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[Review] Smear

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Joined: 03/23/2011

When I first opened the box of Smear (GameStar Designs, 2005 - James Nelson), I must admit that I wasn't really impressed. I thought, "It's simply a pile of cards with different colors on it," and promptly started using it to teach my children, who were with me at the time, the different colors. After reading the rules later on that day, I still wasn't convinced that the game was going to be anything special and hesitantly introduced it to my teenagers at school.

And I'm still surprised with the mega-hit that the game has become with the teenagers. With me around, they are introduced to scores of games each year, with varying degrees of success. Smear, on the other hand, has become requested at every single game gathering, and the kids practically beg for it, wanting to play it continuously. I haven't had a game in a long time that was this popular - and this mix between Uno and Dominoes certainly does the trick. And even for adults, the game is a light filler, although I've played better. But I won't ever get rid of this game (although it's being worn out with the massive amount of play), simply because it's one of the most enjoyable - albeit cutthroat - games for teenagers that I own.

The Smear deck of cards is made up "single" cards - cards of a solid color (red, blue, green, and yellow); "double" cards - made up of two of the colors; "triple" and "quad" cards, "block" cards - made up of one of the colors and black; and "smear" cards - comprised of one or two colors, and the word "smear" on them, along with a number from one to three. The cards are shuffled, forming a draw pile; and each player is dealt eleven cards. The top card is flipped over, one player is chosen to go first, and play begins.

On a turn, a player simply must play a card that connects to one of the two sides of the opening card (or three or four, in case it is a "triple" or "quad" card). Players must play a card that matches with the same color (even black). Cards must always be played lengthwise, unless it is a triple or quad card, which can be placed sideways if the colors match. At the beginning of the game, there are only two "runs" - each of the two sides of the first card - on which a player may place a card. As triples or quads are added, there are even more runs added to the board; and players may have several choices on which to play a card.

If a player cannot play any of their cards, they must draw from the deck until they draw a playable card. Players also draw cards if they play a card directly adjacent to a smear card; the number of cards being drawn equal to the number on the smear card. If there are more than one smear cards adjacent, and a player lays a card next to one of them, they pick up the sum of the numbers on both cards!

Whenever a player plays a card lengthwise, they have the option to turn that card over, "smearing" the run. That run is shut down, and players must place cards elsewhere if they can. The game continues until either all runs are shut down, one player is out of cards, or nobody can play a card. At that point hands are revealed, and players score points for each card they have in their hand. "Singles" are worth five points, "doubles" ten points, "triples" fifteen points, "quads" and "blocks" twenty points, and "smear" cards twenty-five points. The next round then begins in the exact same manner. After playing a predetermined number of rounds, the player with the fewest points is the winner!

Some comments on the gameā€¦

1.) Components: The cards are normal-sized playing cards and are designed with large colors, making them simple and easy to use on the table (although I suspect color-blind folk might want to skip this game). They are of decent quality - mine are wearing a bit, but that's because my deck has seen twenty or so games with fairly rough play from teenagers. The cards slide into one of those card boxes I dislike so much, but other than that - I must say I enjoy the bright nature of the game. At first I was skeptical about how much room the cards would take on the table, as opposed to the similar game of dominoes. But as it turns out, when runs get shut down, or too long, we simply slide all the cards together in a pile, keeping only the end cards out. This might be too "fiddly" for some folk, but I found it easy and fast to slide the cards together on the table.

2.) Rules: The rules come on two sides of one page and are filled with color illustrations that make it extremely easy to learn the game. I've taught the game to dozens of folk, including mostly kids; and they have all picked up on it easily. The game's mechanics feel rather familiar, making it easier to understand. I have had to explain that if quads and triples are played lengthwise, they don't split the run; but after only a couple examples, everyone comprehends.

3.) Uno and Dominoes: Like I said, the game has a bit of both of these two games in it - as the comments on the internet pan out. The "smear" cards and the "draw if you can't play" are both reminiscent of Uno, while the layout of the cards has a distinct domino flavor. However, unlike dominoes, which often tends to be a stately, boring affair, Smear is much more interesting, especially as players quickly shut down the different runs. And while I find Uno incredibly chaotic and lucky, Smear allows players a decent amount of choices - especially as to when to
"smear" a run.

4.) Luck: There is no denying that the game isn't lucky; players have to deal with the hands that they draw. And I've sometimes seen a player draw twenty cards before they finally got a playable one (this happens when black is the only available color, since there are only eight "block" cards in the entire deck). This could possibly bother many gamers, but the kids that I've taught it to love it. They love trying to force another player to draw cards, and/or play after a "smear" card.

5.) Ending the Game: The game can end in one of three ways, but I've seen the majority of the games played end after all the runs are shut down, and I think that experienced players would always push for this. Players are shutting down runs right and left throughout the game, attempting to leave their opponents with few options to play on their turn. A player can shut down the last run and immediately end the game but should really only do so if they think that they have fewer points than anyone else in their hand. We tried a variant in which the person who went "out" (got rid of all the cards in their hand) lost fifty points from their score - and that actually added a bit of flavor to the game. Games tend to be rather quick and easy - another reason my kids enjoy it so much.

6.) Fun Factor and Teens: According to my extensive research tests (or just simply, my eye witness accounts), teenagers love this game, and they simply can't get enough of it. The kids in my board game club are experts at the game, counting the number of "block" cards in the deck, shutting down runs, quickly adding up points, etc. I don't think adults will have the same measure of enjoyment, although Smear is good for a lark. But I'm still amazed at the sheer hilarity that ensues with the teenagers as they force each other to draw cards.

If you work with children or teenagers at all, I would seriously recommend picking up a copy with Smear. You may not be enthralled after my description of the game; but folks, I've seen it in action, and both boys and girls have a blast when trying the game out. Personally, I think the game is okay, and I would play it if I was begged to; but when I have a group of kids, it's one of the first games to come out!

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

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