Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Games Review: Smash Up

We seem to live in an era of pop-culture determined to eat itself. Most of the biggest movies and TV at the moment - at least in terms of generating the sort of heat that means everyone talks about them - are remakes, adaptations and sequels. Geek culture (if there is such a thing) gets particularly excited about the idea, partly, I think, because it can get into a frenzy of anticipation on the one hand, and have a lot of moan about due to change on the other. Probably the ultimate expression of this is the "Mash Up" sub-genre, which has brought us such delights as "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter". Maybe we shouldn't hold that against it though, because the idea of sticking two distinct things together is a fun one and it was only matter of time before someone made a game out it. 

Smash Up is a card game based around a simple enough idea - you have a series of disparate decks, and you pick two, shuffle them together, and them play with that. Up to three of your friends do the same, and so you do battle with Alien Pirates vs Zombie Dinosaurs vs Fairy Ninjas. And so on. You score points by controlling "filling" bases with your cards, and then once the base is full the top three players with a presence there each score points. A lot of the cards have special effects that change how they interact, and the combination of decks you have is what creates variety. It's pretty simple. 

At first I was worried for the balance angle of the game - surely some combinations are better than others, right? And yes, in the games we've had we've seen some devastating combinations and runs come out, but this is balanced somewhat by the fact that you need to have the right cards drawn from your deck in the first place for this to happen. Like all deck based games luck plays major part in establishing your options, and its how you use those options that matters; choosing which bases to go for, holding back or striking out at the right moments, that sort of thing. It's not a fiercely strategic game but it's not a complete festival of randomness either. 

Critically then, is it fun? Well yes, actually. The decks are all themed cleverly with their own strengths and special abilities, Pirates, for example can move between bases easily so tend to "sail" around the board rather than being played somewhere and stuck, whereas Robots specialise in swarm tactics that bring disproportionate strength in numbers. It feels quick and breezy to play, with turns moving quickly and the game itself easily finished within about an hour. We've even played it two player and it holds up pretty well, often a problem with games designed with 3 or 4 in mind. In fact the only real niggle was that there isn't a way in the box to keep score, although the first expansion included points tokens, to at least they realized that. 

I'm not sure that Smash Up is the flat out classic that perhaps it wants to be. The number of additional decks they're released makes me thing it's been pretty successful, and i certainly can't begrudge it that, although I do worry slightly that the balance may go slightly crazy the more they layer in. It is however accessible, quick to pick up and a lot of fun, so well worth a look on that basis alone.