Monday, September 3, 2012

[Design Review] Summoner Wars

What is Summoner Wars?

This is a tactical board game where cards form a major component. Basically, each player gets an army, represented by a deck of cards. Most of those cards are soldiers of one kind or another. You play your soldiers on a board that is a very simple 8x6 grid. You and your opponent take turns moving your soldiers around the board and attacking each others’ soldiers. Each player has a special unit that begins play on the battlefield, called a summoner. If you can defeat your opponent’s summoner, you win the game.

From round to round, you’ll want to bring out more soldiers to help fight your battle. To do that, you’ll need to play unit cards from your hand. Doing so requires that you pay their summon cost with magic points. Each player has a stack of face down cards that represent their magic points – each card is one point. You can choose to discard cards from your hand into this magic pile to build up your magic points. Enemy units that you defeat also go to your magic pile. Managing your hand, your magic points, and your units on the board are all equally important to attaining victory in this game.

An example of a summoner.
Going to War

The bulk of the cards in your deck will be units. In addition to summon cost, each unit in your deck also has varying ratings in attack, range, and hit points. When having one unit attack another, you need to make sure the target is in range. Some units are considered melee, and they’re limited to attacking units in adjacent spaces on the grid. Other units are considered ranged, and can attack up to three spaces away, if there are no cards on the grid between them and their target. So, positioning is very important.

Once you know that your target is in range of your unit, you roll a number of regular six-sided dice equal to the attacking unit’s attack rating. Each die that comes up with a result of three or better deals one damage to the target. When a unit has a number of damage equal to its hit points, it is defeated and goes to the magic pile of the player that defeated it.

Each unit also has a special ability that will change how it works in play. Some units deal damage automatically instead of rolling. Some can teleport across the board. Some grant bonuses to nearby allied units. Others are more mobile. The variety of abilities is great, and they are all very interesting in play.

An example of a common unit.
Most of your units are considered “common”. They are fairly weak, inexpensive to summon, and there will likely be a few copies of each in your deck. Each deck also has three “champions”, though. These elite units are unique characters – there is only one of each in any deck. They cost more to summon, but their statistics and special abilities are game changing.

In addition to units, your deck will also contain a few wall cards and event cards. Walls are the only terrain in the game. They occupy spaces on the board, preventing units from moving or attacking through those spaces. Also, a newly summoned unit must always be placed adjacent to a wall that you control. Event cards are usually played at no cost and then discarded. They have a special, one-time effect when they are played.

Summoning Up Your Best Strategy

One of the things that makes this game a lot of fun, is that it is simple enough to learn the basics, but there are quite a few things that can add depth to your strategy. For example, your deck consists of units of one of sixteen factions, and there is some room to customize your deck too, so it’s unlikely that you’ll be playing against an opponent with an identical deck. Knowing each faction, and what specific unit and event cards it can bring to the battle, is an important part of anticipating your opponent’s strategy and planning your own.

An example of a champion unit.
If you think the game is all about summoning as many units as quickly as possible and overwhelming your opponent, you’re dead wrong. Having enough magic to summon your units can be challenging, so you’ll need to consider carefully which cards in your hand you want to hold on to in order to summon them, and which ones you’ll discard for magic. You don’t reshuffle your discard pile when your draw pile is depleted, so you’ll only go through your deck once. That means every single card is important, and you need to think carefully about how you’re going to use it. This is something I didn’t really appreciate the first few times I played the game, but now it is one of my favorite aspects of the strategy. Lastly, don’t forget that you only need to take down your opponent’s summoner to win the game. Precision timing and movement can often beat straight up brute strength in this game.

Why is this Game worth Summoning?

Summoner Wars is sold as a master set, which gives you six factions to play with, the game board, dice and all the tokens you need. Various expansion packs add additional factions and reinforcements that let you customize the decks for the factions. This isn’t your typical collectable card game with randomized booster packs, though, so you won’t waste a lot of money chasing down specific cards. I like this approach to marketing an expandable card game a lot.

A Summoner Wars tournament in progress.
The game itself is a lot of fun, and can play in less than an hour if people play aggressively. The rules are simple to learn, but it has a considerable degree of depth. The different factions add variety to the game. Reinforcements mean you can even customize a faction’s deck to some degree. So, even after you’ve played each faction you can still mix things up and keep the game fresh for a while longer. The way the game flows – summoning, moving, attacking, managing magic – is all very elegant and well designed.

The game is really designed for two players. There are optional rules for three or four players, but it seems like adding more players really slows the game down a lot, which takes some of the fun out of it. This is the only major design problem I have with the game, but I think if you keep it to one-on-one, you’ll never have this problem. And really, this kind of game usually works best with only two players, so it isn’t too surprising.

These are my general thoughts on Summoner Wars. I’d love to read any observations you may have about the game and its design, or any thoughts you might have on my own observations.

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