This week I played the card game Smash Up. It is described as a "shuffle building" card game which means that players create their personal game decks by choosing between several specialty options, and then shuffle their decks to allow for a variety of play combinations. The ability to combine cards whose attributes work well together seems to be a crucial component of a successful Smash Up strategy.
The world of Smash Up is inhabited by a plethora of fantastic, mythical, and imaginary characters. From dinosaurs to robots to zombies, each "faction" of characters possesses unique skills, powers and attributes - the combination of which makes game play exciting and unpredictable. Players that I have spoken with casually about Smash Up enjoy these aspects of the game in particular.
I played Smash Up during board game night at Coffee@The Point coffee shop, in two consecutive weeks. The first time, I brought my roommate along for moral support since I'm usually uncomfortable and intimidated at the weekly group play sessions. We had decided ahead of time that we were going to play Smash Up and he brought his own copy of the game to be safe - even though I've seen multiple group members bring it almost every week. Sure enough, there were several copies that week. This allowed for discussion of which decks and expansions to choose from.
As with many card games that rely on multiple deck choices, Smash Up exists alongside several expansions that are sold separately. There are 8 expansions, each one containing new factions - some of which have been crowdsourced. From the Smash Up wiki I learned that there are 42 factions, which means that possible deck combinations containing pairs of factions has been raised to a total of 861. The expansion feature seems to be really important in the world of Smash Up than in other card games I've encountered this semester. For example, when we arrived at game night and another member who had brought the game immediately asked my roommate, "What expansions do you have?" He had acquired all but the most recent expansion and he kept them all in a large storage box also made by the company that makes the game. The storage box claims:
"Smash Up has grown up! After many expansions we heard the cries of the masses who sought a better way for holding Smash Up cards and we have answered them with the Smash Up: The Big Geeky Box!"
After playing the game once at game night, I then watched my friends play a session at my house a week later. I noticed that the play area was set up differently than my first time playing. My roommate revealed that the way we had played it previously was incorrect and that he had only recently realized that. From what I understand, rule interpretation and variation is common in Smash Up. I haven't read the rules myself, but I've overheard others discuss their uncertainty and offer their own interpretations. The "superfan" from this week's session explained how he uses the rulebooks: each set of cards and including each expansion comes with a rule book. The original rulebook isn't a book at all - it's just a couple of pages. The most recent expansion (the one that might not even be out yet...) comes with a 20-page book of rules, despite the fact that the expansion itself is small and adds only a handful of new cards. During my second play experience, I was pretty confused about the difference between a card's ability and its talent. I'm still really unclear about this and the player who was teaching our group admitted that he wasn't entirely sure, either.
Here is a blurb I found on the Smash Up wiki referencing rule discrepancy and interpretation:
"Paul Peterson and Todd Rowland, the creators of the game, have provided little to no authoritative clarification on the rules, so the Smash Up Community is left to resolve issues on its own. Hence, this wiki is no more or less authoritative than any other community decision on these matters."
I wonder if players have reached out to the designers and have not received responses. Is fluidity of play one of the appeals of the game, depending on who is playing and the understanding that players are bringing to the game at any given time? Because Smash Up relies heavily on creative combinations in order to strategize, perhaps the loose interpretation allows for even more creativity. I have seen players make educated guesses about what certain rules mean or play around their common understanding. It may even be an opportunity to earn respect when a player is able to cobble together a coherent interpretation and have the group agree on it by consensus. Below is an excerpt from the first chapter of The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games and Learning where the author Katie Salen discusses how rules affect the interactions that occur in game play:
"As designed systems, games offer certain terms of engagement, rules of play that engender stylized forms of interaction. Gamers not only follow rules, but push against them, testing the limits of the system in often unique and powerful ways." - Katie Salen
Several people have described Smash Up to me as easy to learn and uncomplicated. I suppose on the surface it is pretty simple. However, there are things about the mechanics that were quite challenging to me as I was learning: lengthy card play descriptions in small print, a large playing area with dozens of cards spread out over it, making it hard to read what is written on the cards from a distance. I was once again pretty frustrated with the learning context I found myself in. It has become a familiar scene for me at my weekly game night meetup: I gather around in a group of 4 - 6 people to play a game we've decided on, someone describes the rules, I have difficulty understanding the game play based on the overview, I have a very hard time following the instruction (I'm beginning to wonder if I have some sort of learning issue that makes it challenging for me to process verbal instructions...), we begin playing, and I have no idea how to play. The difference this time as opposed to previous meetups where I played games I'd never played before was that my roommate refused help me! I don't know if the regular game night membership is just really understanding and empathetic, or if my roommate was just frustrated with my inability to learn (coupled with the fact that he knows I don't really like playing games, ie. bias against my attitude) but he forced me to just "figure it out" on my own, without any assistance. The interesting thing is this: a regular member of this particular game night would never do that (as far as I can tell from attending for five weeks)! It took me being rejected by him to realize how much help I had been receiving from others for over a month. I confronted him about it later and explained that there is an expectation of collaboration and support at board game night. He responded that he didn't want to appear to be giving me preferential treatment over the other players and that he wanted to avoid any semblance of "cheating". I countered with the argument that this board game night was not competitive from what I could tell, that half of the players of any given game were playing it for the first time, and that the goal was informal learning and collaboration - all realizations that I had taken for granted until I was in a position where I wasn't receiving any help.
Critique the game's design, established constraints, particular play mechanics, or other limitations that inhibit alternative forms of learning or creative play expressions.
I am not particularly knowledgeable about game design, but when I am told by a devotee that a game's design is well done and when players that I encounter show their appreciation of its design, I pay attention to that. Because I don't design games I want to know what's good about the ones that people enjoy. I have heard Smash Up described as clever, ingenious, and exceptional among other things. According to my roommate, a good game design allows players to employ increasingly sophisticated strategies over time, enhancing skill level and effectiveness. Smash Up fits well into this rubric due to the hundreds of play combinations, and the constant balancing of powerful cards. As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the aspects of game play that is the most satisfying to Smash Up players. I asked if it was conceivable for two choices of factions not to work well together and it appears that it is absolutely possible. However, this is only discernible through play - trial and error, if you will.
As I was flipping through the cards trying to choose two factions to comprise my deck, I came across the "Geeks" faction. I immediately recognized Wil Wheaton on one of the cards, signifying to me that this was a serious tribute faction. There is also a card representing Felicia Day, co-creator with Wheaton of the TableTop web series on games. The other characters appear to be the types of people you would meet at gaming conventions. Here is what struck me about the women portrayed in the Geeks faction: they have clothes on. They look cool and fun to be around. They're not overtly portrayed seductively or gratuitously sexualized. Are these "ideal" women that superfans and major geeks would like to be hanging out with? I don't know the answer to that, but I can surmise that it's better to be portrayed as a geek girl than as a lascivious wench - which is a character who appears in another faction that I have used previously. The "superfan" who coached me through my second play session revealed an interesting perspective on two of the cards that portrayed women and their actions. The Fan, pictured below, never stays on base. When she is played, she gets immediately discarded, giving her player the opportunity to draw a brand new card, creating the potential for a better, stronger turn. The Fan is behind the scenes, but she is powerful because she keeps her player's turn going, she sacrifices her presence in game play to make room for more opportunity. I wish I could accurately describe the superfan's description of this woman. It was almost...adoration. And it was honestly kind of touching.
Another example of Geek play is the Felicia Day card. It is also a powerful one because it moves every point-bearing card on the table - including those of your opponents - to a base of your choosing in order to claim that base. The "superfan" explained the phenomenon to me as such: "Imagine what would happen if Felicia Day walked into a con...everyone would flock to her." And that's exactly what her "power" does when you play her card in Smash Up. You'll be happy to know that I played my Felicia Day card and I won that base...smart move, huh?
Salen, Katie. “Toward an Ecology of Gaming." The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Edited by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 1–20.