Everywhere you look there’s deckbuilding games coming out of the walls. They’re all over the place and seemingly every company has either got one (or more) out or has one on the way. AEG, no stranger to deckbuilders themselves thanks to the rather splendid Thunderstone, have noticed this and are now dipping their toe in a slightly different stretch of water – something called “shufflebuilding”. It’s quick. It’s dirty. It’s Smash Up.
The premise is simple; score points by dominating various bases by playing Minions and Actions from your hand of cards – once a base’s defence level has been equalled or surpassed by the total power of the Minions attached to it, you work out who scores what. Decks are created by taking two different factions from the available eight, each of which is made up of twenty cards and represents a different and much beloved internet trope. Shuffle your now forty-card deck and you’ve got your tools of destruction which could be Robot Ninjas, Zombie Dinosaurs or something else equally curious.
Each faction attempts to reflect their “real world” powers through their cards – Zombies, for example, have an annoying tendancy of being retrieved from the discard pile, while the Aliens destroy everything that moves as they attempt to dominate everything. However, a faction’s abilities aren’t limited just to its brethren – Trickster Zombies will be able to resurrect leprechauns as well as the undead – and here’s where one of the fun bits of Smash Up comes in. Working out the combinations and seeing who works best with who, as well as which matches you utterly hate, will take you plenty of time. With so much potential for expansion – and you know there will be more Smash Up soon. Just look at the box with all of its tantalisingly empty slots craving more decks – it feels like the game is already here to stay.
Gameplay couldn’t be simpler – initially, anyway. Every turn allows you to play a card of each kind from your hand, Minion and Action, then draw two more from your stack. Run out of cards and you shuffle the discard pile, ready to begin again. The trick comes in to using the many abilities that you’ll find on the cards. That basic “play a couple of cards” rule can soon mutate into something a lot bigger as you manage to chain together card after card, laying out more and more and more. You’ll destroy opposition Minions, remove ongoing enemy Actions and – with a bit of decent play – soon wonder where the hell all your cards went.
Another thing to consider is that each Base also has its own ability that will encourage players to approach it in different ways. Some are simple enough – whoever has the largest presence scores the highest, for example. Some are trickier, such as the Mall where Victory Points are handed out for every Minion present instead of rewarding whoever is in control (and it’s particularly lucrative if you’ve got lots of low value creatures to get rid of). Others are just plain mean, invoking destruction aplenty and offering lots of opportunity for screwage if you don’t pay attention.
Once someone hits the magic fifteen points, everything’s over – then it’s time to separate the decks and fire it up all over again, because that’s the kind of game this is. Like I said earlier, it’s quick and dirty fun that shouldn’t to be taken too seriously and is filled with utter glorious ridiculousness. Even novice players will get into it in next to no time, though it does take a while to get your head around the huge array of powers you’ll find yourself holding at the start of each turn. Give it a couple of games and things start to click, then the fun really starts as everyone throws themselves into being as confrontational as possible.
It’s pretty obvious that I really do enjoy this game, but there’s one major thing missing: there’s no way to keep track of how much you’ve scored. Sure, this doesn’t matter if you’re a proper nerd who has a pot of glass beads to keep a tally (ahem) but not everyone is as organised (or tragic) as that. Once a base is scored, the card is discarded and you have to scribble down who gained what. It feels like a bit of an oversight – when you’re throwing cards out all over the place, it can be very easy to forget exactly how much you’ve scored and if you’re playing this with kids (a perfect audience for Smash Up) there’s always the chance that they’ll be… well, less than truthful. Perhaps there’s a chance there’ll be tokens or cards in the upcoming expansion, but for now make sure you’ve at least got a pencil and paper handy.
Also, sadly, it doesn’t feel as much fun if you’re only playing with two. I’m the kind of person who normally loves the whole “beating up on the other player” shtick, but for some reason, Smash Up just doesn’t feel the same as when you’re facing off against two or three other people. Perhaps it’s the fact that you get more of a sense of satisfaction when you’re smacking more people down, but yeah… with two, I’m not really feeling it.
Aside from those minor issues, Smash Up is pretty damn good. It’s also very well produced for a simple card game – excellent card stock with great artwork throughout – and the rules are so straightforward it can be explained in minutes. Those who suffer from Analysis Paralysis may not be the best opponents to sit down against as they’ll invariably spend every turn attempting to work out their optimal play, but if you’re looking for a fun and light gameplay experience mixed in with some properly nasty moments, this is certainly one to seek out – just make sure you’ve got at least three people sitting around the table!
Smash Up was designed by Paul Peterson and should be available from your local game store now. Between two and four can play and games will take between thirty and forty-five minutes. It’s published by AEG and will set you back around £24, but you can pick it up from Gameslore for £18.99.