Smile Is a Cute Board Game, But It Depends Too Much on Luck

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Smile Is a Cute Board Game, But It Depends Too Much on Luck

Smile is the newest title from prolific designer Michael Schacht, who has several other titles coming out this year (including the promising Spirits of the Forest) and who is best known for his 2007 title Zooloretto, which won the Spiel des Jahres award and has spawned a number of spinoffs. Smile, from Asmodee imprint Z-Man, is another animal-themed game, with fantastic artwork and a light press-your-luck card-drafting mechanic that makes for quick play and some stressful decisions, even though much of what happens here is beyond your control.

Smile is somewhat similar to the 2004 game No Thanks! with better art and a couple of tweaks to the mechanics. In Smile, the deck comprises ten cards per player—so 30 to 50 cards, as the game plays three to five—and one game comprises ten rounds. In each round, one card per player is revealed to the table, and players then must decide whether to ‘offer’ by placing one of their firefly tokens (which each player keeps hidden in his/her hand) on the lowest-valued card or to ‘capture’ any card with fireflies on it. Thus over the course of a game, each player will acquire ten cards. Each card has a value on it from -5 points to +6 points, and the sum of those values is the main determinant of your final score.

However, it’s a bit more involved than just taking the best card available each round, as some cards will be worth more or less to you than to other players. Most cards in the deck have one of four colors in the upper left, and if you acquire a card with a color that matches a card you already have, they immediately cancel each other out, and you must discard the pair. That can be good—if you have a -5 card but can acquire a card with a matching color, you get to toss that particular killer card—or bad, if you have a great card and then have to avoid acquiring a card that will force you to discard the great one.

You also have to try to manage your supply of fireflies, as there’s a penalty for running out, and having more fireflies gets you more flexibility in choosing cards. Each player starts the game with six of these tokens. If you’re the first player in a round, or if there are no fireflies on any cards left on the table, you must place a firefly on the card with the lowest value. Subsequent players can choose to place a firefly on the lowest-value or card, or to acquire that card and all the tokens on it. Thus, taking a low-value or negative-value card can still be beneficial if you need the fireflies on it for future rounds. If your turn comes up and you have no fireflies left but can’t take any cards because there are no fireflies on the table, you must take a blue teardrop token, which is worth -1 point at game-end, and then borrow a firefly from the supply to make an offer. You also score one point per five fireflies left in your supply at game-end.

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Smile comes down more to the card draws than to anything else, so this is a game of coping with randomness as best you can while trying to stick it to other players without running out of fireflies to give you more options. As each game progresses, it’ll be clear that some players are gunning for certain cards or trying specifically to avoid others, which creates that press-your-luck aspect—do you put one more firefly down, daring your opponent(s) to take it or potentially increasing its value if it’s still on the board for your next turn? Do you grab that negative-value card now for the value of its fireflies, or risk getting that pink card that will cancel out the high-value card already in your hand?

The artwork by Atha Kanaani, who has worked on other Z-Man titles including Aquarium and some of the Pandemic games, is easily this game’s best attribute. The theme, that you’re trying to bring these weirdly cute animals back to your house because they’ve all escaped into the woods, doesn’t really tie into the mechanics, but the drawings themselves are adorable enough to bring a few more people to the table. The game is fine with three players, but four or five is optimal, as it’s a bit harder to game each round with more players and thus reduces the first-player disadvantage (whoever takes the last card in a round becomes the first player). Games take about 20 minutes, and the box’s suggestion of ages eight and up is probably spot on—the rules are short and simple enough for children to understand, probably as young as six, although the glassy tokens might be choking hazards for really young players. It’s a cute filler game with plenty of replay value, probably too luck-driven for heavy gamers but solid for weeknight family play.

Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.

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