Review Love letter: Summoner Wars

No, Senji Kanai’s classic microgame classic does not have yet another retheme. This is an actual love letter, from me, to Summoner Wars. Its second edition is coming up soon, and when the pre-order was announced earlier this week it spurred in me an urge to let out all the fondness I have for this game that left me writing non-stop for several hours. I’d hoped it would end up looking like a review, but the resulting 5-part, 3500+ word monstrosity says otherwise. I didn’t set out to yeet all the reviewing conventions for my second piece, but here we are, and hopefully I do at least manage to convey why this near 12 year old card game has left such a long-lasting impression on me. 

Part 1. When is Summoner Wars?

First, story-time. My relationship with Summoner Wars dates back to 2012. The game was 3 years old, I was fresh out of Norwegian high school, and I was going to stay at a folk high school for a year, practicing my saxophone skills and thinking I might go pro one day (spoiler: I did not). I had just started really getting into board gaming and was watching Shut Up & Sit Down religiously. This was back when their videos were still 35-40 minutes long sketch-fests hosted on Vimeo, and in their third episode, after talking about The Resistance and Power Grid in bad lighting and worse (but very charming) costumes, they reviewed Summoner Wars. They didn’t even get the audio right, so the whole scene was dubbed, but the enthusiasm got through anyway. The game looked like something that might finally fill the card dueler shaped hole Magic the Gathering left behind.

My first factions and old dice. Official paper playmat just for illustration, mine was way uglier.

So I knew I had to get my hands on the game, but that was harder than anticipated. For one, the game just didn’t exist in Norway, period. Secondly, even when scouring the depths of various American web stores, all I could find were expansions, single faction decks, no starters, no boards, nothing. I ordered the ones I could find anyway, four to be exact, and a few weeks later they arrived in the post bucket outside our canteen. I printed out six pages of A4, which I cut and taped together to form a board. Then, grabbing my box of d6s from my Magic the Gathering-days, I was ready to roll.

Folk high school is a very strange place. It’s an isolated bubble. Almost everything you do for roughly a year happens with a subset of the same 70-80 people in the same 4-5 buildings, which makes it the perfect environment for digging hilariously deep into games and sports. We had 3 weeks where everyone was into ping-pong, a month where none of my friends wanted to do anything other than play The Resistance, and then, when my flimsy paper “board” was fully assembled, came the age of Summoner Wars. This is the kind of intense play conditions that will uncover any weakness very, very quickly. Essentially, if a game doesn’t have staying power, you’ll know.

Luckily, Summoner Wars did have staying power. So much so that after a few weeks and a couple dozens of plays with just those four decks, we decided to “repurpose” a bookshelf into a second board, carving spaces into it with a pen. We were still so eager to play that we didn’t want to keep waiting in line for the board to be free. After a while, the Summoner Wars Master set arrived here in the North, and I could finally get a few more decks and an, get this, ACTUAL BOARD! Tokens! Six more factions! I was thrilled, and so was everyone else, and I don’t think we ever stopped playing Summoner Wars until spring came and we had to travel back home.

Summoner Wars boards through the ages.
Left to right: Original paper mat, Master set board, Alliance neoprene mat.



Part 2. What is Summoner Wars?

[Important note: All this is describing the first edition. Anything and everything might have changed for the new incarnation. I’m gonna guess the core stays the same though, so I’ll just steam ahead like it’s nobody’s business.]

Summoner Wars is a two-player card game designed by Colby Dauch and published by Plaid Hat Games (owned, again as of 2020, by Colby Dauch). Before you start playing you will choose one of the 40 different decks from the game’s 16 different factions. You will then grab your titular summoner and place them with a few specific units and a wall down onto your half of the 6×8 grid in front of you, shuffle the rest of your cards and then you’re ready to play.

All set up.

The actual play is like a mix between chess and Magic the Gathering, with some fun dice combat and the resource management from Race for the Galaxy (if all this doesn’t excite you, I’m not sure we can be friends). Your goal is simple: Murderize the opposing summoner. Every turn will begin with you drawing up to a full hand of five cards. You will then, if you got enough cards in your magic pile, summon one or more units onto the board next to Wall-cards that essentially act as summoning portals. How do you get cards in your magic pile? Put a pin in that, I’ll get back to it. Afterwards, you can play some special one-off spell cards, including placing more walls on your half of the board.

Handy turn summary.

When you are done playing units and spells, you can first move up to 3 units up to two spaces each, and then you can make attacks with up to 3 units. Attacking is as simple as rolling as many dice as your attack value and dealing wounds for every result of 3+. Sword/melee units can only attack adjacent cards, while bow/range units can attack from up to 3 spaces away in a straight line. Deal enough wounds to a unit and it travels off the board and into your magic pile. Unless it’s the opposing summoner of course, because then you’ll have won, though nothing stops you from gently flipping it down into your magic pile to humiliate your rival.

Now your turn is nearly over, but first you have the chance to take as many cards from the ones remaining in your hand and throw them down into your magic pile. This is how you will fuel most of your game, and it is one of the juiciest sources of tension in the game. Every card you want to play means that multiple other cards will have to be discarded, and since there’s usually no way of getting them back, that means every card play is a trade-off between multiple awesome things. Even more painful is that if you don’t discard a card because you want to play it later, that card is taking up valuable real-estate in your hand, forcing you to draw less cards every turn. But if you burn through your deck too quickly, you might find yourself in an end-game with lots of resources, but nowhere to spend them.

Bad cards get yeeted to the magic pile.

The other magnificent source of tension comes from the fact that all units are not born equal. One, you have three champions in your deck, powerful and expensive units that will probably take you a couple of turns to save up magic for. Because you only get 3 attacks every turn, if those are with champions rather than common units you are having a good time. Or are you? Because if your opponent can swarm them with a few commons and dispose of them quickly, suddenly you’re just down a whole bunch of resources and probably have a significantly worse board presence than your opposition. This applies two-fold for your summoner, which is usually among the most powerful units in your army. When do you push these power-houses forward, how do you protect them, when do you pull back? That, my friends, is playing Summoner Wars.

And also, just in case you didn’t catch it: I have now taught you essentially all the rules. This game is incredibly accessible. Grab a deck, place some cards, shuffle, 5-10 minutes rules explanation and you are off to the races. It might take you a round or two to get used to the ordering of when you summon and when you play events, but other than that this game is silky smooth. Since I got the game almost 9 years ago, I have probably looked at the rulebook literally once or twice to learn it, and then a couple of times looked at the online FAQ in the case of weird card interactions.

ALL THE DECKS!

But wait! I haven’t even gotten into the factions yet! Do you remember I said there are 16 factions? Each has two decks and an alliance deck with another faction, for a total of 40(!) different decks to toy around with! While all will deal with the same core decision points, to what degree and how will vary wildly between all of these, even within the same faction. There’s obviously not time, nor space, nor the interest (I think, but do let us know otherwise) to go through all the different factions, but I will give you the high-lights from my favorites.

Part 3. Who is Summoner Wars?

Vlox and his band of merry rogues.


The Cloaks

The Cloaks is my all time favorite faction. They are among the first ones I got, and they are all about tricksy positioning and fun combos. Best exemplified by their summoner, Vlox, who can copy the ability of any unit you have on the board. Copy the Scrapper, who calls in buddies every time they attack, and suddenly you can launch a canon of tiny annoying units around your enemy from afar. Heck, if you feel daring, you can use this to launch your summoner straight into battle by attacking with another unit first. Copy your backstabbing champion afterwards, and suddenly your gambit might pay off in some serious damage to the enemy. Maybe copy your Thief in the end, and you can teleport Vlox to safety, to your opponents endless frustration. A faction for those who like to play with fire, and also with card effects, and also with flammable card effects.

The goat gang.

Mountain Vargath

If you think layers of tricky card effects are a bit tedious, might I tempt you with WAR GOATS! This straightforward faction is all about keeping formation. The summoner, Sunderved, adds an attack bonus to all common units within two spaces of him, so if you want to maximize the carnage, you’ll have to methodically push your whole army forward, with your summoner following every step of the way. Luckily, Sunderved has more HP than most, so even if the line breaks and he has to fight a couple of enemies one-on-one, he can stick his ground for a while. Speaking from experience though: Don’t send Sunderved alone into the face of your opponent. You’ll get swarmed and brutally murdered. On the up-side, the game will be over very quickly.

So I heard you like dice.

Tundra Orcs

Chaos! CHAOS! The Tundra Orcs’ central philosophy is that dice are fun and more dice are always better dice. One of their common units, the Fighter, can continue moving and attacking as many times as they like as long as they roll 5s or 6s, meaning you could theoretically win turn 1 if the odds were in your favor. One of their heavy hitter champions simply has 5 attack, way more than they have any right to, but at the cost of only scoring hits on 4+ rather than 3+, sacrificing consistency for power. They also have twice as many walls in their deck than other factions, so they can be played defensively by walling off sections, but also have great flexibility in where they summon. Add the summoner’s ability that might damage all enemies next to your walls, and you’ve got a faction of pure chaotic evil fun.

Beefy goblins.

Sand Goblins

Summoner Wars is in many ways the card game equivalent of a sliding tile puzzle, and nothing makes that clearer than the Sand Goblins. Their summoner, Krusk, has the ability to conjure up a sandstorm. This means they can choose three units nearby and, one by one, move them a single space. Bonus, it might also deal damage to each! This might not sound like much, but so much of Summoner Wars is blocking off spaces by moving your units tactically, and with Krusk basically having the ability to, at a cost, ignore that makes them a lot of fun to play. They also generally have surprisingly beefy and cheap units, so they are quite straight-forward to play without always needing too much planning. Basically, if you like the sound of The Cloaks, but want something a smidge friendlier, Sand Goblins is your faction. 

Tag yourself. I’m Tentacle mutant.

The Filth

Not one of my favorites, but just to illustrate that the designers definitely know how to get funky, there is The Filth. Unlike the other factions, The Filth doesn’t really have champions. What they have instead is a boat-load of free common units that are all TERRIBLE and a suite of 8 unique mutations. These mutations function a bit like champions, but they are not summoned by themselves, but on top of other units you have on the board. Essentially you are playing with an unstable swiss army knife of a deck, that can technically do anything anywhere, with exploding mutans showing up behind enemy lines or an edible mutant arriving next to and healing your key unit. They are weird. I should like them more than I do, but they are maybe a few steps too removed from the core loop I love so much. Would still happily play, if only for the wonderfully gross artwork.

Ghosty bois! Ghosty bois! Ghosty bois!

Fallen Kingdom

Just to end this faction tour on a high note, there is the ghost faction, the Fallen Kingdom. Statistically the weakest faction, it is still in my personal top 5. This gang is, appropriately, all about feasting on death and getting stuff back from the grave. The star of the show is the summoner Ret-Talus, who can get units back from your discards, which is just a funny mechanic to play around with. Often, you’ll be cornered, and then summon a whole pile of tanky undeads around you, walling you off and buying you time, sure, but also getting you a nice counter-offense, and, most importantly, annoying the crap out of your opponent. There are also Reapers, that grow stronger each time they kill, that you will probably want to murder yourself when they grow too powerful, and a huge demon champion Elut-Bal who you can summon for free…if you sacrifice all your common units first. Statistics might tell you that these ghosty bois are weak, but I am telling you that these ghosty bois are a cool tactical challenge and also all look like they play in a metal band so that’s something. 

Part 4. Why is Summoner Wars?

Now, it is not like Summoner Wars does not have any flaws. For one, the card management and the power of the champions means that if you draw two or three champions early in the game, you will have a hard time. Either you will have to sacrifice one of your most powerful cards or you’ll have to be content with playing very defensively until you can fatten up your magic pile with the 2-3 cards you draw each turn, neither of which feels awesome. Also, the game has dice, and you roll them, a lot. Summoner Wars is very much a game of hedging your bets, having back-up plans for your back-up plans should your rolls fail, but sometimes you will get unlucky a few too many times in a row and that might suck. If I’m being honest though? Neither of these things ever bother me. Usually they don’t manifest in a significant way, and if they do, the game is quick enough that I am happy to just re-shuffle and play again.

Also, the game has a deck-building system, but it isn’t hugely satisfying. After you choose one of the 40 summoners, you can choose to switch out any common units and champions that start in your deck with other ones from the same faction or from the factionless mercenary cards. The upside is that it is reasonably quick, you can probably make a deck and play and still be done in an hour, but the downside is that it just doesn’t add much. There’s less sense of a cohesive personality to the resulting decks, and it means if you play multiple games back to back, you’ll have to do some slightly tedious sorting. However, if you, after 100+ plays start getting a bit tired of the decks that are available, maybe it’ll rejuvenate the game for you, I don’t know. All in all, it doesn’t take anything away from the game, but I wouldn’t try to sell you on deck construction being a core part either.

Looking sexy and culturaly appropriative on the battlefield.

There is also the artwork. Even now, I actually think most of the art is pretty cool. John Ariosa, who did most of the artwork for the old edition, had a style that made everything look just a bit mystical, a lot of glowing eyes and hazy contours. However, while creative, the old art still sits squarely in the old-school fantasy camp of being very dude-heavy and with ladies looking quite dainty. There is also the case of the Jungle Elves, whose artwork is a weird blend of somewhat generic African and Native American imagery, which is also not great. And there is not really any people of color anywhere except one deck of the Bender faction and arguably the jungle faction. These issues were not and are not unique to Summoner Wars, but it is important nonetheless. On the bright side, this discussion will serve nicely as a segue to the one point of comparison I’m going to make with the new edition, because take a look at this!

HECK YEAH!

Every time I look at this picture I need to actively suppress my urge to scream in pure hype-joy. I have been following the Instagram of the new artist, Martin Abel, for a while and as far as I can see, everything points to the new edition of Summoner Wars to be both wonderfully diverse, bright and colorful, basically everything you want in this kind of accessible battle game in 2021. Martin is the same artist that did the art for a Plaid Hat release from a few years ago called Crystal Clans, so check that out if you want to see more images in this style. Whether the new art is respectful of the cultural imagery it borrows I do not know. The comments I have seen from Plaid Hat seem to indicate yes, with callouts for consultants from the cultures in question. I belong to none of these cultures though, so their success is not for me to decide, but as for now, Plaid Hat has my trust, and I am very excited to see more of this gorgeous art as the game nears release.

Part 5: Where is Summoner Wars?

A couple of years ago I got back in touch with an old friend from folk high school. He still vividly remembered the fun games from what was then 5-6 years ago, so I pulled the game down from the shelf again, we shuffled up a couple old favorite factions and played a game, and then we played another one, and another, and another. In some ways, it felt nostalgic, but in others, it just felt like this amazing, comforting, tactical game that might as well have been released today. When I looked around and saw the game was out of print, I immediately bought every faction I didn’t already have, which meant I spent roughly $300 from three or four different online retailers. Every time me and my friend meet up now, we try to make time for at least one or two games of Summoner Wars. We have played it around 30 times now, and still haven’t managed to get through all the factions (the old ones are just so freaking fun!), and now we might not be able to before the new edition arrives.

I have had several dueling card games come and go from my collection before and after I first got Summoner Wars. First there was Duel Masters (wow, that’s a throwback), then there was Magic the Gathering, Netrunner lured me in for a while, I dabbled in Magic again, and most recently Keyforge was my two-player crush of choice. And while I have half a mind of playing more Keyforge, as it is an excellent game, one of the only two-player games, heck, board games in general, I have continually come back multiple times over and I’m still itching to play is Summoner Wars. 

This has been a rambly piece, but in conclusion: I absolutely love this game. I don’t think it will ever leave my collection. As my shelves have filled and I’ve run out of space, no game has been safe from the threat of a sale or a trade, not even Summoner Wars. But every time I think it might be too old, maybe a little stale, even a single play has reminded me that it has permanent residence. It’s got tenure now. Unless I take it to court for gross misconduct, Summoner Wars will live on my shelf forever.

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