Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Game Review: Summoner Wars Master Set

This review was written nearly two years ago. At the time, I'd played the game 32 times. As of today, I've played 163 games of Summoner Wars - thanks in part to the iOS app. The original boxes have since been reprinted (with substantially better art) and there are not only 16 factions (each with their own reinforcement pack) but Second Summoner decks for some of the factions have been published. And I stand behind my review - this is one awesome game.

Part the First: In Which Your Humble Reviewer Attempts To Convince You To Read The Rest of This Review

Tom Vasel called Summoner Wars “absolutely fantastic” and ”one of the best games of 2009“. (Of course, he’s also admitted publicly that he likes the endgame mechanic from Killer Bunnies & the Quest for the Magic Carrot, so you might want to reconsider listening to him.)

Magic Carrot aside, Tom’s right. And chances are pretty good you didn’t actually hear of this game until 2010… or really see it make a splash until 2011 – which doesn’t change the fact that it’s a brilliant game system that you should try… even if you’re not normally a fantasy battle type of gamer.

Part the Second: Wherein The Aforementioned Deferential & Demure Reviewer Gives Three Brief Yet Thoughtful Overviews of the Game

Short version:
Kill or be killed with cards & dice

Shorter version:
a fantasy battle board game that involves positional board play, deck & hand management, and dice combat

More detail for the anal among us:
Erik Arneson (akapoliticalguy) did a great job summarizing the rules & game play in a previous Opinionated Gamers review… you should read that. (Yes, you have my permission to go & do that right now… just make sure you come back here when you’re finished or I’ll have to send The Eater to fetch you.)

Part the Third: Listen, Gentle Reader, To This Grandiloquent Description of the Box And The Contents Therein

Here’s the part where I honestly admit why I didn’t pick up a starter set of Summoner Wars back until the last few days of 2010:
  • I finally had some extra gaming cash, thanks to the Christmas generosity of relatives & friends.
  • I really, really disliked the box art on the original two starter set boxes.
Yes, yes, I know the old adages…
  • “don’t judge a book by it’s cover”
  • “don’t judge a game by the box art”
  • “don’t judge a movie by the appearance of Rob Schneider in the cast” (well, this one may actually have some merit)
…and yet I chose to ignore them and missed out on 12 months of gaming goodness.

Thankfully, you do not have to make my mistake… because the folks at Plaid Hat Games did a wonderful job on the box art for the Summoner Wars Master Set.

And my praise of the box extends to the box insert – there is room not only for the six faction decks included in the box but also slots for four more decks. And, if you’re willing to stack two decks together, there’s plenty of room for all of the current Summoner Wars decks in the box – even with card sleeves! (Could this review BE any more geekified? Box insert love?!)

Also included are (of course) the necessary dice & counters to play the game… and a nice two-piece high quality board.

Oh, yeah, there’s some cards in there, too.

Part the Fourth: In Which I Describe the Factions of Ithria Imprisoned Within These Walls of Cardboard & Plastic

The Summoner Wars Master Set comes with six 34 card decks – one for each of six factions of the world of Ithria who are all fighting each other using the power of the Summoning Stones:
  • the Shadow Elves – they use speed & stealth to defeat stronger opponents
  • the Benders – a faction that focuses on manipulating the opponent’s actions & choices… I like to think of them as the Judo faction – using an opponent’s strength & momentum against them
  • the Mountain Vargath – these goat-men are brutes – in their case, a good offense is the best offense
  • the Sand Goblins – snaky little beasts who hard to pin down & hard to kill
  • the Swamp Orcs – for the first time, a faction that has extra cards (fifteen Vine Walls) that clutter the battlefield for your opponent
  • the Deep Dwarves – manipulators of magic – working their Event cards carefully is vital in order to win
And while I’ve previously griped about the box cover art of the earlier sets, I’ve always liked the card art in the Summoner Wars universe. The Master Set is no exception – thanks to excellent art choices, it’s easy to figure out which card is which, even upside down (which is the way you see your opponent’s forces).

As well, the graphic design of the cards is top-notch. You can see at a glance whether a unit is ranged, how many dice it uses for attacks & how many hit points it has. Part of my love for this game system is due to the user-friendly nature of the rules & of the card design.

Part the Fifth: Where, Accordingly, This Review Switches Focus From Broad Generalities To Laser-like Specifics

Any review of a boxed set of a previously released game needs to answer the “why should I get this if I already own the starter sets?” question. The answer is simple: because it offers six new decks that don’t feel like minor tweaks on old factions… and if you liked the game already, more is better. (I so badly want to add a “no duh” to that last sentence, but realize that doing so would date me even more than my admission that I have Rick Wakeman’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” album on my Christmas list.)

It’s possible, of course, that some of you have managed to read this far without ever having played Summoner Wars… and are wondering if the Master Set is a good place for you to jump in. I think it is. The MSRP of the Summoner Wars Master Set is $49.95, while the individual expansion decks are $9.95 each & the mounted board was $14.95. Using the magical powers of rounding & approximation, that means you’re paying fifty bucks retail for seventy-five bucks worth of prime gaming material.

I will say that some of the factions in the Master Set (particularly the Benders & the Sand Goblins) are a bit tougher to get the hang of playing well, while the Mountain Vargath & the Swamp Orcs are much easier to lead to victory. (Your mileage may vary.) Over time, however, you’ll find that Colby Dauch & the Plaid Hat playtesters have done an amazing job of balancing the factions so that experienced players can have great battles on pretty level playing fields.

Finally, you may wonder why I haven’t suggested picking up one of the starter sets… well, that’s because they’re currently sold out at the publisher level & are due to be reprinted soon (with nicer box art!)

Part the Sixth: I Conclude By Heartily Recommending the Purchase of the Master Set

What the subtitle guy said.

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