Pick Your Battles in Summoner Wars

Reading Time: 7 minutes

SummonerWars-box-frontSummonerWars-box-frontOverview: In just a few short weeks, Summoner Wars will be arriving for iOS, as you can see in the preview trailer above. But this tactical combat card game from Plaid Hat Games has actually been around for a few years, spawning a slew of expansions and, last year, a new Master Set. Here’s an explanation of how it all works — so you’ll be ready when the app arrives.

Players: 2 (expandable to 4)

Ages: 9 and up

Playing Time: 30-60 minutes

Retail: $49.99

Rating: Excellent, with lots of replayability.

Who Will Like It? Gamers who like two-player combat, but want more theme than you get from most abstract strategy games. Think of it as a mini-miniatures wargame, without the tape measures.

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Initial setup for Summoner Wars is different for each faction. Note the two-part board. Photo: Jonathan Liu

Theme:

In my GameStorm Weekend in Review, I mentioned Dungeon Run, another game from Plaid Hat Games. In Dungeon Run, you’re all after the powerful summoning stone — and when somebody claims it, everyone piles onto them because, hey, you want it for yourself. Well it turns out that there’s more than one summoning stone. Now all these different factions each have their own stone, and they’re all duking it out: thus began the Summoner Wars.

Each faction is different, so you have to take into account both your own powers and abilities as well as your opponents’. The artwork helps to support the theme, though the mechanics of gameplay are really about moving cards around on a grid, so it’s a little abstracted. You can’t attack or move diagonally, which makes it easier mechanically but doesn’t make as much sense thematically.

SummonerWars-box insideSummonerWars-box inside

The Master Set box has room for a lot of expansions. Photo: Jonathan Liu

Components:

The Master Set comes with:

  • 1 battlefield board (in two pieces)
  • 5 standard six-sided dice
  • 20 wound markers (double-sided, with “3” on one side)
  • 225 cards (six different factions, number of cards varies)

Earlier versions of Summoner Wars and expansions have come in several different sizes, from single-faction decks like the Cloaks to two-faction Starter Sets — the biggest difference appears to be the battlefield board: the original versions use a paper map instead of the folding cardboard version.

The premium battlefield is made of pretty thick cardboard with a glossy finish and is definitely a nice touch, but the paper version was much more portable. I’ve actually made myself a paper version as well so that if I want to pick a couple factions and play on the go, I can do so without needing the big box.

And, as you can see from the photo above, the box has a lot of room for expansions. You can actually fit all of the cards for this set into two of the wells, and I recommend rubber bands or tuckboxes to keep the cards from shifting around in transit. The nice thing is that this Master Set doesn’t have overlapping factions with previous versions, so you won’t be doubling up on things.

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Some of the Shadow Elves cards, including the reference card.

Gameplay:

Each player takes one faction deck, which is made up of Units (the troops and such), Events, and Walls (a special sort of Event card). The Swamp Orcs also have a pile of Vine Walls, which are a special card and have their own set of rules. Each deck also has a card which shows the starting setup on one side, and lists their Events and a turn summary on the other side.

The Unit cards have a number of features: the large number in the circle is the number of attack dice that Unit gets. Below that is a small number indicating the magic cost to summon that Unit into play. (Summoners have a lightning symbol because they always start the game in play.) Next to the magic cost is a sword or bow, indicating whether that Unit can do melee attacks only (adjacent cards) or ranged attacks (up to 3 spaces away). The little dots to the right of that are the number of life points the Unit has, and the text below explains any special abilities that Unit has.

Each faction gets to start with 1 Summoner, 18 Common Units, 3 Champion Units, 9 Events, and 3 Walls. (If you get “reinforcement packs,” you can get additional cards for existing factions and build a custom deck. In this case, you just use all of the cards of your faction.)

You set up your half of the battlefield as indicated on your card: you’ll always have your unique Summoner and a Wall, plus some number of Units which will vary from faction to faction. The rest of your deck is shuffled and placed in the Draw pile. The goal of the game is to eliminate the other player’s Summoner.

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Battle in progress, showing some damage markers and areas for draw pile, magic pile, and discard pile. Photo: Jonathan Liu

Each player’s turn consists of six phases (though the first player will skip phases 1–3 the first time):

1. Draw: Draw cards from your Draw pile until you have five in your hand.

2. Summon: You may spend magic points (move cards from Magic pile to Discard pile) to summon additional Units. Summoned Units must be placed adjacent to your Walls.

3. Events: You may play Event cards and Wall cards, as many as you are able. Walls must be placed on empty spaces on your half of the battlefield.

4. Movement: You may move any three Units up to two spaces each. (Orthogonal movement only, and only through unoccupied spaces.)

5. Attack: You may attack with any three Units — these do not have to be the same units that moved. To attack, you must be within range (adjacent for melee, within three spaces in a straight line for ranged attacks, and with no cards between attacker and target). You roll the number of attack dice shown; any roll of 3 or higher is a hit and adds a damage marker to the target card. If the number of wounds equals the number of life points, that Unit is destroyed and placed in the attacker’s Magic pile, face-down. This includes Walls, which take 9 points of damage to destroy.

6. Build Magic: You may place any number of cards from your hand into your Magic pile, face-down.

Players alternate turns until one Summoner is eliminated.

For a 3 or 4 player game, you’ll need an additional battlefield, and it’s basically teams of two factions each. (In a 3-player game, one player will have to control two factions.) The battlefield is twice as wide, and there are some rules for how movement can wrap around to the opposite side of the board.

Summoner Wars SummonersSummoner Wars Summoners

The six Summoners included in the Master Set: Selundar of the Shadow Elves, Krusk of the Sand Goblins, Mugglug of the Swamp Orcs, Sunderved of the Mountain Vargath, Tundle of the Deep Dwarves, and Tacullu of the Benders

Conclusion:

In a nutshell: Summoner Wars is easy to learn and fun to play.

The set of rules is short and fairly simple. The complexity of the game comes in the special abilities, because every Unit, from the Commons to the Champions, has something special about it. Even with just six factions, you get 15 different match-ups, which could keep you busy for a while, learning the strengths and weaknesses of each faction.

The other nice thing about the game is that the rules (and the special ability text) are very precise. Yes, it can make them a little awkward to read, but everything is phrased in such a way as to be unambiguous. They define what they mean by “discard” or “destroy” or even the word “through.” This is important when you have special abilities that interact with each other. So far I haven’t had to “house rule” anything, because it’s all spelled out.

One of the things I love about the game is the tension between building magic and saving good cards. Some of the Champions can be devastating, but they cost a lot of magic to summon. The only way to get more magic is either by using cards from your hand (which can no longer be used as Units and Events) or by destroying your opponent’s cards. So if you’re getting attacked and you need to get some new Units in a hurry, the best way is to burn through your own deck. But if you run out of cards, beware! You don’t re-shuffle that discard pile. Some factions (the Deep Dwarves, for instance) can get cards back, but for most of them everything is a one-time use. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Summoner Wars doesn’t take too long to play once you’re familiar with the basic set of rules. I’ve only played a fraction of the possible combinations, but I’m looking forward to trying them all out … and then adding some more factions. I don’t know if I’m personally as interested in the deck-building aspect (preparing a custom deck before playing) because I like being able to just jump into the game, but I do like the idea of filling up all that extra space in my box with more dwarves, elves, orcs, and humans.

Wired: Great two-player combat; 6 factions = lots of replay value; easy to learn.

Tired: If you aren’t getting expansions, the box is way too big. Odd-sized cards use non-standard card sleeves.

Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.

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