Smash-Up is a thematically silly game with surprisingly complex mechanics. The base game has eight factions–pirates, ninjas, dinosaurs, robots, aliens, wizards, tricksters, and zombies–which each have their own deck. Each player picks two factions and shuffles them into a single deck, which forms their deck for the game. Decks are made up of two types of cards, minions and actions; each player may play up to one of each on their turn.
The goal of the game is to get to fifteen points. Points are obtained by “breaking” bases, which is done by playing minions whose power accumulates to the number on a given base, its break point. The Break Point is met to exceeded by all minions at that base, regardless of controller, and when a base breaks and scores points are awarded to the first, second, and third most power at the base. Bases may also have abilities, some of which are always on or waiting for something to happen, while others fire off only at scoring.
For as simple as the game is, with its limited actions and low randomness (at least in some aspects), it ends up leading to a great deal of planning and coordination. The choice of base to prioritize depends on your hand, the state of the game board, and the strengths and weaknesses of the factions you’re playing. Almost every minion has some sort of ability that has to be taken into account, and the actions can slightly tilt or even majorly alter the course of the game.
Of course, one can’t ignore the theme, and it is definitely an entertaining theme. It’s basically… everything. The base set has Pirates, Ninjas, Zombies, Robots, Wizards, Tricksters (leprechauns and such faerie creatures, not to be confused with the fairy faction from one of the expansions), Aliens, and Dinosaurs. We have two of the many expansions at the moment, one of which adds four Cthulhu-themed factions and the other which introduces four faction around a “Pretty” theme (Ponies, Cats, Princesses, and Fairies). There are many others, and they’re still coming out. In that way the theme is essentially “Whatever you find cool”, from popular media to internet memes. It’s light-hearted fun, which is nice sometimes.
At first glance, this looks like it should be a simple game–only two types of cards, only one of each card per turn, a very straightforward scoring system–but when you actually sit down at the table, you find a great deal of hidden complexity. Gambling and bluffing becomes part of the game, due to trying to guess whether other players can finish bases and whether they want to do so. Almost all of the creatures have an effect when you play them and lining up the creature effects with the ones in your hand can end up a rewarding challenge.
Now, that isn’t to say that randomness doesn’t play a role; there’s luck of the draw, of course, but as with many games understanding how to engine build can mitigate it. This means that not all pairs of decks are created equal, as some will have different synergies and native strategies. The Wizards, for instance, provide a lot of extra draws and extra plays, particularly Action plays. The robots have the technology to allow you to play more minions, especially weak ones. Robot wizards, therefore, tend to chain a lot of cards together. By contrast, Ninjas harm their enemies and appear suddenly while pirates sail around from base to base, so Ninja Pirates won’t be playing as many cards, and will have to rely on tactical motion to pick up points as cheaply as possible, likely with the element of surprise. While many strategies are comparable as well as different, there are a few that are stronger or weaker than others. For instance, Cat Fairies and Zombie Robots have both proved to be devastatingly powerful. Not strictly unbeatable, but maybe not the combos you should let the more experienced players at the table have. That said, Smash Up is a brilliant sort of ‘filler’ game with more meat and strategic depth to it than there appears to be, and that in a distinct good way. We’re not done expanding it, because every new faction increases the potential combinations in an amazing way: With the base game, you could reasonably play every pair together in not too long. With double the decks, though, it takes way more than double the plays to see all the pairs in action, which allows no two games to be the same.