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Cracked LCD- Summoner Wars IOS in Review: The Promised Land

Summoner Wars iOS intro screen from Playdek

Effectively, this is the third time I’ve reviewed Colby Dauch’s Summoner Wars. The first time was back in 2009, when the original release of four factions split into two boxes was edged out of the Game of the Year prize by Chaos in the Old World. The second time was when the Master Set, which included six all new factions, came out last year. In between those releases were tons of great add-on decks that I didn’t formally review, but all come with my highest recommendation. The third review is for the new IOS app from Ascension-meisters Playdek, which was finally released after what seemed like an endless wait yesterday.

So before you wonder “should I try Summoner Wars on the iPhone or iPad”, you should know that I absolutely adore this game in its physical form and I think it is one of the best board games in the past decade. It’s a dead simple game but the various factions and unit types, coupled with variable setup and optional deck construction options, make this a near-perfect mix of easy rules and compelling depth. And it’s a design unafraid of the all-or-nothing die roll or of favoring momentum over turn-to-turn balance.

TL;DR version. Each player has a deck of cards. These cards are units and events. You play units by discarding cards out of your accrued magic pile (kills and willful discards), and these go next to wall cards on a grid. Each turn, you move three units and attack with three units- melee or ranged. Roll dice. Three through six is a hit. Some units roll more than others. The goal? Kill the other player’s Summoner, a high-powered boss unit. Do you smell something like a little Magic: The Gathering, Chess, a Japanese SRPG, and a tactical miniatures game stewed in a pot? I sure do. And it smells good.

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Mr. Dauch’s design is brilliant, modular, and succinct. His experience working with Heroscape at Hasbro shows, and the result is a highly playable, no-fat/no-filler design full of action and compelling decisions.With Playdek doing the honors, I’m pleased to report that Summoner Wars is more than just a great IOS port of a board game. It’s the new standard by which all future IOS board games should be judged. By bringing forward the lessons learned from Ascension (not to mention Food Fight and Nightfall), Playdek has delivered the best IOS board game to date, and as a fan of the game I’m very happy to see that it’s going out to potentially millions of people with its best face forward, despite a couple of release hiccups in some areas and some minorly glitchy code that will certainly be patched away.

The interface is dead on perfect, but those minor glitches seem to include a little sluggishness in clicking and dragging cards. Regardless, it’s easy to play and parse, and even on the iPhone screen it’s easy to keep track of what’s going on and what you can or can’t do. New players will have no trouble at all easing into the game through the tutorial and veterans will appreciate the card gallery and full rulebook.

The asynchrous, Game Center-based multiplayer that Playdek more or less perfected the first time out is back, but they’ve actually improved it, particularly in terms of stat tracking. You can now see your wins and losses against specific opponents, which is a feature I especially like. You can go forth with a default deck or customize it right before you accept a match. And it’s easy to keep several games going at once, ensuring that this game will likely enjoy the same kind of online life that Ascension still has.

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It’s a free download, but only if you want to play the Phoenix Elves against the AI. It’s not a terrible opponent and it does put up a fight to mid-level players such as myself, but really this game is meant for the async multiplayer. I noticed that matches are listed as 1vs1, which has me wondering if the intent is to eventually include the multiplayer variants. In order to play online at all, you do have to buy at least one deck from one of the other factions for 99 cents. Or, you can do the smart thing and buy everything currently available for $7.99. I’m really surprised that some of the expanded races are available day one, like the Jungle Elves and the Cloaks. There’s even a full brace of optional Mercenary units, including some that were promo-only cards. Buy the full package and you’ll not want for variety, that’s for sure.

I’m really kind of blown away by how well Summoner Wars turned out. It’s the perfect kind of game for a touchscreen interface, it’s at the right complexity level, and it’s extremely polished and professionally made floor ceiling. No sloppy Arial fonts or crude visuals of any kind. This is top notch stuff, and if you have any interest in using your iPad or iPhone as a gaming device then it’s a must-download title if ever there were one, unless you just don’t do the board games thing at all. But even then, this game has the potential for broad appeal because it’s accessible, immediate, and totally addictive.

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I’ve been playing it almost non-stop since NHS’ very own Brandon Cackowski-Schnell sent out a message to us that it was available. I was at Ikea with my family, and I downloaded it right there and snuck off to the bathroom to check it out. When we got home last night after fireworks, that’s all I did until about 4am. Game requests were coming in fast and furious, and I played several AI matches with all the different decks. And here I am today, getting those pop-up alerts that it’s my turn in five or six games at a time. As with Ascension, I have a feeling that I’m going to be playing this game around the clock for quite some time. I am willing to bet after only a day with it that it will be my most played game- of any type- of 2012.

So, No High Scores High Score Award? You bet your sweet ass.

Michael Barnes

Games writer Michael Barnes is a co-founder of Nohighscores.com as well as FortressAT.com. His trolling has been published on the Web and in print in at least two languages and in three countries. His special ability is to cheese off nerds using the power of the Internet and his deep, dark secret is that he's actually terrible at games. Before you ask, no, the avatar is not him. It's Mark E. Smith of The Fall.

78 thoughts to “Cracked LCD- Summoner Wars IOS in Review: The Promised Land”

  1. Oh, bitter irony. I emailed you about it, and as of this morning, I still couldn’t download it. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to when I get home, but I haven’t heard anything that makes me confident that will happen.

    Glad to know that they knocked this one out of the park. Can’t wait to play it.

  2. Well, I just tried to download this, but got a message saying “the item you tried to download is no longer available”

  3. And once again we play our game. Arch-enemies to the last, Barnes.

    As a Tundra Orc, let me assure that revenge is a dish best served cold.

    1. Tundra orcs can fuck right off…that god damned freeze card kills me every time. I’ll just play Tundra Orcs against you, make it fair and square.

      1. Seriously, man. I get you’re not on Twitter, but I need a way to chat with you in game. You’ve had some great moves and it’d be great to be able to talk with you, even if it had to be e-mail. Do you not have a NHS account?

  4. It was a cruel and unfeeling thing to do, to give this a stellar review when so many people cannot play. Me especially.

    Have you no empathy? No shame? Damn you. Damn you all to hell.

      1. Finally got to play it.

        ” It’s the new standard by which all future IOS board games should be judged.” – I think that’s extreme and hyperbolic, but it’s certainly very good indeed.

        “The interface is dead on perfect” – Again, it’s very good but I’d like an undo button, and I think it’s unfortunate that it doesn’t start a tutorial when you first play, but buries it in the menu, and comes pre-set with a match (PE vs Orcs) that you can’t play.

        I also think it would be useful to highlight that you can’t play online until you’ve bought a deck. It’s a fair restriction since you’re using Playdek’s servers to play on, but it could be clearer.

        Also, the AI is medium at best, although I haven’t seen it on all the factions yet.

        But these are minor niggles some of which (AI! AI!) will hopefully improve. There’s a real dearth of tactical combat games on iOS, it’s pretty much Risk clones or Small World and nothing inbetween, at least until this came along and filled the gap more than nicely.

  5. This review is way, way premature. They rushed this game out and it has major problems, both technical and in design conceptions. Two quick ones that gave me losses in matches I did not deserve:

    1 hour match. Fantastic game, lot of fun, back-and-forth. I finally make the decisive moves and am inevitably going to win. Guess what? Server goes down. When it works again two hours later, I have a forfeit loss because it kept my clock running even though I couldn’t sign in. Brutal.

    30 minute match. Not a great game, but a bunch of turns. Gets down to a few minutes left. My opponent finishes his turn with 20 seconds left, and I get the forfeit. Never mind that I whipped thru my turns and he easily used the majority of the clock. The fact that I happened to be the one in control when the timer ended meant I auto-lost, musical chairs style. Huge fail.

    There are other problems, lots of them. But this review is really perfunctory. I suspect this game will eventually deserve the review, but it certainly doesn’t at launch.

    1. I’m not seeing any significant problems, definitely nothing out of the ordinary. I haven’t had a single server issue the entire time, either. In sum, I think calling out “major problems” is way, way premature. 😉

      Anyway, it’s 1.0 software. It’s going to have some minor bugs, and that should be expected. They do not damage the quality of the game or its exectuion. Playdek’s support has always been great, so I can wait a month to review the game to see if they’ll fix them (which they will) or I can go ahead and tell you that this is a great, great game.

      The only issue approaching serious that I’ve seen is the sluggishness, which hasn’t been a problem, just an annoyance.And there again, that’s something that will likely be patched soon.

      1. Ready and waiting here. ::(Hobbes):: is the gcid.

        Also, check out a game called outwitters. It’s brilliant.

        1. Mine is Falcon059, have all factions, know precisely one of them. Will pick army at random, so enjoy the chaos 😉

        2. Hobbes, this is jmontgo, are you on Twitter? It’d be great to chat with you about games. My twitter name is EpyonMX.

          PS, Sorry about Triple-Freezing your Summoner. 😉

  6. The implementation is fine IMHO. Server connectivity and dropped connections are to be expected in week one of a release. I’m just not that crazy about the game itself. Seems like a very simple card drawing game hooked up to a very simple tactical board game. Maybe if I try more factions things will look better. But after about 10 matches so far I can’t see playing this game for a long stretch.

    1. There’s quite a lot of depth, don’t let the simplicity fool you. The factions all have a number of options, there’s the resource mechanic to consider, and tactical manuevering/positioning is critical. Then there’s the die rolls to shake up your plans and give you those do-or-die moments.

      It’s really not much of a card game…you could easily put a miniature down in lieu of the card and have the card off to the side to denote its stats and abilities and it’d be the same game. The only card game aspect is in determining when to hold on to units or to toss them in the magic pile.

  7. I think there are a lot of design and implementation issues. Hopefully they are fixed well as you expect.

    1. So far the only thing I don’t like is that I can’t buy the bundle. No idea if this is an Apple issue or a Playdek issue.

      As for the game itself?

      It’s Summoner Wars. Not sure what design issues there are…shrug, works great for me!

      1. I don’t like that when the AI plays an event card that I don’t have time to read what it does. Unless there is a setting I missed.

        1. You did miss it. In the options there’s a “tired old man eyes” tick box.

          Not really. But there is a game speed setting that slows things down so you can read everything. Eventually you won’t need to read everything, though.

        2. For event cards with lasting effects the cards that are buffed usually have an icon on them. Double tap the card and hold on the icon.

          For cards that instantly give you damage, well watch your cards get moved off the board Oh and the one that steals your magic, that’s easy to see as well.

          So far 20+ games in the only problem I have some effects. Lets say I want to use 2mp to heal a common unit (I forget which summoner this is) it is really not evident how to use this. Or the Ice Shard ability etc.

          1. Yeah as far as I can tell all such abilities are activated by clicking on the unit icon (not the card as a whole, specifically the unit portrait). This can be very tricky on an iPhone, much to my chagrin.

          2. Oh yeah they are working some are just tricky to figure out. Greater Raise for example, required playing the event card on my summoner during the event phase, then clicking on his ability on the car during the attack phase. Then I had a really hard time picking the cards out of my discard pile, honestly I am still not sure how I triggered clicking on them to placing them because I pressed about 10 times.

            Also Bill to your original question you can also hit the other summoners discard pile to see what events were played since they are in order in that pile.

  8. heh, it wasn’t too bad, I kinda misread how my zombies played. I kept infecting your units, but with no zombies in discard it did little good. Plus with being at work, the timer kinda made me go into rush/ panic mode and completely screw up my last few turns.

    This latest game seems to be going slightly better for my angels?/ guardians?

    1. It was until this last turn *evil*

      You know when it’s a good turn when you score the achievement “bring the hurt”

      Guild dwarves are very turtle based, plays well into my cautious and defensive playstyle. These jungle elves need to attack attack attack.

      1. I had no right to win that last game, being able to move my gorilla twice thanks to chant of haste was cheeky in the extreme.

        *cough* sorry

        1. That game was genuinely nip and tuck, whereas the undead vs dwarves game, I felt a lot more able to dictate the pace of the game, sitting back and letting you throw yourself at my guardsmen, then whip out the merc spears when it was time to start smashing.

          This time I spent the last five turns praying fervently to the deities you’d not rouse that tyrannical brute fucking thing with eight wounds and send it down to try and finish off my summoner, thankfully I guess I had enough firepower to make you hang back in case I pulled a swift run with the lion riders.

          Brrr, I need to go back to the deck builder and tinker some more with the jungle elves setup.

          1. They’re something between an ambush and an alpha strike deck, there’s a definite feel of “you get one shot but it’s a very good shot”, if they get munched or run into a solid defence they’re in trouble.

  9. Okay, I’m a little pissed off now.

    First, I couldn’t load the game for two days with my Aus account. Managed to get it with my German account, but didn’t get much of a chance to play it. Lost the tutorial once.

    Today, it showed up as an update on the German store. I also was able to load it with my Australian account. Now I am trying to play, and after the second round the tutorial just stops. I know that there are still a few steps before the tutorial lets me do my own thing, but those aren’t happening. It just hands over into my summoning phase, without me actually being able to do anything (7 magic, but can’t proceed or end phase).

    Am I overlooking something? I’m going to sleep now. Wake me when it’s working again.

      1. I get that, but I can’t.

        Here’s what happens. The AI plays its third move, where it summons the champion. It finishes the attacks, then my draw phase happens. The game then just sits there, doesn’t give an instruction and I can’t do anything. Believe me, I tried tapping and dragging every inch of that board to see what’s going on.

  10. Can’t reply to Hobbes, so I’ll do it here…yeah, the Jungle Elves are a blitzkrieg faction. I’m seeing time and time again that you can run up and play really aggressively with them, but if you don’t put the boot in right away, you get bogged down. Some of the expansion units like the Gorilla and Elephant help somewhat with that.

    But I’m experimenting with playing them really up front- summoner and all- and using that Chant of Deception to get him out of hot water.

    I think it’s my favorite faction, outside of some of the ones in the Master Set and the new Filth one.

  11. Loving the matches with CraigM, just lost the last one, brilliant bit of ambushing, and I nearly got out of the net too, damn damn damn. I really should sort out a good IM client to chat to people (for some reason the game centre doesn’t have chat?)

    1. Yeah I think I’m leaning towards the cloaks as my preferred faction. They have great powers to get behind you and lay the hurt, which works for me better than most powers. Had that last play failed though, I don’t think I had the manpower to run against your Phoenix elves.

      Really digging the game, definitely makes you plan ahead.

  12. Everything in the game is a trade off, discarding to get magic powers your more expensive summons but can rip your deck apart if you aren’t careful, events can throw a safe win into doubt, and all the units are well balanced. Genuinely appeals to me. The cloaks are a real hit and run / skirmishing setup, weak, but able to warp about with some nice benefits if they can lock down units. Even more flimsy than the jungle elves I think, but they gain with additional flexibility and force projection.

    1. Ok Hobbes I am back o n line (power went out AGAIN today)

      Added you to my Friend list.

      It’s on! (I suck at this game..lets play NHex!:)

    2. This really gets to the heart of what makes this design so succinct and brilliant- EVERYTHING is a trade off, and in very explicit terms. Every card played or used to build magic, every move made, ever wall played, every attack…it feels like there’s something else you should have done. And when you lose or a game starts to slide downhill, you can almost always say “yep, that was where it went to shit, right there. Because I did X instead of Y”.

      But weighing the options also has that die roll kicker and the touch of oppositional cardplay in the events…so nothing iis ever certain.

      The Cloaks are really, really cool. They require a certain finesse to play well, a finesse that I don’t have. Or other folks, apparently, as evidenced by their last place showing on the most winning factions.

      1. CraigM sucker punched me with them earlier, I was merrily ripping a new one out of his forces, didn’t keep a close tab on possible summon ins (who would have believed wall placement decides a match) and promptly got gangbanged in all directons as cloaks seemed to materialise out of the goddamn air.

        Those goblins… Ugh, they’re a one shot army too, but not in the good way like the jungle elves, they are dependent on good positioning AND good luck with event draws AND tactical missteps on the part of the opponent. Not my favourite so far.

        1. It was a desperate gambit. That seems to be what makes cloaks tick. That teleport ability that activates all of their units of the same type is situational, but awesome. If my first guy hadn’t hit then you wouldn’t have gotten trapped. All of their abilities seem to key on taking the most bold reckless move available.

        2. The goblins are a bit better than you give credit I think. Have had some success personally. They get extra attacks after your normal attacks are done with their base unit. Using their events to grant swift strike can make them a death by a thousand paper cuts deck. Really just discard their flinders for magic, and try to mass cheap units, and mix in the odd champion seems to work for the base deck.

          Of course the ‘top’ decks are mostly the ones I like least. Perhaps the more unusual the deck, the better it works for me.

      2. Oh you are so right : in my first online game – versus Craig as a matter of fact – a single, decisively bad move of my summoner just turned an already bad situation (because of his orks’ reckless harassing of my… what are they, fire elves ? Why didn’t you camp behind your walls like the A.I. anyway, Craig?!) into what seems now like a nightmarish trip to a quick demise.
        I didn’t experience such self-loathing since the days of Good Old Go.
        Wonderful game.

    1. Ha I would have used a few myself there. A lucky event draw saved my skin there after you froze my elf summoner and pounded him to within one HP of defeat. When your summoner hit with ALL 4 attacks, yeah I was cursing/ praying your next attacks would miss.

      These games have been near classics. Razor thin margins, could go either way at any time. Beautiful chaos.

      1. These games remind me of the glory days of Magic the gathering, which I used to play with the physical cards, and it was joyous. Am utterly loving the game and god bless NHS for bringing together some absolutely awesome company.

        I bet Barnes too, always a plus 😉

        1. Eh, everybody beats me…I’m terrible! I think I’m losing 15 game simultaneously right now.

      2. Lovely dwarf on dwarf action last match.

        Craig, got a twitter account? I’d like to chat to you as well as be able to play

        @ThatFuzzyTiger is me

        1. I don’t, but after this weekend (my brothers wedding is tomorrow) I might have to set one up. Too much chat I’m missing.

  13. Well, you talked me into it. I’m giving it a go now. My GCID is Aztiel, if anyone would ever like to play with me.

  14. A great game, but there’s something that really bothers me. The way you select special powers on units (by touching the picture of your unit) has screwed me over a bunch of times, especially single use abilities like the one Ret-Talus has. Go in for the attack but, surprise, I pressed the wrong side of the tiny card on my screen and now have to summon something from my discard pile. Or attack with the 3 dice on my fire drake, only to find out I accidently used his special for 1 damage (both are actual things that happened to me in a game).

  15. “No sloppy Arial fonts or crude visuals of any kind.”

    As an iPhone 3GS owner, I would greatly have preferred “sloppy Arial fonts” to the tiny pixelated unreadable junk fonts that Playdek use in all their games. If you have a non-retina iPhone, “crude visuals” is exactly what you get.

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