Brian Wolf bathes the Tiny Swords universe in baby blues and pinks. It’s a style that sticks out against the darker, edgier styles that many strategy board games take. Folks looking at the box might not expect the strategic depth…but maybe that’s part of the point.
I sat down with Tiny Swords SMAAASH at Portland’s BetaCon before the Kickstarter campaign began; I’ll admit that the giant pink-and-blue checkerboard tablecloth caught my eye. Brian Wolf’s a friend of mine through multiple creative channels here in Portland, but I’d never had the opportunity to play their games before. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in terms of gameplay, and I’ll admit that maybe I was expecting something really simple. To my delight, that wasn’t what I got.
Vying for the Heart of the Battle
Each player controls a number of characters on a table divided up in to squares, all fighting for the control of the “Heart of the Battle.” Those characters can move around the board, turn into walls to block progress or heal themselves, or attack other characters to try and knock them off of the board. The more damage a character takes, the further they fly out from the attack, but they can’t die simply by taking damage. To remove characters from the game, you have to either knock them outside of the play area or keep them disconnected from the Heart of the Battle (like falling off a stage). Characters have rock-paper-scissors style strengths and resistances, and special captain cards can deploy special abilities to turn the tide of battle. Learning the system is easy, but there’s lots of depth to uncover in the strategy.
Channeling a core experience
Playing the game reminded me of making a tabletop version of Overwatch at GDC. Where Paper Overwatch tried to focus on capturing camaraderie, Tiny Swords SMAAASH seems to focus on the push-and-pull nature of arena combat. In the demo I played with another conference attendee, we swatted our few remaining characters back and forth with each turn, each combo we executed pushing our enemies closer and closer to the edge of the table. Eventually, we changed tactics and tried to just keep each other from staying connected to the Heart of the Battle; characters disconnected from the Heart fall to their deaths and are removed from the game. Even though the game is turn-based, it’s interesting how frenetic gameplay felt as we came up with our strategies.
This might sound confusing if you’ve never played arena brawlers like Super Smash Bros. or Brawlhalla before, but anyone who’s tried those games knows the hectic, back-and-forth nature of trying to defeat your opponents. It’s hard to imagine capturing that kind of combat in a turn-based strategy game, but somehow SMAAASH seems to do it while also keeping the game cute and family-friendly. SMAAASH is awash in cute, kawaii character designs reminiscent of Nintendo-classic RPG Earthbound, and bright, flashy colors. It’s somewhat subversive, taking a fighting game known for having some fairly intense competitive communities and splashing it with bright, approachable imagery. Though I imagine the games will reach out to different crowds, the idea of bringing the same gameplay style to both tabletop and video game players excites me.
Brawling with the world outside to bring people together
Wolf’s Tiny Swords SMAAASH is a redesign of Tiny Swords Tactics, a Kickstarter that Wolf launched that didn’t succeed. Their first game, Tiny Swords, launched on Kickstarter and passed its $10,000 goal, which probably made the failure of the second campaign a bit surprising. When I asked about what was different this time around, they specifically called out the last campaign’s timing:
The prior KS, I think, was as much a victim of timing and national strife as any other in that period. While finding a completely peaceful time to launch may no longer be possible, finding the right opportunity to get the word out was a crucial change. Smaller changes in balancing the game and polishing the presentation of ye [sic] game and the KS page itself were important as well. Anything that assures people that this is a high quality, near final project, worth their time and money.
Crowdfunding is a rough art, particularly when so many facets of success/failure lay outside your control. Like Wolf said, there likely won’t be a “peaceful time” to launch a campaign any time soon. Still, amidst tragedy people are looking for ways to build community and enjoy time with each other.
I keep calling attention to Brian’s art style in this game because it feels so inherently bright; it stands out against a lot of the darkness both in edgy games and in the world. It’s hard to imagine being toxic in a game with characters like “Marsha Latte” and “Polly Geist,” after all. Here’s to hoping that more games can bring us together and give us some happiness in dark times.
Tiny Swords SMAAASH is currently raising funds on Kickstarter; the campaign concludes Sunday, June 11th.