Kickstarter Preview: Super Nova Smash!
This small box is filled with bright colours, sharp lines, simple geometric shapes, and a title ripped directly from b-rate action films from the late 90s to the early 2000s. You can almost hear Arnold Schwarzenegger's voice screaming for your help, as he pilots a ship through a dangerous supernova. And according to the designer of Super Nova Smash!, a game currently seeking funding on Kickstarter, you're doing just that, sans Arnold. The box mentions you'll be "Racing through the blast zone of a supernova,' and need to "Fly fast and be the first past the finish line!" in this "...fast-paced, out-of-control card and phone party game in space." I'll be upfront and say, without a drastic change to the art, components, gameplay and mechanics, you will likely forget about the space theme within seconds of opening the box. On the surface, this game doesn't look like the kind of game I'm likely to enjoy. I'm a slave to all things story, theme, and complexity, which Super Nova Smash! is missing all of. But, because I was sent a pre-production copy, and liked the idea of play-testing an upcoming game, I agreed to play the game, and report to the designer what I found. After a few games, I wasn't having fun racing through space, gunning for the finish line. But, I did have a fantastic time playing the organized chaos packed into this tiny deck box and a simple phone app.
A disclaimer. This is a pre-production copy of a game currently jostling for funds on Kickstarter. I'm told the deck, rules, and app will see little change at release from the game I've been enjoying for the past few weeks. But, as many people know, the world of Kickstarter is rarely as perfect as that. So, I will be focusing on the game and rules in their current form, and reserve much of my opinions and more conventional review content for the retail release. You will have to draw your own conclusions, decide for yourself if this is a game for you, and push that "Back this project" button without my help.
So, how does this gameplay?
Before the game starts, each player needs to proceed to their App Store of choice and download the game's app. Once installed, everyone starts it up while one player creates a lobby, which everyone else joins. You're now ready to play. I was immediately curious about compatibility in a world where fanboys swear loyalty to either Apple or Android. The designer assured me a single game could be played between the two different operating systems. That was great to hear, but be aware I never got to test it out as my household and most friends devoutly pray to Tim Cook.
Super Nova Smash! is a card game for 2-6 players, the goal of which is to be the player with the highest score at the end of a certain amount of rounds. You get points by emptying your draw pile and finishing mini-games on your phone faster than the other players. You also dish out negative points by dealing damage to the other players. The app tallies each player's scores and accumulated damage throughout the rounds, declaring the winner at the end.
Each round begins with the deck of 96 cards being dealt out evenly amongst the players, forming each player's draw pile. Each phone is placed in front of its owner, who then deals one card face-up on the table, acting as a discard pile. Everyone then draws 5 cards and activates each app. Once all players are ready, and each phone has been activated, the round begins.
The game follows the mantra of many other card games that frequently get played in a party or bar setting. The easier to teach and play the game, the better, and this game does a pretty good job of that. Everyone plays at the same time. Players begin playing cards of one value higher or lower on any player's pile, whose phone reads "GO!," including their own, while their screen says "GO!" If your screen is blank, you have to wait till it changes, but other players can't play to your pile either. As you play the cards in your hand, continue to draw cards from your draw pile, up to your hand limit of 5. Ultimately, you're trying to discard all of your cards the fastest. It doesn't really matter where you play cards 1-5, but every 0 card in a discard pile counts as one damage for that player. So, ideally, you're playing those cards on your opponents, while trying to keep your pile in a range difficult to play a 0 onto it.
You're likely to get comfortable with the cadence of the decks moving from in-play to off-limits, reasonably quick. You'll also quickly question the need for the phones in front of each player. Within a few minutes though, the game will interrupt your rhythm, introducing shockwaves that all players have to complete on their individual phones. As of writing, there are 5 shockwaves that will pit players against each other, forcing their attention away from the cards, and squarely on their phones. You might have to scream at your phone, your voice cracking while you try to be the first player to sustain a specific volume. The most straightforward challenge is tapping your screen as fast as possible to spin a disc up to a certain speed. Another shockwave finds you tapping individual asteroids as quickly as possible, as they fly towards you. Each phone is synced up, so each player is completing the same shockwave at the same time, competing for the fastest time. Once you complete the shockwave, you can continue playing cards on any pile, until all players have finished. This is the point where you'll likely understand the race imagery written on the game box.
And that's it. When you've played all your cards, you tap your phone, and you wait for the other players to finish. You will then collect all the cards, shuffle them, and start another round. Or, if you were on the last round, all the phones will announce the winner and the runner-ups, and the salty losers will demand another game.
I don't know what I was expecting when I first received this game. I have been giving abstract, light and party games more attention lately, finding a place for some in my collection. They make sense at the start of the night, to break the ice. Or at the end of the night when most other players have gone home, and you have that one guy asking for "one more game," they are a great way to appease him without playing another hour-long game. Pubs and bars are a great place to play games with friends. But, unless you have a severe lapse of judgement, you're unlikely lug Gloomhaven through those doors. Instead, most gamers will focus on tiny and quick games that require little communication between players and no competition with the usually loud speakers. But as I have less experience with them, I struggle to find the good ones in the vast sea of mundane, boring, and carbon copies of other games with a small twist.
Immediately, the small box of Super Nova Smash! intrigued me, though. Firstly, I had never heard of or seen the premise implemented in any other game. The game easily fits into a bag, purse or pants pockets, removing the need of the usual blue Ikea bag I struggle with when toting games around. The art and colours are a breath of fresh air, in an industry over-saturated with dark and earthy tones that populate so many of the dungeon crawlers popular today. It's easy to teach and very accessible for everyone, as long as they each own a phone and know how to use it. Gameplay is short, but only if you want it to be. The rounds can be increased or decreased in the app, allowing you to finish a game before the appetizer arrives, or last over 60 minutes if you're in the mood for a long, loud, and frantic championship.
There are some problems I have, though. The screaming game is ludicrous. It could be a blast if the game is played at a house. But, I live in an apartment, and my neighbours quickly complained about the unusual sounds emanating from my usually peaceful apartment. I made a suggestion to the designer for the choice to disable that game in the app setting, venting my frustration at its inclusion, only to have him laugh at me. He quickly told me the option was already in the app, and I had somehow missed it.
The game also falls into the same issues as many other app-driven games in the industry, where their use isn't as simple as they initially seem. Setup with the app was a breeze. But that was always in my apartment, which has Wi-Fi and a host willing to divulge its password. But, as the game requires a Wi-Fi connection for the phones to communicate with each other, and the only place this is mentioned being on their website, it could be disappointing for a group looking forward to playing the game somewhere out-of-reach of a wireless router. I'd love to see this fixed, allowing for the game to be played over Bluetooth or some other technological witchcraft, but I'm guessing it's not possible.
And, as the game does require an app to play, you may find some apprehension from new players needing to download an unknown app to their phones. This isn't really a complaint or something that can be troubleshot by the developer, but it should be noted before you bring the game to a game night and look for people to play with.
As I already mentioned, I've begun to open my game collection to more games I once had no desire to play. Games like Sushi Roll, Linkee, Skull, and Slide Quest have a permanent spot on my game shelf. I've found a need to have games that are not only easy to teach and accessible to a broad range of players but also light on a theme and quick to play. And, Super Nova Smash! fulfills all these requirements in spades. It will definitely have a place in this small section of my game collection from this point on