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.


deck said...

Wait, why are you interested in boardgames for the iphone? Isn't it the same as playing them on the PC which you'd sworn off or something?

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

No lah, I didn't really swear off playing computer versions of boardgames. It's just that some AI's of such computer versions play in such a formulaic way that they take away my joy of playing such boardgames.

I recently played the AI version of Blue Moon again, which I still find quite challenging - I lose more than I win. Surprisingly it doesn't sour the game for me. I can't quite figure out the AI. It even taught me some tricks.

Truth said...

Thanks for the review!

Ed said...

Hi Hiew,

I appreciate your tremendous contribution into the field of the board gaming by your blog.

I’m in business of strategic board games myself (see and I'm also on linkedin. We may have something to chat about interested mutually.

Ilya Shindyalov

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Thank you Ilya, and best of luck with your boardgame venture.

Ed said...

Chok Sien, thanks,

I'd like to send you a copy of ColorMonsters as a gift, no strings attached...if you provide an address where to send it.


Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Hi Ilya, I live in Malaysia. You can send me a private message from, my username is hecose.

djang said...

Great! Summoner Wars in Asia. Where did you purchase it?

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...


i think han bought it from overseas. not 100% sure.

you can try contacting (online retailer in malaysia) to see whether they will be stocking this game. i think they have one batch of games already arrived in KL and is going through customs. not sure whether summoner wars is in there though.

djang said...

Thanks Hiew for the info. I like to introduce this game with my friends who where magic and d&d miniature players. Since ddm died, we never get to play again. I believe it will click them as it clicked me. It gives me the same itch with ddm. I'm wishing my LGS(Philippines), will have it.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

i used to visit manila on business trips in 2007, and often visited hobbes & landes at greenbelt shopping mall, makati. their games are a bit pricey though. hope you'll be able to find a copy of summoner wars and your friends will like it.

djang said...

Yep, I visit whenever I drop by greenbelt. can't resist. True, they are pricey especially boardgames. Is that the same case in your country? I liked this game much but with the SRP $24.95... I am expecting the price here might go around $30-35. That's so expensive for a card game. But i am hoping the price will be less or equal to the SRP for my friends and others to enjoy this game. ;)

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

In Malaysia the retail prices of boardgames tend to be high too for the average consumer. They are slightly cheaper than the prices that I saw at Greenbelt though. I used to directly order from USA / Canada quite frequently, but in the past year or so customs have been quite strict and my games have been taxed heavily. So nowadays if a local retailer has a game I want, I will try to buy locally. It's about the same price as if I get taxed, less the trouble of going to customs.

djang said...

I don't get it why they charged so heavily on those things. Boardgames are so expensive in Asia compared to US. Sigh! Life sucks. By the way, which sites do you recommend in US and Canada? I have my folks there.. Thanks again.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

for usa, is quite good. i bought from them many times, up till when u.s. postal service stopped surface mail. i have bought from boards & bits and boulder games too. they are also pretty alright. as for canada i prefer (something like that, don't remember exact URL).