Dice on Fire Review: Smash Up

There are thousands of games which require you to be farmers, city planners, fishermen, orcs, or space soldiers. These past few years have seen Cthulhu games being churned out at an alarming rate. All to often, a gaming session begins with, "What am I in this game? Another railway planner? Oh..." 

Ok, I'm exaggerating, but the game I want to look at today is a thematic wonderland. As far as I know, no other game lets you be a leprechaun-ninja or a zombie-robot. On these grounds alone, Smash Up is worth checking out, and fortunately it's quite a fun game to boot!

Your hand consists of a mix of your two chosen factions. Seen here is wizards mixed with robot-dinosaurs. Some of the artwork is utterly fantastic, while some is less inspired.

The Basics

So Smash Up introduces players to a fairly unusual mechanic which the developers have dubbed "shuffle building". At the start of the game, each player picks two small decks out of a possible eight and shuffles these two together. Thus, they have shuffle built their own deck. Each of the small decks are thematically unique -- alien, robot, zombie, dinosaur, etc -- and by combining decks, you end up with one of sixty-four possible duos to play with -- like pirate-wizards or alien-zombies. Already, this is kinda fun.

So with their (relatively) unique decks, players must then attempt to capture bases, represented by another set of (often quite beautifully designed) cards. They do this by playing minion cards from their hands. Each of these minion cards has a power value and a further unique effect, depending on the minion. Once the power values of all minions played on a base add up to that base's threshold, the base is scored and the top three players get some points. The first player to get to fifteen points is declared the winner. The core rules are very, very simple. The complexity all comes from the individual card effects and subsequent card interactions.

What you get: A box with a bunch of cards. That's cards for eight factions (20 cards each) and another bunch representing the bases you must capture. Notice all the extra space -- that is there for expansions. The first expansion "Awesome Level 9000" adds four more factions and is due for release at the end of March, 2013 for International Tabletop Day.

The Deeper Stuff

There's enough variety in each of the Smash Up factions to keep gameplay fresh and unique for quite some time and each faction has it's own unique playstyle which forces the players to adapt and stay away from dry and predictable moves. The dinosaurs, for instance, are the heavy hitters of Smash Up, with high power values that can really help them dominate a base. Normally, on each turn, each player is able to play one minion card and one action card (more on these soon), but the zombies and robots allow you to break this rule, and play multiple low value minions in one go, hopefully overwhelming your enemy. Pirates are able to sail between available bases and ninjas are able to sneak in at the last moment and grab a base before it's scored. The aliens and leprechauns are able to abduct and destroy other minions, removing them from play.

And each of these styles has a base tailored towards their strengths. The "Rhodes Plaza Mall", for instance awards points for the number of minions placed on it. So low value zombies are rewarded handsomely whereas dinosaurs and wizards are more or less worthless. The "Temple of Goju" awards the most points to the second place player, so the ninja, who can make changes to their minions after the base has scored, is in the best place to take advantage of this rule. Other bases, like the "Mushroom Kingdom" just offer fun variety -- in this case, players can move any other minion here from other bases at the start of their turn.

The action cards allow for even more oddity -- causing minions to gain and lose power, allowing the player to play extra minions or draw cards from their deck, protecting the player from other actions, and so on.

You would think that some factions are overpowered or that certain combinations are the best, but I haven't found this to be so. Initially we thought that the zombies paired with the minion-heavy robots would be unstoppable, but, well, no; their lack of action cards really held them back. Some factions lend themselves to individual players' tastes of course -- I find the ninjas incredibly frustrating to play and love the aliens -- but I think that Paul Peterson, the game designer, has done a good job at striking a balance.

A little bit cocky? Nah - I love it! The variety at play here is a lot of fun.

How it Plays Out

Smash Up plays very quickly, with a game typically lasting around 20 minutes. At first glance, the game appears very light, but my play group found some surprising depth and strategy in there. I found myself wishing that the game was a little longer. It felt like we were only just getting into the stride of things before we were tallying up and declaring a winner.

It can be a little confusing to figure out the most logical and efficient way to place your cards on the table, when four players need to be stacking cards around five bases and each player needs to be able to see the small-print. Then each player needs to be able to quickly add up the combined powers of minions on bases, which can be difficult on a busy table with a lot of low-level minions in play. Did I say a little confusing? -- at times, for a hotly contested and high value base, Smash Up can become very cumbersome to play.

An example of an action card. The instructions are always fairly straightforward -- there is little room for confusion and I've never had to check the manual for clarification.

Component Quality

The cards in Smash Up are pretty standard as far as paper quality goes, though are possibly a little too thin. The artwork on them is wonderful for the most part and really helps draw the players in to the thematic mix.

One thing which I do find very irritating is that the base game does not come with any score keeping tokens. I feel that every game should come with all the required components for play, straight out of the box, unless they are from some small indie start-up or something. Even Love Letter gives you scoring tokens and it's not like Smash Up is a cheap production.

Colour-Blind Info

Nothing to speak of with this game. Cards are defined by both colour and a logo in the bottom right corner. There is no other time that colour comes into play.


So Smash Up isn't a perfect game, at all. It isn't hugely deep. It's a bit too big for filler and too small for an entire game-night. But fun just oozes from the box. It makes you laugh. It lets you act like a sneaky ass-hole. Whenever I bust Smash Up out, everyone seems to enjoy themselves, and isn't that mainly what you want from a game? It could be better, it could be deeper, but I still think it's pretty great even as it is.

(You may want to check Smash Up out on Amazon.com)

A minion card with it's own actions. These cards are used to capture the bases. Notice the top left indicates the minions strength.