Of all of the board games I own, Smash Up is the most frustrating.
I bought Smash Up on a whim a few years ago. I played it, bought a few expansions, and retired it. I had a good enough time with it, but it always kind of bothered me. I always got the feeling that it was trying to be two different things at the same time, and that those two things were too different to really work together cohesively.
Let’s first look at the initial impression you get when you pick up the game. It’s an appealing looking box in a very early-to-mid-2000’s Ultimate Showdown Of Ultimate Destiny kind of way. The box is covered in the various factions in the game in a very cartoony style that immediately draws the eye to it. Pirates, dinosaurs, robots, zombies, and more adorn the box in a colorful art style. The logo and tagline equally evoke a sort of cool and irreverent tone, having striking and bold block text and declaring itself to be “The Shufflebuilding Game Of Total Awesomeness!”
So the first impression is probably that this is a lighthearted and funny game. That’s not entirely incorrect. The art on the cards and some of their names have definitely gotten a chuckle out of me a couple of times. But don’t get it twisted. This isn’t Munchkin, where the comedy is a core part of the experience. I wouldn’t bust this out at a party like I would something like King of Tokyo or Unstable Unicorns. If anything, this game has more in common with Magic: The Gathering than Munchkin.
When I bought this game, I was expecting a fun and silly time that I could easily bring out at parties or other social events with multiple people. Instead I got a pretty strategic card game that forces you to manage your resources, plan ahead, and think tactically about every move you make. Capturing bases with your cards and undercutting your opponents is inherently fun gameplay, but that’s not really what I expected when I bought the game. The fun and cartoony art style is more like chocolate sauce on top of the meat and potatoes of the gameplay. It’s fun and cool but it’s not super necessary, and doesn’t actually work super well (though dark chocolate sauce on meat can be absolutely delicious when done right but that’s beside the point).
The humorous presentation kind of undercuts the deep strategic gameplay. When I tried the game for the first time, I was honestly pretty disappointed when I played. The tone I thought the game was going for with its presentation and art style was completely different from the tone set by the gameplay. The fun art quickly melted away as I increasingly focused on what the cards did instead of what they looked like. I just kind of stopped caring about the art in the game and focused purely on the mechanics. In a more cohesive game (like Magic: The Gathering) the two would go hand in hand to enhance the experience, but in Smash Up they actively work against each other. It feels like two different games instead of a united whole.
It really is a pity. I had high hopes for Smash Up but it let me down. It’s still a fun game full of sweet interactions and tactical plays that can definitely entertain you for loads of play sessions. There are approximately ten thousand expansions to keep the content fresh if you’re a really dedicated player of the game. Just don’t get the Cthulhu expansion. That one sucks.