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The Second Coming of Summoner Wars - Review

MB Updated May 11, 2022
 
5.0
 
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The Second Coming of Summoner Wars - Review

Game Information

Designer
Players
2 - 2
There Will Be Games

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.

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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.


Editor reviews

1 reviews

Rating 
 
5.0
Summoner Wars
Even better than it was 14 years ago- one of the best games in its genre.
MB
Top 10 Reviewer 137 reviews
Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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blarknob's Avatar
blarknob replied the topic: #332996 12 May 2022 09:13
I have all of summoner wars 1st ed. My wife and I really enjoy it.

Second editions hasn't really convinced me to buy in again. My old stuff still works great and I like the old art style better.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #332997 12 May 2022 09:35
Matt Drake- there’s a name I haven’t heard in awhile. Hope he’s doing as well as this reboot, even if he’s out of the game reviewing game.

There’s a lot of little changes, but it’s good that you hit the big ones.

One of the new additions that I like is the boosts and all the uses for them, as well as reusing abilities in different ways. Something like Imbued Strength (+1 attack die per boost) plays out differently on all the different units depending on how they get boosts.
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #333007 13 May 2022 07:55
I've read the rules adjustments have increased play time, is this true? I know SW always had a potential for analysis paralysis (people see a chess type board and suddenly think they need to be Garry Kasparov) but I always enjoyed the fairly straightforward rules with few exceptions that needed earmarked. If there is additional rules overhead now, that would be sad, as I always preferred SW as a sub-one-hour game.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #333025 13 May 2022 15:40
My son used to turn this into a two-hour game by walling his leader into a corner. If anything the new rules sound like they might make the play a little faster.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #333028 13 May 2022 15:53
Well they have reduced the Walls (now gates) so they have less HP so that whole strategy isn’t as valid, and there is more synergy with the summoner so you don’t want to do that anyway.

I haven’t noticed a time increase…if anything, I feel like the late game is more compelling than it used to be. Games could kind of peter out.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #333096 17 May 2022 13:10
I feel like game length is more variable than in first edition. A lot of summoners have shorter “leashes” on their events and special abilities (typically 2-3 spaces), so you’re encouraged to get them into the fray. So it’s much more common to die before your deck runs out than it was before. That said, there are some factions that I’ve seen people get a little AP on when it comes to all of their options. This is still a game of tough decisions where players will often disagree on the best course of action in the early and middle stages of the game.
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #333158 20 May 2022 08:56
I'm jumping in to repeat my old SW criticism:
The artwork.

SW was one of two games* I specifically sold off because the artwork was amateur hour.

1st SW was a fine game to play and I enjoyed the history/development of Colby's first title. Coming from his Heroscape background, SW's DNA is strong.

This 2nd edition is a vast improvement on visuals. I would have supported it from jump, but I just don't have dedicated partners in crime for this to see table time. And I'm not playing it online, that's a nonstarter.

Long live Summoner Wars. Long live Heroscape.

* Tiny Epic Kingdoms
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #333162 20 May 2022 09:36

drewcula wrote: I'm jumping in to repeat my old SW criticism:
The artwork.

SW was one of two games* I specifically sold off because the artwork was amateur hour.

See, that's interesting, because I've read a lot of folks who go the other way & say the original artwork (while admittedly amateurish in spots) was at least slightly gritty and lived-in, where this new art style, while technically "better" is that annoying 99-cent app-game style that has polluted hundreds of random fantasy games in recent years. It also seems like a neat age divide, with the new style catering to younger fans raised on sterile app-game fantasy, and older fans used to a more earthy. low-budget style befitting a grassroots gaming production.

It's like how a lot of the original D&D Monster Manual art would have never even been submitted as a first-draft today (same with early Magic the Gathering art) but it's still ultra-beloved by a lot of people.
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #333164 20 May 2022 10:06
Fair point.

I'm 47 years old and a studio arts professor. That means jack shit, but its context.

SW's 2nd edition illustrations are admittedly not my aesthetic cuppa, but they are better composed and more refined. They complement the graphic design of the game.

The 1st edition might be given a nod to treatment and artistic license, except there's a disconnect between the illustration and the graphics.

The graphics and design layout for both 1st and 2nd are ace. Clean, polished, and easy-to-read. Text book example of visual literacy done well.

Those 1st edition illustrations are undeveloped. They look like first drafts. And because they're digital, there's little-to-no mark-making 'charm.' When set inside refined graphic borders, they look like an accident.

1st (and some 2nd) edition D&D illustrations work in their own twisted nostalgic setting. For lack of a better phrase, they're consistently inconsistent.

Cave Evil, and especially Escape from the Dark Tower are contemporary titles that are both rooted in hand-drawn crudeness but remain creatively appropriate.
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #333169 20 May 2022 11:44
"Hand drawn crudeness" is the bee's knees!

Magic the Gathering went from Stasis:



to Baneslayer Angel:



**********
FUN FACT: Stasis was painted by Richard Garfield's great-aunt as a favor, as she was a semi-big-deal regional artist at the time.
**********
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #333170 20 May 2022 11:55
Those two M:TG illustrations are infinitely better than anything on a SW 1st edition card.