Onboarding

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I consider Smash Up to be a lifestyle game; I use this term because a) to play effectively you need to devote a non-trivial amount your life preparing for it and b) it will take a great deal of your life extracting all the value that it can offer and c) it will be difficult to appreciate the game if not played on a semi-regular basis. I have never gotten (and likely will never be) tired of this game because of its boundless replayability – not just from the 1000+ faction combinations but also because of the player configurations. Games will play out very differently based on the number of players as well as the personalities of those players. At the same time, these nuances make Smash Up an extremely difficult game to teach; worse, the interactions and seemingly porous rules do not help the process along. Yet such an amazing game must be introduced to everyone we know, and we want these players to enjoy playing Smash Up and play competitively. How do we do this? Here are some lessons I’ve learned from teaching Smash Up to many a player.

Smash Up is an investment in time and the person
I often joke that, when teaching someone Race for the Galaxy, another one of my favorite games, I want a signed contract that says I will be friends with this person for at least two years because of the effort involved. Smash Up is easier to teach, but only in a constrained set of circumstances. So why bother? Unless a player has specifically asked to learn Smash Up, or you know the player will remain in your gaming group for the foreseeable future, this is not the game to introduce. It can be mean; it be frustrating; it will cause debates over the rules interpretation. There are hundreds of amazing games you can choose that will leave a positive impression on the first play; this isn’t one of them and it’s not for everybody. Choose your players carefully, because it will take time to understand the flow of the game; I’ve played over a hundred games of Smash Up and I’m still learning more and more. I have several years of experience that I bring into every game of Smash Up, so to mitigate that …

Give new players an overpowered faction and yourself a terrible combination
It can be very difficult to enjoy a game when you’re losing badly, which is very likely when playing against an experienced person who knows every card you have. New players will only know what’s in their hand, much less how to combine their powers. To compensate for this and level the playing field, handicap yourself by taking two terrible factions that really don’t work together while doing the opposite for your opponents. By doing this, you allow yourself to play to win without artificially affecting the game by playing sub-optimally. There are dozens of great combinations from which to choose (more on that later), but for terrible combinations, it will come down to what expansions you own. The base set has rather balanced combinations; if you have the Awesome Level 9000 expansion, Ghosts are an obvious candidate. Vampires from the Monster expansion or Ignobles from Cease and Desist are also great choices. Innsmouth is probably the weakest faction overall, so use them if you have the Obligatory Cthulu expansion. When choosing your opponents’ factions ...

Avoid Wizards, Robots and Specials – Use Straightforward combinations
Wizards have an Archmage that can play an extra action each turn, which can be used to play Summon, which can be used to play a Chronomage, to play an extra action, to play another Summon, to play a Neophyte revealing the top card of your deck, which may be an action … If not played carefully, Wizards will burn a lot of cards without accomplishing much of anything. There is a finesse that comes with experience that allows players to maximize their abilities, since it requires a strong partner faction to unleash their potential. Therefore, they are not a great choice for someone’s first playthrough. Robots require extreme care and must be played in the proper order, otherwise they just look weak. Undoubtedly someone will get the order wrong and not play the Microbot Fixer first, then any number of Zapbots, and the Microbot Alpha, and they shouldn’t necessarily all be played on the same base, which is the initial tendency. Similarly, factions that play differently from most others or rely heavily on Specials add more complexity than the simple goal of playing more power than the other players. Ninjas are often best when playing from behind and trying to trick your opponent, which is difficult to do when you don’t even know what they do. I’ve found that Zombie Dinosaurs are not only extremely strong but very straightforward to play. Dinosaurs supply power (and a lot of it) and the Zombies help you bring that power back continuously. Tenacious Z is the only Special card in that deck, and a brief 30 second rundown of how to use it is all that is necessary to explain the nuances of the deck. Killer Plant Aliens are another great choice, since the Invader grants a VP and the Sprouts can fetch them and the Aliens can return and replay them. If you need a third combination, Cyborg Ape Mythic Greeks are a great choice because each faction plays well by themselves, so you do not need to worry about how they synergize. Note that none of these options have “before a base scores” Specials, which simplifies the understanding needed to play the game at first. You might need all three options because you should …

Teach more than one person at the same time
Smash Up works extremely well with two, three or four players, but games with two players have a very antagonistic, min-maxing feel to it. Everything I do is (hopefully) great for me and terrible for you. This creates an advantage for the experienced player because all moves are directly hurting the sole other player. Instead, by increasing the player count, while still underpowered, you will inherently be forced to spread out your attacks and focus across all players. This gives each player a greater chance of winning because you are not denying a specific player repeatedly. This approach has the added advantage of letting new players see more factions at the same time and gain an appreciation for the scope of the game. Speaking of which …

Have a card reference ready
In my opinion, the most important part of Smash Up is not knowing what is in your deck but knowing what is in your opponents’ deck. On your turn, most everything you can do will be deterministic, but that will change drastically if your opponent has Specials or can consolidate or drop an extreme amount of power on their turn. Rather than having them study their deck, provide a form of reference that they can consult on other players’ turns or before they make a critical move. I maintain a word document and have an alphabetical binder that players have loved to use. It gives an indication as to what each faction does and what surprises one must anticipate. However, knowing what is in your deck is a close second in terms of importance, and the card reference helps here as well. It is impossible to plan effectively or understand your factions’ synergies if you do not know what cards you have. These tips will greatly help with a player’s first game of Smash Up, and when playing a second game …

Do not switch up the factions. If you do, rotate the same combinations among players
In my experience, for that second game, it is 50/50 as to whether players will want to try out a different combination. Many players will want to replay the game again with the same variables to get an increased understanding of the flow and build upon what they learned last time. Others will appreciate the breadth and depth of the game will want to try something new. If the player is willing to keep the same faction, it is generally better to do so as the second round will proceed much smoother; if not, when playing with multiple players, keep the same combinations or give them to different players. This way, players will have the experience of trying a new faction while having some information already about what they do. This creates an important compromise between new experiences and limiting the learning curve. Regardless of what they do, it’s best that the experienced player does not swap factions unless specifically asked to by a player. There is a lot of information and game knowledge that is needed to play Smash Up effectively, and adding more uncertainty when players feel like uncertainty should be decreasing can be quite jarring.

Using these suggestions, I have successfully taught Smash Up and created some competitive players after only a few rounds. While this game is not for everyone, there is a lot about the game that players can enjoy if Smash Up is presented in an accessible way. Crank it Up!