Full disclosure: A review copy of Spell Smashers was provided by Renegade Game Studios.
Here’s another Gen Con / Essen Game that I’m excited about. So, as you know, there are a few types of games I Really Like On Principle: dexterity games, word games, and real-time games, for starters. Naturally, this means I keep my ear to the ground for new games in those categories, especially games with fun themes or weird pairings of themes, as well. Naturally, this turned my attention to Spell Smashers, the newest word game coming from Renegade Game Studios.
In Spell Smashers, you’d think you’re going to disperse all the monsters plaguing town with magic, but … that’s not the kind of spell you’re going for. No, these spells are words you’re spelling, which is super fun. Combine consonants and vowels into power and strike down evil monsters, and try to manage your wounds to keep yourself afloat while you take trophies. Will you be able to out-word your opponents? Or will you end up spell-bound?
This takes a fair bit. First, set out the town board:
It also has a solo side, which you can use in the Solo Mode:
Also give each player a Player Board:
Shuffle the Consonant Cards and place them nearby:
Do the same for the Vowels:
And the Wounds:
Yeah those are much more difficult letters to use. Good luck with that! You can shuffle the Quests:
Place those on the quest spot on the board under the Guild Space. Shuffle the Gear Cards:
Place those on the Armory space. It’s weird that the orientation changes but whatever. Since you’re shuffling all kinds of things, shuffle the Monster Tiles:
There are also Modifier Cards. Set out Starting Modifiers equal to the number of players:
Shuffle the other Modifiers into a deck:
Put a Monster Crest above each Monster:
And put money on them equal to their money value plus the money value of the Modifier card:
You can also put the potion types on the Alchemist space:
And set the Ale tokens by the Tavern:
Now, have every player draw 7 cards — 4 Consonants, and 3 Vowels. Give each player a Ready / Not Ready token, as well:
You’re about ready to start! Give the first player the tiebreaker token:
The other token is the Round Tracker token; place it on Round 1 on the Town Board. Also, give the second player 1 money, the third player 2 money, the fourth player 3 money, and so on. You’re ready to start smashing spells!
So, a game of Spell Smashers takes place over 7 rounds, as you attempt to slay monsters for prestige, glory, and, of course, victory points. Hurting monsters is good, but killing monsters lets you take them as trophies, which earns you even more points. This is done in three phases: Prepare Word, Battle Monsters, and Visit Town. I’ll explain more in detail.
This phase is pretty simple. You just make a word out of the cards in your hand / any Monster Trophies that you have. Same rules as every other word game: no hyphens, apostrophes, proper nouns, or weird stuff. Once you’re ready, flip your tile to “Ready”. Once everyone is ready, reveal your words.
The player with the longest word (letters, not cards) has first Initiative for the next phase. The player with the shortest word (again, letters) takes the Tiebreaker token. If there are ties in letter count, break ties in order of clockwise proximity to the Tiebreaker token (person who holds it, person to their left, person to that person‘s left, etc). Once you’ve gotten the Initiative order settled, it’s time to battle some monsters.
Now, it’s time to fight monsters and defend the town! In initiative order, of course. Each player will, on their turn, choose and attack a monster that hasn’t already been defeated. If you’re wondering, that means you must attack a monster if there is one that’s still alive, even if you don’t want to; sort of like Evolution: CLIMATE occasionally forces you to eat your own species. Also, note the modifiers! They may do things like:
- Cause you to lose gear in order to attack.
- Cause your attacks to do more damage.
- Cause your attacks to do less damage.
Or a variety of other things. Your gear may give you similar bonuses, so check that as well. For each point of damage you deal, take one money from the monster’s corresponding crest. If you have dealt at least one point of damage and If you defeat the monster (remove all of its money), you take its crest and discard its modifier. If you deal more damage than the monster has health, you’ve overkilled the monster! You still discard the modifier and take the trophy, but the excess damage you deal is not used for anything else.
Most monsters will deal some damage back, which is only fair. This damage is called Wounds. Whenever you attack a monster (even if you defeat it), you take wounds equal to the number of wounds on the Monster Trophy (this can also be modified, so, keep an eye on that). Draw cards from the Wound Deck equal to the number of wounds that the monster gave you. These letters are (usually) a bit more difficult to use, and they’re worth negative points at the end of the game (-1 for each in your hand), so, bad across the board.
Once you’ve completed your attack, discard all the cards you used in the attack (except for your gear and trophies; this isn’t Bargain Quest). Play continues until all players have attacked a monster.
Also, if you complete any quests during this phase, reveal them and keep them face-up. You’ll obtain quests normally later. Once every player has attacked a monster, all players will return to town. Place a 1 Ale token on every Monster that’s still alive.
Go to town! See the sights, buy some potions, brag in a bar, you know, the usual stuff.
As soon as players go to town, every player draws 2 Quests from the Guild space. From those, keep one and return the other to the bottom of the deck. If this means you now have 3 or more face-down (incomplete) quests, you must discard one to the bottom of the deck. You may only have 2 incomplete quests at any time.
Now, go about town! This can basically happen asynchronously. There are a few locations you can visit, but each player can only visit one location per round. In the final (7th) round, the town is closed and you proceed immediately to scoring, instead.
- Shaman (possibly mandatory!): If you go here, you may discard all of your wounds! That’s good. However, the Shaman will take one of your Monster Trophies as a fee! That’s bad. Thankfully, the village has a solid form of socialized healthcare so if you don’t have Monster Trophies, the Shaman will just heal you for free! That’s also good. The only thing is, well, if you have 5 Wounds you must go to the Shaman. You will take no other action in town.
- Tavern: Brag about your wounds and people will buy you drinks, which is … actually pretty thematically accurate, so, respect. You can gain 1 Ale per Wound card you currently have, provided you’re willing to pay 3 money to get into the tavern in the first place.
- Alchemist: Go see the potion master and buy some potions. You may spend money to buy any combination of potions, but you may only have one of each! Seriously, don’t take more; it breaks the game.
- Elixir ($2): You may change the damage type of any one of your cards to any other damage type. Useful for getting those bonuses.
- Antidote ($3): You may discard any one letter or wound card and draw a letter card to replace it. Great for avoiding the Shaman.
- Tonic ($5): You may treat any letter (even one that’s part of multiple letters on a card) as any other letter. Helpful if the letters aren’t quite doing what you want.
- Armory: You may spend $5 to draw two Gear cards. There are two types of gear: weapons and armor. At the beginning of each round, before you spell a word, you may choose which gear you want to use. Any extra gear goes into your Extra Gear Pile. Regardless, all Gear Cards you have at the end of the game are worth 1VP per 2 Gear Cards you have.
- Guild: I mean, you’re allowed to go here again. Same procedure as before: draw two, keep one. What fun you have.
Once all players have done that, you redraw up to 7 cards. You may draw either Letters or Consonants, one at a time. A new round begins and play continues until the end of Round 7.
End of Game
After Round 7’s Battle Monsters phase, skip the Visit Town phase and proceed straight to scoring, which works as follows:
- Monster Trophies: 3 VP each
- Gear Cards: 1 VP per 2 Gear Cards
- Completed Quests: Whatever VP it says on the quest! There is no VP penalty for incomplete quests.
- Ale Tokens: 1 VP per ale token. Keep in mind that some of the ale tokens have 3s on them; just be careful.
- Coins: 1 VP per $5.
- Wounds: If you have any wound cards in your hand, -1 VP per Wound. Try to avoid that.
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
The major differences are around initiative manipulation. Generally speaking, at lower player counts, you kind of are fighting with another player to be … well, not first sometimes. If you’re first, early in the game, you risk hitting a monster enough that your opponent can defeat it. As you get stronger gear, it becomes more useful to go first so that you can defeat monsters preemptively. You could, as a third option, try to not do enough damage such that the second player can’t kill them, either.
At higher player counts, well, it’s much harder to tell. Going first is still usually a complex idea, given that, but it’s definitely worth feeling out how various people play and where you can try to slide in to claim hits. The nice thing is that you have more options with monsters, and unless you get lucky on modifiers, it’s very rare to be able to defeat a monster in one hit. Either way, you want those Monster Trophies — they help you make much longer words and they’re extremely lucrative, which is also nice. Either way, the major issue is that it’s going to be difficult to pin down exactly where in the initiative order you want to be in order to take out the monster you want, so try to read the table a bit and see how the monsters are doing before you rush them.
Additionally, as you increase your player count, the game tends to take longer (it’s played over several rounds rather than a certain number of monsters), so I tend to prefer it at the 2 – 4 player count rather than 5, but that’s a personal preference towards shorter length games.
- You need to learn how to function in the Initiative ordering. Sometimes you want to be first, so you can kill monsters with lots of health and gain their Trophy, money, and points. Sometimes it’s better to be last because your word is terrible but maybe you can defeat a monster that only has 4 health left. Other times it’s better to go after the first player because there aren’t enough monsters
- Monster Trophies are worth a lot of points and they can help you build longer words more easily. Overvalue them, a bit. Their primary function is the 3VP you get for them, sure, but it’s important not to understate their value as like, extra letters that you always have access to. Our last round in one game I played we had the words DEFYING, SUMMONER, and PENALIZED all get played because we had players with enough Monster Trophies to do some serious work. One player in particular got +3 damage per Monster Trophy, leading to a 22-damage turn, which was astounding. The more damage you do, the more likely you can defeat a monster, so the more points you get.
- If you don’t have much to do, spending $10 to get all three potions isn’t the worst idea. It really does help a lot to have the ability to get rid of a Wound, change the damage type to something more favorable, and change one letter. Does it help 2 points’ worth? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely not bad to have the option available, especially later in the game.
- Usually when I have four wounds I’ll go to the Tavern. You gain four points, for that, which is pretty helpful (though you lose $3). It’s not a bad thing to do towards the end of the game, especially, because you may not be able to get rid of all the wounds in your hand (and thus will take negative points for each of them, cancelling out the ale tokens).
- I spend the first few rounds in town hitting up the Armory. While the Starting Stick is … okay, it’s probably better to have things that up your damage a bit more drastically or start suggesting certain ways you should play the game. That tends to be the way you earn points. Plus, every two times you hit the Armory, you get a point! That’s also good.
- Avoid the Shaman at all costs, unless you have no Monster Trophies. The Shaman gets rid of all your Wounds, sure, but you lose 3VP (via losing a Monster Trophy). Plus, you also lose access to that letter in subsequent rounds; that’s not very good. Only go if you have to, and even then you should be making sure you never have to.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I love word games. It’s just one of my absolute favorite types of games. That, real-time games, path-building / network-building games, roll-and-writes, and tile placement games are all great, for me.
- Having specialized vowel cards super helps accelerate the game along. There’s nothing more frustrating than that classic Scrabble moment in Calvin and Hobbes where all you have is consonants. Sure, you might not get the vowels you want (there are a stupid number of Os and Us, it feels like), but you’ll at least have some when you want to build a word.
- The modifiers are a lot of fun. Adds a nice bit of variety to the game, since you’ll rarely fight the same monster (or set of monsters) more than once, and you’ll need to vary your approach to do the right thing.
- There are a lot of different gameplay options / paths to winning. Having a lot of Gear, focusing on Quests, even just kinda killing monsters are all solid paths, though you’ll need to find where your particular balance lies. The Gear route is helpful because you can be a lot more flexible with the letters you have, whereas the Quest route provides more options to shoot for, generally speaking. It’s always nice when games try to provide these alternate routes, though; beyond “kill monsters” there doesn’t seem to be a dominant strategy.
- Wounds as a catch-up mechanic are pretty solid. It’s a nice way to slow players down (and the negative VP are always helpful, should a player figure out a way to stymie the wounds, which I have done in several games). That’s generally pretty good.
- The initiative management mechanic is super good. It’s rare to see a word game where you don’t necessarily want to spell the longest / highest-scoring word. Most of the time that’s good, but putting yourself in a bad spot with regards to initiative isn’t goood; you need to make sure that you can force your opponents to weaken monsters you can finish off or that you can go early enough to defeat a monster in one hit. I don’t see that a lot, and I’m always excited when a game does something novel.
- The Gear space on the Town board is oriented horizontally but the cards are vertical. That’s just odd more than anything else.
- It would have been nice if the Starting Modifier Cards had different backs. As it stands, they have the same backs as the regular Modifier Cards, so it’s very easy to accidentally shuffle them into the deck. The only difference is that they have a star on the front, so they’re also missable if you’re skimming through the deck quickly. It’s unfortunate.
- It would be nice if armor and weapons were separate decks. I played an entire game where I drew 4 cards and never got Armor, which was frustrating. I understand that’s partially to incentivize buying more, but it would be nice if Gear of both kinds was easier to get.
- There are a surprising number of different decks of cards. This can lead to some confusion (or at least some issues) when you’re trying to draw cards or put them away.
- Setup is kind of a pain. There are five decks of regular cards that you have to shuffle, the Modifiers, the Monster Tiles, and the Starting Modifiers. 9 total things need shuffled before you can start the game, and they all need to be kept separate. That’s a lot, at least, relative to the types of games I normally play. It’s a bit of a barrier to play, for me.
- The game will be frustrating for players if they don’t “get” the initiative manipulation aspects of the game. We have had a number of players get left behind over their first few games; part of this is that they keep just trying for a certain initiative (or just the Highest Possible) without being strategic about it. You’ll know you’re not doing well if you’ve collected 0 Monster Trophies, which is … not great. I think it’s something that players kind of figure out on their own over their first game, though.
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, Spell Smashers is a lot of fun! I think the easiest way for me to play it is just to distribute setup among a few players while I explain the rules (it, at least, means that I don’t have to spend as much time shuffling as I fear I would do otherwise). The thing is, I’m already pretty bound to like it — I love word games, and this is, by and large, a pretty good one! There’s some incentives to not always spell the longest word in your hand (which is kind of neat), instead trying to help you understand what the “best” word you can play is. And that’s pretty situational! The theme’s a bit “generic fantasy”, for my tastes, but I’m sure that lands with plenty of people, so not every theme is required to cater to me, specifically. Either way, if you’re looking for a fun fantasy combat game, a neat word game, or if you really like shuffling cards when you set up a game, I’ve had a lot of fun with Spell Smashers; maybe you will too!