Smash Up calls itself a “shufflebuilding” game. The game consists of 20-card half-decks, each of which is a faction like aliens, pirates, tricksters, and zombies. Each player picks two, shuffles them together, then tries to capture bases and conquer the world as zombie pirates, alien tricksters, robot dinosaurs, or a similar smash up. Each faction has a mechanical theme, and the combination gives you your strategy for the game. Expansions add more factions like bear cavalry, giant ants, princesses, and time travelers.
Recommended. The game is fun on several levels.
The first is theme. The main selling point of Smash Up is that you can play as robotic werewolves, ninja plants, or steampunk cyborg apes. It is wacky, customizable fun. Small amounts of roleplaying and enthusiasm go a long way once your dinosaurs start eating leprechauns or your alien kittens start abducting ghostly wizards. There is some weakness here as imagination is required to make some things mesh. Fundamentally, they are still just two decks of cards shuffled together, so sometimes it feels more like zombies allied with princesses than like zombie princesses. Or like they’re just standing next to each other. In a perfect world, you would be playing Smash Up on a computer and the cards would really merge, with customized cards so that the minions would look different in their different combinations. That would be a lot of customized artwork, expanding geometrically with each expansion, unless there is a good way to do it procedurally.
Due to randomization, it is more of a tactical game than a strategic game, but it does that pretty well. There are always multiple factors in play, and you have several options to choose from. Decisions feel meaningful, and you get to make at least two decisions per round. The two-player game feels more strategic, the four-player game more chaotic. (You can play bigger games with expansions, but it slows down play and can drown your meaningful decisions in chaos.) The randomization is sufficiently constrained for me but high enough for casual play.
Reading balance debates online, there seems to be little consensus, which usually means “just about right.” Some factions will be better with different numbers of players; the power of dinosaurs or zombies seems stronger in the more stable two-player game, while the flexible pirates and ninjas can shine amidst four-player chaos.
There is a booklet of rules, but most of them fit on the backpage summary. That makes it a non-gamer game with enough depth for gamers. Good, that is the combination we want.
I have enjoyed playing with the base set and the Awesome Level 9000 expansion. My wife is really looking forward to when our Pretty Pretty Smash Up arrives with its expies of Disney Princesses and My Little Ponies. Princess dinosaurs, here we come!