When I was a teenager everyone at my school was into Oasis, I wasn’t I was into Metallica. This may seem to be an odd way to start a review but this how I feel about Summoner Wars, because everyone seems to rave about how good Summoner Wars is, and I really can’t stand the game.
On paper Summoner Wars sounds like my kind of game, you take a deck of cards to represent your faction of fantasy creatures and then play out combat over a strategic grid. The aim of the game is to kill the opposing summoner and you do this by summoning units to the battlefield, casting spells and careful manoeuvring. In short, Summoner Wars is a cross between Magic the Gathering and Warmachine, which sounds awesome.
Unfortunately I really don’t like Summoner Wars, I’ve tried but the whole thing just leaves me cold, so let’s see if we can work out why.
Let’s start with summoning. In order to summon units to the battlefield you’re going to need magic, there are two ways you can fuel magic; by discarding cards from your hand or by killing opposing units. The first method is possibly my favourite part of the game because it forces you to make some difficult decisions.
There’s no way you’re going to have enough cards to play every single card in your deck, in fact you’ll be lucky to use half of the cards. Choosing which cards to keep and which cards to discard becomes an agonising choice. Do you keep hold of that extra tough champion unit in the hope that you can build enough magic, or do you want to flood the battlefield with cheap troops, which you can play now? No matter which choice you make you’ll feel like you’ve made the wrong one, which is the hallmark of a meaningful decision.
The second manner of obtaining magic is by killing your opponent and this is where the cracks in the game start to appear. Kill a shed load of opposing units and not only have you eliminated the threat and put your opponent behind but now you also have enough magic to summon something nasty. It can lead to a horrible snowball effect where the leader now has more resources in order to bring out even more units, which in turn kill more enemies creating more magic.
Which leads us to the game’s biggest flaw; combat. To attack you simply roll a number of six sided dice equal to a unit’s attack value and every result of 3 or above is a hit, causing one wound. It’s painfully simple and I think that’s where the problem lies. Many of the units have an attack value of one, so you’re rolling a single dice and no matter how much the logical side of your brain understands odds and probability, rolling a single dice and failing always feels like you’re being cheated.
Many games use simple attack dice and even give worse odds (for example, in X-Wing you only have a 50/50 chance of scoring a hit), but these games often add a layer of influence or have you rolling at least a few dice. In X-Wing you’re modifying by range, or utilising a target lock for a re-roll. In Warmachine, you’re comparing stats, adjusting for cover or spell effects. In Summoner Wars you’re rolling a dice or two and hoping that the dreaded 1 or 2 doesn’t turn up. There’s no tactical skill involved which makes it boring.
If Summoner Wars had used just one concept of luck then it wouldn’t have been so bad but there are games where you’ll feel let down by your dice and your deck. Drawing the wrong card for the situation and then rolling 1s and 2s can completely ruin the game, and when it happens to your opponent it feels like you’ve won in some underhanded way, there isn’t anything in the victory to savour, you haven’t outmanoeuvred or outsmarted you opponent, you’ve just been lucky.
Are there any redeeming features of Summoner Wars? Well the great thing about Summoner Wars is the digital version of the game available for smart phones and tablets and although it’s exactly the same game there is something much more playable, and much more enjoyable, about the digital version. It could be because it runs quicker, it could be because I’m not rolling the dice I don’t feel as directly involved in the bad luck of the roll, but the way it plays so smoothly makes it a fun diversion, it’s still not the best digital card game out there (I’d rather be playing Ascension or Hearthstone) but it’s a solid conversion and offers more enjoyment than the table top game.
I thought Summoner Wars would be the game for me but I find it boring. I never feel that my actions are what results in a win or a loss, I’m merely playing the cards I have available and hoping for lucky dice rolls and that’s not enough to keep me interested. It’s lacking in the layers of strategy that are needed to make you feel in full control and subsequently leads to a feeling of detachment from the game and I believe it’s this detachment that mean that Summoner Wars is not for me.