every player picks two factions and shuffles the two 20 card decks together to create a unique deck. A sort of smash-up if you will, aha. So you could be Plant-Ghosts, or Steampunk-Bears.
You start with 5 cards in hand, and every turn you can play up to one action, and one minion. Then you draw two cards, and it’s the next players go. Minions have a power, and often some kind of effect. You choose which base to play your minion at, and who to target with it’s effect, if valid. Actions are more widespread in scope and can do anything from destroy a minion, to a base-effect that adds an additional rule to that base until it is scored, to letting you move your minions around – letting you redeploy your forces. And of course, because each deck has it’s own particular inclinations, your smash-up will have it’s own quirks of interaction and combos.
Ok, you’ve got your Pirate-Pixies or whatever, now what? Well, you are fighting over special cards called Bases. At the start of the game, a number of base cards are laid out equal to the number of players, plus one. So with four players, there are five bases. Each base has a break-point, three victory point values, and usually a special rule. These are the battlefields you will be scrapping over. Each base remains in play until the the total strength of all minions at that base hits (or exceeds) the break-point. As soon as it does, the each player adds up the total strength of their minions at that base, and the first, second and third highest number of points score the first, second and third victory point values on that base card. Ordinarily, as you might imagine, higher is better, so being first might mean you get 5 victory points, second getting 3 and third getting 1. Occasionally a base card will be a little more nuanced and whoever comes second will get the most VPs, leading to potential for a little more finesse in your fight.
For the most part though, bigger is always better, and it’s the special base effect that is what gives the base it’s twist. The Field Of Honour, for example, gives 1 VP to anyone who kills someone elses minion at that base, turning it into constant warzone. These special base effects have the potential to drastically alter the dynamic of the game.
So far, I’ve been describing the game without really digging in. Now you know how to play, I’m going to tell you why you shouldn’t.
Firstly, Smash Up tries to get around having a tight rules system by having every card do a different thing. What that means, in practicality, is that you have to read every single card you draw and every card every other player plays in order to properly play the game. I am sure, with time, that you would develop a knowledge of this and it’s not fair to rag on a game just for having special cards that all do different things – look at Magic: The Gathering, look at Android: Netrunner. The difference is those games have a few different types of cards, and then those special cards are variations and riffs on those types. In Smash Up, the cards are the game. In M:TG or Netrunner or any one of the hundreds of other good card-based games, you can always do things. If you have no hand, your options are limited sure, you’re on the back foot, but with mind games and clever play you’ve still got a lot to do. With Smash Up, if you don’t have a minion in your hand, that’s 50% of your turn that’s obsolete. If you don’t have a useful Action, well you’d better just miss a turn. Nothing you can do. The cards in your hand are all you have to play with. You don’t interact with anyone elses cards other than to dick them over, and you sure has hell don’t interact with any other player. It is the loneliest group game I’ve played in a long time. The real knife-twist with this part is that you didn’t even build your deck. For all that the game bills itself as a “shufflebuilder”, it’s not even that. You pick two things and bang them together. You don’t choose what’s in those decks. You literally pick the best thing (which is always very obviously, the best thing), play the best thing. There’s no interaction, there’s no counterplay. These cards have strategy in the same way a toddler’s playground does:
“Ha, my thing did a thing to your thing which means I win!”
“Can I do anything about it?”
“No! And you smell!”
Secondly, why are there so many bases? When we first started to play, the rule that made me sit up and take notice was the idea that there are a number of bases, and you have to choose where to play things – it felt like it would allow a lot of back and forth, a lot of tactical choice. But with four players there are five bases, which means you never have to fight. In fact, if you ever do get into a fight, it’s usually just better to start targeting a different base. Imagine watching a boxing match where the ring is 100 foot square. Sure, the boxers can come together, but there’s just too much space. Without the real threat of conflict, there’s no competition. And since any base gets replaced as soon as it is scored, it’s not even like the battlefield gets more intense as the game goes along. So in a game that already has the strategy of a four year old, you don’t even have to interact (and I use that word scathingly) with anyone else most of the time.
Thirdly, and possibly the most damning thing of all. Why the hell is the game so long? If a base gives (on average) four VPs to whoever comes first, they need to come first in four bases, which is unlikely. A game this thin should last twenty minutes, tops. As it is, it lasts about an hour and a half. An hour and a sodding half. It is no exaggeration to say that in the game I played, three out of the four players were actively trying to lose the game by the end. We didn’t care who won, as long as someone won. In the end, I won the game – and quite far from not caring, I hadn’t even been trying to win for over an hour. I won because my cards had the bigger numbers, and I happened to draw them. Not because of any skill, and certainly not because of my efforts.
Smash Up is bad. Ludicrously bad. It’s quite demoralizing, in this golden age of board gaming to come across a game with such poor design. There is no reason this game should exist and it contains no redeeming merit. Do not buy it. Do not play it. Do not even look at it. Smash Up may well be the worst game I have played in my life. Ever.