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Subject: Smile Review: Turn that frown upside down! rss

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David Norris
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Ever notice how the meanest games have the nicest names? Smile, Nothing Personal, Dead Last. OK maybe not Dead Last, but you get my point. Smile, is a new implementation of the hit game No Thanks! Which when played with a group adults quickly turns into a game of F**K You! It’s a 3-5 player, reverse auction game, designed by Michael Schacht and published by Z-Man games.

How to Play
To set up Smile: give everyone six fireflies (glass beads) and then shuffle the monster deck, placing as many monster cards as there are players, face up in a row on the table. These monster cards have point values and should always be sorted from lowest to highest. These cards will be called the offer.

At the start, and throughout the game, if there are no fireflies on a card, then the player whose turn it is has no choice but to put one of their fireflies on the lowest card of the offer. Otherwise, if there are fireflies already on a card, then their choice is limited to either picking up the card – and all associated fireflies or adding a firefly to the card.

The exception to this rule is if players need to add a firefly to a card, but don’t have any. Then they grab a firefly from the supply, and take a blue tear drop. Which counts as negative one point, at the end of the game.

After a player picks up a card, they can no longer contribute to the round, and must wait until the offer is depleted before re-joining when the next offer is revealed. Also, if there are two cards left in the offer, then the last card immediately goes to the player who didn’t pick up the second last card.

One other rule to be aware of, is that some cards have coloured corners. Picking up two monster cards with the same coloured corner, removes both cards from the game.

Finally, after the monster deck is emptied, the end of game scoring is conducted. You count all the points on all the cards you “won”, and then gain one point per five fireflies you own.  The winner being the player with the most points.

The Good
What’s interesting about Smile is that it’s a reverse auction game. Instead of paying what you want for an item, you’re instead paying to make sure you’re not getting what you don’t want. While that’s terrible grammar, it’s also a great core mechanic.

What’s even better, is that there is no alternative way to get fireflies. After the start of the game, only a few new fireflies will enter the game, and that’s only when people mess up. This makes it so that when there are a lot of fireflies on a card, it makes it mighty tempting. Whether or not you can make that part of your strategy is the question. This is probably the biggest mind game within Smile if not within life itself, everyone has a price, how many fireflies is yours?

The interactivity of Smile comes from the back and forth between the players placing fireflies down and smirking smugly, only for the other players to put a firefly down and increase the smugness with a smirk of their own. Making the first player double down by putting another firefly on the card and smirking so smug that even Santania would approve. All this back and forth smirking is what makes the game interesting, because underneath this facial façade is where all the scheming takes place. Which card do I want? Which card do they want? How many fireflies can I drain them of? How many do I want?

It’s these questions, in addition to managing your fireflies that are at the forefront of this board game’s strategy. Then there’s a bit of push your luck in when to get coloured cornered cards, as well. If you start paying too much for them early, you’re likely to end up with second of the set and having to remove them from the game and ruining your night. However, you could get a lot fireflies from a highly negative valued card with a corner, only to get rid of it later for an overall better valued play. At some point though, you must start collecting the cornered cards, and like indoor cycling timing your sprint to the line is vital.

Smile relies on its ever changing meta game to keep bringing players back to the table. Players learn from each game, and their learned behaviours change the economic structure of the game. This keeps the game interesting no matter how many times you’ve collected fireflies before.

Lastly, the fireflies being glass beads feel great in the hand. It leads to moments where the back and forth is happening, and players shake their hands together and just the sound of so many fireflies is enough to put the others off the auction. Additionally, the light number of rules makes this game easy to break out with any audience. Personally, I like the theme, although it’s only painted on it makes it memorable, and easy to recognise when people ask for the game with the giant Furby on the cover.

The Bad
The gameplay in Smile feels a bit too calculated, like everything is a forgone conclusion. Part of this is because you can see what cards everyone is going to go for, based on judgement calls on how many fireflies how many people have and the coloured cornered cards. On top of this, because you're only placing one firefly down at a time it doesn’t have those spontaneous moments which make players burst out laughing either from someone doing something ridiculous, or unexpected. Which, again, lends itself to the calculated feel of the game.

The first half of the game doesn’t have enough impact. The only cards that really have a chance of sticking it out to the end game, are those with no colour in the corner. These cards are few and far between and make the first half feel unimportant, so much so that it feels like it just gets in the way of the better, second half of the game.

Finally, this board game can be quite mean – not a bad thing, just something to note. Though because of the way it works with having no fireflies, if you’ve wronged a table of people, they can punish you terribly by always having the person before your turn pick up a card. This forces you to place a firefly on the next card, but since you’ve got none. You’ll have more tears than me on prom night.

The Verdict
Overall, this is a great game. I really enjoy and highly recommend it. Its small footprint allows you to throw it in your bag and take it to wherever you would normally play games, your friend's place, the bar, the wedding of your distant cousin who you don't know, but free food is free food, right? The downside, however, is that the game doesn’t engage me enough from a strategic perspective, to distract from the lack of spontaneity mentioned above. However, it is still a super solid game, and will likely be housed in my collection for a long while to come.

For more fantastic board game reviews, check out my blog:
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