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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Seasons: Stop Stealing My Crystals!

Seasons: Stop Stealing My Crystals!

Seasons is a light-hearted game that manages the difficult balance of having comparatively straightforward gameplay while still maintaining a depth and complexity of strategy.

Seasons

You win Seasons by accumulating the most crystals (technically Prestige points, but the Crystal resource converts to these at 1:1); it’s the kind of points scoring system where the winner will almost always have well over a hundred points. Crystals can be gained by rolling the dice (explained later), but the primary source is through “power cards” that make up the majority of the gameplay.

Power cards are, for the most part, played by paying a cost in energy tokens. Energy tokens come in the four classical elements: air, earth, fire, water. A power card will have listed its cost in energy tokens (and/or crystals—yes, you can have to sacrifice points to hope to gain more points later) which must be discarded to play that card, and you can only hold up to seven energy tokens. Energy tokens are gained through rolling the dice. Each season will have different access to the elements; for example, in Winter, the dice will commonly give Water and/or Air, uncommonly give Fire, and never give Earth.  There are always two common elements (one of which was common last season and the other which was inaccessible last season), one uncommon, and one inaccessible. This different availability has a second function: transmuting. Transmuting an energy token means discarding it to gain crystals, and the value gained from transmuting changes based on the season. A common element for that season will give one crystal per token, an uncommon will give two, and an inaccessible will give three.

Each season has a different set of dice; each die has a different set of faces, and the rewards can be some combination of +1 to summoning gauge, one to two energy tokens, one to six crystals, the ability to transmute energy tokens that turn, and drawing an extra power card. A game uses dice of each color equal to players plus one, and the table will essentially run a secondary mini-draft every round; the first player rolls and picks one die, then the next rolls the remainder and chooses one. The last player will choose one of two and the last one will determine how many months forward the game will go; each face has a number of dots between one and three, and the dots on the face of the non-chosen die will be the number of months that pass. There are three months to a season, so the game can be as short as twelve rounds or as long as thirty-six (mathematically averaging around twenty-four).

The first part of Seasons, the shortest part that determines the flow of the rest of the game, is a draft. For those unfamiliar, drafting is a process where a player selects one card from a set and passes the rest on; the cards circle around, with each player taking one at a time, until they’re all claimed. In Seasons, each player starts with nine cards and therefore ends with nine cards, but the draft lets you shape an overall strategy. After the draft, you have an additional choice to make. The game is divided into three “years” of four “seasons” each. Three of your cards will make up your starting hand, three will be reserved for the start of the second year, and three won’t be accessible until the start of the third year. It’s important to look at both the effects of the cards and their cost when deciding what cards to set aside for which year; for example, fire is only really accessible in the second half of the year, so if you have more than three good early-game cards it might be best to push any fire-heavy ones into the year 2 stack. It’s also important to note that you will be penalized for any power cards you don’t play, so you have to plan your strategy around playing out everything in your hand. Ideally, with the draft mechanic, you should have something of a strategy going into the main game, but again because of the draft, not every card will contribute well.

Despite the complex-sounding setup, the gameplay is quite simple. In a round, each player rolls the dice as described above. Starting with the first player (which rotates every round), each player performs the actions on their die, plays cards if they can afford it and want to, possibly uses the activatable abilities of their cards if any have them (most don’t), and then ends their turn. There are few enough options that turns move quickly enough that it can be difficult to remember who’s first player, which means the players stay engaged and no one gets bored. At the same time, the necessity of playing for both the short and long game, combined with there still being multiple decisions to make each turn, means that

A word of caution deserves to be mentioned about the cards. The beginner’s deck (using about half the available cards) follows the overall pattern described above, but the limited number of cards means that it’s easy to anticipate being able to get specific ones and that strategies can become repetitive. However, adding in the rest of the cards for the ‘advanced’ deck creates its own problems. A couple of the cards in the beginner deck have negative effects for other players, but there are enough additional ones—and nastier ones—in the advanced deck that, with the wrong deal, the game can end up less about pushing forward and more about dragging your opponents back. Because of these cards, and the fact that all cards in the opening deal end up having to be played, it’s best to consider carefully whether you want to upgrade. Still, many of the ‘advanced’ cards have more interesting effects and the game can feel more engaging with the increased competitiveness.

Final Thoughts:  This is a very good game.  It’s one of our top choices to seek out an expansion for, though, because the more cards that are available the more the game becomes one of adaptation to the deal rather than card counting and math regarding the deck.  The “advanced” cards go a long way to helping this but are unfortunately dense with effects that… well if this were Magic: the Gathering they’d be called “Stax” cards but here I guess you’d call them “Negative sum” cards in that they cause more damage to the progress of others than they help their owner.  I think the most problematic example is the Arcano-Leech, which, should it arrive too early, can lock players out of laying down any power cards for turns.  It’s not a bad card to have in the game, it’s just irritating when two of them are the first two cards played.

The card drafting followed by dice drafting is a very interesting system, in that there are still random elements (especially the dice rolling) but the player is given agency at every step along the way.  Combined with many cards that help to reduce randomness without eliminating it, I feel like that this is a model (though not necessarily a mechanic) that more games could adopt.

Settlers of Catan: Negotiation, Dice, and Problems with a Classic

Settlers of Catan: Negotiation, Dice, and Problems with a Classic

For many, Settlers of Catan is the first modern-style board game that they play.  As a gateway to the hobby, it’s done a world of good rehabilitating folks who think board games began and ended with the Milton Bradley and Parker Bros classics that most households and child-care facilities probably had a copy of somewhere but don’t hold up to anything resembling standards.

The basic gameplay of Settlers is centered around the five resources: wood, clay, sheep, wheat, and stone. Players trade in specific sets of these cards to build roads, build towns, upgrade towns to cities, and buy special cards that can earn them extra victory points. Towns are one point, cities two points, and victory is achieved at ten points.

Catan
This layout is White’s to lose, and White will lose it if no one rolls a six.

The acquisition of the resources is the main problem with the game (from our point of view). Firstly, the layout of the board is random. There are a specific number of tiles of each resource, but their relation to each other is randomized and it matters a great deal what tiles are adjacent to each other; towns are placed at vertices (adjacent to three tiles, since Settlers uses hexagonal tiles) and give resources based on all tiles at that vertex. Second, each tile has a number from 2 to 12 assigned to it, and these numbers are assigned at random. Tiles only give resources when a player rolls that number (though it doesn’t matter who rolled the number, only that the number was rolled) so if a board has one stone tile with 2 and the other 11, it’s going to be very hard to acquire stone that game. Because of these three levels of randomness, it’s difficult to maintain any given strategy; it doesn’t matter how good your plan is if the dice never give you the resources you need.  You can reduce some of the randomness in setup by using one of the “standard” deals from the rulebook, but doing that also removes a level of tactical decision-making, so it really ends up being a wash for the game.

Now, don’t get us wrong — randomness in games can be a good thing.  Cards, dice, and other mechanisms for creating outcomes over which the player doesn’t have 100% control add spice to a lot of titles.  However, there is an issue with too much random and the wrong kind of random.  Good randomness is typically iterative and represents a forking decision point — you have three paths in front of you, but Monty Hall barricades one of them with the dice leaving you to pick between the remaining two.  The randomness in Catan is more sequential, and rather than pushing what directions you can go all too often functions as a red light/green light for going anywhere at all.

Which brings us to the probably most polarizing aspect of Settlers of Catan: the negotiation.  Settlers of Catan is a game in which you are largely free to trade your resources with other players, and will have to do so to succeed.  Few indeed are the burgeoning empires with all the income they’ll require to hit 10 points.  However, this runs into a massive roadblock with one fairly simple fact of life in Catan: in the end, there can only be one winner.  This results in an endgame featuring a common problem we’ll call the Whack-a-Mole Effect.  Essentially, the Whack-a-Mole effect occurs when the set of all other players seeks to harm, hamper, or refuse to cooperate with a “winning” player because, quite simply, said player winning would make them lose.  It truly becomes Whack-a-Mole when multiple victory threats are established, and table politics break down into a sequence of attempting to spite whoever is up right now (like trying to hit whatever mole has reared its head in a game of Whack-a-Mole).  The Whack-a-Mole effect can be seen in any competitive game with negotiation or direct player interaction, and so is often a component of good games, but certain games provoke it more and in more detrimental forms than others.

Now, because the worst things you can typically do to your fellow players in a game of Settlers of Catan are establishing trade embargos and placing the Robber, it’s not the worst example of the Whack-a-Mole effect in gaming.  Games like Munchkin and Cosmic Encounter, where the active player’s position can actually be damaged by the behavior of non-active players, lay it on a little heavier.  However, Catan, while not nearly as much the subject of our ire as either of those other games, shares one problematic trait with them: thanks to the Whack-a-Mole Effect, the “Endgame” takes far more real time and engenders more hostility than it probably should.

Part of it is that, in our experience, the whack-a-mole style vendettas start earlier in Catan.  A few good rolls, or a setup that extends your road network quickly, and suddenly you are public enemy #1, at least until something goes well for the next mole in question.  Threat reassessment can be a fairly arbitrary occurrence so if you happen to be the mole to be whacked due to an ephemeral roll of the dice, the loss of the ability to trade will often linger and outweigh the boon you received.

And really, with the setup of Settlers of Catan, there wasn’t all that much the designers could do to mitigate this.  Games can avoid excessive Whack-a-Mole, even in an outright combat-positive game, by including mechanics that players behind can use to rubber band (lowering variance and making most players feel like they’re still ‘in it’ with their own strategy), by obfuscating proximity to victory or strength of board position at least somewhat (which Catan attempts with the VP-granting Development cards, though they’re rarely sufficient given, as mentioned, that Catan enters the “Whack-a-Mole” phase somewhat early), by providing players with a degree of self-sufficiency so a player who has pulled significantly far ahead can actually end the mostly ‘decided’ game barring a major upset (very hard to get in Catan, thanks to the randomness as well as the setup), by having a main or alternative endgame condition that is inevitable within reasonable game time (so you can’t just keep whacking moles forever), or by any number of other mechanisms or combinations of mechanisms.

Catan, however, wears proudly the consequences of its nature as a Negotiation-heavy game.  It’s possible that for some groups, this could even be a positive feature, those less inclined to look solely for their path to victory and more interested in wheeling, dealing, and taking whatever route profitable trades opens to them could have a better time with it, but I feel like those same people would want to have more assurances of their investments paying off than Catan’s 2d6 resource generation permits.  But for us?  The negotiation aspect tends to fall flat because it’s too core to the game without actually being implemented in an interesting, core fashion.

Yet after all this, is Settlers of Catan a bad game?  Well, no.  Not really.  As a gateway game, it serves its purpose.  It’s easily understood and even potentially won by people who aren’t used to modern board games.  It’s simple, without being problematically simple or simplistic, and it can provide a satisfying experience as you spread your towns and grow them up to cities across the board.  It just has some faults we find with it that mean that while we will play Settlers of Catan if it’s requested, we won’t generally be eager to bring it to the table ourselves anymore.

Fairy Tale: Do I Go for Dwarves Riding Dragons or Seven Faeries?

Fairy Tale: Do I Go for Dwarves Riding Dragons or Seven Faeries?

Fairy Tale

Fairy Tale is a fast-paced card game centered around “drafting.” For those unfamiliar, drafting is when you choose a card from your hand and pass the rest to the next player, and do so until all cards have been chosen.

In Fairy Tale, you get five cards for each of four rounds, and play three of those five; the goal is to combine your cards to get the most points. It has a slight sabotage element as black cards will force players to flip over cards, rendering them useless, but for the most part it’s just about trying to get the cards most beneficial to you while denying your opponent the ones most beneficial to them. It can get very competitive, but the games tend to be short enough that the competitiveness isn’t bothersome even to easily-stressed Steffanie.

Other than someone having difficulty with the concept of drafting, this game isn’t difficult to learn, either in gameplay or in strategy. There are only really three strategies for scoring (that can be combined): exponential (a card type that scales to X squared: 1 of the card is worth 1, 2 are worth 2 each so total 4, etc.), paired (one card type is worth 3, with a second being worth 3 times the number of cards of the first type), and high points (cards worth a flat 6 but that turn a member of their own faction, including themselves potentially, face-down). If that still sounds complicated, don’t worry–it’s very obvious once you’re reading the cards.

That is not to say, though, that Fairy Tale is too simple — there is enough strategic depth, in the very nature of drafting if nothing else, that the game actually has some staying power, and the Black cards complicate strategies. Similarly, while the best ways to score points are the geometric sets, cross-faction partners, or big-point cards, a combined arms strategy is often needed to win the game: you can’t rely on getting nothing but Baby Dragons so you have to make the best use of the cards you do get.

For those desiring even more layers, there are an extra few cards that are “Advanced” cards.  They allow the game to support up to five players instead of four, add a new mechanic called the Hunt (A pre-emptive offensive flip), and feature cards with alternate scoring opportunities such as having the most of a particular faction or card type, the latter of those features being marked but unused in the base game.

As is often the case, since the game is physically small (though I believe more recent editions have a larger box for shelf presence), it also tends to play quickly, and it’s not uncommon at our gaming table play Fairy Tale two or three times in a row.