We’re all familiar with two-player card games where you summon minions and queue them up before you like some doughty phalanx. But any similarity with a real battle line ends when you make abstract clashes of card against card. The real game is in building your deck, finding combos and managing your hand.
Summoner Wars takes the deck building, the combos, the hand management and adds a simple, massive twist. Instead of a queue, the two of you put your minions on board and fight it out in a real tactical battle. It was revolutionary when it first came out in 2009: now it’s back in a tight new edition.
What’s in the Box
There are two ways you can start out with Summoner Wars: the Master Set and the Starter Set. Both contain dice, a board, and some decks of cards. In the Starter Set, you get two decks and the board is thick paper that you’ll want to weigh down beneath some plexiglass. In the Master Set, you get a sturdy mounted board and six decks. Those six don’t include the two in the Starter Set.
All the art has been redone for this new edition, moving from classical fantasy realism toward a more cartoon style. Whether that you find this a positive change is a matter of individual taste, although the newer art seems better quality and is perhaps better suited to the tone of the game.
Rules and How It Plays
You start out in Summoner Wars with a handful of cards on the board, including your Summoner, a powerful unit in its own right, and a Gate. These are scenery cards that block squares and provide a location next to which you can summon new cards. To do so, you need to spend points from a limited pool of magic, which you can top up either by killing enemy units or discarding your own cards.
This dilemma, that you can only gain power now by sacrificing the potential for power later, is the central fulcrum on which the game rests. And it’s a doozy, a tottering see-saw with a drop into oblivion at one end. Because once your deck is gone, it’s gone: there are no reshuffles here, you’ll just be left clinging on to the game by whatever meagre forces you’ve got left on the board. The goal is to kill the enemy Summoner and if the only tool remaining to do that is your own Summoner then so be it.
Within that core consideration, there are a number of tactical decisions. Depending on their utility, cards from your hand will cost different amounts of points to summon onto the board. Each deck has several Champions which are very powerful cards, but they’re also very expensive. Whether it’s worth discarding large numbers of rank and file in order to summon them is a tough call.
Summoner Wars keeps things simple by giving all units the same basic set of rules: you can activate a maximum of three cards per turn, which can move two squares and have a range of three for spells and missile weapons. They differ in the amount of health they have and the dice they throw in combat. This second edition opts for custom dice that either hit or miss with ranged attacks being a little less reliable than melee. And even this simple set of strictures offers some tactical meat to chew. The Phoenix Elves’ Royal Guardian, for example, has four health but throws one pitiful melee dice. He’s best used to pick off already injured foes or for blocking their movement.
However, there’s a lot more to take into account when you start looking at the special powers each unit has. Our Royal Guardian has two: he can push units one square away in combat, and any adjacent units that move away from him take a point of damage. That’s a combo in itself, of course, meaning he’s more dangerous than his single die suggests, but only if his target has space to be pushed. That’s not always the case during tense melees in the crowded center of the board.
But there’s more. In addition to unit cards, your deck also contains events and one-shot special cards that influence the game. The Phoenix Elves have one, also called Phoenix, that adds an extra point of damage from non-attack sources, such as that of the Guardian and some of their other cards. If you can set things up so it triggers multiple times in a turn, it’s extremely powerful. Their summoner also has a recall ability that lets her move other cards next to her as a bulwark against enemy attacks, another role the Guardian excels at.
As you can see, each deck is carefully designed to have mutually supporting cards. Learning how to use them together to best effect takes a couple of games. And that’s on top of the basic board positioning as you maneuver for advantage: a cunning player can use that push ability to shove enemy cards into the attack corridors of other units to finish them off, for example.
It all comes together as a delicious smorgasbord of turn by turn tactical decision making. Even when you’ve learned to wield a deck well, there’s still plenty of excitement and uncertainty from the dice and card draw to keep you on your toes. And when you tire of that, Summoner Wars allows you a limited form of deck building where you can mix and match cards from different factions and make something new to master.
You can add new ingredients, too, in the form of individual expansion decks you can purchase. Summoner Wars also has a fantastic online client where you can play Starter Set games against the AI for free. Both decks and client are being updated for this new edition, which doesn’t make major gameplay changes. Instead, it makes things clearer and tighter while incentivizing aggressive play.
Despite the thrills and spills of tactical play, Summoner Wars can sometimes be bedeviled by a sense that it too often boils down to the last card. If your deck is empty and your opponent’s deck is not, it’s very difficult to win. Of course, the fact you’ve run out first is a function of your luck and skill during play, but it’s still an unsatisfying end to proceedings.
Where to Buy
- See Master Set on Amazon
- See all Summoner Wars on Amazon
- See it at Plaid Hat Games
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Author: Chris Reed