Review: 'Smash Up' Card Game Is A Fun, Geeky Genre Blender

A pirate, a ninja, and a zombie walk into a bar. Yeah, there's no good ending to that joke, especially when aliens, dinosaurs, gnomes, robots, and a few other friends are all on their way. Publisher AEG took a big risk in cramming all of those tropes into a single game, but the geeky melting pot that is "Smash Up" lives up to its billing. "The Shufflebuilding Game of Total Awesomeness" uses a new innovative mechanic (we'll explain "shufflebuilding" in a bit) that is indeed quite awesome.

Just the Facts:

Players: 2-4

Playing Time: 45 minutes

Age: 12 to adult

Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG)

MSRP: $29.99

Release: October 8th, 2012

The Gameplay:

Pure and simple, "Smash Up" is a race to 15 points, and there's only one way to earn them: conquer Bases. But you'll need plenty of Minion cards to be your boots on the ground if you're going to conquer enough Bases to win.

Every player in "Smash Up" takes command of a geeky genre team-up by shuffling together two different factions, each of which gets their own 20-card deck. This leaves each player with a 40-card starting deck, which could be Ninja-Aliens, or Robot-Dinosaurs, or Pirate-Tricksters, or Zombie-Wizards, etc, etc, you get the point!

Examples of Ninja, Alien, and Pirate faction Minion cards

There are only two important things to note on a Minion card: it's power (top left corner), and its ability (body text). Power is what counts when it's time to conquer bases (and score points), but Minion abilities can also trigger a wide range of game-changing effects. Winning "Smash Up" is all about playing your Minions in the best possible location, but you'll have to gauge each Minion's power and the ability to figure out which Base that is.

After all, Bases aren't created equal, so that might factor in where you want to play a minion. Take a look at these two examples below:

As turns go by, more and more Minions will gather on a Base card. It's also important to also note that every player can have their Minions present at the same base. The top left corner number on each Base is known as the Breakpoint, and as soon as the collective total of all Minion's power numbers (regardless of owning player) meets or exceeds the Breakpoint, the Base will be scored.

But how many points does each player get, you ask? The three giant numbers, from left to right, are for first, second, and third place. Add up each player's individual power score to determine rank, dole out points accordingly, and discard all of the minions involved.

The last thing to factor in is the small text underneath the points. When the Base scores, the text effect triggers as well. No two effects are the same, though, and they tend to be balanced with the point breakout. If first place gets a ton of points, second place may get to keep a minion or draw some extra cards. Other times, first place might get all the points and a big bonus as well, making that Base one worth fighting over to the last Minion.

There is always one more Base card in play then there are players at the table, so players will always have a choice of which Base they want to deploy their Minions to. "Smash Up" becomes a big game of chicken as play moves around the table and numerous Bases come close to their Breakpoint. It's a constant struggle to make sure you have the best possible power total when the points are distributed.

So now that you understand how points are earned and the game is won, let's take a look at "Smash Up's" turn structure. It couldn't be more simple. On your turn, play 1 Minion card and 1 Action card (in either order), check to see if any Bases have hit their Breakpoint, and draw two cards. At the end of the turn, discard down to a hand limit of 10 cards if necessary.

That leaves us to explain the last card type: Action cards. These are abilities that trigger as soon as they are played, sometimes resolving immediately, but sometimes remaining in play with persistent effects.

The Components:

  • 8 20-Card Faction Decks (Minion and Action Cards)
  • 16 Base Cards
  • 1 Rulebook

AEG commissioned a ton of art for a $30 card game. There are very few duplicates in each deck, and the artwork seen here is really good. There's a very long roster of artists involved, and they each brought their own style to the table, providing the best possible depiction of each faction's minions. It is a stunning accomplishment for a game with this magnitude of art assets to not have a dud, but every "Smash Up" card holds up to the set's high standard of quality.

I particularly enjoyed the Base card graphic design, where the point values are laid in somewhere between the artwork's foreground and background. This lets the artwork slightly obscure the numbers in places, but gives it a very cool effect of having the numbers suspended mid-air as if they actually existed in the depicted scene.

An example Base card, demonstrating the "floating text" effect

The last point to cover is "Smash Up's" rule book. AEG hit all the key points in writing this one. Big, bold graphics that explain what you see on each card, helpful breakout clarification text, and a detailed term dictionary all combine to leave you with zero questions on how "Smash Up" is played. The rules manage to be clear and concise, while also using some slightly silly "internet lingo," that makes them read better than the average dry-as-bones rules texts. Throw in a helpful game reference on the back cover, and you've got one of the better rulebooks in recent memory.

Final Thoughts: 

"Smash Up" is a ton of fun. There aren't any out-and-out laughs here with the bizarre mash-up of genres, but there is a generally sense of silliness here that keeps games lighthearted and fun. Oh and cutthroat, too. Lighthearted, fun, and bitterly cutthroat. A perfect mix!

A few factors conspire to make "Smash Up" very much a gamer's game; the outright competitive nature of a four-player battle royale is just a start. "Smash Up," while all about combat on the surface, is most definitely a thinking man's game. There is a lot to juggle in deciding where to play your next minion. Take the example below:

Here, you'll have to look at four different Bases, see how close each one is to its Breakpoint, look at both your Minions and opponent's Minions already in play there to gauge your likely rank when the Breakpoint is hit, and weight the potential points and special effect of the Base to calculate that Base's utility. That's a lot to juggle, and I love it. "Smash Up" manages to take a silly theme, force you to jump through some serious mental gaming hoops, and still manages to wrap up in a tight 45 minutes.

Looking back on "Smash Up," there is one factor that I have not yet mentioned which puts this game over the top: Minion and Action effects make absolute sense given the theme of each faction. Zombie cards raise from the dead (the discard pile). Ninjas can pull tricks by replacing themselves with more powerful Minions from your hand as the last possible second. Dinosaurs are big dumb and powerful (favoring high power numbers over complex effects). This alone will make you want to keep coming back to "Smash Up" to see how new combinations fare in future matches.

It may sound like a stretch to say that in a single game, "shufflebuilding" has delivered a game with more thematic play than we've seen in nearly five years of deckbuilding card games, but that statement is closer to the truth than you'd think.

Disclaimer: Publisher provided a complimentary review sample of this game