Review: Smash Up17 Oct 2017 0
Review: Smash Up
Released 12 Oct 2017
In a battle between Wizard Geeks and Alien Dinosaurs, who would win? Smash Up settles the issue of this unlikely clash and many others besides by combining individual factions and seeing the resulting decks duke it out over bases. AEG's iconic card game sees players mix-and-match kitschy twenty-card sets to assert power and stake claim on locations, racing to the victory threshold of fifteen points. It is a little less zany than it sounds, and while the cards make for sudden and surprising swings in balance, the game overall is as much about efficiency and card advantage as it is about combos and timely top-decking.
I can unambiguously say that the app is my preferred way to play the game, and further that the game itself is as endearing as ever.
The full ruleset is not much more involved than the brief presented above. Players draft faction choices, picking their first in turn order, then the second in reverse turn order. After finalizing the combo du jour, each player draws a five-card starting hand, and starting bases (equal to the number of players plus one) are dealt to the central play area. After this brief setup, players simply alternate turns in order until one of them breaks fifteen points, after which the victor is crowned. A player elects on their turn to play up to one action card and one minion card, then checks the bases for scoring breakpoints and draws two cards. That's it.
Beyond the flow of an ordinary turn, players also need to keep track of minions, whose power total will determine who scores first place on bases, and the various effects, one-time or persistent, of the action cards. At the end of a turn, any bases with minions whose combined power exceeds the printed breakpoint value on the base score. Points are distributed to the players with the first, second, and third greatest power totals, then those minions are discarded along with the base, which is replaced with a fresh one.
Thus this card battler is more akin to area control or influence games than straight-up last-man-standing direct combat. The power curve of each faction deck is normalized, with the average generic faction having ten minions and ten actions and the average minion relatively constant across decks. Beyond that balanced baseline, however, each deck sees its cheeseball theme translated to a few key mechanics. Dinosaurs have strong, simplistic high-impact cards; Wizards focus on barrages of action cards and combo play; Zombies revive their minions from beyond the grave; Aliens bounce minions to hands using UFO beams. The individual decks are distinct and satisfying in their unique styles of play, each with its own strengths and drawbacks.
This is no mean feat, but the full measure of Smash Up lies in the many possible pairings between factions. The base game when it was first released five years ago had eight decks, which from a practical standpoint meant that four-player games were necessarily limited by hard physical constraints. Only one Alien deck means the first player to snatch them can monopolize the guaranteed bonus points from their Colonize mechanic. Four-player matches were especially narrow. Duplication is impossible, which in turn limits the number of possible combinations and the drafting metagame.
Thankfully, in the app everyone can play as Robot Ninjas if they so desire, which makes for a wider strategic space and greater replayability. Since the original, Smash Up has received ten full expansions adding dozens of new factions, all of which will hopefully cross over to the app someday. Until then, the base game seems a bit plain compared to its physical counter-part, though this stripped-down quality makes for an excellent introduction.
The transition to digital highlights other strengths as well. One of the most common complaints levelled against the game is its backbone of incessant, banal arithmetic. In order to arrive at the game's interesting decision points, players must first slog through constantly shifting card interactions and power totals. Planning a full turn as a Ninja expecting to sweep first in that hotly-contested base is an empty achievement if the calculations are off by even a single point. Happily, the game dynamically updates these totals and rankings effortlessly, which frees up quite a bit of mental bandwidth. Lastly, the AI presents a robust and worthwhile foe, and online multiplayer is decent even if thoughtlessly gated behind a third-party account login.
Unfortunately, the digital game offsets the improvements mentioned earlier with some inconveniently executed interface elements. Routine card effects, like destroying a minion or searching the top of the deck, have become needlessly protracted affairs. Anything which targets a specific game element usually requires several taps and confirmations. The app has made the tiresome bits breezy and the straightforward bits tedious. Last but not least, the cards themselves are laughably small simulacra of their analog predecessors, and as a result difficult to scan or select. For no particular reason, Smash Up slavishly reproduces the visual presentation of its original form to its detriment even as it innovates past some of the tabletop's limitations.
Smash Up is the sort of experience which benefits from eventually becoming an unruly sprawl, from the increased incidence of outliers as the cards recombine in unusual interactions. Eventually the app will be able to manage all of the game's numerous factions effortlessly, but until that point, the initial showing is a little thin on the ground, in terms of content. A deeper objection arises from the balance of long-term planning and off-the-cuff improvisation, which might irk players expecting a deeply strategic or meritorious game. Still, the central premise of Smash Up remains accessible and interesting, if only up to a point. It shines best in individual moments, which taken together combine to yield some good old-fashioned drama.