Two powerful mages face each other on the field of battle. They summon powerful monsters and armies to command. These forces meet in an epic conflict to decide which summoner survives. If you’re involved in gaming much at all, you’ve probably heard this story. But we’re not talking about the game you’re probably thinking of. Instead, we’re talking about a fantastic little game called Summoner Wars, designed by the fine Colby Dauch and published by Plaid Hat Games. Much like Wizards of the Coast’s famous game of cards, Summoner Wars sees two different wizards trying to slaughter the other by playing cards representing various creatures. The twist here is that these cards are placed onto a board, and moved around the map to represent the ebb and flow of battle. Summoner Wars is easily one of my favorite games. Continue on beyond the break as I show you why.
The basic rules behind Summoner Wars are quite simple. On your turn, you draw up to 5 cards, you summon monsters and play spells, move 3 units, and attack with 3 units. At the end of the turn, you burn cards from your hand to put into your magic pile, which you’ll use to summon more creatures as the game wears on. Attacking is a simple matter of rolling a number of dice equal to a units attack, and counting any roll higher than 2 as a hit. The game continues on until one of the summoners, which are also represented as units on the battlefield, is killed.
The game shares a few basic similarities with chess: Units move and fight on a grid, and the game is won or lost by losing your ‘king.’ Instead of the abstract classic though, Summoner Wars throws in random dice rolls and card draws that prevent you from playing the game in your head 12 turns in advance. This changes it from a game of rote memorization and deep study to a game of risk management and intuitive tactics. Add on top of that that almost all units have a unique special ability that affect the game in unexpected ways, and you find yourself with an experience that captures the timeless feel of the classics, while infusing it with a modern sheen of variety and streamlining. And dice.
There’s an impressive degree of variety on show here. The game was originally released as two sets of two armies, and booster packs of new single armies. After this original run Plaid Hat published the Master Set, which included six completely new and original armies. There is another large expansion promised soon which will combine the play styles of existing armies into new hybrid factions. With all these armies, Summoner Wars feels almost like a miniatures game, but with the price of an army being closer to ten bucks than a hundred. You can even add in some light deck-building aspects by customizing your armies with the “Mercenary” packs.
There’s a ton of smart little touches that make Summoner Wars a clever design. Having a 2/3rds chance to hit with an attack roll pushes the odds slightly in favor of the attacker, encouraging faster and more aggressive play. The cards are intelligently laid out and very easy to read, leaving most the unique and special rules of a card in a small text field. With every army, you can expect to play a certain way, but the order your cards come out mean that you’ll still be challenged to adapt every game. And the way that summoning works is absolutely genius.
The best games out there often pull you in two different directions at once, making you choose between opposing tempting advantages. Summoner Wars does this with its magic and summoning system. You summon creatures by discarding cards from your magic pile, and you build your magic pile by discarding cards from your hand. And, if you run out of cards in your draw pile, not only are you out of new units to summon and use, you’re out of the stream of magical currency that powers them. You always feel the tension rising: You need to conserve that precious pile of cards so that you can finish off your opponent when they’re at their weakest, but you need to keep a constant pool of magic available to power your current defense and offense. This is the balance that Summoner Wars expects you to make, the tight-rope you have to walk every game, trying not to fall off while your opponent bounces and pulls on the rope trying to throw you off. Every game the ‘correct’ balance will change, depending on your opponent and countless other factors. Every game will be a unique experience of solving the problem in front of you: searching for that combination of cards and moves that will lead you to slaying your foe.