Summoner Wars: Alliances Master Set – By Our Powers Combined!
So, Summoner Wars. It’s been around for a while now, since 2009 in fact, and back when it was first released it received a lot of hayday, many awards and accolades for its new and interesting gameplay. In fact it was so popular, that a couple of years later they released the Summoner Wars: Master Set in 2011, a release containing triple the content of any previous release with 6 different summoner decks instead of the 2 contained in the original faction vs. faction packs. In recent times Summoner Wars has been a bit overshadowed by the unstoppable rise of the Living Card Game, but it’s still an excellent game and Plaid Hat Games are still releasing new products for it.
Which brings us to the Summoner Wars: Alliances Master Set, this release now contains full 8 different new summoners and their associated decks however all 8 decks are a combination of 2 previous existing Summoner Wars factions, meaning you have influences from the previous 16 factions in this new set!
Before I get into the details though, I’d best tell you what the game is actually like. Summoner Wars combines deck building, resource and hand management. Tactical game play, movement, and a little bit of luck in the form of card drawing and dice rolling to form an exciting, skilful and very strategic 1 on 1 (or 2 on 2 if you like team gameplay) combat game. The goal is to kill your opponents most valuable unit, their Summoner. In much simpler terms it’s like chess but a bit more random and way ,way, cooler.
How to Know What Cards to Use? Stay True to Your Summoner!
Each player begins by choosing a Summoner; these guys are all associated with a faction and have a special power that plays well with the members of that faction. This is important, because next you have to build a deck for that Summoner, which can only contain units from that Summoner’s faction or the neutral mercenary cards. Since this is the Summoner Wars Alliances Master set, the summoners present in this box each belong to a new faction made up of a combination of two pre-existing factions. Meaning when deck building with these new summoners, you may include cards from the new faction or either of the two old factions. The cards from the new allied faction are also backwards compatible with any summoner from either of the two factions used to form that alliance. Luckily, if like me, you’re not really a fan of deck building, then no problem. Each of the new Summoners in the Summoner Wars Alliances Master Set comes with a complete deck ready to play.
Next you form the starting set up. What your starting setup looks like depends on what Summoner you choose, as detailed on their Summoner card, but you always play on the same ‘board’, the world of Itharia, formed quite neatly by the 2 playmats provided in the box.
Then on your turn you, in order, draw up to a hand of 5 cards, summon new units from your hand by paying their costs with cards from your magic pile. Play one shot event cards that have a wide range of effects depending on which Summoner you’re using, but all event cards provide a boost based around what kind of gameplay your Summoner has. Move some of your units across the ‘board’, attack the opponents units, gaining any destroyed units into your magic pile. Then finally you have a chance to build your magic pile with cards from your hand, so you may draw more cards to field better units and have more magic available to summon more units on future turns.
The first player to successfully destroy their opponent’s Summoner is the victor.
We Must Fight! Do We Know Why? Nope, but We Must!!
So that is how the game works, but what Summoner Wars is actually about, I have no idea. I know my Summoner is fighting the opponents Summoner, because basically the whole world of Itharia is at war with each other or something, I couldn’t tell you why it’s at war, or why my Summoner and their faction have the powers they do or anything about them at all really, and that’s fine. I think Plaid Hat Games really know what they’re doing when it comes to theme, they’ve made some wonderfully thematic games, Mice and Mystics is a great example, but I think trying to add too much theme to Summoner Wars would detract from what the game is really about, a head on tactical battle between two parties. Summoner Wars is not completely devoid of theme though, the background theme isn’t really around, but there are subtle hints of flavour in how the cards behave. The Cave Filth faction that takes prisoners, their base units have a 50% chance of just not being summoned, because they don’t want to work as they’re unwilling prisoners. The Deep Bender faction which is about magical enhancement, can pay more magic to summon boosted versions of their units. This means that even though you don’t know why these factions fight, you understand why the cards have certain abilities and what the cards are trying to do. It is often pretty intuitive, because the internal theme of the individual factions can be quite strong.
The artwork is also well done, with full body art pieces for each unit. The component quality is pretty high, as it should be, because there aren’t a lot of components, 5 dice, a few tokens, 2 playmats, then a bunch of cards. The playmats are very nice, full neoprene and almost certainly a better choice than a folding board, as it is much easier to manipulate the cards on its surface. The two playmats even have different art, that when fit together form the world of Itharia, which is very cool, but sadly also kind of disappointing as it looks basically exactly like Earth with the shape of the continents changed ever so slightly. The naming is a good laugh too, with such hits as North and South Meeric, Vartica, and Far Esta, I’m sure you can’t possibly guess what those are. It does have the origin locations of each of the original 16 factions printed on though, which is a nice touch.
How Do We Fight? Not Entirely Sure!
Now while I said I approved of Plaid Hat Games when it comes to theme, when it comes to rules they often have issues. Now to be fair, the small rulebook provided does have some excellent diagrams to explain movement and attacking and they’re pretty good. The faction specific ability rules are just not in the rulebook at all though, they come printed on cards provided with the faction, which makes sense since you can combine multiple Summoner War products. However, with lots of different rules printed on different cards, it makes losing part of the rules much easier. In my mind, they should have been printed in the rulebook as well. The Poison Wound ability rules cards for the Cave Filth faction were missing altogether, which led to 10 minutes scrabbling round boardgamegeek to try and figure out what was going to happen in the game. So there are definitely a few annoyances, but it’s not like the rules are broken or anything, the game definitely still works, and works well. In addition Plaid Hat Games have videos on their website that teach you how to play, which is excellent and something more companies should be doing, but it still doesn’t help if details are missing.
As a game Summoner Wars is pretty simple to understand, summon your guys, move around and fight your opponent’s guys with the ultimate goal of destroying your opponents Summoner. It is however a very skilful game, with many tactical considerations while playing.
These considerations start with some pretty basic ones, such as whether or not you want to risk putting your Summoner in range of the enemies units; something you may want to do since Summoners tend to have quite strong combat abilities. They then go all the way to fairly complex considerations, like deciding if it’s worth keeping an expensive unit in hand and building up magic to meet its cost or whether it’s worth just abandoning it and using it to build magic so you can draw and cast more smaller cheaper units.
What’s the Best Way to Fight? Form a Good Offense!
Being a fan of other 1 vs 1 strategy games such as Magic: the Gathering or The Institute for Magical Arts, I greatly enjoy the level of tactical depth within Summoner Wars. One mistake could mean the difference between a win and a loss and I have definitely managed to steal victory from opponents who left their Summoner just one space too close to my front-line. This level of tactical depth though is always a double-edged sword, while it does promote excellent close games between two opponents of similar skill level. It also means that if a more experienced player plays a new player, then the more experienced player has a significant tactical advantage and is much more likely to win. This can lead to some unfun games for new players who get beaten too easily.
These differences in skill level are mitigated in that the order you draw your cards is random. So you may not see your good cards at the right time and that attacks may not always connect, since hits are decided by dice rolling. At the end of the day there are still significant advantages to be gained from skill and practice, but that only matters if you’re a particularly competitive gamer.
Another problem is the games resource system. When you destroy your opponents units they go into your magic pile, meaning the more of your opponents units you destroy, then the more of your own you can summon. Making it easier to destroy more of your opponents units, since you have more attackers and so on in a very snowballing fashion. This means that pushing forward and attacking is basically always the correct move, because the more of your opponents units you destroy, the better position you’ll be in on the following turn and playing defense feels very hard to do. Therefore whichever player gets to go first and attacks the opponent first has a huge advantage, at least in my mind,. As they can immediately wipe out some of the opponents units, bolstering their own summoning power and reducing the opponent’s ability to since they now have less attackers. This also contributes to being able to beat less experienced players, when they try to be too defensive not realising they need to attack back to get more magic faster.
In fact attacking feels so important in this game that even though all of the factions have different abilities and special powers, which do make them feel somewhat different to play, it feels like my overriding strategy is always to push forward and destroy as many opposing units as fast as I can. This applies no matter what faction I’m playing; just the means with which I do it differs slightly depending on which faction I’m using. I have in fact won games without using half of the special powers on my cards just by pushing forward and attacking whenever I could, which makes these special powers feel a lot less special to me and I’ve never felt particularly pushed to use them or that they’d be able to make a big swing if I was losing.
When the Fighting is All Done… Was it a Good Fight?
This may just be my experience with the pre-made decks in the box though, which I imagine are fairly simple. I’m sure its possible to build some decks for certain summoners, that utilise the cards differently and open the door to different strategies if you have more cards. There are certainly a lot more options now with the allied factions, which is only a good thing. Even with these issues it still is a fun game to play and it does still feel cool in different ways when I use the faction that can teleport and then next game I use the faction that mutates its units.
Some of the factions do feel stronger than others, the Cave Filth faction for example feels particularly weak. Its event cards want you to spend resources, but its champion units benefit from you hoarding the same resources, so it conflicts with itself in every game. On the flip side the Tundra Guild feel very strong, since they have cards to empower their units and then those units empower themselves too whenever a power up card is played on them. This can lead to some very powerful card combinations and some very hard to kill units. Again although the difference in power level of the factions only matters if you’re as competitive as I am, if you’re just looking for a faction that does something you like, then the wide variety of powers amongst them means there’s likely to be at least one faction you’re a fan of. As said earlier their powers do put across the theme of the factions pretty well.
I wish I could say more about the 2 vs. 2 variant but I haven’t had a chance to play it. All I can say is that you need two sets of the playmats to have enough play area, which means that unless you make your own grid you can’t play the team variant straight out of the box. The downside of having such nice playmats in the box, you don’t get two sets. I’m not sure it would play so well though, it’s hard enough to come back from behind in 1 vs 1 that if your teammate is defeated in 2 vs. 2 I find it very hard to believe you’d have much of a chance to defeat two opponents at once. It’s nice that the rules for it are there though and it’s an option.
In the end Summoner Wars is not a perfect game, but no game is, and despite its flaws it is a very fun 1 vs. 1 strategy game with good replay value. As you learn more tactics and experiment with more cards, it does have a huge backlog and will undoubtedly have more releases. You do have to be prepared to be patient with less experienced players and I wouldn’t recommend bringing it out with more causal gamers. It’s got some pretty good original faction ideas and some interesting powers amongst them, even if the individual faction powers are dwarfed by the over-riding game strategy. If you’re interested in Summoner Wars this is definitely a good place to start because you get so much bang for your buck with 8 factions in the box. I’d certainly recommend it.
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I’m Dan and I spend my life gaming. When I’m not writing about games or recording the Order of the Dan Podcast I’m either working with games, demonstrating games to people, competing in Magic the Gathering Tournaments or just playing board / card / video and role play games with friends. Originally hailing from Teesside I now live in Leeds but often find myself about the country attending tournaments and conventions and gaming at them so if you see me around please do come and say hi.