Thursday 24 June 2010

Summoner Wars

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.

The Game

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.

My wall at the top, my Fighter and Slinger on the sides, and my summoner at the bottom. The big number on the soldiers are the attack value, i.e. how many dice they throw when attacking. The smaller number is the cost to summon. Both Fighters and Slingers can be summoned for free. Sneeks is a summoner and I start the game with it on the board, thus summon cost is not applicable. The icon beside the summon cost tells whether the soldier has ranged attack.

The different card backs of the two armies. Dwarf cards in my magic pool means magic points gained from killing my enemies. Cave goblin cards here means I forgo the chance of using my own cards and place them here myself. When spending magic to summon soldiers (or other uses), there is no differentiation between how you gained the magic points.

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.

The Play

Han thinking, "Why do my cards suck so badly?". This is how the game looks like. This was the early game. The beads do not come with the game. I use them to weigh down the paper gameboard. The three piles of card on my side are (left to right) my draw deck, my magic pool (enemies killed or my own cards that I place there) and my discard deck.

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.

Han's drawven Defender advanced into my side of the board, blocking one side of my wall, reducing one space for me to summon new soldiers.

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.

My cave goblin summoner, Sneeks. He had 7 life points, but was already badly injured.

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.

Near game end. This was my second wall, and it was getting damaged. However it didn't matter much by then, because we had run out of cards.

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.

The Thoughts

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.

Monday 7 June 2010


On Sun 6 Jun 2010 Allen came to play Twilight Struggle. He bought the game a long time ago, i.e. when there was no deluxe edition yet, but has never played it, so I offered to teach him to play. This was my 4th game. Allen played USSR (easier especially in the early game) and I played USA. And this happened:

The Soviets were very advanced in the space race, and the Americans had made no progress at all. And this was only the 3rd turn! The Soviets had reached the "play two cards for space race in a turn" space, which allowed them to progress so quickly. Allen succeeded at every roll, and I failed at every roll. Not good. I never caught up.

Later on when I played Bear Trap on Allen, his luck ran out, and he lost many actions because he kept rolling 5's and 6's. I think the game was a little overwhelming for Allen, since there was so much text to read on the cards. He didn't make much use of realignment rolls and coups, which is probably normal in a first game. By mid game the momentum swung to the USA. I also pulled some dirty tricks on him, e.g. tempting him to place influence in India, only to later play the Indo-Pakistani War card to (at a little risk) convert all his influence to mine. Well, this didn't come about because of my familiarity with the game. I only planned this after getting my cards on that particular turn. I won the game in Turn 8 (of 10) by reaching 20VP. I hope I didn't sour the game for Allen. I didn't pull any punches.

For our next game, we played Aton, which Allen brought and taught. And he had sweet revenge by winning all three games.

The Game

Aton is a 2-player-only quite abstract game with an Egyptian theme. There are 4 temples on the board, each with 12 spaces. You place your pieces on these spaces, and also try to remove your opponent's pieces from them. Each temple gives scores differently, with the person having majority in the temple benefiting from the scoring. The game ends when 40pts is reached or exceeded, but there are ways to achieve an instant win too.

Every round, each player draws 4 cards from their respective decks, and secretly decides how to assign the cards to the 4 slots on his side of the board. The players' decks have the same card distribution, so it is only a matter of when you draw which cards. The cards are numbered 1 to 4. When you assign card usage, the numbers on the cards determine (a) whether you score some instant points, (b) turn order, (c) which temple you will take actions in, (d) how many opponent pieces you'll remove, and (e) how many of your own pieces you'll place. Every round you get this mini puzzle to solve. How to make the most out of what you get. You still have long term planning, but sometimes you have to adjust your plans based on what you draw.

The four areas at the centre of the board are the four temples. The blue scarab track running along three sides is the scoring track. The track on the right is the death track, which acts as a countdown timer for the scoring round. The two edges of the board facing the players show four slots for their cards.

The game is mostly driven by the scoring:

  • Cards assigned to Slot 1. Winner scores 2 x difference. This happens every round, and is the only form of scoring outside of the normal scoring round.
  • Temple 1 awards points based on the difference in number of pieces (awarded to the player with majority, of course).
  • Temple 2 awards a flat 5 points.
  • Temple 3 awards points based on the number of pieces of the majority player.
  • Temple 4 awards 3 points for each blue space occupied by the majority player.
  • Some orange spaces award 1 or 2 points.
  • Majority in black spaces get 8 points.
  • Instant win if you fully occupy a temple (12 spaces), no need to wait for scoring round to happen.
  • Instant win if you occupy all green spaces. Ditto above.
  • Instant win if you occupy all yellow spaces. Ditto above.

So you see the core strategy of the game is to choose where to fight, and how to fight most efficiently.

There is an important timing aspect to the game - when scoring is done. There is a death track on the board, which has 8 spaces. Every time you remove an opponent's piece from the board, it goes to the death track. Scoring is done at the end of a round when the death track fills up. In our games it took 2 or 3 scoring rounds for a game to end.

Due to the secret and simultaneous card assignment, the game has double guessing and bluffing. If you want to count cards, it can help. E.g. if your opponent has used many value 4 cards, he'll be low on these until his deck is exhausted and reshuffled.

The Play

I got slaughtered in the first game. I got slaughtered in a different way in the second game. I was defeated in the third game. That means I improved a little eventually.

In all three games we mostly fought over the non-green and non-yellow spaces. Competition over the black spaces was particularly fierce. We didn't spend much on gaining points from the Slot 1 card. Maybe we should explore that more. Allen won the first game with a big margin, reaching 40pt when I wasn't even near 30pts. In the second game he won by filling up Temple 1. I could have stopped him, but I gambled that he would see that, and would not bother to try for victory. I guess one shouldn't gamble when in a risky position. In the third game our scores were closer. He won after the 2nd scoring round at precisely 40pts. He didn't realise it until I reminded him to score for the black spaces.

The games had a lot of tit-for-tat, trying to remove pieces of the other player where they had claimed lucrative spots. There was also some psychological play trying to guess which temple the opponent would visit. The ways the temples score were an important consideration, e.g. in some temples it was good to have as many pieces as possible, whereas in some temples only the majority of 1 was needed.

This was the third game I think. I was red and Allen was blue. The death track on the right was full, which means it was scoring time.

The Thoughts

Aton is a quick game that packs many decisions into such a short play time. It is very abstract. It is also very fluid. You can't defend against attacks. You have to fight back by removing your opponent's pieces from critical locations. I also think of it as an efficiency game - you try to make the most out of your cards. I think the most interesting part of the game is how there are so many ways to fight - the various scoring methods and also the instant victory conditions. It's all about choosing where to fight and where to concede, and sometimes fire breaks out and you are forced to react to your opponent's move.

Thursday 3 June 2010

boardgaming in photos

Here's another photo finish of Through the Ages, played on Sun 30 May 2010. Michelle and I are big fans of the game, but had not played for quite a while - almost a five months hiatus. We actually missed some rules, which is disgraceful, considering we've played it about 50 times before. But we did catch our mistakes during the game and tried to compensate for them as much as possible.

Here's my civilisation (white).

I started off with Julius Caesar, i.e. stronger military and being able to draw more event cards. However as we eased into mid game, Michelle boosted up her military and became much much stronger. Thankfully she didn't like aggressions or wars, else she could have crushed my civilisation. Towards late game I drew the Shock Troops tactics card, and planned to get it into play. This was one rare occasion that I spent the effort to build enough modern troops to make effective an Age III tactics card.

I played as many blue tech cards as I could, because I had seeded the Age III event card which rewarded points for these.

Michelle's civilisation:

She had a bigger variety of urban buildings. She was producing so much stone that I felt so sure she had played the Age III event card which rewards points based on stone production capacity. And she used up all her yellow tokens!

She had Aristotle as her Age A leader again. This is her favourite. Her Great Wall wonder was what gave her a big military lead in mid game.

This was the end of the last round, before the last four Age III event cards were resolved. Michelle was ahead of me by 6pts.

First event was Impact of Happiness. Both our civilisations were at full happiness, so the gap remained.

Second event was Impact of Competition. Michelle had played this when she was militarily much stronger than I was. She didn't expect I would build so many more modern troops. The gap narrowed, but I was still behind.

Third event was Impact of Colonies. We both had two. I had been hoping to get more because I was militarily stronger in the early game. However I kept drawing poor cards and was unable to trigger more events. Michelle was of course reluctant to trigger events lest they harm her position.

Fourth event was Impact of Progress, seeded by me. I had been putting down as many blue techs as I could, and this event let me overtake Michelle to win the game!

After the game, we realised that I had forgotten to score on my final turn. I think my score should have been about 12pts more. So it wasn't really a photo finish afterall. But heck I'm not gonna waste these photos I so painstakingly took.

Wednesday 2 June 2010


Do you get headaches when playing games?

I find that recently there has been some game sessions that gave me headaches. These were sessions that were so engrossing and tense that by the end of the game I found myself slightly worn out. My head literally hurt, not the bad type that makes you want to take Panadol (or aspirin) and lie down, but the good type knowing that you've just completed a challenging feat. E.g. sessions of Homesteaders and Die Handler. In Homesteaders, the game was very compressed, with much to learn and digest in my first game. This is the learning curve type headache. In Die Handler, the competition among the players was fierce, there was a lot of double guessing and secret scheming, we were all walking on tightropes because one misstep or mishap could completely ruin one's position. This is the player competition type headache. Both types are very satisfying. Satisfying headaches... who would have thought...

Brass, a game that provides learning curve type headache.

Cyclades, a game that provides player competition type headache.

For me, the biggest attraction of playing boardgames is the intellectual challenge, not the company of friends, not the escapade to an alternative / imaginary world, although I enjoy these too. It is the discovery of how the game works, and the mental sparring, that makes me so addicted to boardgames. I think many non-gamers will wonder why gamers choose such a thinky hobby. You already feel so mentally tired from work / school, why do you still want to spend your free time on such a brain power intensive hobby? Most people will probably prefer doing something that's relaxing for the mind, or even something that requires no thinking. Self-inflicted headaches is probably the last thing on most people's minds when it comes to choosing pasttimes.

I find playing challenging boardgames very satisfying. And winning is only a small part of that. The satisfaction comes from knowing that I did well in a game. I would be happier if I lose a game but have put up a good fight, than if I win a poorly played game only because I have been lucky. Han has been my long-time boardgame kaki (fellow addict), and he is one very smart guy, winning more than a fair share of games. It's always challenging to play against him. When we play, we both know there is no "playing nice", and we have to be on our toes. Opportunities will be fought over. Mistakes will be exploited. Thankfully neither of us are rules lawyers, else things will get ugly all the time. We quickly agree on rules interpretations and move on.

Since September last year, I started occasionally joining the Old Town Kopitiam Cheras game group, who regularly meet at OTK cafe on Friday nights. Some of these guys are real sharks at the game table. It has been a lot of fun playing with them. So now in addition to the Han shark, I have the Jeff shark, the Allen shark etc to swim with. I think that's a wonderful development for my boardgame hobby.

So, do you play games for the headaches?

Tuesday 1 June 2010

boardgaming in photos

On 28 May 2010 I brought Automobile to Old Town Kopitiam Cheras, and played a 5-player game. Afif, Han and I have played before, Philip and Allen were new to the game. This was the first round, and there were already 10 distributors on the board. Han (yellow), Afif (red) and Allen (purple) produced mid-range (orange) cars, and there were only three slots in round 1 for selling mid-range cars via distributors. Needless to say they had to fire many distributors and take loss cubes. Thankfully I was the only one producing cheap cars, so my distributors kept their jobs.

Round 3 of 4. Distributors were highly utilised in this game. This was right after cars have been sold via distributors.

Close-up of the hardworking distributors.

I (playing green) never closed down any factory throughout the game, not even that cheap car factory (black border) in the foreground. I had a parts factory there, and thus was producing cars very very cheaply. I would lose $400 ($100 per factory) if I closed down my factories here. It was less expensive to take loss cubes due to running an old and out-of-date factory.

Since my (green) cheap car model was so out-of-fashion and unattractive, I had to do both advertising (white disc) and discounting (grey discs) to ensure I could sell them all.

Round 4. Look at how many cheap cars (black borders) were produced! Anti-clockwise from the top, Han (yellow), Philip (blue), Afif (red), Allen (purple) and I (green) all produced cheap cars.

I still love Automobile, especially when played with 5 players.

29 May 2010. Blue Moon. Han and I started a tournament a long time ago, vowing to play all 56 combinations of match-ups of the 8 Blue Moon races (including swapping sides). Till now we've only played 16 matches. Still a long way to go.

This time we played Khind (who are individually weak but fight in gangs) vs Flit (who are also generally weaker, but have good boosters and can usually return to hand to fight again). Highchirp (on the right) was the Most Valuable Player, because his special ability can really hurt the Khind by discarding members of a gang, reducing the strength of the gang. The Flit won in both the games that we played.

I think Blue Moon is an excellent game. This is a game that shines only after you get familiar with the decks. I had hoped to get my wife to like it, but she found it too confrontational. I still have three unplayed expansions.

This is from the cover of Dungeon Lords - a cute child imp patting a puppy-like slime monster. So you think Dungeon Lords is a cute game? You'd be completely wrong.

Han and I played Dungeon Lords again. My last play was half a year ago so I was a little rusty. The game was as brutal as I remembered. Maybe it was because I was rusty, I mostly struggled to survive, and was contented enough to not have a negative score at game end.

Dungeon Lords is quite a complex Eurogame, with a heavy dose of double guessing in the simultaneous action selection. There is a lot to think about. It is by no means a light game as the humour and artwork may suggest. Like Galaxy Trucker and Space Alert, it has a bit of a masochist streak - building something up and watching it get torn to pieces. Don't unleash this on innocent newbies. But it's a tense game for gamers. Our game felt a little slow. I think part of the reason is with only 2 players, you need to worry about playing the dummy players, which are needed to keep the game balanced.

We played events (optional for beginners). In the first year, and earthquake occurred, forcing me to lose two painstakingly built rooms. In the second year, the event forced us to move up the evilometer, which resulted in the Super Paladin paying Han a "friendly" visit. Owww...

I'm keen to play this again but with more players.