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Subject: Summoner Wars, or how I got over Heroscape rss

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John Childress
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We all have our first loves, whether they be women (or men), cars, hobbies, there is always the first love. I’m not talking about the “first”, because while you might have affection and nostalgia over those, you didn’t love them. That first gf, video game, or in this case, board game, that you first truly loved.

For me, that game was Heroscape. It had everything I wanted in a game, awesome miniatures, great terrain, tons of variety and dice. Rolling tons and tons of dice! It was fantastic. It was the first game I aggressively bought up every hero or squad I could get my hands on. It was the first time I went to eBay to buy used expansions that was out of print. It led me to tournaments and making many new friends. It was even the first time I looked up guides to learn how to make custom terrain since the Ice/Snow and Lava sets were too expensive at the time. It was a magical time.

But, like almost all first loves, there comes an end to it. In Heroscape’ s case, it was less me and more it, or more accurately, Hasbro. Too much plastic, not enough profit, and they gave it the axe, ceasing production on it. It took up a ton of space, and money was tight at the time and my son was growing out of it, and dejectedly, and a bit foolishly, I ended up eventually selling the entire collection. To this day, I regret not keeping either the Marvel Master Set (My families first experience with the game) or the original Master Set (By far the best Master set). One day, when I have some free money, I’ll pick it up again.

But, after giving it up, and growing deeper, slowly, in the hobby, I still felt an emptiness, a gnawing hole where Heroscape had been. Nothing clicked just like the way that game did and honestly, I thought nothing could ever scratch that itch again. I’m so glad I was wrong. I’m so glad I picked up Summoner Wars.

Concept/Theme
- Summoner Wars is a 2-player game very much in the mold of Heroscape because it’s designer, Colby Dauch, worked on it. But instead of remaking Heroscape with its miniature and tactical goodness, he decided to make a game that was one part Heroscape, one part Magic, and something that felt very fresh and very unique. A fantasy themed somewhat customizable, somewhat living, card game. Unlike Magic or Heroscape, where you could basically mix and match however you pleased within a small framework of rules, the majority of Summoner Wars would function on factions. These factions are incredibly balanced, play and feel unique from one another, on a board that feels almost like you are playing a miniatures game, yet also feels like playing a more direct combat game like Magic.

Gameplay - Everything in Summoner Wars starts and ends with your deck. While there were multiple ways to get faction decks (Starter Packs, the two amazing Master Sets (Start here with the original Master Set if you can get hold of it), or individual faction decks), each one came basically fully complete. Yes, they could be modified a bit by your own personal preference, but only with cards of the same faction or the mercenaries. Unlike many card games however, I never felt the need to deck build, the way they come base is fantastic enough, but the option is there if you want it.

Your deck, much like M:TG, is everything. In it are commons (cheaper basic units that you can have more than one of), champions (unique and more powerful and expensive units), walls (defensive barriers that are also where units are summoned off of), and event cards. Unlike M:TG, your deck will not recycle. Not only that, there are no “mana” cards. Like Race for the Galaxy, you pay for cards with your cards (or those cards that you have slain). This gives the game a built-in timer of sorts as you can rush out your more powerful units, but that will burn your deck as well and if you fail early on, you won’t last long enough to defeat your opponent’s Summoner.

Combat, likewise, is nothing like Magic. Cards are laid out on a grid (each faction has an unalterable starting layout) and each turn you can move or fight with them on the grid, but only a limited amount.

Only 3 units can be moved and only 3 units can attack. Melee units can only attack units at the 4 cardinal points and Ranged function the same except they can attack up to 3 spaces away. Each card has an attack value and a life value (units can be injured) but unlike Heroscape, there is no rolling for defense. Furthermore, there is a 66% chance on any die to roll a hit, making this very much a game about generally being aggressive and striking first. Of course, each unit has its own special power, with factions usually having a them that many of those units feed into. Goblins are all about the rush. Getting out a mass of cheap units, some of which can attack after the normal attack phase (which is limited to 3), and some cards allowing them to gang up on units. This isn’t a game about holding back, but more about opportunistic sniping and focusing fire. When your opponent spends 7 cards to bring out his biggest gun, nothing is more satisfying than whittling him down to nothing.

Every time you destroy an opponents’ unit or wall, you get their card to add to your magic pool, allowing you to bring out more units without risking your hand and rapidly dwindling deck. Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter how many of your opponents’ commons or champions you kill. Ultimately, you must kill their summoner. Only then can you win the game.

Variant 3 or 4 players - While Summoner Wars is very much a 2-player game, you can play it with more and it is really fun as well. You put two boards side by side (in a 3-player game, one person controls 2 factions). Movement, combat all basically works the same, with turn order going in a zig zag fashion between the players. Basically, it is a team game then, with one team needing to destroy both opposing factions to win. One important difference however is the board is now wraparound, giving you new tactical options and you can share magic, allowing a player to hand off his magic to his partner on the gamble that they can do something powerful with it.

This makes for a tense and brutal game… at least until one summoner is killed. Unless the remaining player can quickly kill off a summoner, they will quickly get boxed in and lose, with little chance of recovery due to fighting from multiple fronts. Still fun, but it plays much longer than the 2-player game so I wouldn’t recommend it for casual play unless everyone is really into the game.

Art/Aesthetics - First, I want to touch briefly on the single biggest flaw on the original release of the game. The original Starter sets consisted of 2 very balanced factions which was great, but they came with horrid paper maps for the battleground. These of course never unfolded correctly or smoothly and were simply just a horrible experience. Thankfully, both Master Sets came with quality boards that while not stunning, were clear and showed a nice faded map background.

As for the cards themselves, they were quite nice. Not stunning by any means, never touching the highs of the best card game art. Instead, they focused on making a nice consistent them and the artwork generally was more akin to a character design pulled out of a DnD Monster Manual. Unlike many games like Dominion or M:TG, however, artwork was always consistent and there is no mishmash of styles. Functional and clear would be how I would describe it.

Final Opinion - Well, if you read the title you know how I feel about this game. Each faction, of which there are dozens, feels unique, thematic, and fresh and you would be ill served if you played any one faction like the other. Like any good game, you need to know how best to take advantage of each factions’ strengths while minimizing their weaknesses and this is no small task. Powers and abilities and event cards are generally very different for each faction (there are some repeats and standby’s) and this is where the game excels. You can just pick up any faction and have an experience with it and not feel disadvantage. They might not all play by your style, but I’ve not found any of them to be significantly unbalanced against others. The dice are mitigated by powers, positioning, and timing. Yes, the Goblin Berserker can crush your units if he can multiple units adjacent to him, but when your opponent is playing them, keeping spread out is key.

The game even, very importantly, allows you to attack your own units. Need one more card to bring out your hero? Kill that nearly dead common unit of yours. That denies the magic from your opponent while empowering you. If you are losing to any die roll, you were already in a position in which you could lose anyway. Sorry If I’ve rambled on too long here, I just wanted to share my feelings and love for a game that itself has now had its run ended. I recommend either of the Master Sets, but even the starter sets can give you a great and balanced experience. So, if you are looking for a tactical game with asymmetric powers, some dice chucking, and some real meat on it without being forced to deck build, I cannot recommend this game enough. We take it with us on every vacation to play in the hotel. Have fun and enjoy!
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Contemptus Mundi
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Great review, great game... And one I'll never sell!
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Warren Smith
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West Nyack
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Love this game. Don't play it nearly enough.
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E Butler
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Just getting into it. Conceptually I like everything about it. We'll just have to see if it holds up to live play.
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Rowan Massing
Canada
Edmonton
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I haven't had the opportunity to play this nearly as many times as I'd like but I'm obsessed with getting as much of the content as possible. Give designers another hundred years* and I can't imagine tactical combat ever being distilled so finely into a streamlined yet deep and satisfying experience as it is in Summoner Wars.

* Exaggerating but not much
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Edward B.
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I'm a huge fan of Heroscape as well, and have read several people recommend this for those who like Heroscape.

Is this still being actively supported? Are there new factions being released or is this game pretty much set?

One of the big appeals to Heroscape was the variety of faction figures. It looks like Summoner Wars is strictly fantasy fare. Is that right?
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Rowan Massing
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Summoner Wars is total fantasy and there will not be any more content. But there is a heck of a lot, with 40 decks, 8 reinforcement packs and whatever promo stuff is out there.
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Team Ski
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Dover
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CHOMP!!!!
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Sorry, but nothing can replace Heroscape. Nothing.

-Ski
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Edward B.
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I agree, but this game does sounds pretty interesting and I often hear it mentioned as a good one for Heroscape fans. One bad thing about Heroscape is the sheer amount of space it takes up. Having a bunch of decks fit in a box would be nice.
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Ray S
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Still my favorite game. Have played it 142 times this year alone. Own everything but the dice and wish I could get them but oh well I've talked with Colby and he said we can't expect a reprint of them. shake
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Edward B.
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What are reinforcement packs? I've seen those. Are they full army decks or just commons meant to be mixed with decks?
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E Butler
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Reinforcement packs have 15+/- cards for each of 2 factions + 7+ mercinaries. Second Summoners decks are complete faction decks.
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Liam
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Nice review thanks for sharing.

It's my favourite non-cooperative game. For those who want to see what's available there is Summoner Wars Product Guide and for every card Summoner Wars: Catalogue and Community Guide with Polls.
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David Lefton
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Florence
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I play to screw with winners, not to win!
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I was another player who started with Heroscape, as at one point had every figure with 2-5 of each common and 2-5 of each set, then I sold most of it, but then slowly bought my way almost up to before (no Aquilla's Alliance or some older C3V sets). I still go to Heroscapers.com tournaments once a month or two, but rarely ever play at home anymore.

I bought Summoner Wars as soon as it came out due to Colby Dauch (@Truth) running Heroscapers.com as and its similarities (I even helped run and play at the first official Summoner Wars Tournament at Origins and Gencon in 2011), and bought the starters, master set, and main decks (not reinforcements as deck building didn't appeal to me that much) but I stopped buying when the Second Summoners and Alliances came out.
I honestly have not played it that much over the years since, but then last month when MiniatureMarket started a huge clearance sale I went and bought everything (except a couple second summoner decks) and want to play it a lot more now.
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John Childress
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David, it's very likely I played you or was around you at GenCon that year. I played on the Saturday Tournament that year, one of them, and lost to someone helping out with the game playing Deep Dwarves, which was my first experience with them. Bought the Master Set right after getting my Phoenix Elves dice as a 4th place reward.
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David Lefton
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Florence
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Found the old PlaidHat event thread. I think it was either me or Frank @killercactus or @GromBloodboy. I think I actually left the second half of the tournament (or maybe I missed the first game - don't remember) because a Heroscape tournament was at the same time.

I get Gencon and Origins confused that year though as I went to both.
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Frank QB
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Summoner Wars is so good. It's the perfect combo of tactics and strategy.
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Andy Olp

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Nice article! I love Summoner Wars also, but never had people as interested in it to play with regularly. People LIKE it, but would still rather play other things.

I pre-ordered the Alliances set and have Colby's signature on the box, which is pretty cool. Now I want to break this out again!
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Dave
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Great article... I decided to use MM's sale on clearance items to stock up on SW sets/decks.
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