Had a chance recently to play a review copy of Summoner Wars, and I came away fairly impressed with it.
For those not in the know, Summoner Wars is a sort of hybrid between a CCG and an Anacrhonism-style grid-based battle for position, using a fantasy setting and well-known fantasy creatures in an attempt to kill your opponent's "leader". The typical things you'd expect to see are there, including "Events" that can turn the tide of battle, units ranging from quick-summon cannon fodder to big, tough beasties and leaders, game-changing special abilities, and a lot of dice-chucking (always a plus in my book.)
The goal of the game is to kill your opponent's Summoner, a special unit that starts the game in play. To do so, you bring new units into play and maneuver them across the battlefield in an attempt to kill off their guardians and finally bring the Summoner down. What I found refreshing was that unlike Chess, Navia Dratp, or other similar "kill the leader" type games, your Summoner is actually one of your most powerful units and is quite capable in combat, having high strength and a very powerful special ability.
Combat strength is very simple. Each unit has a combat rating, and when you attack, you roll that many dice, tallying up the number that come up three or higher. For each, you place a wound marker on the unit being attacked (there is no defense in this game, save for certain special abilities.) Once a unit has wounds equaling or exceeding its hit point value, it's dead. Pretty straightforward battle system.
One of my favorite CCGs of all time was Decipher's Star Wars, and the summoning system and hand management are very similar to that, including the way that cards flow through your hand and into your Magic pool. You start with your draw deck and refresh your hand each turn, but at the end of a turn you have the ability to put any number of cards from your hand and into your Magic Pool. At that point, you can use cards in the Magic Pool to pay the cost to summon new units by discarding the top card from your Magic Pool for each point it costs to summon a unit and placing that unit adjacent to one of your existing walls, which act both as blocking terrain and a source for new units to come into play. Unlike Star Wars, these cards don't flow back in from your discard pile into your draw deck, so once you've decided to put a card there, it's gone for good for the rest of the game, so it can make for some tough choices when you really need some Magic but have some killer cards in your hand too.
Thankfully, you can earn Magic points by vanquishing enemy units, something I found to be pretty damned cool. When you do this, your opponent's cards go directly into your Magic Pool, to be spent as if they were your own. (If you're worried about card mixing like I was initially upon reading the rules, don't worry--the different races have different card backs, so sorting at the end of the game is a snap.) It is kind of a rich-get-richer mechanic, but it promotes combat and killin', so I'm all for that.
A lot of games like this tend to grant too much power to ranged units, but that's where the Walls come in. Walls are played like Events, and you can really use them to hinder your opponent's ranged units LOS. We found in the game that we played that half the time ranged units ended up having to engage up close due to not having a really good way to position themselves for long-range shots. Walls are great because they have a lot of hit points, though if you're determined you can do damage to them and try to take them down, denying your opponent cover as well as eliminating a potential summoning point.
The decks we played were Goblins versus Dwarves, and both had a very different feel to them. The Goblins had many "free" summoning units that weren't particularly powerful, but could easily create a situation where you could rush your opponent with multiple units. The Dwarves were a little sturdier but also more expensive, and their heroes/unique units were very impressive. They have cards that syphon magic off of your opponent's Magic Pool, and several Dwarven units have powers that key off of spending those points for damage prevention and other effects.
It's quick-playing, attractive, and at a nice price point at MSRP $24.95 for a two-player starter, having everything you need to bust out the game and start playing immediately. The starter includes a surprisingly thick fold-out mat for the battlefield, which I appreciated after having to stomach so many thinner paper fold-out maps for games like Heroclix and its ilk. The cards have some nice artwork, and the iconography is pretty clear once you get the hang of it, though you will likely just like us confuse your Attack value and your Summoning costs on your cards at first, the reason being that the Summon cost is right next to the icon showing whether a unit is ranged or melee, drawing your eye to that value when the time comes to attack. Just remember the BIG number on there is your combat strength, and you'll be all set.
I will admit the game is derivative of several other games--Magic: The Gathering, Anachronism, Star Wars CCG, and others--but it combines them in a way that makes for a new gaming experience and a great, bloodthirsty filler. It's not going to set the world on fire in terms of originality, but it's a nice addition to your collection at that price, especially if you're a former hardcore CCGer like myself. I will be hunting down another 2-player starter with different armies just to increase the number of potential matchups.
For now, thumbs up from me. It's a game that's fun to play, and that's what counts.