Designer: Colby Dauch
Publisher: Plaid Hat Games
Ages: 9 and up
Players: 2 to 4 (best with 2 or 4)
Time: 30 minutes
Review by Erik Arneson
I first “met” Colby Dauch, designer of Summoner Wars, at Heroscapers.com, a fan site he established (and still runs) that’s dedicated to the brilliant Hasbro board game Heroscape. So it comes as little surprise that his first published game plays like the card game version of Heroscape.
It is also no surprise that as a huge fan of Heroscape, I also immediately fell in love with Summoner Wars.
In Summoner Wars, each player controls a fantasy army, such as dwarves, elves, goblins or orcs. Each of the decks has one “summoner,” and the winner is the first to destroy his opponent’s summoner card. This game is all about attacks; there is very little opportunity to hide.
The board is a grid six spaces wide and eight spaces deep. (The original starter sets included “boards” printed on folded, glossy paper. Plaid Hat Games later released a “deluxe” board, which is now sold out. But the new Summoner Wars Master Set, due out this month, includes the deluxe board and six all-new armies.)
Once the board is set up (each army has a specific starting layout), the game is played in six phases: Draw, Summon, Play Event Cards, Movement, Attack, and Build Magic.
At the start of your turn, you draw cards until you’re holding five. If your draw pile is empty, you no longer have a draw phase, which helps ensure a quick game but also forces you to make some difficult decisions.
Summoning is how you bring new units onto the board. You spend magic points (acquired in the Build Magic phase) to summon new units. The cost ranges from 0 to 8. A summoned unit must be placed on an empty space next to one of your wall cards.
Next, you can play any event cards (including wall cards) in your hand. These give you special powers, such as extra movement, increased attack power, and the ability to deploy reinforcements.
During the Movement phase, you can move up to three units up to two spaces each.
To attack, you choose up to three different units to attack an enemy. Some units have swords and must be orthogonally adjacent to an enemy to attack. Others use bows and can be up to three clear spaces away (again, orthogonally). Resolving attacks is simple: Roll the number of dice equal to your unit’s attack value (typically 1 to 5), and any roll of a three or higher is a hit unless a unit’s special power says otherwise.
Every unit you destroy is placed onto your Magic pile. In the Build Magic phase, you can also play any number of cards from your hand to your Magic pile. All of the cards in this pile can be used to summon units in future rounds.
That’s the game… except for the special abilities. Every unit in the game has a special ability, twisting or breaking the basic rules in some way. For example, a Tundra Orc fighter may be able to attack, move and then attack again. And if Dagger, a champion of the Cloaks faction, gets behind an enemy card his attack value increases from 2 to 5.
The special abilities are what make Summoner Wars so clever and addictive. Every faction has unique strengths and weaknesses that must be understood to be truly effective. Playing as the Phoenix Elves requires a much different approach than playing as the Fallen Kingdom. (Having said that, playing the game and discovering the potential card combinations as you go is also a blast.)
Summoner Wars has never failed to leave me wanting more. Fortunately, more is what we’ll get with the release of six brand-new factions in the Summoner Wars Master Set and two new reinforcement decks (Goodwin’s Blade and Hawk’s Strike), all scheduled to be available this month. If you’ve never played, the new Master Set should be the perfect introduction to a great game.
Here’s a complete list of all the Summoner Wars games and expansions published to date, including those coming out this month:
Summoner Wars Master Set
- Deep Dwarves
- Sand Goblins
- Shadow Elves
- Swamp Orcs
Summoner Wars Starter Sets (2009)
- Cave Goblins vs. Guild Dwarves
- Phoenix Elves vs. Tundra Orcs
Summoner Wars Faction Decks
- Fallen Kingdom
- Jungle Elves
Summoner Wars Reinforcement Decks
- Goodwin’s Blade (Fallen Kingdom, Vanguards, Mercenaries)
- Grungor’s Charge (Guild Dwarves, Cave Goblins, Mercenaries)
- Hawk’s Strike (Cloaks, Jungle Elves, Mercenaries)
- Rukar’s Power (Phoenix Elves, Tundra Orcs, Mercenaries)
Summoner Wars Promo Cards
- Khan Queso
Erik Arneson also writes about games for About.com, and he is on Facebook and Twitter.
Opinions from Other Opinionated Gamers
Dale Yu: Well, I normally am not a fan of two-player games, but Luke has been bringing this as our late night closer over the past few months. I’ve probably played with four or five different decks so far, and I am impressed by the way that each deck requires a different approach to the game. Trying to manage the deck and figure out how to use your heroes is key, though this might scare some people off as it means that you have to spend a bit of time with the game to play it well.
Mark Jackson: Erik did a fantastic job of summarizing how the game works… in fact, I think that’s one of the strengths of the game – the base system is incredibly easy to explain to new players. (Note: I am not making a back-handed compliment about Erik’s rules teaching skills.)
What’s really impressive, though, is the level of balance between the decks (with and without the reinforcement cards). Since each deck has a unique combination of powers & events, this was no simple feat, yet Colby & his playtesters have managed to pull it off.
Patrick Brennan: I’ve only played Goblins vs. Dwarves, but this is a nice two-player game of attack, attack, attack. You have constant choices on what type of units to summon to the board, from the cheap short-life units to the more expensive, good-luck-killing-this type of unit. There are some event cards in each deck, and each unit has a special type of power, so knowing your deck well will help towards doing well. But there are only five or so types of units, plus some event types, so it’s not overwhelming to learn. Waiting and generating co-ordinated attacks or defenses to the best advantage of your special powers seems key. The asynchronicity between decks is appealing, as is the quick game play and the constant choices. Lots of luck along the way but that’s fine in this presentation and this length.
Luke Hedgren: I love games with pre-built factions, that can square off against one another using varying strategies. I love games that have a simple, easy to remember structure, which then allows for the special powers to really change the gameplay. I love games that then take that framework, and allow for _restricted_ team customization, so as not to be overwhelming, but still allowing for personal play style. I love Summoner Wars.
I also want to reiterate Mark’s point about balance. There is a public spreadsheet someone started, tallying up win-loss records, and currently it has about 1300 recorded games. The worst win rate among the factions is 45% and the best is 55%. To me that says one of two things: either the game is all luck, and even the worst faction will win almost half the time, or the factions are really balanced. I’m inclined to go with the second, but that’s just me. And, only one minor errata’d card so far, for balance. Not too shabby.
Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!… Erik Arneson, Mark Jackson, Luke Hedgren
I like it… Dale Yu, Ted Cheatham, Patrick Brennan
Not for me…