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Subject: Carthoris on Summoner Wars after 65 Plays rss

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Carthoris Pyramidos
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I've been on BGG for nearly six months, and I've decided that it's finally time for me to try my hand at some reviews, starting with those games for which I have logged the most plays. (So they'll tend to be positive reviews; there are worse things, right?) At the top of the list is Summoner Wars, with 65 plays. This game not only has the highest geek rating of any game in my collection (7.7), it is the first game that I acquired after getting wind of its buzz on BGG. I'm posting this review in the Master Set entry, according to the express admin desire to move "sufficiently generic" materials there, but the topic at hand is the entire Summoner Wars system: three free-standing game kits, supplementary factions, and reinforcement decks.*



What It Is

Summoner Wars bills itself as an "expandable card game of tactical combat," which is accurate enough, but doesn't really do justice to the thing and may benefit from some unpacking. First, the game is thick with fantasy theme, in Plaid Hat Games' original setting of Itharia. Although Itharia is a somewhat traditional sword-and-sorcery setting, with conflict among various types of elves, orcs, dwarves, goblins, magi, demons, undead, etc., there are hints that it is actually in the future or alternative present of our Earth.

As a card game, Summoner Wars does indeed involve decks of cards, and players must carefully manage their hands from a finite stock of options. A player chooses one of the available factions, each of which includes event cards and the three grades of characters: a single "summoner" (analogous to a chess king--defeating that one unit of your opponent is the goal of the game), a few unique "champions," and several types of generic "commons." Every card has an ability peculiar to it, but these abilities work within a lean set of rules, and they are generally easy to understand.



The tag "expandable" should not be mistaken for the sort of expansion involved in CCG or LCG products. The basic faction decks are excellently playable in themselves, and very well balanced against each other. Reinforcement decks permit customization only within a rather rigid framework that maintains that balance. Such customization is fun, but doesn't involve the enormous array of choices or the away-from-the-table design time typical of duelling card games, and it is pretty much a footnote to the things that are most fun (in my opinion) about Summoner Wars. It adds a little variety, but it is unnecessary, and threatens nothing like "power creep."

How It Plays

The phrase "tactical combat" alludes to the fact that gameplay takes place among relatively modest numbers of units in a confined space. All action takes place on a board ("battle map") that is a mere 6 x 8 grid. Movement is highly stylized, and the significant terrain features are limited to the board edges along with stationary wall cards which not only serve defensive purposes but also mark the points of deployment for units entering play. Initiative and action sequences are very formal and "game-ish." Summoner Wars is not a simulator, it is convention-bound play. It also involves a decent amount of dice-chucking. The standard attack die will hit on a 3 or higher, so combat generally moves along quickly. But it's not rare to have plans thwarted by uncooperative cubes.



The standard game is a two-player matchup. Rules are provided for a four-player version, which takes longer and involves partnered players. Some people like the four-handed game, but I've been unimpressed. Summoner Wars shines one-on-one. There are some other variants in circulation, including "Free Build" (relaxes deck building restrictions) and "Apocalypse" (allows deck recycling with other complications). But there is a vast amount of replayability in just two basic faction decks.

Summoner Wars is delightfully easy to learn. The rules can be read in a brief single sitting, and if one player has read them, two can be playing in under twenty minutes. My seven-year-old daughter took to this game quite quickly.

Setup takes about two mintues: lay out the board, place four to seven starting cards according to the particular summoner's setup (given on an info card in the base faction deck), shuffle the remainder, and start. If you have reinforcements and want to do a little preliminary customization, tack five or ten minutes on to the setup, depending on how well-organized you keep your cards. A truncated first turn eliminates any potential first-turn advantage, to the point where I'd rather go second, depending on the particular factions in play.

A game ordinarily lasts between thirty and sixty minutes, and ends with the fatal defeat of one of the summoners. Summoner Wars involves a wide variety of game skills: some elements of strategy in addition to tactics, deck awareness and hand management, and management of risk and probability. For a game that consists of nothing but moving cards around a grid and throwing dice, it is impressively immersive and engaging. Each faction plays very differently from the others, they all have unique assets and quirks.



How It Shops **

Base Decks
The entire Itharian Summoner Wars universe consists of sixteen factions total. Of these, the base decks for two are in each of two "starter sets," six are in the Master Set, and six more come as individual faction decks. Master and starter sets come with five plain dice and a punchboard of simple wound marking tokens. The Master Set has a solid board for a battle map, and the starter sets each have a paper battle map (which is still quite functional and attractive). All of these have changed their packaging somewhat from the original printing: the starter set boxes have gotten a little bigger, with a more attractive battle map; and the Master Set box has gotten smaller, with a two-piece, four-panel battle map giving way to a one-piece, six-panel map, and a formed plastic insert with card wells being replaced by a simpler cardboard insert with baggies.

Based on MSRP, the starter sets have the highest cost per faction, while the Master Set has the cheapest, with the individual decks somewhere in between. Nevertheless, I still recommend starting with a starter set. These have very straightforward factions (Phoenix Elves and Tundra Orcs in one, Guild Dwarves and Cave Goblins in the other), and they provide a perfectly representative experience of the game, to decide whether getting more of it will be something the player wants. Since there is no overlap between the card contents of any of the Summoner Wars products (and Plaid Hat has declared an intention to keep it that way), if you want more, you'll almost certainly want the four starter set factions anyhow, and the total price of a starter set is significantly less than the Master Set.

Reinforcement Decks
There are eight different reinforcement decks, each of which provides additional commons and champions--substitute commons and champions, rather--for two different factions, plus some mercenaries that can be used with any faction. As mentioned earlier, these are entirely optional, and the game does not suffer in their absence. But for those who enjoy the variety of customization, or who want to add a light "meta-game" so that faction decks will be less predictable, they do a fine job of providing new, creative possibilities within the established parameters and balance of the existing factions.

Other Accessories
A "premium" board like the one in the Master Set can be purchased separately. Since a four-player game requires two battle maps to be placed side-by-side, that's a useful way to augment the Master Set. (For myself, I'm happy to use the two paper mats from my starter sets on those occasions I want to play with four.)

Plaid Hat has made faction dice available, although they are not committed to keeping them in stock. These are sets of five ordinary dice, colored to match a specific faction, and with that faction's symbol in place of the 6. They add nothing to the game mechanically, but they do look totally boss.

Plaid Hat has been considering the possiblity of producing custom sleeves for Summoner Wars cards. For those who want to sleeve, that's probably welcome news, because there has been a lot of chatter about the extent to which existing sleeves fail to match the exact dimensions of the cards. I don't care for sleeves myself, so I can't give my own judgment on this issue.

Forthcoming: Second Summoners
The current horizon of Summoner Wars products is four "Second Summoners" packs that are anticipated for spring of 2013. These will include new summoners for existing factions, with their own summoner-specific event cards, plus a new set of champions and commons for the faction. These should massively enhance customization, while keeping the theme relatively concentrated.

Play Advice

New players often inquire about the optimal "learner" factions. All four of the starter set factions are sufficiently straightforward for new players. In the Master Set, the Shadow Elves and the Mountain Vargath (goatish humanoids) are both great for this purpose. Especially challenging factions to play include the Filth (mutating demonolaters), Swamp Orcs, Fallen Kingdom (necromancer with undead), and Cloaks (a stealthy steampunkish cadre).

The most common mistake in beginner play is to bring units into play as fast as possible, rather than building magic for champions and husbanding events for maximum effect.

Verdicts

I'm not sure there's a lot for me to add to the adulation Summoner Wars has already received around here. Not everyone will love it, certainly. If sword-and-sorcery fantasy themes leave you cold, if capricious dice rolls aggravate your hypertension, or if you want your tabletop combat to achieve great heights of "realism," this game probably isn't for you. With certain factions, it can be advantageous to kill a few your own starting units, which some players find distasteful as a property of the game. (I don't mind it as a possibility, but I do find it distasteful as a player tactic for most factions, and I generally manage to win without it.)

Not everyone likes the art, but I do. And the graphic design of the cards makes them easy to read, which is totally critical in this sort of game. The card size has found the necessary middle ground between larger (for legibility and comfort in hand) and smaller (to minimize the footprint on the tabletop). Although the original Master Set box in particular came under fire for being enormous and hard to store or transport, the game is actually very portable. A starter set box can be packed with a paper battle map, dice, wound counters, and three or four bagged faction decks to travel, while the Master Set holds the larger kit at home.

As a fast-yet-substantial two-player competitive game, Summoner Wars is really quite excellent. It has a large and growing player base, and it is well supported by the publisher. I love to play it, and I recommend it to others.


* There is an iOS version of this game that has received a lot of favorable attention and has a significant player population. I am not among them, though. I don't own a smartphone or an iPad, and I'll play Summoner Wars that way when you pry it between my cold, dead fingers. Thanks.

** Notes in this section are for the US and other Anglophone countries. Summoner Wars has been licensed for French production with a set that includes a lovely fabric battle map, and Brazilian Portuguese starter sets come with three factions rather than two. But I can't speak to those details with any knowledge of pricing or in-hand quality.
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Manu
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This is a well written review for a classic. Thumbs up!
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Korey McMurtrey
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An excellent review of one of my favorite games. I really can't get enough it. It's so simple to teach, but always really engaging. And there's always tough choices to make throughout the game.

I look forward to more of your reviews, too.
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prashant Maheshwari
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Excellent review of one of fav game... and boy you hate iPad
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Carthoris Pyramidos
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prashantmaheshwari wrote:
and boy you hate iPad


Heh. Well, it turns out I've now played the iOS version a few times, since my brother's iPad made it convenient.

I did play Fallen Kingdom first, though, so "cold, dead fingers" sort of applies!
 
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