Smash-Up: Zombie Robots VS Dinosaur Ninjas?!

Smash-Up: Zombie Robots VS Dinosaur Ninjas?!

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.

Smash Up; The Pirate Ninjas battle the Elder Thing Cultists and Cat Faeries
The Pirate Ninjas battle the Elder Thing Cultists and the Cat Faeries.

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.

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Miskatonic School for Girls: Cackling Madly Is in the Rulebook

Miskatonic School for Girls: Cackling Madly Is in the Rulebook

Whoever came up with a game concept of having an all-girl boarding school run by the monsters and villains of H.P. Lovecraft? It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but that ridiculousness is part of the fun.

Miskatonic

Miskatonic is a deck-building game, where each player has their own deck that they buy cards for to improve–but unlike most deck-building games, you also buy negative cards for your opponents, and the weight of the negative cards starts to outweigh the benefit of the positive ones as the game goes on. It becomes a struggle to stay sane (20 starting sanity, 0 loses) while hoping your opponents’ decks fail them first.   Each turn you’ll draw five cards (starting with whatever is in your purchase pile), use them to buy a Student for yourself and a Teacher for the opponent on your left, and then put any teachers in your hand into your classroom, where you’ll flip up one card from the top of your deck for each, hopefully getting students strong enough to fend them off.

The game doesn’t take itself seriously–like the title says, the rulebook actually instructs you to cackle insanely when you lose certain amounts of sanity–and the artwork varies from silly to sinister while staying light-hearted. Despite being elimination, players are rarely sitting around for long; once someone goes down, the other players are usually in precarious positions and will only take a couple more rounds. The average player can enjoy it on its own merits, while fans of the Mythos can laugh at students like “Charlotte” Ward and Keziah Mason and teachers like Crossing Guard Dagon and Headmaster N.R. Lathotep.

In general, the play experience is one that has a good pace to it: In the early game, sanity loss will be minor since players can’t buy the best cards, resulting in a lot of minor advances, Substitutes (Filler, 0-cost teachers for your opponents that are rather trivial to defeat) or Transfers (The same, but for students).  As players build up their generation of Friendship and/or Nightmare points, each card potentially having production of both but only being usable for one or the other on a given turn, the better students and more potent teachers begin to enter circulation.  The key to Miskatonic’s flow, however, is the simple fact that your student is never going to be as good for you as the teacher the House right before you handed you was bad.  That is, your deck was never better for your survival then it was at the start of the game (When it contained no teachers) and the purchase of students serves, largely, to attempt to slow the rate at which you hemmorage sanity.  Often, decks reach a tipping point where they have too many teachers that are all too powerful, and the sanity loss starts coming by the bucket load.  As such, despite being a player elimination game, it’s usually over VERY shortly after the first House goes stark raving mad since everyone else will either be on small numbers or primed to end up that way.

Overall, I’d call Miskatonic School for Girls a light game.  It is far less fiddly than traditional deckbuilders, the core decision points being what to buy from column A and what to buy from column B.  Which is not to say that the game doesn’t have its complications: the plethora of special abilities on the cards, particularly “Pre-Class” abilities of students that you may use when you draw them.  Further, Locker Cards, Pet Teachers (Teachers you draw when trying to fight teachers; they don’t help but you get to send them to someone else’s discard pile), and events can bring actual strategic thinking into the mix.  Still, it’s a game we can play with the somewhat less game savvy on a fair level, which you can consider either in the game’s favor or against it depending on what you’re looking for.