The return of the dueling classic.
Matt Drake's review of Summoner Wars at F:AT has piqued my interest- took a look at your website and it's definitely something I want to cover for my column at Gameshark.com. Looks like fun, I haven't played a good fantasy stabbing/chopping game in a while, let alone one with a giant naked mole rat.
I've really been trying to cover more small press, "indie" games this year since I'm in a position where I can help get the word out that there is more out there than FFG titles...lately there hasn't been much interesting in that regard, but I like the looks of what you guys are doing with Summoner Wars- don't you want _18,000 people_ to read a harrowingly brutal review of your game? ;-)
Just wanted to see if you guys were doing review copies, and if so, I'd be thrilled to pieces to be deemed worthy. No worries if not- I'll just get the decks by fair means or foul. If you've read the column, I hope you'll know that Summoner Wars will get the fair and honest deal, either way.
The text above is from the email I sent to Colby Dauch, the top man at Plaid Hat Games and designer of Summoner Wars. I sent that request November 11, 2009 and I was one of the earliest supporters of that excellent two player skirmish game. Back in 2011 I shortlisted the Master Set for my Barnes’ Best Game of the Year. I played a shitload of it on IOS and it was one of the better asynchronous strategy games on the platform for years. Over the past decade my interest moved on, as it does even from the best games, and the game faded somewhat into that great KALLAX of nostalgia we all carry in our memories. Here it is 2022 and I’ve sent another email to Plaid Hat (this time to a bona fide press person) and gotten another review copy of Summoner Wars.
The 2nd edition of this game came out late last year and although I noted it, I didn’t really rush out to greet it. These days, my two player gaming time is chiefly spent playing either pure abstracts or titles in a similar cast- chiefly Restoration’s Unmatched and lately, Neuroshima Hex. I didn’t know if I had room for it on the dance card, as it were. But it was also one of those situations where the right people made the right kinds of comments in their reviews (glancing over at Dan Thurot for one), so I felt like maybe I did want to catch an encore of a game that I really quite dearly loved through releases numerous enough to pack that original Master Set box to bursting.
The new Master Set arrived, thanks to Plaid Hat’s kind support of this site, and immediately it felt like an old friend stopping by. The illustrations were new and some of the rules were tweaked a bit but I pretty much knew exactly what to do with it all out of the box. I was pretty stoked to get my kids in on it, but it was late on a school so I decided to give it a go with the web-based app that has replaced the old IOS game. Plaid Hat also gave me a month-long pass to check it out and play with all the faction decks. I wound up playing for a couple of hours – the AI wasn’t terribly hard, but I wasn’t quite ready for the sort of absolute beat-downs I used to get playing online multiplayer years ago.
It’s not a difficult game to grasp- the rules are quite lean, the process intuitive. Each player has a deck of faction-specific cards representing appropriately diverse fighting units, events, and structures such as gates (which used to be walls back in the day). Both side start with the grid-based map seeded with a couple of starter cards including their team’s Summoner. The goal of the game is to kill the opposing Summoner. The general course of action is to summon units next to one of your gates, move up to 3 units 2 spaces each, build structures, attack with up to 3 units, discard cards for magic, and redraw. It’s simple stuff, and can be taught to a new player in minutes.
Of course, there are complications by way of card effects, synergies, and spatial considerations. The depth comes from managing the magic resource, deploying smartly, leveraging powerful events, and using your units to their fullest potential even when the dice aren’t cooperating. Each of the factions has a definite and easily apparent play style keyed to their identities but there is something of a learning curve to figure out how to win against specific match-ups. It’s not one of the bad learning curves though, it’s a fun one and I have especially enjoyed using the web app to explore different strategies against each faction.
As for the changes, every one is for the better. I particularly like that the dice are now custom and show hits for melee, ranged, and special magic effects that some units can use. Event cards have a new clarity in terms of timing (as well as artwork). The starting gate has ten health but those in the deck that come into play later have 5, which I think limits some more stalemate-y situations and potential frustrations against a well-entrenched enemy. You can’t destroy your own units to boost your magic, which takes out some pretty damn gamey tactics. There are other under-the-hood kinds of revisions that are also beneficial, especially a greater focus on the Summoner and their abilities.
As for what’s stayed the same, this is still a particularly aggro card-battler that manages to always set up some interesting sub-skirmishes and tactical situations across the board with lots of opportunities for blocking, flanking, manuever and all that good stuff. I still love that you get a point of magic when you destroy an enemy unit, which by default encourages attacking early and often. In fact, if you don’t attack on a turn, your Summoner is docked an HP- there ain’t no turtling here.
It plays quick and lean. My 2022 impression of the game is that, especially in the age of Kickstarter excess, it is all exactly enough. This is a precision-designed game that understands its scope, its scale, its limitations, and its focus. There are zero extraneous mechanisms, there are no artificial balances, there are no attempts to imply depth or replayability with empty variety or cruft content. Had this game been published by one of the Kickstarter mills, it inevitably would have had plastic miniatures for every card in the game as well as and I am thankful that it most certainly is not this kind of game or product.
I’m also fond of how Plaid Hat is selling this game. Just like back in the day, there’s a low cost starter set that comes with the classic Tundra Orcs and Phoenix Elves and to be honest it’s excellent without every buying another Summoner Wars product. The more robust Master Set, should you want to go deeper, retails at $60 and features six factions (a few of which could be considered more “advanced”) and has a mounted board versus the starter’s paper mat. And if you still want to upgrade there’s a neoprene mat. The faction packs come out regularly (rather than all at once. and I love that you can subscribe to them directly through Plaid Hat, a step I’ve already taken. But then, you can also enjoy this game completely on the Web with no physical purchases, instead some ala carte IAP unlocks. Or just play the free portion. They run tournaments, but there again I would likely just embarrass myself.
13 years on, and I’d say that this game still slaps but back in 2009 we didn’t really say that so the statement doesn’t really provide the continuity I’d like. So I guess I can settle with it’s still rad as hell. Reflecting on the games that came along after it- things like Warhammer: Underworlds, Manoeuvre, Wildlands, Funkoverse and so forth- this is still very close to best-in-class and I’m not sure I’d really want to go back to some of the other also-rans like I’ve come back to Summoner Wars. Yet it still feels very different than Unmatched or Neuroshima Hex, to compare it to my more recent forays into this area. As far as the whole “units as cards” subset of battle games go, this one was and still is the best and that is the fair and honest deal.