In this season of 40 real-time strategy clones and everyone but Hasbro licensing the Quake engine for something, Crush Deluxe is the kind of creative but less ambitious "indie" title that deserves to find its niche audience. This turn-based future sport product is not a great game, but it does have unique charms. It is the kind of game that either will hook you or just leave you unimpressed and a bit bewildered.
The premise is another in a long line of hyper-violent future sport imaginings: a blend of hockey, lacrosse, and extreme street brawling. On 32x32 square grids of varying configurations, three teams first try to locate the game BALL (Bionically Augmented Lower Lifeform) among many Ball Bins. Empty ones are booby-trapped, of course, but when someone hits the correct Bin, the midgame begins, and players must rush or hand off the BALL to an activated goal on the opposite side of the grid. Much like X-COM, each player has a limited number of activity points for jumping, checking, transferring, or hurling the ball away. A good check will stun an opponent for a turn or two, take him out on a stretcher, or just kill him outright.
The core gameplay is entertaining, if not especially compelling. The players come onto the field one at a time and at random locations via Warp Nodes, which gives each game a nice building tension. They can try to smuggle illegal equipment that increases their odds in certain situations, but only at the risk of being detected and ejected. The advantage can shift very quickly. I have had flying wedges of protection crumble from around my BALL carrier, and within a few spaces of the goal, because some specially equipped opponent came onto the field at the last moment. The graphics and sound are Spartan but campy: the crowd roar and PA barks of a football game, along with minimally animated pop-up reports on the action.
The real meat of Crush is in the details of team management. Not only can you recruit your players from nine possible alien races (all with different skill sets), but you can purchase equipment for them and allot their accumulated play experience points to training in over 25 skills as well. A budget cap ensures that the process does not become imbalanced, but a team GM/Coach still has tremendous freedom to massage each player's nine attributes (like activity points, toughness, etc.). Does this all sound laughably intricate? Well, this description is actually a dumbed-down version of the riotous manual, which lays out every play action modifier in obsessive-compulsive detail: plus and minus adjustments to the odds for certain events occurring, but only under these circumstances, to this or that race, and only once per season - that sort of thing.
What keeps Crush from being truly engaging is the awkward fit of the team management detail and the actual Crush matches. All of those intricate training and equipment decisions are reduced to invisible odds modifiers for but a handful of in-game moves like checking or BALL handling. The complexity in one part of the game seems wasted on the simple play options. Like much of Crush Deluxe, the links between the two game phases require your own imaginative filler. This is not necessarily bad, but it is not for everyone, and the designers have not gone out of their way to communicate to us their own entertaining obsessiveness with the alien races and the countless modifiers and attributes. The detail-for-detail's-sake ethic that governs the rules isn't helped a bit by a manual that is so poorly written that it may very well have come from the game's robotic BALL.
Crush Deluxe, then, feels like an inside joke, which you either elect to share or not. If you do buy in, then the game's vast multiplayer options will reward you with hot seat, modem, or Internet play (free on MPlayer). You can have 12 team leagues that go on for seasons, playoffs, and championships or just shorter tournaments. Which is great, in theory, but do we want to go through all of that trouble in order to play what is, in the end, an overwrought board game? For vaguely intrigued strategists, Crush Deluxe is offbeat and creative enough to warrant your finding out.