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Subject: Six design decisions that resulted in a remarkable game rss

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Chris
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Though here at journey's end I lie in darkness buried deep, beyond all towers strong and high, beyond all mountains steep, above all shadows rides the Sun, and Stars forever dwell: I will not say the Day is done, nor bid the Stars farewell.
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Originally posted on menwithdice.com.

I recall my first Summoner Wars session. I wasn’t particularly impressed, but I enjoyed it enough to throw it on the Christmas list I send to non-gaming family. Because of the starter set’s low price point, it got a foot in the door of my collection. I’m so glad I gave Summoner Wars a second chance since it’s now one of my favorite games. Summoner Wars is a case study in how a few simple design choices resulted in a vastly rich gaming system.

The ruleset is nice and smooth, with very few “jagged edges” and exceptions. The basic rules can be explained in 5 minutes, but there’s years worth of depth to explore. The game can make accommodations to support 2-4 players, but I would realistically expect this to serve as only a 2 player game. 3 and 4 player sessions become team games.

Deck Management
The biggest design feature of Summoner Wars is building magic. Every card in your deck has two potential uses. The first use is its face value – either something that goes on the map or an event card that grants a special power or ability. Alternatively, each card can be pumped into your economy – namely magic. At the end of your turn, you may build magic. This means you may take cards in your hand (what’s left of them after deployment) and place them face down in your magic pile. Your pile of magic is your stockpile that you spend to deploy more dudes in future turns.

Magic building is this game’s most brilliant decision point. If this was the only interesting element in Summoner Wars, this alone would make it worth it. Since you have a deck of 35 cards, it’s a choice you’ll be faced with up to nearly 35 times per game. Every single card that comes into your hand is a decision point on whether to spend magic to put it in play, or for it to become magic to allow you to put other cards into play. Magic isn’t the only cost of putting a card out, the other cost is that the deployed card itself will not become magic. Furthermore, if the deployed card is destroyed by your opponent, it then goes into their magic pile. This means you also have to be aware of the economic advantage you may be giving your opponent by putting your guys into vulnerable positions.

As you can expect, the more powerful the unit, the more magic it’ll cost. So you might draw a big hulky beast that has massive disemboweling potential, but it’ll cost you 7 other cards from your deck or your killings to put him out. The Deck Management element of Summoner Wars is simply fascinating. You’re whole deck is available, but it’s up to you to manage which part of your deck will get played, and which part of your deck will be used for magic.

Good Walls Make Good Battles
The bulk of the action in this game is focused around tactical decisions on who to move, where to move, and who to attack. Normally, this type of game would feature terrain to add interesting decisions to the tactical positioning. With Summoner Wars, the only terrain feature is a wall. Each side starts with one, and usually has 2 more that can come into play. Walls are spawn points – you can only drop new dudes adjacent to your walls. This means starting out, you have 4 deployment positions. When you move your guys, this makes you take into consideration both moving guys to block your opponent’s wall spots as well as awareness of where your opponent is able to drop new guys from.

Walls also are good at being walls, and blocking salvos and hiding behind them. You need something to chase around, right? Walls also create lanes of traffic emanating from the spawn points. So Summoner Wars leaves out a lot of complicated terrain and instead offers simply a wall.

3’s Company
Another rule in Summoner Wars that makes this game both very simple and yet very deep is that you can only move with 3 dudes and attack with 3 dudes per turn. If there were no such rule, who to move and who to attack with would not be a decision at all; you’d move and attack with nearly everyone you have. But since you’re capped at 3, this forces you to make a tough choice. You have to prioritize your competing interests - attacking easy wins to fill your magic, take a step towards bringing down tough champions, moving guys forward to be in position later to start attacking the Summoner, blocking your opponents wall spawn points, freeing up your own wall’s summoning points, blocking your opponent’s advancing dudes, and moving your own Summoner to safety are all things you want to do if you could every turn. Since you can only do 3, you really have to give meaningful consideration regarding what you will do. The limit in moves and attacks rewards players who are able to plan ahead.

Bloody Fortune
Another elegantly simple design choice that enhances game play is that all attack rolls score hits on a result of 3 through 6. You should only have a failed attack roll one third of the time. This means battles will be bloody, and dudes die swiftly. Because of this, Summoner Wars generally incents aggressive play. The high likelihood of scoring hits is more immediately satisfying than an alternative such as rolling buckets of dice and only looking for sixes to show up.

Card Text
The Summoner Wars system is all well and good, but what makes it go from good to great is the superbly designed cards themselves. The game would drop flat if you had an elegantly simple system but the units and factions were uninteresting. Every unit has special text. This is a big part of what makes the game fresh and interesting. It’s impressive how well designed the card text is, producing enjoyable battlefield options. The powerful units are what deliver an exciting payoff to the interesting decisions.

It’s apparent that the text phrasing was thoughtfully chosen. Each card was worded with care, clarity, and precision. They may be verbose, but they are precise. You’ll have to read through some more text than normal to get to the point, but the precise accurate verbiage makes a game with a high amount of unique character powers and factions have a low ratio of FAQ entries. All you need is some good reading comprehension skills.

Factions
Right now there are 16 different factions and it is very likely that by the time you’re reading this that number is out of date. Each faction has its own flavor and play style. A strategy that works well with one faction won’t be successful in a different match up. It’s impressive that they have been consistently well designed. Each faction has interesting, unique powers that give each one a distinctive flavor. Simultaneously, there is amazing balance among the many factions. With so many asymmetrical powers, there’s bound to be some match ups that are a little skewed, but by and large, the majority of your Summoner Wars experience is going to be balanced and fair. The faction variety is a great bonus, creating more far more possible matchups than you can reasonably expect. This let’s you take this simple, deep system and have an enormous replayability.

Getting hold of new factions is very affordable. Summoner Wars won’t turn into a money pit. It is by no means necessary to get all or even most of the factions. Just a handful of them will get you enormous amounts of gaming pleasure.

Oh, and there’s a deck construction element, too. I suppose if you like that kind of stuff that would be another cool feature for you. In addition to the ready-to-play factions, you can separately purchase additional cards to craft your own deck. But this is one customizable game that you can completely ignore the deck construction and still have an amazing, competitive game with the prebuilt decks.

Summoner Wars will consistently deliver meaningful decisions. Sessions easily finish in an hour, often less. This results in an impressive bang for your buck regarding the time invested versus strategic depth. Don’t let this game slip by you, and don’t pass it off without giving it a second chance!
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Jonathan Kandell
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Quote:
It’s apparent that the text phrasing was thoughtfully chosen.


I too am impressed with the clarity of the phrasing on the cards. The English is very well chosen, and leaves no ambiguity.
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Clay Hales
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Nice write up. Completely agree with it. One note, I believe that there will only be 16 factions total, but there will be second summoners released for each faction. That will give 32 pre-built decks when everything is released, and it will really amp up the potential for the deck building part of the game. The iOS app is a great way to try out deck building.
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Joseph Arthur Ellis
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Thanks for writing this, very insightful and I agree on all points. On magic building, I've always said Summoner Wars is the greatest hand management game of all time, better than Bridge, Twilight Struggle, Rook, etc. The "hand management" depth goes so much deeper than any game ever designed before it.

As for the ability text, the amazing thing is actually how simplified it is. In Heroscape and also in more complex miniatures games, often there are 3-4 abilities and way more text per ability, and a bunch of symbols you have to recognize. Summoner Wars somehow makes each unit feel unique with just one or so sentences.
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Fedor Ilitchev
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Nice writeup but I think you missed the most important points. Those are the following:

1. Using cards as miniatures. Really this is the huge one and the heart of the game. Without it, the game would not be possible at all and it was the first one to do this. Economically, it was also a brilliant move for PHG.

2. There are so few distinct cards in each deck. This is ABSOLUTELY KEY. It means that you only need to know ~9-24 cards to be ready to play. It really simplifies the learning curve and allows SW to completely edge many, many other similar but more complicated games due to accessibility.

3. Original factions - the factions are not just distinct and balanced - they are original. Who ever thought of elves in the jungle or orcs in the tundra before? The game would be vastly inferior with familiar / generic warhammer-like factions, imo.
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Joseph Arthur Ellis
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acrah wrote:
Nice writeup but I think you missed the most important points. Those are the following:

1. Using cards as miniatures. Really this is the huge one and the heart of the game. Without it, the game would not be possible at all and it was the first one to do this. Economically, it was also a brilliant move for PHG.

2. There are so few distinct cards in each deck. This is ABSOLUTELY KEY. It means that you only need to know ~9-24 cards to be ready to play. It really simplifies the learning curve and allows SW to completely edge many, many other similar but more complicated games due to accessibility.

3. Original factions - the factions are not just distinct and balanced - they are original. Who ever thought of elves in the jungle or orcs in the tundra before? The game would be vastly inferior with familiar / generic warhammer-like factions, imo.


Good points all around especially #3. I have no interest in the fantasy genre and Magic/Mage Wars style art bores me to tears. Summoner Wars is different and unique and interesting with its factions/themes/backstory/artwork.
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Fedor Ilitchev
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Well, to be honest, I think art-work is one of the game's very few weaknesses. In fact, it's the most serious one, imo, along with the banal graphic design. It's especially unfortunate because it alienates women and 'non-nerds' which is a shame because the game-play itself should appeal to them.

The other weakness I think is the walls - they are boring thematically. In fact, they make no sense. I would have preferred to see towers or fortresses, or something.

But those are my only criticisms.
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Joseph Arthur Ellis
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Artwork, some people like it some people don't. "Alienates women and non-nerds".... ??? The nerdtastic generic fantasy artwork from Magic et al is what turns off non-geeks. This stuff is a little more cartoonish and therefore approachable.

I like the artwork, but I was referring to not just the artwork but the overall flavor and theme of the game, which is way better than a generic fantasy theme.
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Anon Y. Mous
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acrah wrote:
Well, to be honest, I think art-work is one of the game's very few weaknesses. In fact, it's the most serious one, imo, along with the banal graphic design. It's especially unfortunate because it alienates women and 'non-nerds' which is a shame because the game-play itself should appeal to them.

The other weakness I think is the walls - they are boring thematically. In fact, they make no sense. I would have preferred to see towers or fortresses, or something.

But those are my only criticisms.


The artwork in the early factions, possibly. But everything from the Master Set onwards is a drastic improvement. Even within the same faction, compare Elien's artwork to Maldaria's.
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James Sitz
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I agree.

See geekbadge. The hand management aspect actually reminded me of RftG when I first played it.
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Ricardo Spinola
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Great review! And a great debate about game design.
The game is inovative and so is the review!
Thanks.
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