Board Game Mega-Review: Summoner Wars Part 2—All the Rest
Alright, so I last wrote about Summoner Wars nearly a year ago. Please check it out if you haven’t already, as this review is the spiritual successor to the first. This is different than other reviews we’ve had on GFBR, though. Since we’ve already covered the basics of the game in the past review, I’ll be essentially reviewing the 8 or more tangible products that have been released since. The starter sets get you off to a great start (my last review gave the Tundra Orcs vs. Phoenix Elves set a 3.5/5 due to replayability), but the minute you start adding in the additional factions, it really does become one of the best games available. The rest of this review is designed to reveal why.
Without further ado, let’s get started!
What the… ? Why is the overall review section first?!?
I wanted to get this out of the way first while I still have your attention (this is quite a long article).
If you like tactical card games, this is the one for you. It’s a quick game of back and forth tactics with one goal: eliminating the enemy summoner. How each faction does this is entirely different. Each faction feels very different; from different mechanics (such as the Filth and Swamp Orcs) to radically different playstyles (such as the Benders, Vanguard and Cloaks). This sets up incredible unique matchups where you will have to attack or counterattack different styles each time.
Perhaps one of the greatest signs that this has become one of my favorite, would-play-this-in-a-heartbeat games is how I’ve customized it. I’ve replaced the small wound tokens from the game with Penny-Gem wound markers, and replaced the original dice with special SW Faction dice. I have both a travel mode (with a starter set and paper board), and a full mode, with reinforcement decks and a full board (though I’m still looking for a proper way to transport this). Do you do this sort of thing to the games you love?
While it’s not for everyone, (you do have to like competitive, tactical games to enjoy it), it is the best in its class. It plays very quickly (typically around 45 minutes or so once you’re used to the rules), and there’s very little downtime. The game can feel swingy at times as some turns, especially at the start of the game, you’ll have frequent clashes which result in huge changes in the units on the board. There’s also a luck element to the game that can sometimes make you feel like king of the world, or having your worst game. It’s all part of the game but luck does slowly factor out over time, and strategy will take over.
With so many unique and diverse factions, you’d think there would be some faction that consistently dominates, and yet, with the test of time, the game has remained relatively balanced. I say relatively because I’ve seen some data that shows some particular matchups showing win/loss percentages of at most 60/40.
Alright, so now that we’ve sufficiently talked up Summoner, Wars and why you should be racing out to pick it up; let’s talk about all the various Summoner Wars products in detail.
Tundra Orcs Vs. Phoenix Elves Starter set
This was previously covered in my last review, but let’s discuss the two factions.
The Tundra Orcs (TO) play as a beefy, tanky faction with their basic commons being tough to kill. Their main event cards can freeze the opponent in-place, and an extremely strong summoner make them a fearsome faction. They’re one of the best factions to give a friend when starting out since they are much simpler to play, and will give the opponent the feeling that they’re playing the game as an army of big scary ogres.
The Phoenix Elves (PE) play as a precise faction. Oddly enough, their summoner is one of the weakest in the game, and very brittle. Their main theme is centered around very tactical hit and run attacks. They have event cards and units that do not need to roll dice to deal damage (i.e. precision), which makes them shifts luck entirely in their favor. I don’t generally give the PE as a starting race to friends as they’ll usually fall prey to the weak summoner and a small rush against him can end the game quickly.
All in all, this is an excellent starter set and a good way to get on-board with the game. It retails for about $25 USD.
Cave Goblins Vs. Guild Dwarves Starter Set
The second of the two of the two initial releases for Summoner Wars, the Cave Goblins vs. Guild Dwarves set includes all the components one needs to play the game: a paper board, wound markers, dice, and two complete factions. Also retailing for $25 USD, the only downside to this set is that you’ll now own two paper boards, two sets of dice, and two sets of wound markers (if you own the previous starter set). This is still a great buy, though, as these two factions are extremely awesome, and come with a new set of strategies.
First up, the ultra swarmy Cave Goblins (CG). These guys have two zero cost commons, each with somewhat weak abilities. This allows you to summon quite a few of them on the board at effectively no cost. What makes this army ultra painful are the CG event cards. These cards affect all zero cost commons, and give them amazing abilities like extra movement, a swarm attack (if you gang-up on one unit), or a double attack. When you throw a few of these down, the cave goblins can close rank quickly and mob the opponent. Their one huge downside is that they are all quite weak individually. The swarm of goblins can be taken down quickly and give your opponent a sizable magic boost. Definitely a fun race to try out for their swarmy-ness.
The Guild Dwarves (GD) pose a very different type of strategy, namely, they are incredibly defensive. Their summoner is tough to hit, their champions are incredibly tanky, and their commons can stop opponents dead in their tracks. They are a great faction to hand to your friends for their first run as their basic strategy of “sit back, and summon big champions” is extremely effective. Now, they’re not unbeatable or anything, but they are definitely a very defensive faction. Another alternate strategy for them is based around wall destruction, but their other strategy is so effective, I recommend playing defensively for all new players.
Overall, this starter set is another great addition to your library as it really starts to add some unique strategies into the game.
The Faction Decks
Each of the below factions is sold separately in a small box just for their faction. Each is available for about $10 USD. The nice thing about these separate factions is that you can pick and choose which ones you’d like to get. They all have very different playstyles and are fun to mix into your Summoner Wars collection. I do recommend all of these products, but I also recommend starting with the ones that really fit your playstyle.
The first human faction is the Vanguards (VG), an ultra defensive and healing driven faction. Their summoner, events, and a common can offer the ability to remove wounds from other units. They have knights which can tank and absorb wounds, and a champion that wants to get hit in order to power up. This is a hard faction to weaken, and they treat most matches like a war of attrition. Quite frequently, I’ll have games where I’m out of a deck and left with a few units on the field, yet the VG can consistently heal their units to full strength, usually resulting in my defeat. Their major weakness however, is their weakness. Very few of their units can offer up much in the way of attacking so they can fall prey to a well coordinated attack. Only their champions offer much in the way of solid attacking and even then, it’s not all of them. This is a great faction to pick up once you’re familiar with the game and want to try a different playstyle.
Next up, The Cloaks (CL) which is another human faction based around pure trickery. This is a faction I’m terrible with, and it’s definitely not for beginners (as I thought when I purchased them). Their entire mechanic is around stealth, combos, and trickery. They can steal magic, assassinate units outright, and gang up on attacks. Their summoner can take on the abilities of any other Cloak unit, making him one of the most versatile summoners around. While I’ve never quite been able to use these effectively, if you’re up for a very challenging faction, Cloaks are definitely for you. They’re not my favorite personally, but I also hate playing against a good Cloaks player.
The Jungle Elves (JE) are fast and speedy faction. Their main mechanic is around fast, swarmy units, but their units are a bit stronger than the ultra-swarmy Cave Goblins. This leads to them being a bit trickier to play as they do need as much magic as they can get to summon their units out. Their common units are quick and can move en masse to rush the enemy summoner. I’ve found that Jungle Elves are typically starved for magic and cannot build both commons and champions at the same time. They’re a fun faction to play though but a bit more complicated than the starter factions.
The dreaded Fallen Kingdom (FK) are all about resurrecting fallen units back to life, and sacrificing them from play for fun and profit. The fallen Kingdom can quickly summon a champion at the cost of common units on the field and quickly raise the common dead with their summoner. They are very tricky to play as overall their units do not have a lot of attack power. They’re a faction that’s tricky to balance magic-wise, and can get caught off guard by some of the quicker factions.
More recently released, The Filth (FI) is one of the most unique factions to enter the game. They are different from every existing faction in that they have only two types of common units, and a new type called Mutations which can only be played on top of an existing common (or another mutation). They can be ridiculously versatile, and have led to some of my favorite games (both with and against them). Their common units are weak and cheap, but their mutations are big and expensive. They are a very fun and challenging faction to play as. Once you think you’ve mastered a few different factions, definitely give these guys a try.
The last of the standalone faction packs, Mercenaries, are an interesting bunch. Mercenaries, in general, are used to supplement other decks via the reinforcement packs and deckbuilding. However, with this last faction pack, the mercenaries received their own summoner and can thus create an army of mercenaries! Their central mechanic is around wall and battlefield control, and they can be a bit of a challenge to play. While not my favorite deck, I realize that they’re going to be really fun to deckbuild with as they have the widest variety of units that can be included in their deck. As a standalone faction, they’re good but not my go-to choice most of the time. Time will tell though as I get further into deckbuilding.
Whew! That was 6 seperate products we just went through! Each of the faction decks represent a different style of play and many of them are on the mid to high end of the strategy curve.
Now we’re into the final product for Summoner Wars … the Master Set! This was released about 18 months ago, and retails for $50 USD. While the name is a bit off-putting as it sounds like it’s only for masters of the game, it’s actually the perfect way to get into Summoner Wars. It has a hard board used for play, dice, wound tokens, and SIX factions to choose! These factions also range in difficulty from the very easy Mountain Vargath to the tricksy Sand Goblins. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the factions found in the Master Set!
Nothing is scarier than seeing the charging Mountain Vargath (MV) marching towards your summoner. This is a faction that has no subtleties to it. They have some of the toughest commons in the game and their summoner only makes them hit harder. If you thought the Tundra Orcs were straightforward in their onslaught, the Vargath are as straightforward as they come. This is a faction that will teach you the fine art of positioning as well as teach you some fun combos. For example, you can actually create a fastball special with the commons and knock your units into the enemy territory. Definitely give these guys to the new player in your group though and they’ll pick up the game quickly.
Moving up the difficulty tier, the Shadow Elves (SE) take the stage. I don’t know how best to categorize these guys other than speed and stealth combined. They have some incredibly fast units (I’m looking at you Xaserbane, a strong champion who can move 4 spaces if he alone moves), and events that give them extra moves. They have events that can slow their opponents and events that can just remove enemy common units from the board without thought! They also, unthematically, have a Hydrake. which is just about the strongest champion in the game. They are a great faction to learn the game with and are quite fun!
Now, my difficulty scale might be off here, but I think the next up on the list would be the Deep Dwarves (DD). These guys are combo-riffic. Almost all of their units have abilities that cost magic to use, but they’re incredibly powerful abilities. The fact that their summoner can regain magic coupled with the fact that they have events to make these abilities free has led to some really amazing turns. The Deep Dwarves feel like they sit back, then suddenly pounce on their opponent. And, they will always win the war of attrition. This is a great faction to play for the Johhny-type player in your group.
For the remaining three factions, I’m going to go in the order that I’ve had success with. This may not prove true for other people, but these are the factions that I’ve had the best luck with. Thus, the next faction is … the Benders (BD) — the masters of manipulation. These guys are one of the weakest attack value factions of the game, and they also have the least amount of health. Most of their units can die in one to three wounds, and that’s including their champions! Not only that, but their units are not cheap. So why are they so powerful? Two words: range and manipulation. Almost all of their units have a ranged attack, and many have an effect when that ranged attack connects. They can move nearby units, drain magic, or even steal the units that they kill. In one of my most recent games with the Benders, I managed to turn three vanguard units against their summoner for the win. They are tricky to play, but oh so fun.
The Sand Goblins (SG) are the very definition of trickery and manipulation. They have units which are weaker, but are designed to survive with the manipulation you can muster. Their summoner can push units away, their events can draw units across the board, and they can manipulate all of their walls with a single event card. While I haven’t had the best of luck with them, I have pulled off some amazing turns that have had my opponent totally shocked. Overall, a really fun race to play as!
Lastly, my worst race, The Swamp Orcs (SO). I know I’ll take a lot of mockery for this, but I’ve just never won as these guys. It’s not for lack of trying, but I just really cannot get their playstyle down. You see, The Swamp Orcs can make special walls called Vine Walls. All of their units derive some benefit from Vine Walls, such as extra attack power, or defensive advantage. They produce vine walls from dead units, and since they can summon their own units next to vine walls, they can really crowd the opponent (by pushing their walls to their opponents side). However, I’ve never been able to do all of these wonderful things They are a very interesting race to check out; I’m just terrible with them!
Whew! This article has gone on for some time. I hope you’re still here with me. If you’ve read this far, I hope this has given you some insight into what makes Summoner Wars a truly interesting and incredible game. It’s incredibly well balanced with very diverse factions with different playstyles. There are factions for all newness levels, and quite honestly, once you play your first few games, you’ll be hooked.
In terms of “Where should I start?”, that’s entirely up to you! Here’s my recommendation though:
The starter sets offer a low cost way to try out the game with two factions. I’d recommend going with the Phoenix Elves/Tundra Orcs set first as they’re a bit more straightforward to play, and are solid factions. If the person you’re playing against is also new to the game, this is definitely the one to pick up. The Guild Dwarves /Cave Goblins is also a very good set, but the Cave Goblins can take some getting used to to really understand their playstyle.
I do recommend jumping to the Master Set as soon as possible. The hard board that it comes with is significantly better than the paper board that the starter sets come with. The factions that this set comes with are also my favorite to play with. They’re a diverse set and have factions that fit my playstyle more (for the most part at least). The price is also really good for what you’re getting although it is more of an upfront cost if you’re not sure you’ll like the game.
I’d recommend sprinkling in some of the standalone factions to taste. As your collection and familiarity with the game grow, you’ll have a good understanding of how each of these play and which ones you’d like to add to your set. Also, if you like a technical challenge, get the Filth. They’re just so fun to play as.
If this article has you truly interested in seeing all that Summoner Wars has, please visit Plaid Hat Games’ site here. The site has all the stats and images for all of the cards as well as strategy for each of the factions.
There’s one last article I’ll write about Summoner Wars but that won’t come out for some time. That will be on the final frontier for SW … deck building. This is a vast space to talk about, and quite honestly, I don’t have enough experience with it to really comment much on it. Each faction has a set of reinforcement cards which add new commons and champions. In addition, each pack adds a small number of Mercenary cards that can be added to any deck (with some restrictions). Mercenaries can in many ways shore up some of the weaknesses in a given faction. Anyhow, I’ll explore this much deeper in a future article.
(Images via www.PlaidHatGames.com)