Mix the deck building of Magic: The Gathering with the tactical maneuvering of chess and the lucky thrill of rolling dice and you’ve got a formula for my number one tabletop title on iOS: Summoner Wars.
The game takes place on a grid with a pre-set formation of units including your selected Summoner (there are eight to choose from). On your turn you can summon new units from your hand, play action cards, move units, and attack. Whenever you defeat a card, you add it to your magic pile which fuels your future summons and spells. You also can place cards from your hand into your magic pile at the end of your turn. Since you always draw until you have five cards in hand at the start of your turn, you can get through a deck fast to find the cards you need, or you can play through it slowly and efficiently.
The first player to defeat his opponent’s summoner wins. But this is a complex feat as every Summoner is full of tricks to destroy the other side or block the opponent’s advance. In fact, each Summoner and its army feels completely different, from the offensive powerhouse that is the Phoenix Elves, to the undead legions of the Fallen Kingdom. It’s kind of a wonder the game is so well balanced, considering no two Summoners try to win the same way.
While the default decks for each Summoner are perfectly playable, you can customize your deck by replacing common units and champions (three super-powered units you get to have in a deck). But thankfully, you’ll never feel overwhelmed by the options since there’s currently only a handful of different units available to each Summoner. All you really want to do is add more copies of units you find most useful and take away the units you don’t see much use for.
Attacks hit or miss based on dice rolls, so there’s always a chance your plans won’t work out how you thought, but that adds to the excitement. It also means you need to have several backup plans. Overall, luck actually doesn’t have a huge effect on a game. Almost always, I’ve found that the player with the better strategy wins. Even the luck of what cards you draw can be mitigated by deck customization, and the fact that you can freely dump useless cards at the end of your turn. It’s an elegantly designed system, and it causes players to fight a unique battle every time.
But the smartest move was making the basic game free to play, with one Summoner available to try against the AI. Additional Summoners and Factions Packs (to unlock additional units) cost $0.99 each, and you can play against online opponents once you’ve made any purchase. Or, you can shell out $7.99 and just unlock everything currently available. Considering the physical cards cost about $10 per pack, this is a good deal. Personally, I only spent $2 on my favorite faction (Cloaks FTW!) and it’s given me everything I need to rock my online adversaries.
Online matches are easy to set up with Game Center friends or random opponents. You can also set the time limit on matches from 30 minutes to several weeks, in case you like to really take your time thinking over each move (like me). The only thing I wish it had was a chat feature so I could discuss some deep strategies. But maybe that’s what forums were invented for.
On iPad everything is big, beautiful and has just enough graphical effects to make it feel alive. While these effects are just as pretty on iPhone, the tighter screen space can make things like reading card texts and identifying different units tricky for newcomers. But after a while, you know what the cards do and what they look like, so it doesn’t phase me much at all which device I use.
Plaid Hat Games did everything right with Summoner Wars. So much so, that I’m even considering buying the physical game (and I don’t have any friends who play it yet).