Review: Summoner Wars Master Set

Designer: Colby Dauch
Publisher: Gamewright
Players: 2-4 (best with 2)
Ages: 9+
Playing Time: 30 minutes

Review by Mark Jackson (9 plays of the Master Set; 32 plays of the system)

Part the First: In Which Your Humble Reviewer Attempts To Convince You To Read The Rest of This Review

Tom Vasel called Summoner Wars “absolutely fantastic” and  “one of the best games of 2009“. (Of course, he’s also admitted publicly that he likes the endgame mechanic from Killer Bunnies & the Quest for the Magic Carrot, so you might want to reconsider listening to him.)

Magic Carrot aside, Tom’s right. And chances are pretty good you didn’t actually hear of this game until 2010… or really see it make a splash until 2011 – which doesn’t change the fact that it’s a brilliant game system that you should try… even if you’re not normally a fantasy battle type of gamer.

Part the Second: Wherein The Aforementioned Deferential & Demure Reviewer Gives Three Brief Yet Thoughtful Overviews of the Game

Short version:

  • Kill or be killed with cards & dice

Shorter version:

  • a fantasy battle board game that involves positional board play, deck & hand management, and dice combat

More detail for the anal among us:

  • Erik Arneson (akapoliticalguy) did a great job summarizing the rules & game play in a previous Opinionated Gamers review… you should read that. (Yes, you have my permission to go & do that right now… just make sure you come back here when you’re finished or I’ll have to send The Eater to fetch you.)

Part the Third: Listen, Gentle Reader, To This Grandiloquent Description of the Box And The Contents Therein

Here’s the part where I honestly admit why I didn’t pick up a starter set of Summoner Wars back until the last few days of 2010:

  • I finally had some extra gaming cash, thanks to the Christmas generosity of relatives & friends.
  • I really, really disliked the box art on the original two starter set boxes.

Yes, yes, I know the old adages…

  • “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”
  • “don’t judge a game by the box art”
  • “don’t judge a movie by the appearance of Rob Schneider in the cast” (well, this one may actually have some merit)

…and yet I chose to ignore them and missed out on 12 months of gaming goodness.

Thankfully, you do not have to make my mistake… because the folks at Plaid Hat Games did a wonderful job on the box art for the Summoner Wars Master Set.

And my praise of the box extends to the box insert – there is room not only for the six faction decks included in the box but also slots for four more decks. And, if you’re willing to stack two decks together, there’s plenty of room for all of the current Summoner Wars decks in the box – even with card sleeves! (Could this review BE any more geekified? Box insert love?!)

Also included are (of course) the necessary dice & counters to play the game… and a nice two-piece high quality board.

Oh, yeah, there’s some cards in there, too.

Part the Fourth: In Which I Describe the Factions of Ithria Imprisoned Within These Walls of Cardboard & Plastic

The Summoner Wars Master Set comes with six 34 card decks – one for each of six factions of the world of Ithria who are all fighting each other using the power of the Summoning Stones:

  • the Shadow Elves – they use speed & stealth to defeat stronger opponents
  • the Benders – a faction that focuses on manipulating the opponent’s actions & choices… I like to think of them as the Judo faction – using an opponent’s strength & momentum against them
  • the Mountain Vargath – these goat-men are brutes – in their case, a good offense is the best offense
  • the Sand Goblins – snaky little beasts who hard to pin down & hard to kill
  • the Swamp Orcs – for the first time, a faction that has extra cards (fifteen Vine Walls) that clutter the battlefield for your opponent
  • the Deep Dwarves – manipulators of magic – working their Event cards carefully is vital in order to win

And while I’ve previously griped about the box cover art of the earlier sets, I’ve always liked the card art in the Summoner Wars universe. The Master Set is no exception – thanks to excellent art choices, it’s easy to figure out which card is which, even upside down (which is the way you see your opponent’s forces).

As well, the graphic design of the cards is top-notch. You can see at a glance whether a unit is ranged, how many dice it uses for attacks & how many hit points it has. Part of my love for this game system is due to the user-friendly nature of the rules & of the card design.

Part the Fifth: Where, Accordingly, This Review Switches Focus From Broad Generalities To Laser-like Specifics

Any review of a boxed set of a previously released game needs to answer the “why should I get this if I already own the starter sets?” question. The answer is simple: because it offers six new decks that don’t feel like minor tweaks on old factions… and if you liked the game already, more is better. (I so badly want to add a “no duh” to that last sentence, but realize that doing so would date me even more than my admission that I have Rick Wakeman’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” album on my Christmas list.)

It’s possible, of course, that some of you have managed to read this far without ever having played Summoner Wars… and are wondering if the Master Set is a good place for you to jump in. I think it is. The MSRP of the Summoner Wars Master Set is $49.95, while the individual expansion decks are $9.95 each & the mounted board was $14.95. Using the magical powers of rounding & approximation, that means you’re paying fifty bucks retail for seventy-five bucks worth of prime gaming material.

I will say that some of the factions in the Master Set (particularly the Benders & the Sand Goblins) are a bit tougher to get the hang of playing well, while the Mountain Vargath & the Swamp Orcs are much easier to lead to victory. (Your mileage may vary.) Over time, however, you’ll find that Colby Dauch & the Plaid Hat playtesters have done an amazing job of balancing the factions so that experienced players can have great battles on pretty level playing fields.

Finally, you may wonder why I haven’t suggested picking up one of the starter sets… well, that’s because they’re currently sold out at the publisher level & are due to be reprinted soon (with nicer box art!)

Part the Sixth: I Conclude By Heartily Recommending the Purchase of the Master Set

What the subtitle guy said.

Opinions from Other Opinionated Gamers

Erik Arneson (lots of plays, exact number unknown): Summoner Wars is great fun, and the Master Set is a great place for new players to jump in, or for experienced Summoner Warriors to add to their enjoyment. (And thanks for the akapoliticalguy nickname, Mark. I kind of like that. I think.)

Talia Rosen (18 plays):  I am another convert to the Summoner Wars bandwagon.  I tried one of the starter sets a while back and enjoyed it, but didn’t fall in love right away and held off out of fear that I’d then end up buying anything and everything branded Summoner Wars.  When the Master Set finally was announced with the shiny new board and six new factions I couldn’t resist any longer.  I pre-ordered in June and got a copy around October.

I’ve since played 17 more times in the past two months or so, which is a lot of one game for me given how I try to spread around plays among many different titles.  It is just such an interesting and addictive game.  I always want to try again with a different faction match-up or with the same faction being used in a different way.

The blend of long-term strategic decisions and short-term tactical decisions is excellent.  There are the longer-term decisions as to how to approach the game, such as how aggressively to discard cards and plow through your deck, what balance of commons versus champions to play, and how much to drive straight for the opponent’s summoner versus fighting the front lines.  But there are so many short-term factors that get in the way of your grand plans and make you rethink your plans, particularly in terms of unit movement and positioning.  As for one noteworthy element of this decision-making, I will say that the mechanism of using cards to either play or spend to play other cards (from San Juan and Race for the Galaxy) is so superbly implemented in this game as to put those predecessors to shame.

I think the one downside with the game is that the game length is fairly unpredictable and variable.  I’ve had games finish in just over 5 minutes and others approach 60 minutes.  It tends to be a 30-40 minute game, but is much more variable than a somewhat similar title that I’ve also been enjoying a lot lately – Neuroshima Hex, which comes in much more consistently at 30 minutes.  Summoner Wars has a slightly greater risk of dragging toward the end if neither player is particularly aggressive.  In the end, you should probably just go get Summoner Wars and start playing it and enjoying it.  I’m already struggling with whether it should be eligible for my Game of the Year for 2011 because it would definitely be a serious contender.

Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it!… Mark Jackson, Luke Hedgren, Erik Arneson, Talia Rosen
I like it…
Not for me…

About Mark "Fluff Daddy" Jackson

follower of Jesus, husband, father, pastor, boardgamer, writer, Legomaniac, Disneyphile, voted most likely to have the same Christmas wish list at age 57 as he did at age 7
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