|Spell Smashers (2018)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [2.27]
|Player Count (recommended)
A review copy of Spell Smashers was provided by Asmodee Nordics in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Some time ago now I wrote a special feature on the games I’d most love to see cross-bred in terrifying and unethical experiments. I just wanted some evil scientist to take DNA from one, inject it into the other, and see what grotesque hell-baby emerged as a result. One of the pairings I requested, and one I have occasionally whispered in wish form as I rub random lamps around my home, was Scrabble and Rock-Paper-Wizard. I was dreaming of a cardboard version of the videogame Bookworm Adventures – something best described as a Scrabble RPG.
They do say you should be careful what you wish for.
Let’s talk about Spell Smashers!
Spell Smashers is a Scrabble RPG, of sorts, where you wield your words as weapons to inflict damage upon the poor misbegotten beasts that plague the village where you happen to be residing. You know what they say – ‘sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will mess your shit up’. For someone like me, who has always viewed argumentation as a contact sport, Spell Smashers is something that seems nigh on designed with my personality disorders directly in mind.
Unfortunately for Spell Smashers, I am literally never happy, even when a game comes by that is exactly like the game I said should exist.
Before we get to that, let’s talk through the structure of a single round because that’s the reason why Spell Smashers isn’t the newest five-star game to get the Meeple Like Us treatment. The devil, in this case, is very much in the details. We will though also talk about some of the minor demons that are lurking elsewhere in the design.
You’ll enter each round with a set of randomly generated monsters on the table. Each monster has a certain kind of trait that makes cards better, or worse, for inflicting damage. Monsters have wounds they inflict upon players, and a wound in this case is a letter card that contains a vexatious compound like… ‘ed’ or ‘ing’, or ‘ta’. Those wiggle their way into your future words like little parasitic ticks.
You begin by choosing what your active weapon and armour is going to be, choosing from your collected set of purchases and prizes. These confer bonuses upon your words – extra damage for fire letters, more damage for longer words and so on. You pick the best weapon for the job at hand, which is based on the cards you have and the enemies you face.
Each player around the table simultaneously forms a word from the cards in their hand, making use of the vowels and consonants and injuries they have accumulated. Each card has a damage type and a damage amount, and the number of letters in the word determines initiative. Initiative decides who gets first pick of the monsters arrayed around them. When everyone has flipped over their ‘ready’ token, words are displayed and player order is calculated.
In initiative order, players choose a monster to attack, calculating the damage they do from their word and the special features of their target. When you hit a monster, instead of blood it’ll spurt out hard currency that you’ll catch and then spend in the village. If you kick all off the cash out of a creature, you defeat it and claim its head as a token. That token is a victory point marker, but also contains a permanent letter you get available for all future words. You discard all cards that you spent on your hand, separating out into the three different discard piles that are strewn around the table. Once everyone has done this, the tie-breaker marker, used in initiative contests, then goes to the player that had the lowest initiative word.
You draw wound cards equal to the wounds inflicted on you by the monster, whether you killed it or not, and then you check your active quests (of which you will have up to two) and see which you’ve completed. You’ll take the money you have to the village where you can get access to new quests, new equipment, potions, healing and so on. Once you’re done here you draw cards back up to seven, including wounds, add a special ale token to each surviving monster, and then replace any monster that was defeated during the course of the round.
Then you do it all again.
I usually don’t spend a lot of time in a review talking about how the specifics of how a game works. That’s what rulebooks are for. When I discuss mechanics in this kind of depth, it’s because it’s critical to understanding how a game landed for me. And in this case, it landed like a series of unwelcome chores that got in the way of actually having the fun I wanted to have. The core idea is joyful, and I had a lot of fun making on-spec words to conquer roaming baddies. I enjoyed choosing my loadout. I enjoyed the actual core of the game. But to get to that I need to wade through an ocean of components and cards. Spell Smashers is to your table as a leaky tap is to your bathroom floor.
The list of things you’ll have to be setting up, discarding and tidying up include:
- Modifier cards, which need to be broken up based on whether the cards are starter modifiers or otherwise.
- Gear cards, which you’ll accumulate in some quantity as the game goes on.
- Quest cards. You have a maximum of two of these and thus you’re constanty cycling them out of your hand and into the discard pile.
- Monster tiles. They’ll be in front of you as trophies, in front of the village as enemies, and stacked in a tower ready to be dealt out once more.
- Ale tokens, which act as loose victory points that you pick up during play
- Potion tokens, in three different types
- Coins, which are cascaded onto each of the crests associated with each of the monsters as well as in front of your player and in a general supply
- A ready token that you flip to indicate you’re ready to play out a word
- An initiative token to track player order
I know of actual roleplaying systems, designed to let people live out year-long campaigns of epic adventure, that have less bloat in the design. There’s so much to do here and so little of it actually improves the core aspect of matching vocabulary to violence. If ever a game needed to learn the lesson that ‘less is more’, it’s Spell Smashers.
The thing is, this isn’t bad design. It’s just a game that went for breadth when it should have gone for depth. It sprawls where it shouldn’t sprawl. All the effort that went into this excessive ornamentation would have been better spent making the Scrabble ‘Em Up mechanisms richer and more expressive.
This isn’t the real problem with Spell Smashers though. It is though the cause of the problem.
The reason I went through the round structure in such depth was to show how much you had to do to go through a full cycle of play, and one thing I hope is obvious – there are a lot of decisions you need to make and aside from the main word construction, none of them are particularly interesting. If you trust everyone around the table, a lot of this can be done simultaneously which is a powerful tool for efficiency… but it’s also the poison in the rhythm of play that all but kills it.
In a game like this, thinking time is a resource that needs to be handled carefully. There’s no time limit on making a word in Spell Smashers, the rule is ‘when the ready tokens are all flipped, it’s go time’. But if you’re the last person to put your word down you’re aware of a tremendous amount of pressure on you. The game doesn’t continue until you make your move. The only thing stopping anyone having more fun is your lethargy. Social pressures, rather than game mechanisms, are what keep games of Spell Smasher going along at a reasonable clip.
So what happens if, for example, one player is still deciding on the gear they want to buy while the others are looking at their hand of refreshed cards and calculating the words they can make?
What happens is that thinking time becomes inextricably coupled to just how much effort people invest into the largely extraneous activities of the game. And, more problematically, they’re hopelessly entwined with how much time people spend setting up the next round. If you’re the player that is dealing out new monsters, every second you spend doling them to the table and filling out their health from cash tokens is spent from your thinking time. The result is that by the time you actually get to look at your cards, the chances are everyone has already decided upon their words and flipped their ready tokens to indicate so. That’s your reward for the diligence you showed in curating the game state. You get to be the centre of impatient attention as everyone waits for you to spell a word from the cards you haven’t yet had a chance to even glance at.
Good luck having fun with words under those circumstances. Even in a group where everyone is cool, you can feel the impatience radiating out of everyone.
The alternative to this scenario is a strictness in sequencing that borders on militaristic. ‘Company, cards down-two-three-four. Monsters… OUT-two-three-four. Cards… UP-two-three-four’. The only way to sync up thinking time is through a slavish obedience to the least interesting parts of Spell Smashers. It’s hard to imagine that leads to a more enjoyable evening for anyone except perhaps for a drill sergeant on their day off.
Compare all of this to the sequence of play in Scrabble.
- You draw out your tiles
- You play a word
The rules of Scrabble do everything they possibly can to get out of your way. Spell Smashers, in comparison, feels like visiting a random website without your usual arsenal of inconvenience-blocking plugins. Yes, I’ll accept cookies. No, I don’t want to subscribe to your newsletter. No, I don’t want to register. Yes, I guess I will wait five seconds to skip this ad. Please, for the love of god, I just wanted to see how the paragraph in your social media teaser ended.
What’s most frustrating here though is that parts of Spell Smashers contain, as options, what should be presented as core mechanisms. Some monsters, as their trait, drop a loot card. Why not just do that for all of them and get rid of the town entirely? Give players a supply of potions to begin with. Deal out a couple of quest cards at the start. Let the randomness of those approaches energise the wordplay, forcing people out of their comfort zones if they want to take advantage of their equipment. A simpler approach to pretty much everything that isn’t just making up a word would have massively improved the fun to administration ratio. The good stuff is good, but there’s not enough of it – proportionally speaking – and it stops the good stuff being great.
Sorry Spell Smashers. You were almost exactly what I said I wanted but it turns out I didn’t want what I thought I did. It turns out if ever there was a case for a publisher releasing a contraction pack, as opposed to an expansion pack, this is the game I’d most like to see as a target for the experiment.
A review copy of Spell Smashers was provided by Asmodee Nordics in exchange for a fair and honest review.