Smash Up

Paul Peterson
2 - 4
12 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

Our review copy of Smash Up was kindly supplied by Alderac Entertainment. Thanks a lot!

Today, we’re looking into the most discussed question on the Internet, the question that has the greatest minds on the web fighting: who would win in a fight, Ninjas or Pirates? But that question doesn’t really go far enough, now, does it? What about Zombies? Those buggers just won’t stay dead, so would Ninjas or Pirates be able to defeat them? What about Dinosaurs? And then we have the real tough questions like this one: if Ninjas and Aliens were to team up against Pirates and Wizards, who would win? I bet you don’t have the answer, either. And that’s okay, these questions are hard to answer while maintaining proper scientific procedure. But now Paul Peterson gives us the proper instruments to end the debate once and for all, or at least until the next game, and that instrument is Smash Up.

We're overrun! Retreat! Retreat!
We’re overrun! Retreat! Retreat!

Smash Up starts with the idea of a collectible card or deck-building game, but then it cuts most of the building and drops you in the middle of the ridiculous action. All the building is done with two simple choices and a good shuffle. Your two choices are which two factions you pick for your team: Pirates, Ninjas, Zombies, Wizards, Aliens, Dinosaurs, Tricksters or Robots. Each faction has a deck of twenty cards, you shuffle your two decks together and your army is ready to go. Any combination is possible, old enmities are forgotten for the game. Even Pirates and Ninjas can team up. That’s the idea of a shufflebuilding game, as AEG calls Smash Up.

All factions have the same two types of cards, Minions and Actions, but not in the same distribution and definitely not the same cards, all factions are completely unique. With your deck set up and five cards in your starting hook – or hand, if you’re not playing Pirates, but why would you not play pirates? – you’re all ready to go. On your turn, you may play one Action and one Minion, in any order you like. Or even not at all, because both are optional. Many cards allow you to play an “extra” Minion or Action, that’s exactly what it sounds like: one more than the rules would allow you. Actions are the more simple type: you play them, resolve the card effect, and discard them – at least in most cases, some actions have ongoing effects and stay in play until that effect ends.

Minions are the cards that will win the game for you, because Minions have Power and with that Power they conquer Bases, another type of card that goes to the table and waits there to be conquered. You can play minions at any base on the table, regardless of other player’s Minions being there. You might even prefer Bases with some minions there already because when the sum of all players’ minions’ power exceeds the Breakpoint of the Base that base is scored, awarding its points to the three players with the highest total power there. Most bases to the obvious thing and give the highest score to the most powerful player, but on a few bases coming second is actually worth more points. Once a base is scored, all cards there go to their owner’s discard pile and the base is replaced by a new one. Almost all Minions also have an effect when you play them, and often it’s a tough choice whether you should play a minion for its power in one place or its effect somewhere else, because no one is ever lucky enough that both are useful in the same place.

The card effects are really the part that makes Smash Up fun – after you played it two or three times and know which effects there are, being surprised by your opponents cards is not the most fun. And they are also where each faction displays its individuality – next to the brilliant illustrations, of course – because each faction has a theme that it expresses through the effects. Despite having eight different factions with different strengths, Smash Up is well-balanced, no faction has a noticeable general advantage. Some are simply strong against a specific other faction, but recognizing that and drafting your factions accordingly is part of the game.


Aliens are green little bastards and just as annoying as you expect them to be from bad science fiction movies. Their greatest fun is abducting other players’ minions and returning them to their hands – not as mean as destroying them, placing them on their owner’s discard pile, but very annoying. And Zombies hate it, they really do. When abduction is not enough, they also have the nasty ability to exchange bases and they are the only faction with a card ability that simply gives them a victory point. In a game that ends at 15 points, that’s pretty good. Go Invaders!


Dinosaurs are big. That’s actually all you need to know about them. King Rex with his 7 Power is the single biggest minion in the game. On top of being big, someone gave these dinosaurs lasers. And rocket-launchers. What we have here is big, bad Dinosaurs who believe they are Duke Nukem. Their deck is unsurprisingly heavy on minions, and the actions they do have mostly make them beefier. (Can I call Dinosaurs “beefier”? They are nothing like cows…)


Ninjas do what ninjas are supposed to do. They kill. Ninjas focus on destroying minions. It’s just like the rulebook says, when you can see them it’s already too late. They have a secondary focus on remaining unseen until it’s too late in another context: they often unexpectedly show up at a base right when it starts scoring. Curse them!


Pirates are almost the opposite of Ninjas – like that’s a surprise to anyone any more. They are loud and boisterous and – okay, they still kill people, but in a more good-natured and jovial way than Ninjas do. But just like Ninjas,  they show up suddenly unexpectedly, not from the shadows but from the sea. With their pirate ships, they sail in on the high tide and pillage a Base before anyone knows what’s going on. The Pirates strength is movement, they can move their minions around like nobody else, and moving is very powerful indeed in Smash Up: effects that would trigger when a minion is played on a base are not triggered when a minion moves there. Pirates are completely under the radar. Arr!


Robots are not big and powerful – except the Warbot, which is also indestructible – but they are many. And they replicate quickly. Did you ever read a science fiction story where malfunctioning nanobots convert all matter on earth into more nanobots? That’s what these robots do, every other minion you play lets you play an extra minion. Flooding a base with Minions has never been easier.


Tricksters, the coalition of kobolds, gnomes and leprechauns, is another faction that specializes in annoying the heck out of people. Their particular flavour of nuisance is discarding, as in “every other player discards”. They also have some ongoing effects at their disposal that can really ruin your day, most prominently placing a trap on a Base that will destroy the next Minion played there. They also have some big minions at their disposal – ironic when you’re talking about the little people.


Mystery and magic are the Wizard’s business. Their minions are nothing to write home about, scholars don’t make the greatest fighters, but what they lack in power they make up in speed. Wizards play actions for extra actions to draw extra cards they can then play as more actions. No one goes through their deck faster than the wizards. That doesn’t sound like much of a superpower, but when coupled with another faction it’s a kind of magic.


And finally, we have Zombies. Zombies are all about coming back from the dead, again and again and again. Whether it’s taking cards back from the discard pile or playing minions from there as extra minions, if it can be dug up again, the Zombies will use it.

Now, while no single faction is much more powerful than the others, the same does not go for pairs of factions. Some just work well together, and some fall short. You want to be sure to have enough minions to bring to the table. Power is not as much of an issue, as long as you have the numbers and can bring them to the table quickly. Decks with few actions, however, can work. But every combination actually plays differently, so you’ll have to figure out yourself what works and what doesn’t. Another thing to work out, best before the first game, is how the card effects work and what exactly the few keywords mean. The card texts are not really complicated, but unless you know all the details, it’s easy to get some of them wrong – I know because I messed up at explaining the game once, and it was a disaster.

Mine Detector - The Easy Way
Mine Detector – The Easy Way

Now, compared to real deck-building games, Smash Up lacks one level of strategy: you’re not actually building a deck, so you don’t decide which cards to add and which to skip. But there is still enough to think about while trampling your enemies under your feet, with every card having a different effect you have lots of options. A bigger downside to starting with a full deck is that in many games you don’t get to shuffle your deck even once, and that means you don’t get to play all your cards. It’s frustrating to play Pirates and Dinosaurs and see neither King Rex nor the Pirate King the entire game, believe me. That’s just bad luck, of course, but seeing all your cards at least once during a game would be nice. Either the game should be longer, or there should be more cards that let you cycle through your deck or search for specific cards, it didn’t have to be the privilege of the Wizards to do that.

But Smash Up is one hell of a lot of fun to play: it’s quick, it looks great and it leaves you with enough opportunities to mess with your opponents. It’s not a deeply strategic game, but it does have enough depth to keep it interesting for a long while, and since every faction plays differently you have a whole bunch of combinations to try, too. Oh, and did I mention the Smash Up box is about twice as large as it needs to be? Of course, that could be to store a second game inside – the rules allow mixing two games so two players can pick the same faction – but a card game in a too large box? I’m thinking expansion. The only question is: what factions are missing in Smash Up? Leave a comment what faction you would like to see, I’m curious.

And then there is the other question, of course. Did we do science? Did we figure out if Ninjas would kick Pirate ass or if the Pirates would broadside Ninjas into oblivion? Sorry, there’s no definite answer yet, experiments are ongoing.

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  1.  I would absolutely love the Businessmen faction. I would pair them only with Zombies and call them PowerPoint victims.

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