|Components & Design
Two Smash Up expansion reviews in two weeks? Well, what can I say, we have been playing it a bit lately. If Smash Up is still entirely new to you, it’s a card game that publisher Alderac describes as a shufflebuilding game. That means that, before you play, you pick two decks of cards representing a popular faction of pop culture, like the Pirates, the Ninjas, the Bear Cavalry or the Cthulhu Cultist. You shuffle those two decks together and take your resulting Cthulhu Cultist Robots or Wizard Ghosts into battle over the available base cards against up to three other players. If you want the gory and hilarious details, check out the original Smash Up review.
Smash Up: Science Fiction Double Feature is the third expansion the game, after Awesome Level 9000 and The Obligatory Cthulhu Set, and just like those two it adds four new factions to the mix. Unlike last week’s Obligatory Cthulhu Set, the new factions in Science Fiction Double Feature don’t all have the same theme – you get one guess what that was in the Cthulhu Set – but are more distinct from one another. Fortunately, I should add. Okay, technically they have a common theme with “things from a bad 80s sci-fi movie”, but frankly, that is true for most of the factions in Smash Up anyway, it’s what makes it so much fun. So we’ll count that as not having a specific theme and see what each of the factions has to offer.
They’re Apes. And they’re Cyborgs. Honestly, if that place in my heart wasn’t eternally taken by the Bear Cavalry they’d be my favorite faction. Forget those Planet of the Apes apes that had the evolution of their brains fast forwarded, because these apes passed that step and went straight on into improving themselves with technology. The apes are mostly a straightforward faction, they have minions and they have actions to improve those minions’ power. They also have abilities to use their actions more effectively, like minions on which you can play extra actions, and especially the great Cyberback that you can play actions from the discard pile on. Don’t talk to him about facing extinction, because you’ll be facing it alright. The apes pair well with any faction that accelerates the deck with card draws, Cyborg Wizard Apes are very nice. Or you go full on violence and pair them with the Dinosaurs. You won’t have any tricks to speak of, but you’ll definitely dominate the battlefield.
Surely someone told you once that you should always be yourself. (Except of course when you can be Batman. Then you should always be Batman.) Well, these guys aren’t buying it, they’d rather be anyone but themselves. Which is perfectly understandable, they are pink blobby things, of course they’d want to be someone else. The Shapeshifters have many abilities to turn into someone else. Mostly, that takes the shape of destroying one of them and replacing it with any card from your deck. Awesome as that sounds, most of them are limited to cards with lower power than themselves, severely restricting their utility. Some Shapeshifter cards also get to copy other things on the table, like the Mimic who’s power is equal to the highest power on the table, or the Copycat who gets to copy another minion’s ability. Although their abilities sound awesome, in practice the Shapeshifters seem somewhat weaker than other factions, depending a lot on what the other players put on the table. On the other hand, they are difficult to play against as well, giving other players a reason to hold back their strongest cards for fear of having them copied. They don’t play well with factions with strong minions, because their abilities can not bring those to the table. Shapeshifting Robots work surprisingly well, all those small minions that buff each other when they are on the table are great to summon up on demand.
So Super Spies aren’t strictly speaking a science fiction trope. But many James Bond movies don’t put them entirely out of that genre either. The Super Spies bring two entirely new things to Smash Up: some truly awful James Bond references like “Discards are Forever” or “The Spy who ditched me” and some limited ability to manage your deck. Many of the Spies’ abilities let them look at the top cards of their deck and place some of them at the bottom, the rest back on top. With this ability, they rarely draw cards they can’t use, and can find specific cards almost as quickly as the Shapeshifters, with the advantage that they can find actions. They have some other nice gimmicks, too. While the Secret Agent is in play, for instance, each other player who plays an action must discard a card. The Spies are universally useful, but keep one thing in mind: the cards you don’t want end up at the bottom of your deck, so eventually you will draw them all at once. Better make sure to leave a good mix for later.
Killing your own grandfather is not a good idea. But killing someone else grandfather makes pretty damn sure he’s not going to mess with you in the present. That’s sort of hard to put in a game though, so instead the Time Travelers have some other tricks up their sleeves. They have some ways to take minions back on their hands and play them again immediately, super awesome for those minions with special effects. They can also take actions back from the discard pile. The Time Travelers are another faction that sounds stronger in theory than in practice, but they do work well with another faction where the minions have powerful effects. Time-travelling Ninjas can really clean up the battlefield.
After I complained last week how the four factions of the Cthulhu Set were all built around the same new game element – Madness Cards – Science Fiction Double Feature does better again in that regard. There are no new game elements that are mostly irrelevant to you if you don’t play one of the new factions. Instead each deck has its own mechanics and its own character. Not all factions are equally strong, some are harder to play than others, but they all have combinations that make them shine, and they are all fun to play. Now I’m just curious how many new factions are still possible without copying an existing one while keeping the rules simple. I hope it’s a couple more.