Summoner Wars has already seen many big releases in its short life. The game was initially released in its now antiquated paper board version in 2009. Two years later it was relaunched in its upscale Master Set format in 2011. And now over the July 4th week of 2012 it had its digital release on the iOS platform. These successive releases have been fantastic for getting the game into more people’s hands and exposing them to the great fun that can be had summoning and warring.
The game mashes up elements from Stratego, Magic, and San Juan in all the right ways. As in Stratego, you’ve got units of varying strength moving around and squaring off on a grid, ultimately trying to destroy the opponent’s flag/summoner. Following in the footsteps of Magic and the innumerable games it has spawned, the game employs creatures that you summon and spells/events that you cast to do your bidding and whittle down your opponent’s health. And bringing the feel up to date is the mechanism from the San Juan & Race for the Galaxy family of games compelling players to make the difficult decision between using their cards either for an individual effect or as currency to purchase/cast other cards in their hand. That description may make it sound like a cobbled together Frankenstein of a game, but it’s far from it. Something intangible about Summoner Wars feels natural and inevitable – as if it’s a game that was discovered rather than created – as all the best games do.
One of the greatest appeals of Summoner Wars to me is the 16 different factions that are available. That’s 240 possible match-ups if my math is right (or up to 256 on iOS where the same faction can fight itself, assuming you haven’t purchased two copies of every faction deck). You can experiment with the Jungle Elves against the Sand Goblins, or the Vargath against the Benders, or perhaps the Cloaks against the Fallen Kingdom. Each faction is utterly unique and so each match-up is unique. It reminds me of Knizia’s Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation where each side has 9 unique characters, for 18 total, and the possible fights between any two of them are all interesting and varied. That’s a game that gets better with experience; Summoner Wars certainly does too, but somehow it manages to have a softer learning curve. Possibly because of that feeling that it just makes sense and coalesces naturally. This virtue of providing a huge number of potential match-ups is similarly something that has drawn me to Oracz’s Neuroshima Hex. One not insignificant advantage of Neuroshima is that it reliably takes 30 minutes, whereas Summoner Wars can range anywhere from 10 to 60 minutes depending on the play styles, factions, and die rolls among other things. But Summoner Wars has its own edge in that its more intuitive and has a less abstract feel.
Feature Creep Please
The iOS platform is a natural fit for Summoner Wars and the application is magnificent. It is a credit to Plaid Hat that they hired Playdek to do the development work. Playdek designed one of the best iOS applications in Ascension, a game that I don’t even really like very much, but an application that so far outshines the competition that it’s embarrassing. Some of my favorite physical board games have iOS implementations that are just painful and amateurish by comparison. Playdek clearly knows what they’re doing and takes the time to get it right.
That’s not to say that the application is perfect. It desperately needs a few things to merit that label. First and foremost it needs an undo button. Just look at Hero Academy for a model. Hero Academy as a game may have been a pale imitation of Summoner Wars and just something to bide your time with on the platform until the real deal arrived this summer, but it got a few things right in terms of the interface. The undo button is clean and intuitive. Summoner Wars needs to follow suit and allow players to unwind incrementally until just after the most recent randomized outcome (e.g., die roll). Along the same lines, Summoner Wars needs to take another page from the Hero Academy playbook and incorporate a chat feature that is as convenient as Hero Academy’s chat. You’re inevitably going to lose much of the camaraderie and fun of the game when translating it to the impersonal, digital world. But you don’t need to ditch it entirely. You can at least trash talk when your champion steamrolls your opponent or complain when the digital dice hate you if there’s a chat feature.
Third and finally, the A.I. could definitely use some work. It simply has no clue how to use certain cards, such that it breaks the fourth wall and rips you out of the moment. For instance, the Cave Goblins Eater is consistently used in an entirely nonsensical manner given its ability. Similarly, the ability of the Phoenix Elves Prince Elien often resorts to friendly fire at random intervals. The Reinforcements event also tends to be used illogically. Then of course is the utterly obvious thought that you should be able to play against any of the factions using the A.I. and ideally customized versions as well, but let’s start with the small step of making the A.I. at least comprehend the cards at a basic level. I’m sure this is much easier said than done, but it’s critically necessary in the long run.
For plenty of other discussion of the application and ideas for making it even better, check out this release announcement and this video review, which collectively have over 650 posts discussing the game’s digital implementation.
Factions Factions Everywhere
The global faction statistics available on the online portion of the application are fantastic. They show the winning percentage for each of the eight factions so far through all of the online games that have been played. These percentages tell an interesting story.
The Tundra Orcs come out on top with 59.7% (2728 wins and 1842 losses). The Guild Dwarves are nipping at their heels with 58.4% (2522 wins and 1797 losses).
There’s a break to the next tier of the Phoenix Elves at 50.9% (2546 wins and 2456 losses) and the Cave Goblins at 50.4% with far fewer games played in total (1279 wins and 1259 losses), followed closely by the Jungle Elves at 48.1% (1793 wins and 1936 losses).
The under .500 teams continue with the Vanguards at 44.8% (1349 wins and 1665 losses), the Fallen Kingdom at 41.9% (1832 wins and 2541 losses), and the biggest loser the Cloaks at 41.4% (1333 wins and 1886 losses). I’m sure all of these numbers will have changed by the time you are reading this, but those are fairly large sample sizes so the relative percentages may prove reliable over time. Then again there are surely a number of lurking variables that would make an actual statistical analysis difficult at best and worthless at worst. Good players may gravitate to a tried and true faction. Bad players – like me – may experiment with all of the supposedly lesser factions and see it as a challenge when a faction tends to lose the majority of the time. But then again, perhaps 3,000+ games per faction is enough to say that the game is unbalanced.
That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Diplomacy is unbalanced, but that doesn’t diminish the genius of Allan B. Calhamer. For a more modern reference, both Twilight Struggle and Mr. Jack may favor one side over the other as much as a 60-40 ratio. They’re still both fantastic games. You can fiddle with them if you’d like to try to even things out, or you can just enjoy them, nuances and all. Part of me cringes when I see the faction statistics on the Summoner Wars application. It makes me initially worry about the game’s balance and longevity. But taking a step back and giving it a bit more thought, I believe that having a couple factions up around 60% and a couple factions down around 40% is fine. The game is not a dry, abstract GIPF game or a heavy undertaking like Caylus, far from it. It’s got die rolls and card draws, ooh’s and ahh’s, twists and turns. You’ve got to embrace the fun spirit of the game and part of that is not obsessing about the precise balance. Of course this could go too far if one faction were too strong or another far too weak, but the 60-40 ratio has proved viable in Twilight Struggle and Mr. Jack, and it’s not like anyone’s begging to play Austria-Hungary or Italy in Diplomacy. Then again, I think plenty of folks do volunteer to be the underdog because they relish the challenge of overcoming long odds, and hopefully those folks will take up the mantle of the Cloaks and Fallen Kingdom.
Once you get past the worry, there’s room to think about what the numbers mean. The first thing that jumped out at me is that the top four factions are the originally released four, while the bottom four are the later releases. Of course that’s not to say that the factions were necessarily designed in that order, as we’ve often heard the refrain that At the Gates of Loyang is viewed unfairly because it was designed before Agricola and Le Havre despite it being released at the end of the “harvest trilogy.” Regardless, one silver lining of the statistics is it means that the designer and publisher are not succumbing to the familiar lure of expansion-based games making later releases stronger so as to obsolete earlier releases and incentivize players to purchase new product. That would not be a surprising result when your business is driven by releasing new factions and convincing people to buy them. Thankfully it appears Plaid Hat may realize it’s game is good enough not to need artificial and ultimately destructive incentives to motivate purchases.
So they’re not doing that, but maybe they’ve gone too far in the other direction and are being too cautious with their later releases to avoid disrupting a delicate ecosystem. The Jungle Elves result does not surprise me. I’ve always found them thematically appealing but functionally disappointing. They’re events are uninspiring and Abua Shi’s ability leaves me cold. The Cloaks are similarly expected because they’re the sneaky, sly faction and of course they’re hard to play and situational. The Vanguards are slightly more surprising, but still not out of the blue because their healing focus is different and original, making it probably a bit harder to play well. They’re not a personal favorite of mine because they can make the game slow down and drag, plus I prefer to come out swinging. The Fallen Kingdom is the real surprise for me because they feel like a real contender. Perhaps Forced Summon is just too alluring some of the time, but their commons, champions, and events all seem effective and useful, especially Elut-Bal, Skhull, Zombie Warriors, and Magic Drain. Maybe the Reapers give your opponent too big of a magic boost when they eventually die. (Note to self: kill your own Reapers more when they are particularly injured and powered up). I’m not entirely sure, but I do know I’m already eagerly looking forward to the digital release of the other eight factions.
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Summoner Wars has really made a case to be game of the year in 2009, 2011, and now 2012 as it continually reinvents and refines itself. I’ve played the physical game 37 times now, the digital game 23 times against online opponents and countless times against the A.I. After 50+ plays, many great games start to show some wear and fray at the edges, at the very least. Summoner Wars seems to just get stronger every year. This is a game, nay franchise, that keeps picking up steam – watch out world!