Smash-Up is a card game where you create teams of fantastical creatures by combining two decks and then battle over bases with up to three other people. Robots and Ninjas vs Pirates and Wizards? Sure, why not. It’s an AEG game and the base set comes in a box that currently sells for about £30 – so what’s it like?
The rules of the game are fairly simple but presented in a spectacularly good rulebook that leaves very little ambiguity and tucks in enough clever jokes to keep it entertaining. You pick two separate decks (think Zombies, Robots etc) and put them together to make a 40-card deck to play with. You shuffle them all together, draw 5 for a hand and put three bases from the base deck on the table. You take it in turns, playing a minion and action each turn, to try and take over the bases. Each minion has a power score associated with it and each base has a threshold, once the base reaches that threshold it scores accordingly, usually with the most points going to whoever had the most power. Once someone gets to 15 power they win.
It sounds simple but as always the devil is in the details. Nearly every card does something to the game. It might be as simple as increasing the power of the card, or being indestructible, but some of them are downright devilish. Take for instance the robot deck. One card is only one power, but if it’s the first card you play that turn you can play another minion, such as the Zapbot, which is 2 power. The Zapbot lets you play another minion of two or less so you could play another Zapbot, then maybe play a Hoverbot which lets you play the top card of your deck if it happens to be a minion. You see where this is going. With some of the decks it’s entirely possible to end up laying five or six minions in a single turn, taking you from last to first position within a single turn. Some of the actions let you clear entire bases of minions or force players into moves they don’t want to take. Whatever you think might be going well for you, you always know it could all be destroyed if the enemy gets the right card. Some players will play everything as soon as they can and steadily build up points, but others will wait until they have the perfect combination and then will unleash hell on the board, destroying everything in their wake. This works just as well in two-player as it does with four, although when you have four people it gets almost unbearable as you have to wait so long before you can put the next piece of your plan together. That’s two extra chances for something to go terribly wrong, and it almost always will.
The decks are all distinctive and the artwork on the cards is absolutely beautiful, with tonnes of charm and character packed into every single one. Everything feels solid with a premium finish so it’s unlikely to get dogeared after a few goes.
Of course with all these decks with different character traits, balance will be an issue and occasionally it rears its ugly head. We’ve already decided no-one can use the zombies with the robots because their combination of creating ever more minions and bringing some back from the discard pile is just too overwhelming.As you learn the game you begin to work out the weaknesses in each hand though and it’s a complete joy when you discover some synergy you hadn’t played before. A deck that lets you draw cards almost constantly works well with one that forces you to discard for its most effective powers, some of the expansion decks are particularly good at this.
We’ve only picked up two of the expansions so far but here’s a quick summary:
Awesome Level 9000
Each expansion comes with a set of new bases and four new decks. The Awesome Level 9000 pack features Bear Cavalry, Ghosts, Steampunk and Plants. The plants multiply all over if you don’t deal with them quickly and the bear cavalry have some devious tricks like moving characters around the board and then destroying them. All of the expansions are playable by themselves or alongside the main set so eventually you end up with loads of decks to combine and dozens of possible combinations. This pack has some of the most interesting decks to use and while it doesn’t change anything else about the game, for about £17 it’s definitely a worthwhile addition to the core set.
Obligatory Cthulhu Set
The Cthulhu set features various groups from Lovecraftian stories including the Miskatonic University, the Cthulhu Cult, some Elder creatures and the Innsmouth villagers. This set has much more narrow appeal compared to the other sets but if you’re into Cthulhu mythos it’s great fun playing with decks that have beautiful art and apt mechanics but that are also prepared to poke fun at themselves. The Cthulhu expansion introduces a ‘madness’ mechanic that lets you perform certain feats in exchange for drawing madness cards, which can only be removed with very specific cards. At the end of the game you count up the number of madness cards in your deck, discard pile and hand, and lose a VP for every two you find. This means even if you finish the game first, you can end up losing thanks to your secret madness. This is a brilliant way to work the themes of Lovecraft into the game and it produces a genuinely exciting and game-changing twists. It’s a shame that the madness deck isn’t used by any over sets though so in a four player game with all the expansions it’s entirely possible that only one player will have anything to do with it, and the decks aren’t more powerful than the others to try and balance the danger of madness at all. Hopefully some future sets will make use of the mechanic.
Overall, we’ve had a blast with Smash Up. It’s easy to learn, accessible to everyone (no geeky knowledge required) but relies on skill and strategy rather than luck. Games tend to last about half an hour (some are quicker, some are shorter) and the excitement keeps going until the end, there’s rarely a clear winner right up until the last turn. The whole set looks stunning too, although it’d be nice to have a playing mat or board as an option to keep everything organised. Our only real issue with the game is the perceived lack of balance between some of the combinations but it could have been much worse. Overall this is an easy game to recommend and one we’ll be playing for many months to come.