Ret-Talus: Dead King, Summoner, Bum Rusher
Many moons back I hollowed out a ventricle of my stony heart to contain my love for Summoner Wars, the masterpiece from Plaid Hat Games that I claim as my favorite board/card game ever. Sadly, I haven’t found the time (or brass) to write about it until now (excepting its inclusion in my Board Game Box Review, which does not actually count but masks my chagrin at least a little).
Now Summoner Wars is out on iOS, which means I’ve been playing far more games at once than I can keep track of. Which makes this the perfect time to jump on in and tell you all about why Summoner Wars is so incredible.
First let me explain the “summoner wars” part of Summoner Wars: there are these dudes in possession of magical stones that allow them to summon entire armies onto the field of battle, and they’re duking it out for supremacy over the world of Itharia. The actual lore is gleefully denser than that, but it’ll do for now. So you play as one of these Summoners, and your goal is to exterminate the other guy, who is also a Summoner. To this end, you’ll summon a wide variety of soldiers and champions onto the field of battle, guide them into combat, and win instantly if you can land a killing blow on the enemy Summoner, all the while trying to keep your own Summoner safe from harm.
That’s the easy version. But we’ll get more into that in a bit.
Take a look at the above picture. I’m playing as the Fallen Kingdom (green), and my opponent is the Phoenix Elves (red). We both have a handful of troops, a Wall—which, unless you place more Walls or have special abilities, is the only tile you can summon new units around—and our Summoners, tucked away near the rear. Now, each and every faction (16 in the full game, 8 so far on iOS) is wildly thematic and unique. In this case, the Phoenix Elves tend to be “elite”, meaning they won’t miss many hits, have great hit-and-run abilities, longer-ranged archers, etc., while my Fallen Kingdom deviates from the norm in that they have many abilities and spells that allow them to play cards out of their discard pile, which means that their economy runs on an entirely different timetable. For example, their Summoner, Ret-Talus, can spend 2 magic points to summon a common unit from the discard pile and place it adjacent to himself, and Zombie Warriors can “infect” any unit they kill by replacing it with another Zombie Warrior—from your discard pile.
My opponent goes first, which means he skips the first couple game phases. He moves up a Guardian, who has the ability “Precise” that lets him forgo the usual die roll and deal a guaranteed hit to my Skeletal Archer, which kills him.
So now I get to take my first turn. Each turn has six phases:
1. Draw (until you have 5 cards in hand)
2. Summon (pay for units with magic and place them adjacent to Walls)
3. Play Event Cards (spells, or building new Walls)
4. Movement (move 3 units up to 2 spaces each)
5. Attack (attack with up to 3 units)
6. Build Magic
The “Build Magic” phase is both the most critical and the hardest to balance, because it’s the phase in which you manage your economy. See, any unit or event card can be “built” in this phase, meaning it’s placed on top of your magic pile. That is to say, anything in your deck—anything—can be used as currency. This is one of my favorite aspects of Summoner Wars, since you’re never waiting around for specific money-making cards to appear, which means that the luck of the draw that plagues so many card games is largely mitigated; instead, you can cash in whatever cards you have on hand until your war machine is purring like a Tundra Orc player when he makes a successful Rampage roll for the fifth damn time.
Oh, there are cards you probably won’t turn into magic—that champion that decimates three common units by breaking wind in their general direction is probably worth keeping around until you can afford him—but judging the needs of the next turn (part of which is guesswork, since you can’t be sure which cards you’ll draw next) can be the difference between a shattering victory and horrible, embarrassing defeat. In addition, any card you kill on the battlefield will instantly be added to the top of your magic pile—unless you’re my enemy in the current game, and you killed my Skeletal Archer. Because when Skeletal Archers are killed, they have a chance of being sent to my discard pile instead of your magic pile. Which is exactly what happened. Ha!
So looking through my starting hand, I see that I have two absurdly serendipitous cards. One of them is pictured above, which lets me wound Ret-Talus, bringing me a bit closer to defeat, but which lets me summon a champion for much less. This is the champion:
There are three types of troops on the field at any given moment: commons, champions, and the Summoner. As you’d expect, a champion is far better than most commons.
Some quick card anatomy: The big number is the number of dice that unit rolls when attacking (1-2 misses, 3-6 hits). The small number is its magic cost. Next to that is either a sword or a bow icon, indicating whether the creature has a melee or ranged attack. The shaded circles are the number of hits the unit takes before it is killed, and the text below is its special ability. Most common units get 1-2 attack dice and have 1-2 hit points, so Elut-Bal is, as you can see, quite intimidating.
He became even more so when I realized that I was holding a perfectly synergistic pair in my hand.
See, the event that I drew will decrease his summon cost from 7 to 2, and his own ability will allow me to discard one of my fielded units (a lowly Skeletal Archer down on the left back row, no loss) to decrease his summon cost to 0.
Now I’m presented with a unique opportunity, and it’s one I’m uneasy with. I usually play two flavors of decks in Summoner Wars: conservative decks that are meant to drain my enemy of resources while fostering a thick magic pile and a late-game attrition victory, or tricky decks built around aggressive maneuvering to try and tie up my opponent on more fronts than he can cover at once. The Fallen Kingdom usually falls into the former category, especially since its late-game period is so strong because Ret-Talus can summon troops out of discard.
But here Ret-Talus has the opportunity to not only be the charming plotter that the Fallen know him to be, but also to be a bum rusher. To charge in. To be reckless.
And, well, I think Ret-Talus realized he wouldn’t get that kind of opportunity again. It’s not every day that a Dark Lord gets to cut loose.
So he orders Elut-Bal forward, chasing frail Prince Elien around the back of the Phoenix Elves’ board. On his turn, not only is he wasting moves to scurry away from the rampaging Elut-Bal, he’s also forced to burn loads of cards from his hand into his magic pile in order to afford some extra troops in the following round.
Prince Elien keeps scurrying, Elut-Bal keeps following, and gradual Phoenix Elf reinforcements arrive to bog down the monster. While they’re occupied, Ret-Talus has been happily summoning cheap commons, so when the Phoenix Elves finally rally and bring down Elut-Bal—after Prince Elien has taken a beating, lost his central Wall, and left his forces in disarray—Ret-Talus already has a few reinforcements ready to finish the job:
With three wounds, Prince Elien stands no chance against two Zombies and a grumpy Cultist—especially since the Cultist uses a vengeful “Death Curse” to wound whoever kills him.
So according to the iOS version of Summoner Wars, I’m kind of a big deal: I not only unlocked the “Swift Victory” achievement for beating my opponent in 5 rounds, I also taught you the basics of Summoner Wars. Really, that’s it: an inspired economy system, unique factions and troops that wreak havoc on the base rules of the game, and ridiculous fun.
Now you can go out and support Plaid Hat Games by buying both the iOS version and the actual box copies. I recommend them.