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Monday 14 October 2013

Meme Melee Mash Up

Alien Ninja versus Dinosaur Tricksters versus Pirate Wizards versus Robot Zombies or Alien Dinosaurs versus Ninja Pirates versus Robot Wizards versus Trickster Zombies or Alien Wizards versus Zombie Tricksters versus Robot Pirates versus Dinosaur Ninjas or… Take an Internet meme like Pirates versus Ninja versus Robots versus Monkeys and whisk into a stiff froth and what you have is Smash Up: The Shufflebuilding Game of Total Awesomeness!, a card game published by Alderac Entertainment Group. Best known for its Legend of the Five Rings CCG and Legend of the Five Rings RPG, Alderac Entertainment Group has within the last three years expanded rapidly into the design and publication of board and card games. Smash Up, which was the  2013 UK Games Expo Awards Best General Card Game Winner, is a light card game, designed for play by two to four players, aged twelve and up, in which different factions team up and battle for control of the world!

Smash Up consists of eight factions – Aliens, Dinosaurs, Ninjas, Pirates, Robots, Tricksters, Wizards, and Zombies, each represented by a twenty-card deck. A ninth deck, containing sixteen cards, consists of the Bases, such as the ‘Temple of Goju’ or ‘Evans City Cemetery’, which the factions will battle over. To win, each player must take control of a pairing of two of these factions, usually randomly determined, which might be Robot Tricksters or Pirate Zombies, and use it to take control of these Bases. Score enough points from these Bases – fifteen Victory Points is enough – and a player will win.

Each faction consists of Action and Minion cards, the latter valued between one and seven Power, but at the heart of the game are the special abilities particular to each faction. Aliens zap the minions of rival players back into their hands; Dinosaurs, many with lasers for eyes, get to stomp on Bases with their big Power and scare other factions when it is not their turn; Ninjas sneak onto Bases just at the right time when you least expect it; and Pirates can set sail easily from one Base to another. Robots bring out lots of tiny little microbots that quickly stack and power each other up; Tricksters – fae such as gnomes, gremlins, and leprechauns play seemingly random ruses that protect their Minions or have consequences on attacking players; Wizards cast spells that let them play extra Action cards; and Zombies never die, but end up in the player’s discard pile to swarm back out again. Playing one faction might be easy enough, but mastering Smash Up means getting to grips with how one faction interacts with another, because the abilities of one faction will usually affect the other faction in a pairing. 

The game starts with each player taking two faction decks and shuffling these together. This is the ‘shufflebuilding’ of the game’s title and it is how a player forms his deck for the game. Then a number of Bases are laid out, equal to the number of players plus one. Each Base has a Breakpoint, ranging from sixteen to twenty-five. When the total value of Minions on the Base played by everyone equals or succeeds this Breakpoint, the Base is smashed and Victory Points are scored. Each Base awards points to the player with the highest total value in Minions on the Base, and then to the players with the second and third highest totals. As soon as a Base is scored in this fashion, a new one is added to fight over. Each Base has a special ability of its own. For example, ‘The Central Brain’ grants everyone Minion a +1 bonus to its Power when played on the Base, whilst the ‘Rhodes Plaza Mall’ awards one Victory Point to each player for every Minion he has on the Base when it scores.

Each turn a player can play two cards – an Action card and a Minion card, though he does not have to play either. Played onto a Base, a Minion has a set of instructions that trigger as soon as it is played. Usually this means getting to add another Minion to a Base or sending a rival Minion away, but the exact effect varies from one faction to another, and this essentially is Smash Up. Play is very simple, but things get somewhat complex when it comes to working out how the cards interact with each other and how they continue to affect the game from turn to another. This requires keeping track of the text on the card, and that can slow game play down, as can having to add up the total value of the Minions on a Base at the end of almost every turn, though neither really impedes play. Indeed, the text on the cards actually adds a little tactical substance to the game.

Physically, Smash Up is an attractive game. The cards are very nicely illustrated and the rules are clear and simple. The language used in the rules is sometimes annoyingly, if not patronisingly, informal and should never got past the editor. The inclusion of a scoring track would have been a useful addition.

A recent trend in game design has been the ‘deck building’ game, a type of card game in which a player builds and manipulates his own deck of cards in order to create the optimum deck and so win the game. Alderac Entertainment Group has published several of these, including Nightfall and Thunderstone, but Smash Up cuts to the chase – one ‘shufflebuild’ of two twenty-card decks and a player is ready to go and finds himself playing a simple, but strongly themed beat ‘em up card game that adds a little complexity and a surprising tactical substance when working how the cards interact. Smash Up: The Shufflebuilding Game of Total Awesomeness! is light and fun, attractive and varied with innumerable combinations to try out and see who gets to Smash Up the world!

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