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Subject: Summoner Wars: An Unexpected Masterpiece rss

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Ben Stanley
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Introduction

I picked up the starter sets of Summoner Wars based on a recommendation in a geeklist on this website. I love games that are fast, portable, and deeply strategic, and someone said I should give this game a try. I had reservations. My hesitation had nothing to do with the fact that Plaid Hat Games was a new company and this was their first game. After all, many of the very best games started with small publishers and new designers, and Colby Dauch has significant game design experience on other epic games.

No, my cause for pause was simply a fear of excessive randomness in a game that combined both shuffled cards and rolled dice. Wouldn’t victory go to the lucky player (drawing the cards they needed at the right times or rolling the better attacks), not the smarter player, most of the time?

Happily, my concerns were unfounded, and what I found in Summoner Wars was a game that quickly climbed into my rankings of all time favorites.

Gameplay

Each player in Summoner Wars controls a faction: Phoenix Elves, Tundra Orcs, Cave Goblins, Guild Dwarves, or one of the planned expansions: Human Vanguard and the Fallen Kingdom. The players each have a deck of 34 cards (and 1 reference card that summarizes some of the contents of the deck and shows a starting army configuration for the faction).

The deck of 34 cards contains 1 summoner (the powerful leader of the faction whose death loses the game for that player), 3 champions, 18 common units of 3 types, 9 event cards, and 3 walls. A handful of cards are placed on a paper grid to represent each player’s army, and it quickly becomes apparent that the game works like a miniatures battle game with cards instead of figurines.

As players draw through the deck, up to 5 cards in their hands, they are able to summon new champions and common units next to their walls by paying a cost in magic, then play powerful events they have in their hands to catch up, attack, place new walls, or otherwise change conditions on the board, then they get 3 movements (up to 2 spaces with 3 cards), and 3 attacks (rolling the number of dice a card allows in hopes of damaging an opponent’s unit or wall), and then they have a chance to place cards out of their hand into their magic pile to allow more summoning in a future round at the cost of sacrificing that card. They also gain enemies they kill as magic, allowing two different primary means to increase their summoning capacity.

Each unit card in the game has a summoning cost (except the summoner, obviously), an attack rating (the number of dice it gets to roll), a number of life points, a type of attack (ranged or melee), and 1 brilliantly balanced special power. The interaction of those special powers and the clever use of combinations to build a strategy are the heart of the game.

Players alternate turns until one of the summoners is dead.

Why It Works

The game is fast and fun. There is tension, excitement, action, and strategy in every play. Dominance often feels like it is shifting throughout the game, yet a carefully planned strategy and superior play will often win the day. I mentioned my fear of excessive randomness. I picked up the game Pocket Battles at the same time as Summoner Wars, and while there are things that I find incredibly clever in Pocket Battles, too, that game does feel like a random mess at times without much meaningful strategy. Summoner Wars, in contrast, is elegant and still deeply strategic.

The secret of Summoner Wars is the variety of play styles for the different factions. Plus there are enough dice rolls throughout a still very fast game that the results trend toward a normalized distribution and regression to the mean ensures a strategic game.

But I’d like to focus on the differences of the factions: I love all of them, and they are well balanced and each very interesting and fun to play. But in particular I love how they are more than just different play styles (though they certainly are that). They represent entirely different gaming philosophies, which I find absolutely ingenious. If you don’t want any chance that your plans fail due to luck, play the Phoenix Elves. They are frail, but they can use hit and run tactics and guaranteed damage to largely ignore even the potential randomness of dice, and thus be confident of a victory almost every time when played well. On the other hand, the Tundra Orcs are immensely powerful, but many of their attacks, ranging from their leader’s special ability to their fighter’s fury and their many dice, require lots and lots of rolls and an almost "gambling" game philosophy. Cave Goblins have incredibly weak but cheap units and can combine their attacks in interesting ways if you want to overwhelm and choke your opponent. Guild Dwarves are great for locking down an opponent’s options, either by trapping their units with guardians or tearing down their summoning walls. So you have predictable hit and run (PE), unpredictable crushing power (TO), overwhelming numbers (CG) and lock down tactics (GD) just in the first four starting factions, and even without those factions there are an array of options based on the powers of the different champions and the ways any individual may want to play the game.

In all of my plays of Summoner Wars to date, I have only lost one game, and that was a game where I simply had an unprecedented string of unfortunate rolls. I had the dice go against me for several rolls in the middle of the game, but still clawed my way back to a stronger position, went in for the kill against the opponent’s summoner, and rolled, over a series of turns, eight misses in a row. I lost the game, but her summoner only had 1 life left when mine was killed. Rather than discouraging me, it reinforced in my mind what a truly abnormal string of bad rolls is required to completely derail a sound strategy, and how fair and balanced the game really is. Randomness in the draws is mitigated by the small size of the deck and the usefulness of every card in the right circumstances. And randomness in the rolls is mitigated somewhat by the powers of the cards and the number of chances to attack players will have throughout the game.

Great Qualities of the Game

As noted above, I believe much of the genius of Summoner Wars comes from the fact that it offers both a myriad of game play styles and game play philosophies. I am so impressed with how that was captured with a small number of cards, and am hopeful that the incredible variety and balance continue with future expansions.

Beyond that, the game is just plain fun. Every round is action packed and interesting.

The game is really quite quick, which I tremendously appreciate. Players only go through the deck once, and it is a relatively small deck, so games can often end in 30 to 40 minutes, but feel like a complete, satisfying battle.

The art is great.

The game includes rules for 3 and 4 players, in addition to the basic 2 player game. There are times when I want to play on the same team as someone, and that is possible in Summoner Wars.

The rulebook and special power texts are fantastic. I really had very, very few questions and most of the game is extremely intuitive and easy to understand from the very first game. That also stands in marked contrast to Pocket Battles, the other game I picked up at the same time and mentioned above.

Finally, there are rules for customizing your deck if you want to spice things up and truly fine tune your strategy and game, yet you don't have to randomly buy booster packs hoping for good cards. You have the flexibility of a customizable card game without the inordinate costs. And there are some cool special mercenary cards that are planned to offer even more variety in customization. The first one is available now as a promo card when players order Summoner Wars sets directly from Plaid Hat Games.

What Would I Change?

Now, hopefully everyone will forgive me for making a couple of suggestions of things that I might have done differently. I know there are cost reasons and stylistic preferences why these things may not have been done in the game, and please understand that by making a couple of suggestions I am not saying that I do not absolutely adore the game as it is (I do). I just strive for completeness, and do have these thoughts of what could have been different that I will share for the curious.

I think colorful and custom dice would have been a nice enhancement for the game. Maybe a deluxe dice offering could be extended at some point, with colored dice for each faction and symbols in addition to the numbers on each of the faces. I will probably make my own, but I think an official released custom dice set would be awesome.

Similarly, I have heard talk of a premium board for the game being offered separately. I wholeheartedly support any such project, as the paper playing mat is reasonably portable and nicely made, but still somewhat troublesome as it does not always lie flat or withstand food or drink spills, and an actual board would be great to have at the location people play the most often.

I think there could have been more variety in the otherwise excellent art. Many of the cards feature just another picture of the faction summoner, or walls that all look the same. Rather than having the summoning occur at walls, I might have called them fortresses (or forts) and made each one look different for each faction. It would have been immersive and thematic to see what a tundra orc fort looked like, and what cave goblins, dwarves, and elves built instead.

On the subject of the different factions, I would have tried hard to represent each one with a different primary or secondary color. As it stands, the orcs are blue, the elves are red, the goblins are green, and the dwarves are a sort of redish-brown. The vanguard is currently planned for light blue and the fallen kingdom as black. I think the first three are great, but I would have probably tried to represent the six "main colors" by making the dwarves orange, the vanguard yellow, and the fallen purple, and then gone to black, white, and brown for even further expansions. Utilizing all the basic colors adds symmetry to the game and can be an aid for the color-blind in some circumstances.

Finally, I have referenced Pocket Battles a few times in this review, and one thing that would have been incredibly interesting to try would have been to make the units and events out of small cardboard tiles with a reference card summarizing the powers rather than as a deck of cards. The one thing I do really love about Pocket Battles is how portable it proves to be, and there is still room on cardboard tiles for significant art and iconic information. A small symbol cross referenced to a player aid that explains each units power would have mirrored Pocket Battles and brought that one best feature of that game over to Summoner Wars, which is the vastly superior game in every other way. Pocket Battles has roughly the same number of tiles in its factions (I believe 30 instead of 34, but close), and was produced very inexpensively. An added advantage of small tiles would have been the fact that the board could have been much smaller as well, and could have been made from a sturdier material while still fitting in a very compact box. Once Summoner Wars becomes as established and successful as it surely should (based on the quality of the game itself), I hope the production and sale of a travel edition is entertained at some point!

In Conclusion

I have to give Summoner Wars a 9 out of 10. It is one of the best games I have played, and that is saying something because I play thousands, generally sticking with the best and well established recommendations. I cannot endorse it highly enough. Pick it up, play it, and I suspect you will truly enjoy it.
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Colby Dauch
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Thanks for the review. Really glad you enjoyed the game!
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Kolja Geldmacher
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Quote:
...make the units and events out of small cardboard tiles with a reference card summarizing the powers rather than as a deck of cards.
...An added advantage of small tiles would have been the fact that the board could have been much smaller as well, and could have been made from a sturdier material while still fitting in a very compact box.


My Friend you are talking about Stratego Legends

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Mike Holyoak
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Great review!

I just got the two starter sets this past weekend, and I am absolutely amazed at the depth of play that comes from just two little decks.

The best review that I can give is that I got my butt kicked in my first two games, but I still couldn't wait to play more.

There aren't many games that I can say that about!

I'm really excited to see what comes out next, but I still see tons of replay for the four starter decks.


I second the call for custom faction dice and a custom board, that would just be awesome. devil
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fightcitymayor
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"This is a really weird game, and you’ll find that most people will not want to play this."
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Blue Steel wrote:
I think colorful and custom dice would have been a nice enhancement for the game. Maybe a deluxe dice offering could be extended at some point, with colored dice for each faction and symbols in addition to the numbers on each of the faces.

Agreed, but i'll assume standard dice kept the price down. I would certainly lobby for an entire series of deluxe dice, one for each faction.

Blue Steel wrote:
Similarly, I have heard talk of a premium board for the game being offered separately. I wholeheartedly support any such project,

As do we all. I believe this stands a very good chance of coming true.

Blue Steel wrote:
I think there could have been more variety in the otherwise excellent art. Many of the cards feature just another picture of the faction summoner, or walls that all look the same.

I agree. Though i would settle for the expanded advanced decks just having a different Summoner pic. That way i can tell, "oh, this is a Starter Deck Guild Dwarf card, and this is an Expansion Deck Guild Dwarf card."

Blue Steel wrote:
Rather than having the summoning occur at walls, I might have called them fortresses (or forts) and made each one look different for each faction. It would have been immersive and thematic to see what a tundra orc fort looked like, and what cave goblins, dwarves, and elves built instead.

Wow, now that IS a good idea! I agree, that minor addition would really bleed through the theme, just like you said: "immersive"

Blue Steel wrote:
On the subject of the different factions, I would have tried hard to represent each one with a different primary or secondary color.

Well, as long as the game sells (and one look at Colby's new 4-car garage with the Mercedes S-Class in the driveway tells that story) i'll betcha we get you your primary color wheel of factions filled in before too long.


Blue Steel wrote:
one thing that would have been incredibly interesting to try would have been to make the units and events out of small cardboard tiles with a reference card summarizing the powers rather than as a deck of cards.

I'm no Chief Marketing Executive, but i'll bet being a card game yanks in a lot of past/present CCG players, whereas yet another tile game might get lost in the shuffle (hardy har har pun.)

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Colby Dauch
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The walls have a story behind them. It is written, I just haven't released it yet because it discusses a character whose art I haven't released yet. Look for it soon on summonerwars.com
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Jason Cookingham
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Cruel teaser....
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Eric Ruhland
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screamingtruth wrote:
The walls have a story behind them. It is written, I just haven't released it yet because it discusses a character whose art I haven't released yet. Look for it soon on summonerwars.com
That's cool but I have to agree that I wish the walls weren't all the same. In any case a great review and an awesome game. Thanks.
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Jason Rider
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Fantastic review, very thorough!
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Seth Trammell
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Funny, many of your concerns have been met now (the dice and the mat) though the dice I think are all sold out by now.
So Colby, what were you talking about "there is a story behind the walls", that was back in 2010, did I miss the story?
Seth
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Lee Fisher
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Sethy295 wrote:
Funny, many of your concerns have been met now (the dice and the mat) though the dice I think are all sold out by now.
So Colby, what were you talking about "there is a story behind the walls", that was back in 2010, did I miss the story?
Seth



http://www.plaidhatgames.com/sum_news.html#article137
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Seth Trammell
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That link took me to the news page... I couldn't find anyhting there, is it in the "almanac"? If that's the story then I found it after I posted.
Seth
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Jason Cookingham
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Hello,

Yeah. Look at "The Journal of Sirian Waters"
http://www.plaidhatgames.com/sum_almanac.html#article2
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