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Wrecking Faces and Smashing Bases – A review of SMASH UP

“Everybody wants to rule the world” – Tears for Fears
This post, like the post about The Resistance, is kind of a late GenCon report.
My first exposure to Smash Up was very short lived. One day I was logging some playtest results for Thunderstone and I saw a new playtest forum for a game code-named “PANZeR” (or something like that) It was an acronym for Pirates, Aliens, Ninjas, Zombies, Robots.” That’s what I knew about the game. The codename.  That’s all it took for me to want in. Talk about tapping the nerdy zeitgeist!
So I made my plea, that I was not on Playtest for that game but I was very interested in splitting my time into even smaller less manageable splinters to be a part of this. The next day the forum was gone (or, more appropriately, my access/ability to see it was removed).
Some months later, GenCon is upon us. The secret game whose treehouse I was denied entry to was now called Smash Up and it was rumored to be a darling of the convention. After just one play, I can definitely see why.
So, the basic concept is that there are 8 super geeky groups all vying for dominance. Unfortunately, none of them are strong enough by themselves to take over, so in the effort to establish global control, strange bedfellows are made. You’ll be fighting other similarly joined factions. The age old question of who wins Pirates vs. Ninjas does not go answered in this game (SPOILER: It’s Ninjas), but now you CAN see what would happen when these two join forces. Each player will take their ill-conceived team up and fight over the bases which score points. First player to 15 points has proven themselves simply a higher quality human being than the other players. Or they just win the game. Your choice.
The way you get there is pretty straightforward. In a player’s turn they can play a Minion, an Action, both, or neither in any order they choose. When you play a card, you do what the card says, which is, again, really straightforward. Actions go away unless they say otherwise, Minions stick around to contribute to the fall of society.
Each of our eight are a very iconic entity to themselves, but the real fun of the game comes in the forced blending of themes.
Here’s a brief look at the factions in the base set (I say base set not because I have any insider knowledge – I don’t – see above – jerks – but because this game SCREAMS expansion.)

Bold sauce, at that.

Pirates: Y’arr! Pirates have the most movement options open to them. Typically speaking, once a Minion is placed somewhere, it’s there until the Base is smashed, so in a game that is pretty much about area control through numbers, the ability to move from area to area is a great premium indeed. The scallywags also come with a handful of fairly useful actions to send their opponents to Davey Jones’ locker. 

Aliens: The most prominent theme with the Aliens is their ability to return Minions to their owner’s hands. This can cause significant Power swings on bases, and also allows you to double dip on Minion entering play effects. More killings for the Ninjas, more bending the laws of reality for the Wizards, etc. Their greatest combo I’ve seen so far comes from within their own ranks, a Minion who scores a Victory Point when you play him. Follow this up with some effect that brings him back to your hand, and you’ve got a non-violent Victory Point generator. Non-violent for you, I should clarify. Your opponents will be falling all over themselves to punch this combo in the face.
Dinosaurs – WITH LASERS: I think we can all agree that: Dinosaurs are cool. Lasers are cool. Ergo, Dinosaurs with Lasers are totally bitchin. Unsurprisingly, the schtick for the Dinosaurs is that they are huge. Their minions are pound for pound bigger than the other factions, but they’re also considerably less subtle. Their actions make big things bigger, or punish other things for not being as big. Seeing as in most cases, higher points are rewarded for having the most power on a base when it collapses, Dinosaurs skew towards high points, at the cost of not actually doing much.

Just to give you some ideas…

Wizards – Wizards, masters of the unknown! Wizards, who control forces that we can scarcely imagine! If you like taking Actions, Wizards are for you. If you like seeing more of your cards, Wizards will make that happen. While they are far from the most brutish of the eight, they make up for it in how many cards they can tear through. Wizards tend to slow the game down just a bit, because while everyone else is taking a standard Minion-Action-Draw-Go turn, you’re taking a Minion That Gives Me An Extra Action-Action to Search My Deck-Plus This Other Guy Who Gives Me Another Action- Which I Used To Play An Action That Gives Me Another Minion- Oh Look It’s That Guy Who Gives Me More Actions turn. Be prepared for eyerolls.

Tricksters – Tricksters are the Sorcerers to the Wizard’s…Wizards. They are also all about magic…carefully applied to do as much damage as possible. Tricksters blow stuff up, set deadly traps, force discards and all sorts of nastiness. The Wizards may make you eyeroll with the length and complexity of their turns, Tricksters make you eyeroll by making your own turns considerably more lengthy and complicated. Playing against Tricksters is like dancing in a minefield.
Ninjas – I bet you expected these to be saved for last. Which is exactly why they weren’t there. Ninjas are mammals. Ninjas fight ALL the time. The purpose of the ninja is to flip out and kill people. In addition to flipping out and killing people (which they are exceptionally good at) Ninjas are good at sneaky maneuvers. Switching Minions around, having Minions jump onto a base right before it scores, possibly swinging them into high scoring position, and other sorts of shenanigans you’d expect from assassins in black pajamas. I mean, from inconspicuous hedges.

Robots? Yes. Ninjas? Yes. Robot Ninjas? Sorry, Charlie. No dice.

Robots – Ninjas may be masters of deception, but they are closely followed by Robots. Robots, who will always outnumber you. Robots, who only rarely have just  the power they appear to have. Robots, who travel in single file to conceal their numbers. Wait, no, that’s Sand People. They’re shifty as hell too. It seems that most of the Robot Minions come standard equipped with the ability to play more minions, so don’t be shocked if bases quickly go from ghost towns to robotic frat parties.

Zombies – Trailing last, shambling forward with a grim unstoppable certainty are the Zombies. Predictably, the thing with Zombies is that killing them doesn’t do any damn good. There are more of them than there are of you and their graveyard has a revolving door. Zombies are a right pain in the ass to play against, not only because of their own recursion, but because of the recursion they lend to their partners. Of course, this is speculation, as I have yet to play a game where I get to draft Zombies. They’re always the first to go, which could mean that they’re maybe a bit on the broken side, or that I have AMC’s The Walking Dead to blame. I blame that for everything else, so what’s one more thing?
Smash Up is a really great game. It teaches super quickly (only Infinite City teaches faster), and is great fun to play. This is the only game I’ve ever encountered where just the barest concept was enough to get people on board. The interesting part is, it’s not even the scoring or winning that is interesting at all. In fact, the part of the game that determines a winner is solidly background noise. The heart and the soul of the game is the fun of the interactions between the factions. It’s fun to come up with neat combos, it’s fun to imagine how the factions are interacting with each other. Eventually, someone scores some points and wins, and you’re ready to go again.

The button speaketh the truth.

Replayability is enhanced not only by the number of combinations, but the number of opposing combinations. You may think that you’ve stumbled onto the unbeatable combo (Zombies/Robots, anyone?) (and for the record, if you let this combo happen, you deserve what you get) but it may only work in that one game. You beat the tar out of Ninjas and Wizards, but what happens when Ninjas start sneaking gigantic Dinosaurs WITH LASERS into the bases you’ve worked hard to take down?

The gameplay is quick, easy and fun, and with the simplicity of the game and the notion that even non-gamers can get onboard with these factions, this one is a solid winner.
AEG really knocked it out of the park with Smash Up, but I do have a solitary complaint, and it’s that once sleeved, the cards don’t fit into their slots in the box anymore. You can spread them across multiple slots, but what happens when expansions come out? (the only reason to have more slots than necessary in the first place). A very minor quibble to a pretty awesome game.  

3 thoughts on “Wrecking Faces and Smashing Bases – A review of SMASH UP

  1. I disagree with you – Pirates are better than Ninjas. Ninjas have some weak actions and more small minions than the pirates too.

    A large part of the charm in Smash Up is picking your team. As you say, Zombies are “clearly” the most powerful, but I’ve lost with zombies and beaten zombies. Sometimes, I will just take a (seemingly) less powerful option to try something new, and find out it worked better than I thought. It’s hard to end up with a bad team.

    1. You’re wrong for two reasons, Curt. First, it was always a debate of cool, never a debate of effectiveness. Ninjas are exponentially cooler than Pirates. Secondly, Smash Up fails to answer the question effectively because the two will never be able to square off solo.

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