Smash Up! A game done right.
I clearly remember playing Smash Up! for the first time back in 2012. It was such an awesome idea! Shuffle two factions into one deck and throw down against one to three other players and their combos: Zombie-Pirates, Alien-Dinosaurs, Trickster-Wizards, or Robot-Ninjas! From the starter box alone there are 28 possible faction pairings. Fast forward to 2017 and Smash Up! remains fun, popular, and fresh with 55 factions and 1,485 possible faction combos. In this first of a series of posts we’ll explore Smash Up! and why it remains a game done right.
Smash Up! has staying power because the basic rules are dead simple to master. I’ve taught dozens of people to play in two minutes flat. It goes like this: 1) Pick two factions. Generally, each faction will have 10 action and 10 minion cards. Shuffle all the cards together to create a 40 card deck. This is ‘shufflebuilding’ aspect of the game. 2) Put bases in play equal to the number of players plus one. The number in the upper left corner on the base is how much minion power you need to break the base to make it score.
3) When a base breaks and final shenanigans are over, players score points corresponding to the big numbers across the middle of the card in descending order from the person with the most power to the one with the least. 4th place? No points for you!
4) On your turn, in any order, play one minion onto a base and one action card. The number of minions you can play during your turn can (and should!) be modified by the special rules on cards and bases.
5) When you’re done draw two cards, discard down to ten, and loudly tell your neighbor to hurry up and play. 6) First person to 15 points wins.
The continued success of Smash Up! is a result of Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) balancing some key ingredients. The tongue-in-cheek humor and silliness that permeates all the Smash Up! releases is kept in check by a core rules system and extensive play testing that allows the content to be fun and silly while the rules mean business. Smash Up! does this so much better than, say, Munchkin or Fluxx which have so much random and silly that the novelty of playing the game wears off quickly, leaving nothing to do but play through retreads of bad jokes and look forward to someone, anyone, winning so the game ends.
They’ve also kept the multitude of factions balanced. There’s no doubt that some faction combos are better than others; however, there’s no deliberate power creep or deckbuilding system that makes players buy the newest expansion in order to remain competitive. In fact, two of the best factions are still found in the original box. Through 55 factions and counting, play remain balanced at both a casual and organized play level.
Tournament wise, AEG’s Smash Up! tournament ‘Queensbury Rules’ are a brilliant balancing mechanism for experienced players. For a four player game, eight factions are laid out and order of choice is randomized. Each player, in order, takes a faction then the last player to choose takes a second faction, and so on (1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1). This simple system means the first player may get the best single faction but, in a game where synergy between factions is everything, they have the least chance to get the best synergy. Arguably, player four has the best chance to nab two factions that are guaranteed to work well together even though individually the two factions might be weak.
Smash Up! has retained its allure because it’s so well-balanced and the basic rules of play-two-cards, draw-two-cards has been applied creatively across dozens of factions. For the moment, however, let’s stick to the original eight factions supplied in the base set box game. Key Minion and Action cards have been selected to show the different focus of each faction.
In the next post we’ll look at how well AEG manages the Smash Up! franchise and jump off into the fantastic range of Smash Up! expansions.