Saturday, December 15, 2012
Summoner Wars Reviewed
Summoner Wars'. I bought the board game a couple of years ago and was intrigued by its similarities with my old Chaos board game. In Summoner Wars you have a main character, a Summoner, who is the equivalent of a Chaos wizard. All characters and creatures are represented by cards which are placed on a grid of rectangles, just as in my game. There are no spells as such in Summoner Wars, but there are 'event' cards, many of which have magical spell-like effects. The main emphasis of the game is in summoning creatures and moving them on the board to attack and kill the opposing Summoner.
It’s fun, fast moving, two player game with some nice touches. A big feature of the game is the faction decks, which are nicely designed. You play a particular faction which has its own unique set of cards, giving each faction unique characteristics. They aren’t based on purely conventional fantasy cliches either. For example, the ‘Phoenix Elves’ are adept with fire and ‘Tundra Orcs’ can create ice walls. There are eight factions available, plus mercenaries which can be used in other faction decks. Furthermore, there is a bit of a deck building meta-game involved. The interface for doing this in the iOS game is a bit of a disaster, but it does allow you to configure and save multiple decks for each faction.
The game mechanics are simple and relatively straightforward. Every character has a summoning cost, an attack value and life points, angd some have ranged combat ability. They all obey the same basic rules of movement and combat. However, every card has a special ability which modifies the basic rules in some way. For example the Cave Goblin Beserker can attack all adjacent enemy characters, or the Phoenix Elf Guardian has the ‘precise’ ability, which automatically inflicts a wound without rolling the dice.
The iOS version of the game is a very faithful rendition of the boardgame. It uses all the card art from the board game, and the dice rolls are presented with the relevant ‘faction dice’. It is definitely well done, but there are problems with this approach. Even playing on my iPad 3 I couldn’t distinguish the different event cards in my hand. They all have the same graphic - a problem with the physical game - and you can’t quite read the text without tapping on a card to zoom it. They action is presented with a few visual and audio effects, which overall feels a bit lifeless.
There are two basic modes for playing the game - single player and multiplayer online. The single player game against the AI is good for learning the game and the different factions, but the AI just isn’t good enough to present an interesting challenge. It is the multiplayer aspect of the game which is the real deal. However, it is a very pared down, bare bones experience. When you set up a game you can choose your faction deck and the game time limit (which I think is the time you get for your turn, I am not sure). This time limit ranges from 15 minutes to 14 days. This provides the usual asynchronous game play, but the 15 minute game would seem to imply a quick player ‘live’ game. However, I have never managed to play a 15 minute game. It seems that the game starts some time when I am offline and I run out of time, forfeiting the game. There is no indication whether another player is actually online or not, so this short game option seems broken.
The game is still good, for sure, but I think it is a wasted opportunity. More could have been made of the single player game by adding some kind of metagame that gives continuity and progress from one battle to the next. With the online game there is no attempt to promote a social community around the game. You can’t communicate with your opponent, there are no competitions or tournaments, no link to a forum to discuss with other players (despite the fact that Plaid Hat has a very good website for Summoner Wars with an active forum). It is actually a bit sterile compared to the board game where you have a physically present, live human being to taunt and spar with. With Chaos Reborn I do not intend to make this mistake, and I will develop as much community infrastructure as I reasonably can. I learned this the hard way with Laser Squad Nemesis - your player community is your best asset, but don’t underestimate the importance of building the infrastructure as the community grows and develops its own direction.
I would be interested to hear what other Chaos gamers think of Summoner Wars, so if you can, try it out - its free to play with the Phoenix Elves faction.