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Reviews - Summoner Wars
 
by Lee Valentine


Summoner WarsSummoner Wars
Published by Plaid Hat Games
Designed by Colby Dauch
2 players (one starter) or 4 players (two starters)
$24.95 per two-player starter product, two different products available
 

Summoner Wars, a fantasy-themed wargame, is the first release from new game company Plaid Hat Games. Colby Dauch, the founder of Plaid Hat, has previously made his name in the gaming industry by doing design and development work on Hasbro's Heroscape product line. Two different two-player starter deck products are currently available. One contains fire elves versus ice orcs, and the other product pits dwarves versus goblins.

Rules & Gameplay
Summoners, magic-wielding warriors, have discovered Summoning Stones which allow them to summon up other warriors to fight for them. Four races have discovered Summoning Stones – Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, and Goblins – and are in a bitter war with each other for control over the Stones and the world itself. I will start by describing the two-player game, which is all you will be able to play if you buy one starter set.

Like Battleground before it, Summoner Wars (SW) uses cards instead of miniatures. Unlike Battleground, SW is a tactical, skirmish wargame instead of an army-based, strategic wargame. SW is played on a rectangular grid/map rather than an open table like a more traditional miniatures wargame. All movement and distances in the game are measured orthogonally, either in straight lines or in zigzagging steps. Each map is designed for two players, and each player starts on one half of the map, in control of the warriors of a single race.

Unlike more traditional wargames where most of your units start in play and are whittled away slowly, in SW your Summoner and a small selection of warriors is all that starts on the board. In a typical miniatures wargame, each player has a scenario-based objective or must destroy all of the opponent's units. The goal of SW is, however, more like taking the king in chess – if you capture the enemy Summoner then all of his cards leave play and he loses the game. Like Magic: The Gathering, the rest of the units you will summon are contained in a shuffled deck, with each player having his own deck. Also in your deck are various spell-like Event cards that let you spontaneously alter the contents of your hand or the current game environment. Each race has an unalterable and pre-determined starting configuration.

In addition to your starting units, each side begins with a wall in play. Inexplicably, summoned units can only appear in empty grid spaces that are orthogonally adjacent to walls that you own, no matter how advantageous it may be to make them appear on some other space on the map. While walls block most ranged attacks, they primarily serve as obstacles to movement for both players, and as focal points to summon units around.

The game has a relatively simple turn sequence, with each player taking his turn fully before his opponent may act. On a player's turn he:

1) draws 5 cards,
2) summons new units,
3) plays Event cards (including Walls),
4) moves his characters,
5) attacks,
6) and finally discards any cards he wants from hand into his Magic Pile.

Events cost nothing to play, but when a unit is summoned (other than those in your starting configuration), it usually must be paid for by discarding cards off the top of your Magic Pile. More powerful units cost more Magic. You don't reshuffle cards that you discard, and each player starts with less than 30 cards in his deck after setup. Thankfully you have another source of magic – each enemy unit that you kill is placed on top of your Magic Pile.

Summoner Wars cardWhen Moving units, you can move as many as three units per turn up to two spaces each. Then you choose any three of your units to attack with. Some units attack at range, but most are melee combatants. Attacking is simple. Each unit has a Combat rating. You roll 1D6 for each point of Combat Rating. Typically every roll of 3+ does one wound to an enemy unit. Most common units can only take one or two wounds, and many thus die the second someone breathes hard in their direction. Given the starting locations of the walls, the two players are often summoning warriors right next to each other. As a result, it is not uncommon early in the game for one side to wipe out all of his opponent's units except the enemy Summoner.

Each unit in the game has some game text on it, providing some diversity to each race. Players also have three more expensive units called Champions that tend to be somewhat more durable and more powerful. A player's Event selections are pre-determined by his race and are unalterable.

Oddly, at least in two-player play, common units are frequently so ephemeral that much of the time it is all but impossible to engage in any long-term planning involving them: much of SW is purely moment-to-moment tactical play. Champions can alter this general rule, as some are quite sturdy. Oddly enough, and this was not obvious to me to begin with, each player usually has two major strategic decisions in the game: the placement of his two extra walls.

Walls can only be placed on your half of the map. Most can take nine wounds, making them fairly permanent structures against any race except the Dwarves (who have special powers to destroy walls). Walls fully block most forms of movement. Since the game is bounded to a fixed grid, it's often difficult to maneuver around them. Since you can't move through other cards, the center of the board can occasionally become congested if players are on the defensive. This combination of factors, combined with the orthogonal movement restrictions, sometimes really limits movement more in SW than in any other wargame that I've ever played.

In two-player play I felt that most of the decision-making was very light. The exception to this is the placement of walls, which can make or break your entire game. Orcs, who can summon several less durable Ice Walls using Events, make more of these decisions than other races.

While I found that there were few other deep, on-board decisions of consequence, managing your Magic Pile is a skill that I'm sure separates the mediocre Summoner Wars player from the good one. This is true because in certain situations it's unclear whether you should discard 5 or 6 common units to your Magic Pile to summon one Champion. Even with those decisions included, the two-player version of Summoner Wars will primarily be of interest to casual gamers.

Between drawing cards and rolling dice, there is quite a bit of luck in the game, but the "canned" starting configuration serves to mitigate this somewhat. All that being true, the two-player game is fairly balanced to allow equal chance of victory for each deck. Sometimes early in a long game I can tell who will win. One game I played lasted over an hour, and I knew I was going to lose early on (due to some bad luck on my part and great luck for my opponent); what followed was a 40+ minute death spiral. At other times the luck element will allow you to make a huge comeback. Regardless, if you make a tactical blunder like putting a fragile Summoner too close to an enemy wall, your game can be over in mere minutes.

Rules Differences for Four-Player Play
If you own two two-player starter sets you can play the four-player game. Nominally there is a three-player game as well, but it's really a four-player game with one player simultaneously managing two decks at the same time.

Four-player play has some different features that add substantially to strategic options. First, it is played on two side-by-side maps. Instead of summoning units and playing walls only on your half of one map, you can play walls anywhere on your team's half of either adjacent map. While you can still only summon Units adjacent to your own walls, your walls can be created far apart from each other, allowing you the option of fortifying your own position or helping out your teammate. Units are not always summoned right next to each other, and so they can last slightly longer and give you the option to plan ahead a little more.

Units can travel back and forth across the maps (as if they were one really large map). Additionally, reminiscent of some '80s video games, the left and right side of the board "wrap around", so units can leave on the left side of the left map and appear on the right edge of the right map. Attacks similarly wrap around, making ranged attacks very valuable, particularly against an unwary opponent.

One of the biggest changes in the four-player game is that you can take cards out of your own Magic Pile and give them to your teammate. This makes it easy to summon up a much-needed Champion at a moment's notice, or to pay a cost to get out of some negative Event or another. This sharing of Magic Piles might make one Dwarven Champion abusable (I didn't play enough four-player games to absolutely determine this). Overall, however, I felt that this version of the game was pretty balanced.

The two-player game is a casual game lasting around 30 minutes to an hour. The four-player game, however, is a much deeper, tenser game. It can last over two hours.

Deck Building
Technically, if you buy multiple copies of the same starter you can build your own deck. However, other than special promotional "Mercenary" cards, you can only pick cards from one race. Further you have to use all the pre-determined Event cards for your race and cannot change your race's starting configuration. So, more than any CCG or wargame that I've played, at least with the current card pool, SW really limits a player's ability to adapt his deck and his units' starting positions to fit his own personal play style and preferences. Thankfully the starters have enough options to offer replay value, particularly in four-player play.

Rules Clarity
Casual gamers will like the full-color rulebook that comes with SW. Between the card text and the rulebook most questions are thoroughly answered. Casual players will likely agree for themselves as to how to handle any gray area.

While the templating on most of the game text is clear, tournament CCG players and rules lawyers may take issue with the precision of the text on a few cards. In a minority of cases the cards present a situation which is not explicitly covered in detail by the rules. For example, the designer has ruled online that a card called "Blaze Step" which teleports an Elvish warrior across the board, actually doesn't count as "moving" for effects which prevent movement. This very question has come up in two different online forums already. The rulebook offers little in the way of coverage of competing racial special abilities like this. Tournament CCG players will also note a lack of timing rules in spite of the fact that players can take actions on each other's turns. Plaid Hat has recently posted a FAQ, however, which will clear up most issues quite well.

Appearance, Components, & Packaging
SW comes in a sturdy chipboard box. Packed inside you'll find two 35-card decks, a folded game map, wound counters, and some six-sided dice. The only complaint I have about the structure of the packaging is that I wish it had had an internal divider to keep the two card decks separated. I also felt the need to add a small gripseal bag for the tokens and dice. Apparently Plaid Hat Games realizes the need to separate the decks at least, and has printable templates online for tuckboxes.

Summoner Wars componentsThe cards themselves are roughly bridge-sized, and not the more common poker-sized cards found in most CCGs (other than Yu-Gi-Oh!). While I would have preferred a larger card size in principle, in practice Plaid Hat chose the right size of card because the map is a reasonable size on most tables. The press coat on the cards was a little thinner than on Magic: The Gathering cards. Because of this, with the cards left unsleeved, they started showing enough wear to mark some cards lightly after several plays. They do have nice spring to them, and they shuffle well. Each racial deck has a unique card back design to make them easy to separate out if they are mixed together.

The graphic design on the cards and the packaging is quite good. There was only one potential flaw with the layout of the cards – the summoning cost for the unit cards is right next to the symbol telling you whether the card can be used to attack at range. One player I played against intuitively saw a "1" and an arrow and thought that the card did one ranged damage, when the "1" was actually the summoning cost of the unit and it did 2 damage. Since I've seen a number of other games where a number and an arrow or bow would have been ranged combat damage, this type of misinterpretation of the card data could be frequent for novices.

The art is stylized, without a lot of detail – it looks better in small sizes and looks a little rougher where an image is enlarged. While some of the art was merely serviceable, most of the art was good, particularly for an indie game company. The rulebook's graphic design and typography was attractive as well.

The paper map is not printed in full-color and really is little more than an abstract grid with designated spots for various decks and piles. While the map doesn't always fold out perfectly flat during play, it is pretty sturdy and should stand up to repeated use.

Conclusions
For me, Summoner Wars sits in an odd niche. I prefer having a lot of long-term control over my units when I play wargames. I like lots of options for movement and maneuvers. I like a variety of different positional setups and scenarios with unique objectives. Also, part of the appeal (for me at least) of games like Heroscape, Heroclix, or most other point-costed skirmish wargames is that I can choose the exact content of my army and their starting position. SW clashes with these expectations. So, for two-player play I prefer the other game line that Colby Dauch works on, Heroscape. However, SW has two huge advantages over Heroscape: portability and quick setup. I can see the two-player game of SW appealing to people interested in a more casual, skirmish wargame than I would typically play.

If you own both of the different starter sets for SW, however, then the four-player game becomes possible. With greater movement options, better strategic play, and the help of a teammate to balance out the luck in the game, the four-player game is a cut above the two-player game. While it doesn't have the visual awe of a full Heroscape Master Set or a game of Warhammer, the advantages of portability, low downtime during play, and quick setup will likely keep it in rotation for wargamers looking for something different.

For Retailers
While Plaid Hat Games is a startup company, its founder has industry experience. He is doing a great job of answering questions and supporting the game online. As a result, Summoner Wars has a bit more internet buzz than most indie board or card games. Given that there are only two products in the line, and given that it lacks boosters or any kind of randomized component packaging, it's easier for a brick and mortar store to stock this product line than CCGs or other miniature wargames that might devour more shelf space. This game will sell best if you encourage free play nights or actual organized play. The basics of gameplay are easy enough to pick up that casual gamers are likely to spectate, generating potential impulse buys. The MSRP is slightly outside of the under $20.00 impulse buy range, but at $24.95 it is comparably priced to Battleground, another competing card-based wargame product.

Lee's Ratings:

Overall: B+ (casual wargamers might rate this higher)
Two-player Gameplay: B
Four-player Gameplay: A-
Packaging: A- (sturdy box and packs tightly, but needed an internal divider)
Appearance: B+ (attractive layout, reasonably good art)
Components: B+ (overall good quality; potential problem in the placement of the summoning cost)
Rules Clarity: B+ (clear and thorough enough for repeated casual play, with a handful of gray areas; the FAQ addresses most of the gray areas)
Rules Difficulty: A- (easy to pickup)

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