Originally released with a paper mat and a couple of army decks, Summoner Wars has become one of the best-loved tabletop Expandable Card Games ever with a huge array of awards to boast of. The Master Set (as reviewed in this article) comes with a premium glossy cardboard play area and 6 armies different from those contained in the original release.
I’ve heard a lot about this game for a long time, so I’m hoping for some amazingly innovative gameplay and a huge amount of fun from a game that was chosen for the Dice Tower’s ‘Game of the Year’ award in 2009.
Does the gameplay offered in Summoner Wars transcend time, or has it had its day? Read on to find out…
In Summoner Wars you play the role of a Summoner. You have incredible powers that allow you to call forth powerful creatures and allies to battle against opposing Summoners. To win a game of Summoner Wars you need to be the only player left with a Summoner Card. It’s about as simple as it gets with game design and there are no elongated alternative win conditions that you need to be wary of. Designers are often too concerned with adding in content that they forget that simplicity itself is often best.
To keep the simple approach going, Summoner Wars gives the players the basic set-up instructions on a card that also contains information about the phase order and the number of Event cards your deck holds. During the set-up you’ll be introduced to three of the card types straight away: Walls, Common units, and your Summoner.
Walls are incredibly important to the Summoning mechanic of the game and for protecting the Summoner and other units. Common unit types are often found as duplicates within a deck that have their own abilities and attack method. Every unit has a Summoning cost, health, and attack value. Pretty much the same as any other game that enables you to bring forth creatures and units, right?
The Summoner is the most important card and they too, aside from being able to Summon units, have effects that can be used during the course of a game. The other cards that are included in the decks are Event cards and Champion units. Event cards allow you to perform an action in their specific phase so long as the requirements can be met. Wall cards are considered Event cards and are played during the ‘Play Event Cards’ phase. Champion units are very powerful units with higher attack and health than the Common units and they usually have a more powerful effect too. These, along with dice and wound tokens, form the contents of Summoner Wars.
The board is one of the largest I’ve ever encountered for a card game. Both players share a 6-column, 8-row board (divided by half for each player) that also has spaces below for your deck, Magic Pile, and Discard Pile. When playing a Wall card you can play it to any empty space on your side of the board – including right next to the opponent’s side.
This is significant because all of your Units can be deployed to an empty slot adjacent to a Wall card, and if you run out of Walls… you can’t Summon! (Yes, it’s highly strange that Walls are required for Summoning, but that’s a part of the game’s charm, honestly!)
The phases are short and brief with few actions occurring within them each turn. Each player can go through as many or as few of the phases during their respective turns. The phases are: Draw, Summon, Play Event Cards, Movement, Attack, and Build Magic. Each one is labeled so that you should know exactly what you should be doing during any of these phases. The starting player does skip their Draw, Summon, and Play Event Cards phases, but is able to move 2 units and attack with as many of their units that are able to do so. It’s quite the penalty for going first, but if you are lucky enough to get a kill on that opening turn, you will have a little bit of Magic to begin Summoning on your next turn.
Combat is resolved by rolling dice. Each unit has an attack value and that number indicates the number of dice that unit may roll during combat. Rolling a 2 or lower is a miss and over 3 is a hit. This gives you a great chance of scoring a hit. I’m sure if I were a statistician I could throw all sorts of probabilities and numbers at you, but let’s just call in a 4/6 chance for now.
Defeating an enemy unit will normally result in that card being placed face-down in your Magic Pile. You then spend this pile by placing a number of these cards face-up in the Discard Pile equal to a card’s cost. The discard choices are often painful, especially when you draw into a card that would have made perfect use of a previously discarded card. Ouch!
I really loved the way the gameplay flowed from phase to phase without really having to rely too much on the reference card. I knew after a few turns in when I should be summoning, moving, attacking, or even placing cards from my hand into the Magic Pile during the Build Magic phase.
Events are the most enjoyable card type because they give you ideas and strategies to build new decks around, such as eliminating an enemy unit so it goes to your Magic Pile for use later. Everything became second nature and all I had to worry about was my strategy and the luck of the roll during combat.
Summoner Wars is a strategy game that also relies on a little bit of luck for the combat mechanics. Luck also decides the starting player with a die roll — although the starting player does not get to perform any of the first three phases, they are able to move and attack with their units.
How much of a benefit this is can be argued and I would personally choose to go second at any time I would be choosing the starting player. I can see much more of an advantage going second as you’ll be able to do more things in your turn. The trade-off is that you may lose a unit on the first turn, but this is mitigated by the fact that you’ll be able to increase your magic pool much faster.
Protecting your units whilst destroying the opponent’s units should be your priority. I preferred to think of my units as an additional resource for my opponent because when they die they would go to my opponent’s Magic Pile. Keeping them alive longer by using my Walls as a buffer would often mean my opponent would have to come to me.
The alternative strategy is to attack your own units if you’re short on resources. That’s right – you can attack your own units if you want to! I was happily surprised by just how much thinking is involved with a game that looks so simple. From the placement of your units to the cards discarded in the Build Magic phase, everything needed to be thought out carefully. “Easy to play, hard to master” comes to mind.
EXTENDED PLAY AND EXPANSIONS
Because Summoner Wars is a huge success, it should come as no surprise that there are a number of expansions and additional sets available. As you purchase and grow your collection you can begin to mix them through deckbuilding. There are no fewer than 24 different factions currently available through all sets and expansions with some neutral cards thrown into the mix to make deckbuilding much easier.
It would be hard to pinpoint where you should start when thinking about building up your collection of factions. Going for something that looks like it suits you is probably the best idea. All of the factions are listed on the official website, as are all of the available products. There is also another Master Set that focuses on the Alliance factions. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants the awesome looking Summoner Wars sleeves in that one!
Summoner Wars was originally designed as a two-player game. However, the game can easily function as a three- or four-player game too. Buying two sets will get you all you need in order to play with more players in a 1-v-2 or 2-v-2 scenario. I would love to see how the strategies change once more players are involved. I’m sure that communication would be the most important element during these matches, as failing to do so will leave your partner in some precarious and dangerous positions.
Summoner Wars is a simple game without complicated mechanics. The transitions between phases are effortless and the speed at which the game can be played depends entirely on the time spent thinking your moves through. It could be as little as 20 minutes or over an hour, but the one thing that remains constant is the intensity of the battle. With both players trying to be the last Summoner standing, things can get quite competitive.
I enjoy playing Summoner Wars a tremendous amount. It has the perfect balance of strategy, luck, and fair play. It eliminates the snowball effect as you are in control of your resources and how you play the game. The only thing you cannot control is the roll of the dice which decides when your units hit or miss their targets, so those used to greater control over combat might have to let go of those expectations here.
I’m pleased that this is the only mechanic that is decided on a die roll because some games use dice rolling far too heavily. A succession of bad rolls for almost everything you need to do can leave you at a significant disadvantage – this is well avoided here.
I love the crazy moments that can evolve out of the game — Summoning next to walls, nearly dying and killing my own units to regain some Magic before launching my own counter-offensive. There are just so many wildly entertaining moments that come from the interplay of the various gameplay mechanics on offer here.
If you haven’t experienced the joys of Wall-Summoning yet, you’re missing out. Check this one out as soon as humanly possible!
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