Review: Summoner Wars for iOS from @PlayDek and @PlaidHatGames
The Short Version: Summoner Wars is a near-perfect adaptation of Plaid Hat Games’ strategy board game, with at ton of content and customization for $7.99. It’s a great mix of luck and strategy, with a playing time that stops it from ever getting frustrating.. Score: 10/10.
I’m about as big of a fan of Plaid Hat Games’ Summoner Wars board game as you can be, so when they announced that Playdek (the company behind the apps for Ascension and Nighfall) was going to making an iOS implementation of Summoner Wars, I was pretty excited. I was concerned, too, mind you. I didn’t know how they were going to translate Summoner Wars to handheld form. The game has a lot of information the cards and a lot of customization, so it would be easy for things to wrong.
So what is Summoner Wars?
If you don’t know, Summoner Wars is an expandable card game from Plaid Hat Games. The game initially released in two starter sets, each with two different armies: Phoenix Elves v. Tundra Orcs, and Guild Dwarves v. Cave Goblins. Since that time, 12 more armies have been introduced, including six i the Master Set: Jungle Elves, Cloaks, Fallen Kingdom, Vanguards, Mercenaries, Filth, Shadow Elves, Benders, Vargath, Sand Goblins, Deep Dwarves, and Swamp Orcs. Each army also has an expansion that allows you trade cards out from the default deck for different units, although a Summoner always comes with some cards. In the initial releases, there was no real customization (well, there was one Mercenary card – Khan Queso – but that was it), but there was a ton of replayability just in the base games. Each army has a Summoner, which is a powerful unit that acts like the Queen in chess – it may be your strongest unit, but you lose if you lose it. There’s a huge risk-reward factor in deciding when to bring your Summoner into the fight. Each army also had some Champions (Stronger, more expensive units) and Commons (cheaper, weaker units), each of which have their own special abilities, as well as Event cards (think spell cards that allow you to break the rules in some ways) and Walls (which impede enemy progress and allow you to bring units into play next to them). Each army has standardized setup, but – after that – you have to pay for most of the cards with Magic, which you get by discarding cards from your hand at the end of your turn or destroying enemy cards. The problem is, most of the cards are good, which creates an amazing economy of deciding when to hold onto cards and when to keep them to play later.
The game itself is played on a grid, with the cards acting like miniatures in many tabletop strategy games. You can only move three units and attack three units (barring special abilities) in a turn, so deciding what to do can be tough sometimes, but Summoner Wars is a game that rewards the aggressor. When you attack, you role a number of dice according to the unit you are attacking with and any die that comes up three or higher is a hit, which means you are more likely to hit than miss. The first player to eliminate his opponent’s Summoner is the victor. The games tend to be fairly short, running close to half an hour, but the various armies play pretty differently, and the expansion decks allow you a pretty surprising amount of customization, while keeping it all pretty controlled. Still, there’s plenty of game here even if you don’t want to customize and the decks are reasonably balanced (although the Cloaks and Vanguard have been less successful from the anecdotal evidence I have seen).
Like many games of this sort, luck can be a factor. You role a lot of dice and there are cards involved, but I feel that the best player will usually win. Even if you do have an unlucky game, the games are fast enough that it is not really an issue. There’s a ton of variety between all of the different armies (which all play differently) such that I can’t imagine getting bored of Summoner Wars for a long, long time.
How does it translate to iOS?
I’ve played both the iPad and iPhone versions of the game, and I can confirm that Playdek has made a stellar app here. Honestly, there is nothing that I would want out of a Summoner Wars game that I don’t see here (besides the remainder of the armies, but that’s coming, and there’s a ton of content already). The game allows you to try out the Phoenix Elves (probably the most vanilla of the decks) for free and to play against the Phoneix Elves, Tundra Orcs, Cave Goblins, or Guild Dwarves for free (the remaining AIs are not implemented yet). If you like the game and make a purchase, mutliplayer is unlocked. Each army costs $.99 (the Phoenix Elves, Tundra Orcs, Cave Goblins, Guild Dwarves, Jungle Elves, Cloaks, Fallen Kingdom, and Vanguards are available), as does each expansion deck (Each army has an expansion deck, plus a mercenary deck), but you can buy the whole thing for $7.99 (that’s just about half off of the $15.84 it would cost to buy everything separately), which is a much better deal than buying them separately. The AI is a little slow in spots, but there is a lot to consider, and it never got on my nerves (I mean, human players would take longer to think), but I could see it bothering some people (it feels a lot like playing against a chess AI, with the pauses). I can’t comment on how good the AI is, but it is good enough to beat me most of the time. I can’t comment because I am likely not very good at the game. My only real complaint, such as it is, is that the game selection UI is a little clunky until you get used to it. You can accidentally end up with a second human player selected pretty easily and unsure why you can’t start the game. Once you get used to it, it works fine, and it’s a breeze to load up a default or custom deck.
The in-game UI is great. You double click on a card to take a closer look, and – even on the iPhone (where I do most of my playing) – I had very few problems misclicking. The card art looks great on the iOS devices, and it is easy to read the information you need once you zoom in on a card. Moving cards during your turn is simple, you just click on them, drag them to their destination, and click on the check. The only problem I did have was accidentally zooming to a card and clicking ‘Move 0 Spaces’ a few times early on, causing me to lose a move. Not a huge problem, but something I did enough times to notice it. I played around with all of the available armies and did not notice any implementation problems with any abilities. I also looked at the tutorials and rulebook briefly, and they looked solid as well. Plaid Hat also has a great community built if you run into any other issues, but Colby Dauch has done such an amazing job of making sure that cards are worded as clearly as possible, I doubt you’ll have many problems understanding the game once you get the gist of it.
The deck building is also pretty easy, although it’s a little complicated, too. You select the deck you want to modify, select the type of card you want to change, drag the new card onto the one you want to replace, and then you’re done. If you’re going to play with the Vanguards much, in particular, I would recommend you look into giving them some more firepower by changing out a few of their units.
There is also a full suite of multiplayer features. You can play asynchronous online games with a variety of time limits and I had no trouble finding opponents. I did get disconnected from the server once, but it immediately let me reconnect and I hadn’t lost any progress. My experiences have been great with the mutliplayer so far. It can also provide you with Push notifications if you would never like to accomplish anything ever again for the rest of your life. I can think of worse ways to waste it.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you know that my recommendation is going to be for you to at least go to App Store and download the free version of Summoner Wars right now, right? It is an app based on what is literally my favorite strategy game on the market right now but, not only that, it is a perfectly executed app. I can’t wait to see the remaining armies implemented but, even if they never were, there is more content in this $7.99 app than you get in almost any other game. Summoner Wars takes the best of what is fun about tactical miniatures games and distills it down to a fast, fun card game that maintains a ton of strategy and some customization while removing all of the hassle. I guess the closest thing I can think of on iOS right now is Hero Academy but, as good as it is, it doesn’t come close to the depth provided by Summoner Wars. For me, this is just about as good as it gets. If you want more information about Summoner Wars, you can check out Plaid Hat Games’ official site.
Score: 10 out of 10