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Subject: Summoner Wars - A Detailed Review Part I rss

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This review continues my series of detailed reviews that attempt to be part review, part resource for anyone not totally familiar with the game. For this reason I expect readers to skip to the sections that are of most interest.

Image Courtesy of screamingtruth


Summary

Game Type – Tactical Card Game
Play Time: 20-60 Minutes (avg. 40 min)
Number of Players: 2-4
Mechanics – Dice Rolling, Tactical Movement, Hand Management, Variable Powers
Difficulty – Pick-up & Play (Can be learned in 30 minutes)
Components – Good
Release - 2009

Designer - Colby Dauch (Battleship Galaxies, Dungeon Run, Mice & Mystics, Numerous Heroscape Expansions)

Overview

Summoner Wars is a game of faction based warfare. Ret-Talus of the Fallen Empire was the first to find a Summoning Stone, turning him into the first Summoner, which in turn led to an undisputed rule of 1,000 years. Despite the armies of Itharia marching against him he could not be toppled.

But the discovery of a 2nd Summoning Stone gave Itharia hope…hope that the reign of the Undead would come to an end and hope that perhaps there were more Summoning Stones to be discovered. Soon enough the many factions of the world were scouring the globe to find other Summoning Stones and in doing so pronounce their arrival as a power.

Before long many Summoning Stones were unearthed but rather than stand against the forces of darkness united, the various factions allowed themselves to descend into squabbling and soon skirmishes were commonplace.

Summoner Wars is the story of the continuing struggle for supremacy in the world of Itharia. Mighty Summoners lead their factions in battle…this is toe to toe action…2 factions enter but only 1 faction leaves kind of stuff (although multi-player is possible).

And there isn’t a miniature in sight…this is a tactical based card game. Factions all have their own strengths and tactics that best suit their nature. Think Heroscape without the miniatures and terrain and you are starting to get the gist of Summoner Wars. Actually that comparison is quite apt…Summoner Wars really is a 2D, scaled back card based version of Heroscape in many ways, which may not be surprising given the designer’s previous work on various Heroscape sets.

Think Neuroshima Hex in card form but without the simultaneous battle resolution.

The final comparison I’d make is to Magic: The Gathering. Whilst it shares only minimal elements in relation to mechanics (summoning cost being the obvious mechanical similarity), it does have the same thematic bent and from a strategy point of view (big bashers being the Champions here and some decks using the swarm mentality) the games are like spiritual cousins. The key difference being that MtG very much abstracts the combat between units…whereas Summoner Wars is all about those battles. It almost makes me wonder if Colby and co were sitting around a table playing Magic one day and lamented that they weren’t able to see the battles unfold before them.

If one was to be cynical it could be said that there is nothing particularly new here. Summoner Wars sits largely in the fantasy setting but some of the factions border on Steampunk type territory.

But the ultimate question needs to be this – Can it borrow traits from those other titles, mash them together and still be any good?

The short answer is, “Hell yeah it can! Rob a bank, sell your lunch to the hungry kid, put out a red light to make some extra cash! You have to have this cool game!’

Ahem…er…excuse me…got a little carried away there. Fanboy and all that. cool The longer answer may take some more analysis… so let’s look a little deeper…ok a lot deeper!

NB – Summoner Wars offers up its goodness in a variety of packages. This review will focus on the system as a whole with a lean towards the Master Set release of the game in relation to components.

NBB - In a new first for me I actually manaaged to write more than the Geek could handle with this review. For that reason this will serve as Part I and focus on the game and system.

Part II will be a fully fledged Faction Analysis Review and helps to underline the depth and scope of what is possible when playing the game. whistle

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The Components

Summoner Wars has been released in a variety of formats so this component analysis will focus primarily on the Master Set release.

d10-1 Battlefield Mat – The board released in the Master Set is a large, glossy, lovely bit of…well…simplicity really. It is mounted (note that the original release and the 1v1 expansion packs offer up folded paper based boards that are rather unpleasant) and consists of an open 6x8 grid. These 48 spaces represent the battlefield where the latest skirmish is about to unfold.

At each end of the board are spaces set aside for a Draw Pile, Magic Pool and Discard Pile. The board itself is rather bland but the washed out drawings of ancient battle plans, complete with ‘x marks the spot’ locations, dotting lines and flanking maneuvers is a nice touch.

The board is a large thing though, requiring it to come in 2 halves. Small tables will likely not do the job.


One half of the Board

Image Courtesy of hextr1P


d10-2 Faction Cards – But the stars of the show are definitely the Faction Cards, which form Faction Decks. Each Faction consists of 34 ‘in game’ cards and 1 Summary Card.

The cards themselves are well designed. Units feature artwork on the right to help player’s imaginations run wild and all of a units key stats are placed in the top left. The bottom left is then set aside for text, which outlines a unit’s special power. This layout is consistent across all Factions, making it easy to locate and understand each card quickly. It’s a nice piece of design that helps the game to flow once the action gets started.


Image Courtesy of screamingtruth


Wall Cards feature the visual of an imposing Wall and Event Cards are largely text but feature the image of the Faction’s Summoner, to tie it all together.


Image Courtesy of bktanner


The cards are slightly smaller than a standard playing card, allowing them to fit into each of the spaces on the board. The one complaint I do have with them is that they lack a matte/linen finish and are a little thinner than they could have been. Whilst the game doesn’t see a huge amount of shuffling, it is still required and finger oils and the like tend to be visible on the cards glossy surface after a while.

Most of the card art is pretty well done and helps to evoke the theme of the game and each individual Faction. Occasionally though the art can come across as a little too washed out and you can’t help but feel that a unit could have been depicted in greater detail.

It is also worth noting that each Faction has its own colour and icon/standard. These are helpful to identify cards should decks get mixed together.


Summary Card on the left which is used in the set-up before being flipped to reveal Event Card Summary and Phase Order

Images Courtesy of screamingtruth


d10-3 Dice – The game comes with pretty ordinary looking white dice with rounded corners. By today’s standards they are pretty average – but they do the job. The word functional springs to mind.


Image Courtesy of subtlyartistic


But thankfully Plaid Hat Games commissioned a set of Custom dice for each Faction released and these are stunning. Each set use a colour scheme that matches their particular Faction and the 6 is replaced with the icon/standard of the Faction. They look amazing and any true fan will have a hard time not shilling out for them. Perhaps my distaste for the original dice is nothing more than having compared them to the custom dice. whistle


Image Courtesy of manutd03


d10-4 Wound Markers – The last in game component are the Wound Markers. These small round tokens are red in colour to signify the consequences of battle and feature a 1 on one side and a 3 on the other. These tokens are used to record wounds to units that have not yet been destroyed and removed from play.


Image Courtesy of Doc_Savage


d10-5 Rules – The rules are pretty well streamlined and presented in a booklet format. All of the basics are covered pretty well, with examples and supporting illustrations given.

But there will likely be a myriad of questions thrown up by the game as powers look to interact and try to override one another. That’s where the Geek comes in handy.


Image Courtesy of binraix


d10-6 Box Insert – The box insert is dominated by a series of 10 wells, ready to hold all of your Faction Cards. One smaller well is offered to hold the Wound Markers and dice.

If you have bought the Master Set then a large number of wells will be left empty and it is obvious that the Master Set box was designed to provide space for the other Faction Decks as well. thumbsup The only problem is that there is only a total of 10 card sized wells and at present there are 16 Factions in total.

I have heard the game criticized for this but for me it is not a big deal. The wells are plenty deep enough to hold 2 Factions each. Everything needed to play with all 16 Factions fits into the 1 Master Set box comfortably (including custom dice).


Image Courtesy of ScottE


Summoner Wars does a good job of offering up nice components without blowing anyone away. For a card based game like this it gets the key things right; the cards are well designed to make them highly functional, the Premium Board does what it should…offer a nice flat surface for cards to sit on…and the Custom Dice are that little bit of eye candy to make the game pop. About the only area for improvement is in the quality of the card stock and perhaps some of the artwork.


What all the faction decks and components look like

Image Courtesy of happycatmachine

Summoner Wars Packaging – How Can I Get it?

Starter Sets – Summoner Wars was originally released as a 1v1 Faction Game featuring two Starter Sets. This format features a paper map and only 2 Factions.

They are a good way to get a taste for the game without paying the higher price of the Master Set.

Unfortunately these packs have to be bought if you want access to the 4 Factions featured. They also only come with the paper based battlefield mats and these really are a pain as the need to fold them up to fit in the box means they rarely sit totally flat and that means cards tend to slide off their intended location. The Factions available through the 2 Starter Sets are –

Phoenix Elves v Tundra Orcs

Guild Dwarves v Cave Goblins


It’s also worth noting that some thought went into making the Factions found here fairly well balanced as opposing forces. The Elves v Orcs match-up is very much low v high health, range v melee and thematically opposite. Whilst the Dwarves v Goblins is more about classic theme wars. They have definitely been chosen to lure in the fantasy fans.

Master Set – 2 years later the Master Set was released, which offers up 6 Factions in the one box and a Premium mounted Battlefield board. This is still available and really is the way to go if you’ve done your research and know the game is for you. Again the 6 Factions featured in the Master Set cannot be acquired separately. They are –

Benders
Deep Dwarves
Mountain Vargath
Sand Goblins
Shadow Elves
Swamp Orcs


Faction Packs – Numerous Factions are only available as standalone packs. The Factions that are available in this format are –

Undead Kingdom
Cloaks
Filth
Jungle Elves
Vanguards
Mercenaries


These are pretty well priced given the variety they add to the game.

Reinforcement Packs –

The latest set of expansions for the Summoner Wars universe are the Reinforcement Packs. Each pack offers up additional Champions and Common Units for 2 Factions and then a couple new Mercenary Units are also thrown in.

The whole point of these packs is to offer players more variety in creating a Faction that can find new synergies and ways to surprise the enemy. Reinforcement Packs are designed to support the Drafting form of the game and requires original units to be subbed out to make way for new ones.

I must confess that when I first heard of them I thought it would be a bridge too far for me to bother with. Now as I put the finishing touches to this work (some 3 months in the making) I find myself staring at the 6 packs before me and salivating at the options they represent. shake

The Set-Up

Image Courtesy of bkunes


Setting up Summoner Wars is fairly straight forward. The players both chose a Faction deck to play with and from that deck they take the summary card that tells them which units are required to start the game in play. Each Faction will always have a wall and their Summoner, but the number, frequency, type of units and the locations they begin on the battlefield will differ from one Faction to the next.

All of the cards are placed onto the grid based battlefield, in the set-up laid out on the Faction’s Summary Card. Each player then shuffles their deck and sets it on its designated location. The damage counters are placed in a pile to the side of the board and the dice are set in reach of both players, unless of course you have enough dice for both players.

The players then decide who is to go first by rolling dice and the game is underway.

NB – One suggestion I would make to help with the set-up of future plays is to pack Factions away with the Summoner on top (helps identify a Faction with a quick glance) and the Summary Card under that. Under the summary card place the starting units followed by an event card to help separate the starting units from the rest of the deck that requires shuffling. This makes the set-up a ‘no-thinking required’ exercise and saves a minute or two in the process. meeple

The Play

Summoner Wars requires one player to complete their turn before the other player can begin. A turn consists of 6 phases in all, which are quite straight forward to complete.

The first player skips phases 1-3 on their first turn, to make up for the fact that they can move and attack the enemy first.

d10-1 Draw Cards – A player begins their turn by drawing cards in order to bring their hand size up to 5. Should a player start a turn with 5 or more cards then they will not be required to draw and must jump to Phase 2.

d10-2 Summon Units – This phase allows a player to put their famed warriors and champions into play (from their hand). To summon a unit a player must pay that unit’s summon cost and then place them in an orthogonally (above, below, left, right) adjacent space to a wall they control.

You see walls are the solid states that Summoner’s can tether their power too, kind of like lightning being attracted to metallic objects. If a player has no open spaces next to any of their walls then no units may be summoned in that turn.

Once a unit is summoned it is ready to be used in that same turn (no summoning sickness here).

The Cost of Summoning – Paying the cost to summon one or more units is done by spending cards in a player’s Magic Pool. These are cards that have been discarded by the active player (see below) or enemy units killed in combat.

If a player cannot pay the cost of a given card, then it cannot be summoned. There is no limit to how many units can be summoned in a single turn, provided there is enough Magic to pay the cost and enough space to place them around walls.

d10-3 Play Event Cards – Each faction has 9 Event Cards in their deck and they represent particular powers or tactics that each Faction has at their disposal. What makes them so powerful is that they often dovetail with unit abilities and when timed well they can surprise and devastate the opposition.

Event Cards are easily recognisable in a player’s hand because they are almost all text. The only graphic is an illustration of the Faction’s Summoner.

There is no cost to play Event Cards (although many have a requirement that must be met). A player can play any number of Event Cards in a single turn, but once they are used that is it, there is no more getting them back.

d10-4 Movement – Summoner Wars is won and lost on a player’s ability to maneuver their units to outflank, outwit and overwhelm the enemy. Each movement phase allows the active player to move up to 3 units in a given turn, with units being limited to a maximum of 2 movement points.

Only orthogonal (forward, backward, left and right) movement is permitted. Units cannot pass through any other cards (not even friendly units) and units cannot finish a turn on a space where another card is present.

The actual movement rules are quite simple in isolation. The implications of each move though can be quite complex…in a good way too! They require careful consideration and allow for interesting decisions. cool It is the movement that lends the game its tactical nature and players will need to ask themselves regularly, “What does this move allow me to do now and next turn and what is my exposure to my opponent’s forces…seen and unseen?” In this way Summoner Wars is not dissimilar to the considerations posed by Chess. Whilst I’m not a fan of Chess (mainly because a more skilled player will win 99% of the time), it was these considerations that I found most appealing.

NB – It is also important to note that the player who goes first may only move 2 units in their opening turn. This is another way of ensuring that the starting player does not get too big of an advantage at the start.

d10-5 Attack – Like movement, a player is allowed to attack with up to 3 units in a turn. Any 3 units can attack in a given turn, including those that did not move. So sometimes a player may choose to make tactical moves to set up future attacks or defensive positions and attack with other units that are already in position.

Attacking

A unit that attacks may only target a single enemy unit or wall. There are two forms of attack possible – Melee and Ranged. Thematically these two designations allow for a variety of weapons with ranged allowing for everything from bows to magic attacks but from a mechanical point of view it is simply melee or ranged.

Melee Attacks – Melee attacks are pretty straight forward. The attacker must be adjacent to its chosen target (not diagonal).

Ranged Attacks – Ranged attacks can of course be made from distance and the standard rule is that ranged units may attack up to 3 spaces away, provided that they have a clear line of sight to the target. Units cannot fire over (through) other units that are in the way and friendly units block this line of sight just the same as enemy units.

Ranged attacks can however be made against adjacent units if need be.

Combat Resolution and Taking Damage – Combat in Summoner Wars is quite straight forward, requiring little calculation. The attacker simply rolls the number of attack dice listed for a unit and for each 3 or higher rolled a hit is scored. The defender then takes a wound for each hit inflicted. There is no armour to be subtracted and no defensive roll to try and block attacks.

If a unit takes wounds that do not result in death, a number of wound tokens are placed on the unit to reflect the damage they have taken.

Death – If a unit is slain as a result of an attack then they are taken by the attacking player and the card is placed in their Magic Pile. This represents (I imagine) the Summoner’s ability to draw some magical energy from the soul of the fallen victims.

Image Courtesy of Sethy295

d10-6 Build Magic – The final phase for any player is the option to Build Magic. This step simply allows a player to discard any number of cards from their hand, adding them to their Magic Pool.

Given that a player only has a limited number of cards in their deck, this option seems rather strange but there are 2 key reasons why a player will want to Build Magic.

Hand Management – Sometimes you will be holding rubbish cards. That may be due to the situation on the battlefield or it may be that you desperately need a particular type of unit or Champion. By getting rid of cards you make room for additional draws at the start of your next turn and hopefully pull what you need.

Need Magic – Sometimes a player will have several units in hand that they just cannot afford to Summon together, or more often, a juicy Champion that needs 3-8 Magic to Summon. Sometimes a player is just short of the magic required, so ‘Building Magic’ is necessary to set up a big play on the next turn.

That is the core of a single turn. Many of the phases like ‘Draw’ and ‘Build Magic’ only take a matter of seconds.

Whilst the above mechanics are the standard rules, the fun of Summoner Wars is that the unit based powers break the above rules. In doing so certain units can reflect their greater speed, ability to arc arrows over other units and use magic to teleport across the battlefield.

A New Turn Begins

Once a player has completed the ‘Build Magic’ phase they simply declare that their turn is over and the other player can start their turn by drawing cards. Summoner Wars really is that simple.

Winning the Game

The battle will continue in this fashion until one player lands the killing blow on their opponent’s Summoner. With their demise the game is won! ninja

NB – I simply have to recommend some files that can be found on the Geek. They were created by Christophe Francois and they serve as a summary chart for an entire Faction, outlining their units, stats, powers and their Event Cards. This really helps a player to better understand their Faction and its play style…making it easier to understand and play to a Faction’s strengths – especially when learning the game. I didn’t use them myself but they would have been invaluable, and something that a beginner would appreciate if playing against an experienced opponent.

Image Courtesy of Christophe Francois

Game Analysis – What Drives the Play? The Strengths

d10-1 Those that Burn Brightest… – One of the most important strategic decisions to make within the game is in the hand management. Like all good games, Summoner Wars gives its players a limited resource in the form of the available cards in the deck.

A player wants to get as many units into play and use as many of those tricky Event Cards as they possibly can, but units have a Summoning Cost and that often means discarding cards to the Magic Pool. The faster a player burns through their deck the faster they will find themselves out of options. Knowing exactly when to discard and when to keep cards is a real art and gives Summoner Wars an edge all of its own when it is compared to other games of similar theme or style.

It is probably the games unique defining feature (although it could be argued that Race for the Galaxy does it too).

d10-2 Simplicity: Family Friendly Fun – A real plus for the game is how easily the game can be picked up and played. The core mechanics really are very simple, combat is easy and things are kept consistent with 3 being the key number for units that can move and attack and the maximum for ranged attacks.

It allows Summoner Wars to be played by parents with their kids and games can generally go either way. It also gives the game a chance to appeal to partners of gamers over other titles like Heroscape, Neuroshima Hex and Descent: Journeys in the Dark, where the play is a little more complicated or longer.

I must confess that younger children may still find the timing of when to use Event Cards difficult to recognise and that can lead to one-sided battles, but it doesn’t take too long for ‘cluey kids’ to work it out. My family is 20-30 odd plays in and in the last 2 days I’ve lost 4 of 5 games to my 8 and 12 year old boys. cool

d10-3 Depth ‘aplenty’ for the Strategy Fan – But despite the walk up simplicity of the game, it has multiple layers of depth that tactical game fans can really get to grips with and twist to their liking! devil

Implications – Almost every decision made in Summoner Wars has a myriad of implications that need to be considered. It ensures that each decision is meaningful and often decisions have an ‘opportunity cost’ – meaning that one option is possible but at the expense of another. It gives the game a real edge and shares something with classic abstract games.

Importance of Walls – Walls will often not be attacked by beginning players (given they have 9 Life Points), but after a few plays they can become very important considerations. Should a player be discarding Wall cards for Magic, thinking they are not really needed, then attacking an enemy wall can be very threatening, as the loss of a lone wall all but cripples a Faction.

Beyond that Walls can also be swarmed to fill up those orthogonal positions, making the summoning of new units impossible. Walls can also become critical cards to hold back and place at just the right moment to act as a defensive position. In this way units and your Summoner can be saved from an impending attack, which may have seen an opponent overcommit, making them vulnerable.

The addition of walls is an excellent mechanic as it adds yet another dimension to the play that might not otherwise have been there.

Finding Combos – Any player can whack down a Faction and play them at a basic level, but the real fun of the game is in finding the strengths of a Faction and creating combos between Event Cards and the powers of units.

When a combo comes off you can’t help but smile as the player across from you picks their jaw up off the table.

Sometimes a Faction may find that attacking their own units has benefits, either to gain extra cards for their Magic Pile or to clear a path so a ranged unit can get a clear shot at a powerful enemy unit. It’s all rather fun. Surprising the opposition is one of the more fun things that games allow players to do and Summoner Wars allows for this with each and every play.

Playing a Faction Well – As mentioned above, playing a Faction is easy enough, but playing a Faction well is something again. It really does take multiple plays of a single Faction to even begin to recognise some of the nuances available and that; combined with the games’ addictive nature; sees it offer pretty good value for money in terms of repeat plays. As I approach 30 plays I feel like I’m only just scratching the surface…and I’m only using the Faction Decks as they are…Deck Building is still a nugget on the horizon.

Knowing the Enemy – Good players recognise that knowing one’s enemy is just as important as knowing your own Faction. Summoner Wars is a game where every power in play needs to be known well to avoid surprising calamities. That lends the game a level of immersion and player involvement that results in next to no downtime. You really want to watch your opponent’s every move, even down to how many cards they throw at ‘Build Magic’ to try and gauge their next move.

Maximising Champions – Common Units certainly have their place and can often be powerful when used in tandem, but real power comes in the form of a Faction’s Champions. They can take more wounds meaning you can rely on them lasting more than a single turn, their powers are often game breakers and of course they tend to have the attack to really hurt the opposition. Summoners fear them for sure.

But Champions can often cost an arm and a leg to Summon. Quite often a player may find it hard to Summon all 3 Champions in a single game and may find it more prudent to sacrifice one Champion to the Magic Pool. Players really need to consider the powers offered by their Champions and how useful they may or may not be against the enemy and the current situation they are facing.

Balancing Offense and Defense – Whilst Summoner Wars may encourage offense (attacks have a 66% chance of success) it is very important to balance your attack and defense. This means being cautious with your Summoner but taking calculated risks when the time is right. Individual Factions may of course have a bent one way or the other but getting the balance right is one of the more subtle skills required and is a fun challenge to manage.

Maneuvering – I can’t stress how critical it is to move your units smartly. Because ranged units cannot fire through other units, the order that units are moved and where they are moved too is crucial. Walls need free adjacent spaces to summon new units, Summoners require protection from attack and sometimes units need to be moved out of the range of ranged attacks to avoid being sitting ducks. Sometimes Summoners have powers that can help make maneuvering easier or a Faction has Event Cards that offer up special moves.

Movement in Summoner Wars is sometimes reactionary but there is no doubt that forward planning is an important consideration.

1st or 2nd – Right from the Set-up, Summoner Wars asks a question of its players…do I go 1st or 2nd? Going first may well give a player the opportunity to kill 1 or 2 enemy units and begin building that Magic Pool. But it also means giving the enemy the first opportunity to draw cards from their deck. This in turn allows them to begin building a set of plans based on those cards and that could mean they get the jump on having the 1st Champion in the battle.

Going 2nd of course could cost you some units as a result.

Often the defining factor in deciding whether to go 1st or 2nd is in the relative set-ups of the Factions, your ability to have a chance at a kill and how much damage they could do if given the initiative.

Multi-Player Madness – Summoner Wars is not content with limiting its players to 2-player matches only. If a 2nd battlefield mat is available then games involving 3 and 4 players are possible.

I’ll confess to being a little skeptical as to the balance that could be obtained with 3 and 4 player games. Given that Summoner Wars is tactical in nature, introducing multi-player action could have been a real concern…much like abstract designs that try to do the same.

But having played 3-5 games of 3-4players I can say that it really is a blast. The battles are even more epic than the 1v1 experience, there is the team play element and many abilities have the power to affect multiple units, which works great in the multi-player form. The battlefield is given a new dimension as units can move from one edge across to the other and attack in that way as well…making the importance of maneuvering more important than ever.

Deck Buildy – As something of an approving nod (I suspect) to games like Magic the Gathering, Summoner Wars offers up yet another layer to this thematic onion, by allowing deck building for those looking for something more.

At this point (30 odd plays) I am more than happy to play the Factions out of the box and can see enough variety here to satisfy me for a long time to come.

But for those that like to tinker, they can look to modify Factions by substituting units in and out of a deck to customise a fighting style to their liking. That’s pretty neat but I suspect that true deck building fans will prefer games like Magic over Summoner Wars as here it is really ‘deck-builder light’.

d10-4 Theme Junkies Unite (Ameritrash Heaven)! – Summoner Wars really has everything that an ameritrash fan or theme junky could want; a wide variety of units and skills, dice based combat and a variety of fantasy and quasi-fantasy based Factions that have something of a story if you are prepared to analyse them carefully enough. It doesn’t come close to the genre variety of Heroscape…but really no other game is ever likely to.

d10-5 Re-playability and Value – The Master Set offers up 6 Factions in the one box, which really is great value for money. When you consider that it takes a good 4-5 plays to begin to understand a Faction well, the Master Set offers up at least 30 odd plays to unlock the secrets on offer. At an average playtime of 40 minutes that’s something like 20 hours of play just to experience everything (once) in the Master Set alone.

d10-6 Fear Me Oh Great One – By this I mean that Summoner Wars is one of those designs that allows for swingy plays. The underdog can fight back against seemingly insurmountable odds if an event/power combo comes off, the enemy overextend or the dice start hating on the enemy and shine their love on you for a few rounds.

Most theme junkies tend to like this sort of thing and it makes the game great for adult v kid battles as kids just love knowing they always have a chance.

d10-7 Good Pacing – Summoner Wars knows what it is and has no interest in getting its players bogged down in a 2-3 hour brawl. This game keeps the action fast paced and that is when it shines the most. This is largely achieved because the game rewards aggression, with attacks having a 66% chance of hitting and the fact that taking out a unit means less dice coming back at you…offense is king!

The other implication of that nature is that players will sometimes take calculated risks, advancing into positions that are incredibly dangerous should they fail to take that enemy unit out. When they come up short it’s hard to stop from smiling. devil

But either way, common units don’t tend to last too long on the fields of Summoner Wars and Champions usually attract multi-attack attention given the threat they represent.

d10-8 Plaid Hat Don’t Gouge Me! – We’ve all known a system from our past that we have enjoyed immensely but the trade-off was paying through the nose for it or being forced to by expansions that felt way too ‘light-on’ for content simply because they held content back for the next expansion.

Thankfully Plaid Hat Games appear to have only one objective in mind – to price and release their game in such a way that as many people can afford to try it as possible. Those that love it can also access more content at a reasonable price.

Plaid Hat could easily have released all 16 Factions in 1v1 expansion boxes but instead they offered up the Master Set, which represents excellent value for money and most expansion Factions can be bought for a reasonable price. Bravo! thumbsup

d10-9 Various Entry Levels – Following on from my last point, I think Plaid Hat have also released the game in smart fashion, offering both value for money and choice.

If you’re not sure but would like to try the game at a cheaper price, the two Starter Sets are the way to go.

If you know you have to have the game then the Master Set is a no brainer as you get the premium board and 6 Factions right off the bat.

d10-1d10-0 Balance – Having analysed the various Factions I discovered that the difference in Avg. Attack is a mere .82, the difference in Avg. Life per unit sits at 1.36 and the difference in Avg. Summoning Cost per unit is 1.71. These rather minimal differences and the various powers on offer within each Faction really means that the greatest impact on a player’s ability to win is how well they play a Faction to its strengths, whilst minimizing its weaknesses. That’s where the individual nature of each Faction plays a huge role in the depth of the game and for that I suggest taking a look at my Faction Analysis Section at the end of this review to fully appreciate how varied the Factions are.

Is there Anything to Dislike?

Image Courtesy of bkunes


d10-1 Too Swingy? – Summoner Wars really can swing quickly and whilst the adage, ‘Who Dares Wins’ may be appropriate, it can also turn probable victory into certain defeat if the opposition have the right event cards, right units to summon at the right time or roll well.

Players that like to be rewarded for clever tactics and outnumbering the enemy could be frustrated by Summoner Wars at times. This is the nature of the beast but I prefer to see it as a positive rather than a negative.

d10-2 Fickle Nature of the Dice – Well the game has dice so dice haters out their simply need not apply. The game certainly favours aggression with attacks likely to hit 2/3rds of the time but just when you need that crucial hit you are likely to roll a 1 or 2 to fail spectacularly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overextended a unit to get a 1 dice shot at victory…only to fail and see the enemy swarm me for the win. cool

If you can’t laugh at those moments then Summoner Wars is not for you. Personally these are my favourite types of games and they help to level the playing field against less experienced mates and my younger boys.

d10-3 My Hand Sucks – Similar to games like Memoir ’44 and Neuroshima Hex, it is possible to get a really dud hand for several turns running (all Events or a hand of Walls and Champions that are too expensive to Summon for several turns). If your opponent has drawn a good hand, managed to kill a few of your units and get a Champion out early, then the writing can be on the wall.

It doesn’t happen very often and certainly requires a player to change their tactics and stale until things change, but it can happen and may turn some people off the game. For me it is too rare to be an issue.

d10-4 Analysis Paralysis – Whilst some games can take 20-30 minutes if players play aggressively or get a Champion out early, beginners will find that games tend to take closer to 40 minutes and as long as an hour. That is because players can take some time learning their own skills and need constant reminding of the powers held by the enemy.

Any players that suffer from Analysis Paralysis (AP) may find Summoner Wars quite the challenge as it tends to throw up some quite difficult decisions.

Amazingly I find that I can keep my moves pretty brisk so it may not affect all AP prone players.

d10-5 Too Long for what it is? – And that last point may have some people scratching their head and thinking the game doesn’t quite deliver enough for the time required. I think that could almost be a fair criticism if all games went 60 minutes but with 5-10 games under your belt it is pretty easy to keep games to 40 minutes tops. At that timeframe the game offers plenty to warrant hitting the table.

d10-6 Thematically Off? – Those that love their fantasy and like things to be ‘as we know them’ may find some of the Factions to be just a little off. For example the Sand Goblins are actually quite strong in terms of Life points and actually have more life than the Guild Dwarves. This seems like a rather odd situation but perhaps the designers have a fondness for Goblins?

The other thing worth mentioning is that it’s a little odd for the Summoner Wars rulebook to outline Ret-Talus as a major character in the story by finding the 1st Summoning Stone and yet the Fallen Kingdom doesn’t feature in the Starter or Master Sets and was released about a year after the initial offerings.

Am I nitpicking? Well yes. goo

d10-7 Factions too Samey? – One criticism that could be leveled at the game is that the make-up of the Factions can feel a bit samey. With only 3 common unit types and 3 Champions (of which maybe only 1-2 may see the battlefield in a single play), a player really isn’t seeing a big number of varied units in a single game. That’s what makes the Filth so much fun to play with all their varied Mutants. Of course it makes the game easier to get used to for beginners but some may find it something of a lost opportunity.

Having said that the new Reinforcement Packs address this issue.

d10-8 Completest Beware – Summoner Wars is addictive and the compulsion to acquire just one more Faction deck is hard to resist...especially if you have the completest gene.

I told myself that the 6 Faction Master Set would do me for some time…2 months later I had all 16 Factions and about 6 sets of Custom Dice…3 months later and I have a 2nd Premium Board, all of the Custom Dice and the first 6 Reinforcement Packs. zombie

All that said I think the system has only set me back $340 I’m pretty happy with that. At the 30+ plays I’m already looking at $11 per play in terms of return on my investment and I plan on getting hundreds of plays out of the system.

Alternate Play Formats: Multi-Brawl!

Image Courtesy of jgoyes


Summoner Wars allows for up to 4 players to take each other on if 2 Battlefield Mats are available. These simply need to be put side by side and give the field a total size of 96 spaces!!!

Multi-player games are always played in teams. With 4-players things are simple enough but with 3 players the single player must control 2 Factions by themselves.

Teammates always set up on the same side of the battlefield and play passes from 1 team to the other in sequence. Teammates can have units of the same Faction and this allows for some interesting combos like the Archers of the Vanguard gaining big benefits from being in great numbers.

The key rules are that Walls can be placed anywhere on a team’s side of the battlefield, units can move and attack from the far left to the far right of the Battlefield (as if the field is round) and players can ‘Build Magic’ onto their teammate’s Magic Pile.

Should one player in a team die, all of their Faction cards are removed from the Battlefield and any cards in their Magic Pile are placed on top of their teammate’s Magic Pile. When one team losses their 2nd Summoner the battle is lost.

I can see the multi-player form of the game becoming a huge hit with die-hard fans thanks to the bigger Battlefield and team combo possibilities.

Alternate Play Formats: Deck Building

For some time the concept of Deck Building was all but mute as there are some restrictions placed on what can and can’t be added to a Faction. The Mercenaries were the first Faction that made deck building possible as any Faction can see the addition of Mercenary Units. Now there are 8 Reinforcement Packs, with each providing new Champions and Common Unit types for each Faction. These decks allow a player to replace a weak unit or add new common units to spice up the play of a Faction.

The basic rules for Deck Building are as follows –

d10-1 A Summoner can only have units of its Faction type in its deck. Mercenaries are the only units that can break this rule.

d10-2 All of the Faction’s Event Cards must be taken and no other Event Cards can be added to the deck.

d10-3 The Summary Card for the Faction must be followed, meaning that a Faction must take at the very least the set-up starting units.

d10-4 Two additional Walls must be added making for a total of 3 Walls.

d10-5 Then any other Faction or Mercenary based cards can be added to the Faction, provided that there is a total of 3 Champions and 18 Common Units.

d10-6 There can never be duplicate Champions in a deck and no more than 10 of the same common unit can be present.

The Final Word

Summoner Wars is one of those rare gems that comes along only every so often. It has everything theme junkies love – varied units, fate based combat that rewards good tactics and both players feel in the hunt right to the end. It offers a variety of play formats to keep all manner of gamers happy as they can tailor the game to their play style (1v1, multi-brawl, deck building).

Summoner Wars is all about finding those combos, outwitting the enemy and surprising them with a play that can turn almost certain defeat into victory. It evokes woes of pain and yelps of delight…the game is easy to learn and start playing but requires many plays of a single Faction to unlock their potential. This is my kind of game!

All of this comes in a game that is quick to set up and requires some hand management skills to best respond to the ever evolving Battlefield. Units that may have seemed useless in previous scraps suddenly shine like a beacon of hope. Fans can gain access to some really high quality components in the form of customized dice and the Premium Battlefield Mat too.

I can see my boys and I racking up well over 100 plays of Summoner Wars in quick time given we’ve reached 30+ plays in only 3 months. This is the kind of game I dreamed of as a kid and although Heroscape may truly be that game (from a visual standpoint), Summoner Wars offers everything I’ve always wanted and makes it more accessible thanks to the quick set-up and cheaper cost to acquire. If I could rewrite history and have the design credit for any game, I think I’d choose Summoner Wars.

In fact the game is so addictive that I’ve been carefully training my lads and they are just about ready to take on a Summoner Wars challenge…where we will track the various Factions performance as they battle each other. Of course a mega-spreadsheet will be involved!!! That’s what this game does…it’s a cracker…or is that ‘as addictive as crack’. wow

Till next we meet may your walls stand tall, your Champions strike true and your Summoner’s win the day!!! thumbsup

But wait…there’s more!!! laugh

To fully appreciate the depth on offer in Summoner Wars you have to look at the Factions in more detail. I really enjoyed analysing the 16 Factions to give you a better glimpse into the depth of the game. This analysis will feature as Part II of this review and will be released next Tuesday.

I hope you have a fun time reading it too.

Links

Summoner Wars - A Detailed Analysis - Part II (Faction Analysis)

For a full list of my 300+ reviews in a search-able Geeklist -

My Review Geeklist for Easy Reference

EDIT - Updated to a more visually appealing style
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Justin Robben
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I anticipate Part II...great job!
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David
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Great review Neil (as always) - we'll have to play again soon.
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Alessandro Maggi
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Another great review of a game I was eager to try and finally managed to thanks to the iPad version.
Even though I usually hate games with dice, this one is a winner on so many fronts... basically all those you mentioned.

Unfortunately the fact that it needs an extra playmat to support 4 players is quite a problem for me and my group. As I'm usually the one buying stuff, it would be a bit too steep of a price to pay (especially considering we are usually 5 or more at the table, so SW wouldn't be chosen so often).
Terrific game nonetheless!
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Caleb
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ZephonSoul wrote:
Another great review of a game I was eager to try and finally managed to thanks to the iPad version.
Even though I usually hate games with dice, this one is a winner on so many fronts... basically all those you mentioned.

Unfortunately the fact that it needs an extra playmat to support 4 players is quite a problem for me and my group. As I'm usually the one buying stuff, it would be a bit too steep of a price to pay (especially considering we are usually 5 or more at the table, so SW wouldn't be chosen so often).
Terrific game nonetheless!


It's pretty easy to print up your own 2nd playmat if you want. I did until I got the two re-published starters with their own paper mats.
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Fedor Ilitchev
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Great game. The duration really varies. One of my main partners and I are both prone to AP and many of our games have fallen into the one to two hours duration range... however, the games didn't feel too long - they were super-intense and were reminicent of good chess matches.
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Joseph Ellis
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Neil, glad you're doing a 2nd part, I never would have gotten into the game before I got to see the details of how cool all the factions are.
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joepinion wrote:
Neil, glad you're doing a 2nd part, I never would have gotten into the game before I got to see the details of how cool all the factions are.


Part II went up tonight - see link at bottom of review above.
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Carthoris Pyramidos
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Neil Thomson wrote:
One suggestion I would make to help with the set-up of future plays is to pack Factions away with the Summoner on top (helps identify a Faction with a quick glance) and the Summary Card under that. Under the summary card place the starting units followed by an event card to help separate the starting units from the rest of the deck that requires shuffling. This makes the set-up a ‘no-thinking required’ exercise and saves a minute or two in the process. meeple

That's basically what I do, but I prefer to put the Summoner on top, followed by the starting Wall card, then the other starting units, and then the info card, which even more clearly separates the starting cards from the rest of the deck.
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Updated the visual image to bring it in line with my more modern reviews.
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Tuan Minh
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That's a very detailed and useful review. Thank you for your work.
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minhtuan wrote:
That's a very detailed and useful review. Thank you for your work.


Feedback like this always makes it worthwhile. Glad I could help.
 
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