On 19 Jun 2010 Han came to play. Our planned main course was Twilight Struggle, which I quite like, and would have bought the deluxe edition if my wife liked it half as much as Through the Ages. Since she didn't, and both my likely opponents Han and Afif have copies, I can't really justify owning a copy. We also played Summoner Wars, and Roll Through the Ages on Han's iPod. I have been thinking of getting an iPhone 3Gs, hoping that the release of iPhone 4 will bring down the price of the older model. But the iPhone 4 is not yet released in Malaysia, and even when it is, the reduced price of an iPhone 3Gs may still deter me. I still can't quite convince myself to not buy a MYR250 Nokia phone instead. Do I really need an iPhone? Roll Through the Ages on the iPod is done quite well, but not that well that I can convince myself to get an iPhone because of it.
Enough rambling. Let's get to Summoner Wars.
Summoner Wars is a battle game that uses mostly cards. Two different armies fight on a 6x8 grid. To win, you need to kill the opponent king - the summoner. Each side starts the game with a predetermined setup - you get a wall, your summoner, and some basic troops. During the game, you can summon more soldiers into the battle by paying magic. New soldiers can only enter the battle on spaces next to the wall. The wall is also important for protecting your soldiers. Every turn up to 3 of your soldiers can move, and then up to 3 of them can attack. Soldiers with ranged attack can shoot up to 3 spaces away. Normally you score a hit if you roll 3 or higher on a die. (as you can see, today Sesame Street is brought to you by the number 3) Most soldiers only have one or two life points. So they die easily. That's a good thing, because your enemy's dead soldiers become your magic points, which you can spend for summoning more of your own troops. You can also place cards from your hand into your magic pool, but every card spent this way means one less soldier, or one less event, or one less wall that you will have, because used cards are never reshuffled.
You have a hand of 5 cards, which you always replenish back to 5 at the start of your turn no matter how many you have used on your previous turn. It can be tempting to use them as quickly as possible, but sometimes you need to plan for the tempo of the game. If you use up your deck too quickly but cannot deal significant damage to your opponent's summoner, you will be in trouble. Your deck is a finite resource.
There are event cards which are usually useful, to different extents depending on your situation. The trick is how to maximise their effectiveness. There are 3 champions in your deck. These are stronger soldiers, i.e. heroes, and they usually have powerful special abilities. They are also harder to kill. Naturally, they are more costly to summon.
All soldiers have special abilities, which adds much flavour to the game, and makes the different armies quite distinct from one another.
Han let me play the cave goblins, an easier army to play, while he played the dwarves. The cave goblins had many 0-cost-to-summon soldiers, so I could quickly swarm the board. Most had only 1 life point though, i.e. they got killed quite easily. Still, it was handy to have such a big horde. From the start Han played quite defensively, even deploying a wall to slow down my advance. The wall (which was constructed near the middle of the board) also allowed him to summon his soldiers nearer to my area. His dwarven Defenders had the ability to stop engaged (i.e. orthogonally adjacent) enemies from moving, which also slowed down my advance towards his summoner.
I kept pushing the attack. The special ability of my goblin Fighters allowed me to make more than 3 attacks on my turns. Han tried to halt the tide by destroying my wall. He succeeded in doing that, so I was a little stuck for a while. I had intentionally spent one of the two walls in my deck as magic, and the other one was the 2nd last card in my deck. Thankfully I managed to not run out of soldiers before I could get a new wall built.
I took a risk hoping to end the game quickly by overwhelming Han's summoner - I sent my own summoner to his area to join the attack. My summoner Sneeks' special ability was it could swap places with another cave goblin at the end of my turn. I used this ability to send him into the enemy's territory. Han sent his summoner Oldin running, and it was actually not easy to catch him and injure him, with walls and other dwarves in the way. Sneeks ended up taking more damage than Oldin, and I had to use his special ability again to teleport him back to safety. How embarassing.
Han's champions came up quite late. One of them had quite a unique ability and caused me some grief. Baldar's ability was that he could only be injured if all dice rolled against him were hits. So if a powerful soldier attacked him with many dice, but not all dice hit, then he took no damage. It was actually easier to injure him by using weaker soldiers who rolled fewer dice.
Our decks were exhausted sooner than I expected. At first my cave goblins seemed to have a clear advantage, to the point that the game felt a little unbalanced, but I later realised that the dwarves were quite sturdy and were not as easy to overcome as I had thought. The battle became one of attrition, and eventually I managed to defeat Han's summoner because he didn't have as many soldiers remaining on the board.
Looking at the photos of the cards again, I realise that we may have played the cave goblin Fighters wrong. Every turn two Fighters could attack for free (not counted towards the 3 attacks per turn limit). However they should not be allowed to do normal attacks. I missed this second rule, and probably broke this rule during our game, making the cave goblin army overpowered. That means our game would have been even closer, or I might even have lost instead. I am quite impressed with how different the armies are and yet how balanced they seem. They need quite different play styles and strategies.
The game is a little chess-like, being played on a grid, and having that element of planning a few steps ahead - if I do this then he does then and then I do this etc. The dice add a random element, but since you hit on a 3 or above, normally you'd expect an attack to be successful, so attacks don't feel very luck dependent. You can plan ahead reasonably well and the battle feels quite deterministic.
The event cards is something that you can't quite defend against, but I think once you are familiar with the decks, you'll know what to expect and how to not get yourself into a position where they can hurt you severely.
The game is very much about how you manage the order in which your cards turn up. Will you get your champions early? Will you get the right event cards at the best moments? It is also about the choice of spending cards for magic or keeping them in hand, and managing the pace of going through your deck.
Ultimately, Summoner Wars is still a battle game with two different armies fighting it out. It has some interesting concepts, merging a chess-like structure with card management, but if you're not into this type of battle games then the innovation and the uniqueness of the armies probably won't attract you to the game anyway.
There are two other races which we have not played. Playing the different combinations of battles should be interesting. Based on our first game, I am guessing that all the armies have been balanced quite well.