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Subject: Smash Up is Pretty Good -- Voice of Experience 2.0 rss

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Abdiel Xordium
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When I first read the rules for smash up I thought it would be a bidding game like Condotierre or Taj Mahal. For me to associate a game with those mentioned is some of the highest praise I can give a game. Condottiere and Taj Mahal represent some of the most interesting and exciting forms of player interaction to be found in board games so I was excited to try it out.


An Overview of Game Play

Each player has a unique deck of 40 cards. These decks have two kinds of cards in them: "minions" and "actions". Minions provide a numerical value called "power" while actions allow you to perform special abilities.

Meanwhile, there a number of "base" cards in play. Bases have a "break point" value and a list of victory points that will be awarded to first second and third place when that base gets smashed up.

Players can play one minion and one action per turn. Bases are smashed up when the combined value of all the power that has been played on that base among all players reaches or exceeds the break point limit. The player that contributed the most power to the smashing up of the base gets first place points and so on.

Bases provide, on average, 4-5 points to first place, 2-3 points to the runner up and 1-2 points to third place. When someone gets 15 points or more, the game ends and the player with the most points wins.

Simple, right? In fact on the surface it looks very derivative, a simple area majority/bidding game. It's Condottiere with El Grande scoring.

But such games are intolerable to the modern sophisticated gamer! There must be special powers. Those special powers must combine with awesome combo-tastic synergies.

If you are such a gamer, have no fear, every single card -- be it minion*, action or base -- has a special power.

Each players' deck of 40 cards is actually composed of two sub-decks of 20 cards. There are 8 of these sub-decks each representing a different faction: Dinosaurs, Ninjas, Tricksters (by which they mean Leprechauns, gremlins and gnomes), Wizards, Aliens, Pirates, Robots and Zombies. So you can see the tongue-in-cheek svelte internet dependent meme heavy atmosphere the game seeks to engender. There's nothing particularly thematic reasonable about the Leprechaun-Robot alliance facing off against against a confederation of Pirates and Dinosaurs.

So not only does each card have it's own special power, each 20 card faction has it's own special style of play that derives from the strengths and weaknesses of its unique card mix. When two such factions are combined at the beginning of the game you get crazy amalgam of special powers that work together in odd and interesting ways.

Zombies, for example, are able to rise up from the discard pile. Ninjas can show up when least expected with deadly force. Zombie-Ninjas can show up when least expected with deadly force from the discard pile.


Player Interaction

So the most important thing a game can do is provide interesting player interaction. How does Smash Up fare in this regard?

At the risk making the game seem dry, this is a bidding game. Specifically it's a area majority game. You get more points for investing more power on a base than your opponents. Because there are multiple bases in play at one time you have two major tacks you can take: play a lot of your cards on one base and go for first place, or spread your cards out and go for second and third place awards on multiple bases.

In my experience there is a huge amount of group think that goes into this process of which strategy gets employed. You can be playing with a group where everyone is always fighting over one base at a time. If you try to diversify, you are wasting your card plays because unless you get help, it is going to be a long slog to smash up a base.

Players, as they get more experience, will move away from this method of play because players will get a better grip on the return on investment opportunities. If you are not going to be able to pull off first place, you don't want to provide too much help for someone else get it. So players may stop playing on a particular base or even, by using special card powers, withdraw from a base.

So what you get are mercurial alliances-of-the-moment. Outside of a two player game, if you play a card, either to help yourself or hurt an opponent, someone else at the table will often benefit. And that is wonderful. If your Ninja Master assassinates my King Rex, you can finagle your way into first place on a base, but you've also just helped elusive player three move up from third to second.

In most investment/bidding games you are extremely limited on cards. I used Condottiere as an example earlier and in that game every single card is more precious than gold. That's not so much the deal with Smash Up. In Smash Up card combos are king, individual cards are not as important. In fact, if you run out of cards in your draw pile, you just reshuffle them and get a new deck. But getting the right combo is huge.

This leads to the other important aspect when it comes to player interaction: monitoring your opponents' capabilities. What's the likelihood you will be able to play your Ninja Master on my King Rex? What combination of cards can I use to defend against the sudden appearance of a Ninja Master.

This kind of analysis can be fraught with indecision. There are so many cards to keep track of and every single one has a special ability. Some special abilities are on going, some are one time only, some only affect cards in the discard pile, some only apply to cards in hand.

Because of this it can be a chore to become expert at this aspect of player interaction. And with that I'll move on to the next section.


Discovery

The other important thing that a game needs to provide is a sense of discovery and exploration. Games do this in two ways. First, there's the progression of learning the rules, learning how to implement those rules, and finally discovering how to use those rules to interact effectively with your opponents. Second, there is the sense of uncovering the unknown, specifically what can't be known at the start of the game. We see this in adventure games like Talisman.

This second sense of discovery does not apply to Smash Up beyond the basic unknown of what card you are going to draw next. It's fun, but not a major part of the game. The more familiar you are with the decks, the less a role this will play in the game.

But understanding how you can make combinations of cards work for you is a multi-game process. It's unlikely that you'll even see all the cards from the decks you've chosen in the first play

Even after you've gotten the hang of how to use your cards for your benefit, you now have to figure out how to respond to what your opponents have. So you need to play a whole lot of additional games.

I've played Smash Up like crazy and I'm not really to stage three of learning the game. Is the strike-parry-strike-riposte of the card play going to be fulfilling in the long term? I can't honestly answer that question. But so far it's been a lot of fun trying to get there.


Theme and Components -- a.k.a. things other people find important

After playing games for decades I've come to the conclusion that theme and components are nice-to-haves but rarely make a game. Implemented poorly, though, and they can break a game. (This topic deserves more discussion than I can provide in this review so maybe I'll take it up at a latter date. To continue...)

There's video on YouTube that does a great job of capturing the feel of Smash Up's theme. (Please take a moment to watch it here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHg5SJYRHA0.)

Welcome back. Your response to that video will likely mirror your response to the so-called "theme" of Smash Up. I find the theme amusing, but really it's just a bunch of non sequitur references to nerd culture and internet memes. In the game a couple of zombies can hop in a pirate's dinghy, paddle to the alien home world and SMASH IT UP! Axe Cop is more coherent.

A game's theme should really be communicated by the mechanisms. All the sub decks in Smash Up do have a coherent mechanical structure and play style. There is a good faith effort to apply a theme that matches the individual mechanical structure of each deck. Some work better than others. Zombies exploit the discard pile. Dinosaurs are big and powerful. Aliens abduct things. However the Pirate deck is defined by its mobility. I was under the impression pirates spend most of their time saying "arrrr", plundering booty, and saying "arrrr" some more.

The components are just multiple decks of cards. The cards are high quality and the art is pretty good. The publisher has chosen to have a different artist do the art for each faction which contributes to the spirit of the game.


Going Forward

Smash Up is a series. You can only buy the main set if you wish and, as I've mentioned, you will have a lot to discover. Game series, like TV shows, will eventually jump the shark. With Smash Up it would seem hard to do, yet the next announced expansion is one that eschews a random assortment of factions and actually has a coherent theme.

Also I think it will be impossible to keep up the good work indefinitely. The game will either become too complicated or too "samey" from expansion to expansion. And power creep will almost certainly become an issue. How's that for purely speculative negativity? Fortunately, for now anyway, the game is great and the first expansion fits in nicely with the base game.
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Ben Kyo
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Why for this life there's no man smart enough, life's too short for learning every trick and bluff.
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Too slow, too much text on the table, no fun. Those were the three conclusions I came to after my first two games of Smash Up, and I was honestly quite surprised, having expected to enjoy the game.
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Rick Teverbaugh
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Good review. I am surprised the very few times I hear people say this game is no fun. It exudes fun. There's never been a time I failed to enjoy myself when playing no matter how many were involved.
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Ernest S
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Me too; I have fun playing this game. And my daughter does as well: win/win!!
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Abdiel Xordium
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Ben, I considered addressing your concerns in my review because I've heard that complaint before. However in 20+ plays of the game with many different types of gamers -- including non-gamers, long time gaming veterans, and seven year old kids -- your results have not been replicated in my experience.

I don't know your situation, but what I think is happening is a difference in approach to gaming.

As I said in the review, you can't fully understand the way the cards work the first several times you play. I think some gamers will attempt to do so. This isn't a critique, it's just the way some people are. But you can't be that way and have fun learning Smash Up. You can't be concerned that you are going to miss a rule on a card. If you do miss a rule players have to be okay with overlooking the effect it might have on the rest of the game and just keep going as best you can. You have to accept you are going to get things wrong the first couple of times.

If someone is interested in getting into the game and wants to avoid the "Smash Up Seize Up" I recommend the following:

• Plan on playing three learning games at least.
• For those three games all the players should keep using the same factions.
• Have players be responsible for their own "ongoing" special abilities. For example, if there are a bunch of cards on a base any one player should be able to ask, "what are the ongoing special abilities here?" and get a good faith response from the other players.
• If players forget a special ability, ignore its affect and move on. This may affect who wins the game, but it's a learning game. Roll with it.
• Don't worry about strategy. Just play cards and see what happens. The strategy is there, but you have to learn the cards first to see it.
• Limit the learning game to two player games if possible. If you make them games for three or four players you need to be even more willing to overlook mistakes and roll with the effects.

Note, these steps are just suggestions because I've never personally experienced the problem.
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Ben Kyo
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While I appreciate that many games out there require learning games, and that making a judgement after only two plays is often unfair, the issue of having so much text on the table, much of which is ongoing and interactive, seems to me a problem that isn't going to go away. Different decks each game, expandability, different combinations in play... it seems to me to be a significant design flaw, and very contrary to the 'light and breezy' art and theme. A requirement that you effectively memorise all the potential cards in the game that have ongoing effects, in order to see at a glance the state of play, in order to take actions that make sense, is an unfair burden on players. There's no iconography to aid taking in the info at a glance, there are a lot of cards, and there's just too much damn text!

The issue of being too slow is one that always gets better over time, but the win condition did seem pegged at an unnecessarily high point value, with the potential for games to drag on for ages (as ours did, and the other two games I saw attempted and abandoned mid-play on other tables). This also seems contrary to the art and theme.

It's a mystery to me why this game works for some people and fails so hard for others. Try before you buy, is all I'm saying!
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Jason Farris
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My opinion is that it comes down to AP. Magic players chew through this like nothing. PLayers like you are talking about, need to know all game states at all times, and apparently have difficulty processing lots of information. You have to be able to play tactically and not worry about minor mistakes. perfectionism goes poorly with this game.

So, people who can go with the flow will enjoy this game much more than those who need to know all.
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Abdiel Xordium
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Benkyo wrote:
A requirement that you effectively memorise all the potential cards in the game that have ongoing effects, in order to see at a glance the state of play, in order to take actions that make sense, is an unfair burden on players.

I agree it's a burden, but it is the burden of our times. I'm pretty much tapped out on games full of cards with special powers that have to be memorized in order to do well, which seems to be all of them.

Your mention of icons, or lack there of, raises a great point. The publishers should put a symbol in a convenient spot on each card to indicate the existence of an ongoing ability (and also for "talents" in the expansion).

Out of curiosity, with respect to becoming familiar with the cards, what makes Smash Up different from Race for the Galaxy which also has many cards in play with ongoing effects?

I find the 15 point limit for the game to be pretty much perfect. By that time everyone's gone through about 75% of their cards and the game's lasted between 30 and 45 minutes.
 
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Ben Kyo
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Why for this life there's no man smart enough, life's too short for learning every trick and bluff.
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Well, with Race for the Galaxy you are dealing with icons, instead of a wall of text, and you have a very limited and clearly identifiable set of cards that can actually impact on your own tableau. I find it very simple and fast to process all the relevant information in Race for the Galaxy.

I also had no problem with Magic back in the day. Perhaps it has changed beyond all recognition in the last 10 years, but I never found it suffered from the same problem as Smash Up, perhaps because it's primarily a 2 player duel game.

Neither I, nor most of the people I play with, suffer from AP to any real extent. We do like to feel our actions are meaningful though, and not just guesses based on a board state we can't keep up with.
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Rick Teverbaugh
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Race for the Galaxy is one of the most difficult to play, follow and teach of any game I've ever played. I've got 10-year-old grandchildren who successfully play Smash Up and I'd never try to teach them Race for 3 or 4 years yet.
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MGS
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Smash Up is fun but, playing as written, it has always overstayed its welcome with every single person I played. The one time I played with less bases and to a lower score, the game went better.
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