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Michael Grubb
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After getting familiar with how Summoner Wars plays, you might be tempted to think this is just a cheap miniatures game without the miniatures--that the designer and customer have made a tacit agreement to simulate those big, five-hundred-dollar spreads of Warhammer 40k without the shame of such a large investment. To sacrifice the geeky delight of tiny toys for the clean, inexpensive pleasure of tactical movement and fantasy-skinned faction abilities.

Hey. Don't think that way.

Summoner Wars is its own thing. From the way it handles battlefield terrain, to energy/mana management, to the clarity of movement and attack range, Summoner Wars is an elegant game of cards. Two-dimensional cardstock. That's precisely why it is so impressive. There are numerous design choices that make the experience a must-have 2-player brawler, but let me give you my three favorite.

1. You can discard possible units from your hand as mana.

What a good idea. If its been done before, let me know, but this felt so novel and obvious.

Units move from your deck into your hand until you summon them and they hit the field. Unless you want to sacrifice them for mana. What does this mean for your thought process? It means you've got a profound choice to make every single turn because you need that mana to summon the other cards coming out of your lean, thirty-card deck, but you may risk burning through that lean deck too quickly. Do you discard your whole hand for hopes of getting that expensive champion to the board next turn? Rarely do games hand you a valuable decision this often.

Every single turn, a good player is weighing board state against possible summons, considering pacing as much as position. And all options are viable. Flood the board with cheap units that each do something interesting. Wall up and protect your summoner until you can slam a dragon on the board. Sure, certain factions play more to each of these strategies, but they never feel limiting.

2. It gives you a memorable story borne of the mechanics themselves.

Excuse me for second, if you will. Time to talk about some heady narrative design stuff. Just skip the next paragraph if you don't have time for that.

I have a problem with Dead of Winter, another game by Plaid Hat. Dead of Winter is a good narrative-heavy game that never fails to produce a rich story of twists and turns. However, I've noticed a mechanic that has been creeping in to many of the experiences (particularly co-op experiences) in the last decade that offers designers a sort of shortcut toward creating "story" in their games. Typically it manifests as a deck of cards that all have a scene written on them and a small mechanical ramification. In Dead of Winter, it's called the "Crossroads Deck." In Scythe it's called the "Encounter Deck." In Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island, the "Adventure" and "Event" decks. Eldritch Horror?: "Mythos." Not that this is a sloppy approach. Liken it to putting cutscenes in a video game. But why, in a medium predicated on interactivity and involvement, should the primary pleasure of the experience be in the reading? These "flip the card and deal with scenario" mechanics are at their best when they enrich the stories the players are making--when they serve whatever isn't printed on the components.

Allll that to say: Summoner Wars avoids this and still authors big stories. It has text-heavy event cards, but these don't directly produce interesting situations, they empower players to produce interesting situations themselves. It's all mechanics and no cutscenes. I've been backed in corner with a weakened summoner only to call forth a champion who tramples of the top of enemy units and wounds them as it moves. I marched him right across the skulls of those units who'd trapped me and right to the enemy summoner. I don't actually remember if I won or lost that game, but, Betsy, it felt beautiful. I won't soon forget it, and its exactly the type of situation you might expect to read from an "adventure" card.

If the aforementioned underdog example feels too swingy and random for you, let me tell you: this game isn't long. Maybe an hour, tops. And it is easy to teach.

3. Summoner Wars is short.

The amount of rewarding decisions you get per minute of gameplay can't be matched. It's built for back-to-back plays like Magic: The Gathering and you already know this isn't a worker placement game. You roll dice and see strategies rewarded and have your heart broken. And then it's over.




VERDICT
Get the Master Set and then just try, juuuuust try not to get another faction deck. I've got ten factions, and that is a sweet spot for me and my pals across 30+ games. It is one of the few games that can't seem to fatigue me. I'm always ready for more of you, Summy Wars.

Miscellaneous
My wife loves it. My favorite faction is the Swamp Orcs because they have a separate deck of "Vine Wall" cards that can create a parasitic jungle on the battlefield and I enjoy being oppressive/awful. It's fun to deal out the factions and have a tournament with a few boards going at once. It is so affordable.
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Josiah Fiscus
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ShuffleBit wrote:

2. It gives you a memorable story borne of the mechanics themselves.


Allll that to say: Summoner Wars avoids this and still authors big stories. It has text-heavy event cards, but these don't directly produce interesting situations, they empower players to produce interesting situations themselves. It's all mechanics and no cutscenes. I've been backed in corner with a weakened summoner only to call forth a champion who tramples of the top of enemy units and wounds them as it moves. I marched him right across the skulls of those units who'd trapped me and right to the enemy summoner. I don't actually remember if I won or lost that game, but, Betsy, it felt beautiful. I won't soon forget it, and its exactly the type of situation you might expect to read from an "adventure" card.


As much as I like Summoner Wars (a good bit), I don't find this to be true at all. There really is no interesting narrative here apart from the mechanics for me. I'd be just as likely to recount a game of Agricola ("Remember that time I got the Corn Scoop and the Bread Seller!?! Totally OP!").
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Carthoris Pyramidos
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happyjosiah wrote:
There really is no interesting narrative here apart from the mechanics for me.

I'm with Michael on this issue. The fact of emergent narrative in Summoner Wars is why I've posted more session reports for SW than any other game. Here are some old samples:

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/903206/xmas-eve-goblin-town
https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1341482/sirians-sirens-see-...
https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/907343/itharian-plants-vers...
https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1491140/mugglugs-warpath-vs...

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Michael Grubb
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Fair enough, Josiah, but what do you mean by "no interesting narrative apart from the mechanics?" I only ask because its actually the larger point I'm trying to make in the prior paragraph: that it's precisely mechanics that games use to shape/create narrative.

Maybe I should add that the mechanics inform and reflect the theme well--that the card text and stats supporting a group of Tundra Orcs feels suited to recreating their conflict convincingly--ice walls that do damage to adjacent units and a tough-hided summoner with high HP. When I feel immersed (even despite the cliche trappings of fantasy-themed battle), I have to give a nod to the mechanics themselves that bolster such an experience. In turn, I feel more embedded within the story.

In games, I think we typically say "theme" when we're talking about the 1. art and 2. how a certain circumstance should be quantified with the game-y bits like math and relationships between cards. SW does this so elegantly that I'm usually left with just the dramatic story of tactics and not so much a conversation about unit powers and upgrades (see: "Corn Scoop").
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Michael Grubb
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Carthoris wrote:


Love the style of these session reports. Not too lengthy. Just makes me want to play again.

Long live live Splack. Splack forever.heart
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Kelly B
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Carthoris wrote:
happyjosiah wrote:
There really is no interesting narrative here apart from the mechanics for me.

I'm with Michael on this issue. The fact of emergent narrative in Summoner Wars is why I've posted more session reports for SW than any other game. Here are some old samples:

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/903206/xmas-eve-goblin-town
https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1341482/sirians-sirens-see-...
https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/907343/itharian-plants-vers...
https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1491140/mugglugs-warpath-vs...



Im in agreement as well. The mechanics drive a strong narrative. I find each faction deep and fun.
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Alexandre Limoges
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To those in whom the will has turned and has denied itself, this our world, which is so real, with all its suns and milky-ways — is nothing. [A.Schopenhauer]
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Summoner Wars is, indeed, a fantastic game. It sits in my top 5.

I just wish PHG made a better effort at supporting the game and balancing it, but still, I can't think of a game with a better depth/length ratio than this tension filled game.
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Carthoris Pyramidos
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Solipsiste wrote:
I just wish PHG made a better effort at supporting the game and balancing it, but still, I can't think of a game with a better depth/length ratio than this tension filled game.

I know they're focused on more recent products in the same basic customizable, multi-faction dueling genre, like Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn and Crystal Clans, and SW is very well built out, but there's still room for development. I'd love to see a "Second Alliances" set, with another eight combinations different than the original Alliances.
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