The Super Mario Level Up! board game by USAopoly pits Mario and his friends against one another to see who will be crowned champion. It's a lot like Super Smash Bros, if Super Smash Bros involved bingo-like scorecards, Cluedo-esque deduction skills, and a lot of cardboard. Intrigued?
Level Up is an adaptation of the Italian board game Viva il Re! designed by Stefano Luperto, which involves outsmarting your opponents to make sure your character rises through the ranks to become the King's successor. Similarly, Level Up requires you to 'level up' characters with the hopes of them becoming the champion.
First and foremost, Super Mario Level Up! has a niche set-up that's sure to make any Nintendo fan smile. Using cardboard inserts and the bottom half of the box, the board is built up into a set of platforms very reminiscent of early Mario games, leading up to Princess Peach's castle at the top.
Assembling the board can get a bit fiddly at times, so I would bear that in mind for younger players. The front tabs of the platforms don't slot into anything and tend to stick out at an angle, which can get in the way when the board is full of characters and cards.
Each platform, or 'level', has a points value; the overall objective of the game is to move your characters to the highest levels and therefore gain the maximum amount of points at the point the champion is crowned. It is unfortunately a somewhat convoluted gameplay, but it is easier to get the hang of after a few goes.
USAopoly has brought a range of Mario-related characters into the mix. The obvious favourites are there, like Mario, Luigi, and Peach, but then there are a couple of less well-known ones for the discerning Mario fan to enjoy, such as Bowser Jr. and Magikoopa.
Most of the characters should be familiar to anyone who's played a recent game of Mario Kart. However, for any players who might not be quite so hot on their Nintendo knowledge, each character's name is printed on the back of their game piece.
For any friends/family who might struggle with the characters, I would recommend going through them BEFORE the game starts, otherwise they will quickly run into difficulty (see below).
Each player is given a Score Sheet, one random Line Up card that lists six of the 13 characters, and a number of Yes/No voting cards. Each round is divided into two phases: Placing and Moving. During the Placing phase, each player places an equal amount of characters on the different levels of the board.
This is where knowing who the characters are comes in handy. The main aim of the Placing phase is to subtly place the characters on your Line Up card as high as possible in readiness for the Moving phase, without drawing attention to which characters you're concentrating on. Someone exclaiming 'Wait, which one is Magikoopa?!' will make it somewhat obvious that they have Magikoopa on their card.
Also placed on the board are yellow question-mark box cards, which can be collected during the Moving phase and function similarly to the Chance/Community Chest cards in Monopoly.
During the Moving phase, players take it in turns to 'level up' characters by moving them up the board. You can move any character - the decision is whether to move your characters or choose different ones in the hope of covering your tracks.
When a character is moved to the top level, Moving stops and a vote is taken as to whether this character should be voted the champion. As a champion gets 10 points, if they're on your Line Up card the chances are you'll want to vote 'yes'. However, if you've worked out that another player has this character, or if you want more time to move your characters higher up the board, or you just want to bluff, you can vote 'no'. Just one 'no' vote (regardless of however many 'yes' votes there are) scuppers that character's bid for champion and they are taken off the board, scoring zero points.
When a champion manages to get a clean sheet of 'yes' votes, the round ends and the scores for each character are tallied up on your Score Sheet; the board is re-set and new Line Up cards are given out. The highest score after three rounds wins the game.
Final Thoughts on Super Mario Level Up!
As a big Nintendo fan, I really, really wanted to like Super Mario Level Up. I love the board in particular, and I think the overall design, the characters and some elements of the gameplay are fun.
Unfortunately, there is just too much going on, and with no semblance of story to string it all together it feels a bit hollow. The dependence on an arbitrary vote rather than skill can be unsatisfying and is so unlike the rest of the Mario universe. It feels like the Mario characters were inserted into a separate, already completed game, rather than purposefully making a Mario game.
Despite that, if you are a Nintendo fan, the theme will give you enough reason to keep playing. After multiple plays, you become more familiar with the different phases and you can figure out some tactics, which helps to make it feel like there's an overall aim. Super Mario Level Up! is nearly the champion it deserves to be, but just lacks depth to bring it all together.