Storytelling Breakdown Blog Entry 021

A Game I’ll Always Remember – By Ben Clemmer.

From the title, I couldn’t blame you if you came into this with some expectation I’d talk about the matchup between Gonzaga and UCLA from this past Saturday. I have grown up as a fan of college basketball and even had some good luck in bracket pools over the years thanks to Duke, Villanova, and UConn.

However, today’s blog post is not about basketball.

There’s a game I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and by that qualifier alone, it probably means it would be good for a blog post. The company Alderac Entertainment Group recently released a Marvel version of their popular Smash Up game. The game gets its name from shuffling decks of two different groups of cards called factions to make a player’s deck. As you’d imagine, the Marvel version features an Avengers faction and Spider-Verse faction. If you’d prefer to play as the villains, there’s also a Hydra faction and a Sinister Six faction. 

My wife and I have already played a pair of one on one matchups with the Smash Up Marvel set. We’ve both managed to win one. I look forward to the day when I can gather around a table with friends again to play this game with all eight factions involved.

And I keep thinking back to a game that remains one of the best Smash Up games I’ve even seen.

The setting was a game night I started hosting in college where at least a couple dozen games would be played by anywhere from a dozen to two dozen friends in a six hour window on a Saturday night. This particular evening was the second game night I’d hosted and we’re winding the clock back far enough that I only had sixteen Smash Up factions (those who know how many expansions that game has know how low that number is). To determine an overall game night winner, we even played a semifinal that would decide who would play against me in a final game of Smash Up.

For a game to matter more, it helps to know the players involved. To my left was my friend, Jacob. Jacob and I had known each other since high school going back to our speech days. We reconnected at USF even before we both started studying music technology. I also knew from several previous games, Jacob was a formidable Smash Up opponent and he chose to play with the Alien and Trickster factions, two of the most disruptive factions in the game. The Aliens send cards back to the players’ hands. The Tricksters (think little Gnomes, Leprechauns, and other small creatures) caused chaos by leaving traps on bases and causing other players to have to discard cards.

Before I describe the next three faction pairings, I should give some clarity on the object of the game. Each player’s faction decks are made up of minion and action cards. The goal is to play minions and actions to increase your power, or decrease your opponents’ power, on other cards called bases. Each base has a breakpoint, or power total at the base that when reached will cause the base to score and victory points to be awarded. The first player to reach 15 victory points (VP) wins the game. 

If any of that was unclear, you can find out more about the game in the same place I did, thanks to Wil Wheaton. I watched that video in its entirety before I ever played or bought the game.

Next to Jacob was our friend Lucas. We met in college during our freshmen year. He was one half of a particularly entertaining trombone section in the pep band, while I sat a row back on the bass guitar. One conversation about Kingsman: The Secret Service during a basketball game made me realize how many pop culture influences we might have in common. Lucas’s factions for our game were both from the Awesome Level 9000 expansion. He had the Ghosts and the Bear Cavalry. Picture a bunch of Russian soldiers riding bears and you get an idea of what that one looks like. The Bear Cavalry was a powerful faction capable of moving other players’ minions around to disrupt them or destroy them. The Ghosts were a powerful faction as well, but they rewarded a player for keeping their hand size small. Most Ghost abilities work best when you have two or fewer cards in your hand, which could be risky.

To Lucas’s left and my right sat Caleb, Storytelling Breakdown co-founder and co-host. Back then I’d only known Caleb for a little over a year or so after meeting him through Lucas. Caleb’s combo was the Robots and Steampunks. The Steampunks were a power faction that could do a ton of damage when they played action cards on bases. Combined with the Robots, who had a bunch of tiny minions that could swarm in large groups, you had a dangerous faction combination. The Robots, like the Aliens and Tricksters, came from the base Smash Up game set. The Steampunks came from the Awesome Level 9000 expansion.

If Caleb’s team had a lot of gears, wires, and engines, my faction combo was a horror show. I had the Zombies from the base set who could swarm relentlessly from the discard pile. I paired them with one of my favorite factions from the Monster Smash expansion, the Werewolves. The Werewolves are a pure power faction, with many of their minions more powerful than usual on my turns or when bases break. I liked my pairing.

How did the game go?

All of my friends are competitive and they brought their best to the first half of this particular Smash Up game. Caleb’s Robots and Steampunks let him jump out to an early lead thanks to how quickly he was able to bring out a lot of power all at once. The only player who could match Caleb strength for strength was Lucas, thanks to the Ghosts and Bear Cavalry both being as powerful as they are. The Robots just gave Caleb a slight speed advantage and thanks to having many small minions, Caleb’s robots were present on most bases that reached their breakpoint and scored. Meanwhile, Jacob’s Aliens were wreaking havoc as they sent cards back to our hands and found a way to pick up an extra VP every now and then.

Where was I during all of this? 

I was still at zero VP. 

Yeah. Smash Up is one of my favorite games and I was sitting at a table with three people who actively wanted to beat me at it. If there was a chance to send a minion back to a player’s hand, it was usually me getting one of my Werewolves or Zombies back. If there was a base that was going to score and I had a minion in play to get some points, Lucas’s Bear Cavalry usually found a way to move my minions so they would score no points. I knew they were going to give me a battle. I wasn’t expecting to get annihilated.

And then one small change happened in the game, or a couple of them. I think the guys realized that I was not their biggest threat from where I was on the scoreboard. Caleb still had the lead with seven or eight VP and the others were right behind him. They began focusing more on disrupting each other instead of me. If they had an ability that could only hit one player, I might not get the worst of it for a change.

The other thing that changed had nothing to do with strategy at all, but rather what cards were available. Somehow despite shuffling, Jacob had managed to play mostly Alien cards in the first half of the game and not many Tricksters. Both are disruptive, but their impact is very different. The Aliens are more targeted. They’ll send one minion at a time back to a player’s hand to get them out of play. The Tricksters usually destroy minions or force players to discard cards from their hands, either way sending cards to the discard pile. As Jacob moved from primarily using Aliens to using Tricksters, everything changed. For the others, it ranged from an inconvenience to devastation.

But a full discard pile when playing with the Zombies? 

That’s a land of opportunity.

The change in landscape made itself clear as I started playing multiple Zombies and Werewolves a turn. It was like clouds had uncovered a full moon and the impending swarm couldn’t be stopped. I started breaking bases and winning them on consecutive turns. First, I passed Lucas. Keeping his hand size small to make the best use of his Ghosts had been crippling when Jacob’s Tricksters forced discards. He’d start his turns with no cards to play, draw up, and then it was Caleb’s turn. I passed Jacob next to steal second place and set my sights on Caleb.

As we neared the endgame, I could just picture the Steampunks and Robots racing to the finish with an army of Zombies and a pack of Werewolves closing the gap behind them. I respawned my Pack Alpha (the most powerful Werewolf minion) twice as I broke bases and needed one more turn to go from a distant last place to a victory.

But I was sitting to Caleb’s left. He broke a base for the win one turn before I could and that brought one of the most ridiculous Smash Up games I’ve ever been a part of to an end. He had 15 VP to my 13.

It’s not an accident that our tabletop gaming community overlaps with our podcast community. Caleb and I have already had Lucas on and I’m sure Jacob will appear on an episode soon. Until then, please enjoy our latest episode and we’ll have another one out before the end of April.

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