‘Smash Up’, by AEG, is pretty much a do-it-yourself version of all the “high concept” stories out there that slap two memes together as a substitute for actual creativity. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about, right? The ones where some screenwriter says, “Oh, zombies are big right now, and steampunk is very in…I’ll make a ‘steampunk zombies’ movie! I’ve earned my million bucks!” Luckily, ‘Smash Up’ gets all the good ones out of the way quick so that you don’t have to waste your ten bucks watching the inevitable ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ adaptation.
The game has eight factions (Zombies, Aliens, Dinosaurs, Pirates, Wizards, Robots, Ninjas, and Tricksters–your basic leprechauns/gremlins/sneaky mythic beasties) with an expansion on the way that adds four more (Steampunks, Ghosts, Killer Plants, and for some reason Bear Cavalry.) Each faction has a deck; each player picks two factions and shuffles them together into one bigger deck. So in one game, for example, my Zombie Dinosaurs will vie for supremacy with your Robot Ninjas (and Bob’s Pirate Wizards and Jane’s Trickster Aliens…the game is rated for 2-4 players.) Each faction has its own particular strengths; Zombies, for example, have loads of cards that come back out of the discard pile for more, while Dinosaurs have the biggest and stompiest minions. Part of the trick is picking combos that work well together.
You don’t directly duke it out, though; you each work to conquer a series of bases operated by hapless humans. Each base has a “breakpoint” (the total amount of minion power needed to conquer it) and a point total (the amount of points that the base is worth.) When enough minions are at the base to reach the breakpoint, the base is scored; the winner gets the first number of points, the runner-up gets the second, and third place gets the third number. (In a four-player game, player four is SOL.) Any minions at that base then get discarded, and a new base is drawn to replace the old. Whoever gets to 15 VP first wins.
Play is very simple: You can play one action card per turn, one minion card per turn, and then you draw two cards. But the action and minion cards pretty much all have special abilities, each of which reflects the abilities of the faction, and so a lot of complicated strategy comes out of those very simple rules. If you have zombie pirates and a base near breakpoint, you can play a Saucy Wench to kill your opponent’s minion, then row over a Zombie Lord in the Dinghy to score the base and get first place. Then, on your next turn, you can play They Keep Coming Back to replay the Zombie Lord…and, in the process, play two extra minions at the other two bases. The mechanics are easy to learn, but it feels like you’re constantly discovering new tricks to pull off.
The game is fishing for expansions a little too obviously (you know that they’re going to be coming for your money again and again when the box has slots for sixteen extra factions beyond what it comes with) but it’s got a lot of replayability, and it’s simple enough to teach in under five minutes. It’s also easy enough to master the rules to play with your kids, which is nice, because they’re going to want to play any game that lets them make Dinosaur Ninjas and Zombie Wizards. I’d recommend it as a fun party game and a light break between longer and headier games.