Maximum Throwdown [Review]

If you thought Smash Up was a simple game, AEG has refined inter-genre card combat even further with Maximum Throwdown. Now instead of vying to establish the highest attack value on a series of bases, these location cards become simple targets. Players throw cards from their small, individual decks at those locations and, as the pile grows, at other players’ cards as well. Land one card on another and it’s good; overshoot the mark and it’s a miss. Your Points – the six-sided die “pip” symbols – are counted at the beginning of your turn, assuming your cards haven’t been completely buried. After updating your score, other icons afford you the chance to steal or destroy cards from an opponent’s deck. You may also get to draw and/or throw additional cards. Once everyone has emptied his deck, one more round of scoring determines the winning total.

Maximum Throwdown is a simple and fast game, but it doesn’t give up its secrets easily. New players won’t know what to expect for a few games unless someone in the know gives them a rundown on the underlying strategy of each deck. The aliens play differently from the pirates, for example, so what seems like a dizzying array of symbols actually contributes to a consistent theme. It can be just as important to know what you’re up against as what you’re playing. The color scheme works against an easy, at-a-glance assessment of who’s in control of what faction (and a way to keep score would be nice), but game play is addictive and highly competitive.

Someone at Alderac Entertainment must have seen how well Smash Up was doing and decided, “Kicking each other’s teeth in, good; taking half an hour to do it, bad. Make the violence happen in a quarter-hour!” Someone else at AEG listened because they quickly followed that with Maximum Throwdown, a card-tossing game of inter-genre combat.

The object of the game is to score the most points from your cards by the end of the game.

And yes, that read “card-tossing.” Each player takes a deck of 15 cards with his design on the backs. You can play little green men, dragons, werewolves – the factions don’t map exactly to the Smash Up game (in fact, curiously, here these groups are never named) but the idea of one pop-culture critter vs. another is the same. On the front of each card is a series of icons in different arrangements.

At the opening, the only cards on the table are the location cards. The number and arrangement is a matter of choice and personal aesthetics, and once agreed upon these cards become the initial targets. On his turn, a player draws a card from his deck and flings it from the edge of the table. If it lands on or under one of the base cards, it’s legal; if it can’t connect with a location it’s a miss and gets discarded. The next player does the same except he can aim for locations and previously thrown cards, and so the pile keeps growing. When a player gets another turn, hopefully some of his symbols are face-up and visible because that’s how factions get ahead.

When play comes back around, a player checks to see which of his icons still show from beneath the growing heap of cards. A symbol even partially covered cannot be used. The most important of these are the Points – they look like the pips on a standard six-sided die. For every full six pips, the player scores a point. Then he looks for Attacks and Steals. The former allow him to force the player of his choice to discard the top card from his deck; the latter instead lets him take that card and throw it himself. Chances are he’ll toss it face-down to hide symbols or deliberately miss altogether just so it’s out of the game, but he’s limited only by his own evil notions and dexterity.

Draw and Throw symbols give players additional cards from their deck to play, and Throws allow one to retry a missed card. There’s also a Break symbol – a player can decide a “miss” is a legal play and leave his orphaned card sitting further out from the pile (and forcing enemies to work further afield if they want to cover those pips). Even when a player has emptied his deck, he continues to amass points and grab from others as his turn comes up. When all cards are thrown there’s a final scoring round for everyone and the highest total is the winner.

The portraits on the backs of the cards are marvelous, a top-tier job. It would have vastly improved the set had the same care gone into the rest of the graphic considerations. The card fronts have no identifying pictures, just a different color, and “different” here doesn’t mean what it ought to. Sure, the dragons are green and so are their cards. The werewolves, however, have a deep blue scheme to their picture and their face color is brown . . . -ish. Sure, brown fur, but the brown hue also looks a bit gray, and the samurai have a rich blue motif in their portrait as well. The alien and samurai shades are close, the demons use the exact same color as everyone’s reference card – why not simply a gently faded-in background illustration or a mark in the corners to ID everyone? If you can distinguish the colors in the pile, you have to remember which front matches which back, and which player is playing that group so you know whom to attack (there’s nothing in front of a player to tell you who’s playing, say, the werewolves). The cards are also a bit thin, but the important bit – the icons – poses no trouble whatever.

It’s surprising what seems like such a small thing, such a simple set of directions, can offer such depth of strategy. Maximum Throwdown looks like a bunch of symbols thrown onto the cards, but if you compare and contrast each deck you see patterns emerging. The aliens can Steal a lot of cards and score quite a few points, for example, while pirates have the most Attacks. Dragons have the fewest pips but lots of Breaks; to cover the reptiles as they spread out everywhere, a good countermeasure might be the samurai, who have a Throw on every card. The icon allocations and placement have a real effect on who does what during play. The downside to this is new players have – and probably keep – a distinct disadvantage against someone who’s played, and both are against the wall with someone who has picked the decks apart like a science project. Without a spot of study, they really do just come across as a bewildering array of random icons.

The game brings out the competitive streak in most players. You can move about the table to get a better shot at a target, and most people take that advantage because they can’t sit down anyway. The game plays well even with a few players, and becomes quite the imbroglio with a full six. Play is fast, the replay value is quite high (“Oh, grab your cards, we’re doing that again”), and the potential for sequels and add-ons is encouraging. The dexterity element can upset the best-laid plans, and many are the schemes one may lay out as new strategies suggest themselves. Maximum Throwdown may be graphically defective, but its playability is the overpowering feature.

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