Phoenix Elves vs. Tundra Orcs, Round II
The original plan was to write a lengthy battle report showing off the capabilities of Queen Maldaria and Torgan, the second summoners for the Phoenix Elves and Tundra Orcs. You know, like we did last week for the new Guild Dwarves and Cave Goblins. Then the actual match didn’t go quite as me and Somerset hoped — as dynamic and interested as the battle had been, it didn’t feel like it would make for particularly good reading. Our rematch was similar, though inverted. That will make sense later.
Somerset then had two realizations: first, the crazy outcome of these two fights was actually a perfect example of what we both like most about Summoner Wars; and second, although I’d written about Summoner Wars over a dozen times, I’d never actually gotten around to writing a review. So that’s what this is: my unconventional review of why I love Summoner Wars, from the perspective of two matches that just didn’t want to be written as battle reports.
Match One, in which the Phoenix Elves win by a disgusting margin.
You don’t want the Tundra Orcs to win that first die roll, because they’ll always choose to go first. If that happens, they’ll probably kill a whole mess of people before you get a chance to pull back into a more defensible position. Of course, them being Tundra Orcs, they might heft high their clobbering implements and have the weight pull them backwards right onto their asses. Such is life when you’re a Tundra Orc, and the consequence of playing as the team that loves big gambles.
Still, you don’t want them going first.
This match began with them going first, and killing a few people before the Phoenix Elves could do anything about it. They also killed one of their own hapless warriors for convenient magical energy.
Then, instead of pressing the advantage, the orcs made the decision to pull back and bide their time building magic. They’d occasionally summon a Shooter to kill any elf that happened to poke his pointy ears out from behind their defenses, and the elves would summon a Fire Archer to kill him right back, and then Queen Maldaria would use her irritating ability to pull the archer back out of harm’s way. So there was a bit of sniping, but for the most part the midfield was a deserted wasteland, uncomfortably warm on one side and chilly on the other.
This lasted for a few rounds, and made that portion of the game boring to read about. Not to play though — it was a cold war intermittently punctuated by momentum-shifting violence, complete with all the tension and uncertainty inherent to that kind of fight. Both of us were constantly eying each other’s magic piles, wondering what terrible surprises our opponent might fling at us next. Both of knew we had to act. Neither of us wanted to act. The table was quiet.
Then the Tundra Orcs summoned Grok, a ranged champion who gets an extra attack for every Wall he’s standing next to. This synergizes well with his team because Torgan, the Tundra Orc summoner, specializes in creating Minor Ice Walls. These are like Walls but much more fragile; they can also slide around like tripped-up glaciers of doom if you play the right events. In this case, Torgan made some of these frigid barriers and slid them into position around Grok, meaning his meager 1 attack was now a brutal size-4 ranged battering ram straight out of the Tundra Orcs’ icy version of hell. In just a couple turns, Grok was able to tear down the Phoenix Elves’ starting Wall and force the elves to scramble for cover behind a new Wall to the south.
Grok might have been the scourge of the Phoenix Elves, but he was also their wake-up call. They’d amassed quite an army, mostly composed of precise Fire Archers and conjured Phoenixes, so they manned up and marched out from their defenses. There were now so many of them that the battlefield was awash with crimson soldiers crashing against a few meager orcish defenders.
As we played this match, we were thinking there was no way to beat the Phoenix Elves. Not with their new conjured Phoenixes, which were impervious to abilities that attacked “common” or “champion” units, and stacked their attacks when adjacent to one another, and flew over obstructions, and had a real cost of 0.5 magic because you got two of them for one event. Not with their ridiculous precise ranged troops and precise champion, both of which could be empowered to even ridiculous-er heights. Not with their massive army and hit-and-run Queen Maldaria and everything-murdering Fire Dancers and movement-inhibiting cost-0 Firelings.
And even if they were beatable, they sure as hell weren’t beatable by the Tundra Orcs.
After Ugg, the orcs’ star champion and final resort, was taken out by Phoenixes, Torgan was left with a pile of magic and nothing to spend it on, so he spent his last few moments hiding behind all the Minor Ice Walls he’d summoned.
As I said, the game itself was interesting, and a lot of fun to play, but it didn’t make for the best reading. Sort of like the pointlessness of being shown a picture of a famous chess game without getting any info on whose turn it is, the pictures and text of this game would probably only tell you that the match had consisted of a lot of hiding while both sides built a magic economy, then one Tundra Orc champion making some waves, and then a wave of Phoenix Elves hitting him right back in the face. Apart from some clever positioning of Grok on the Tundra Orc side and a bunch of Phoenix position-juggling, there wasn’t much going on that you could see in a picture. Even in text I could only describe a fraction of the nervous glances, smug jokes, fingers tapped on the table.
What I’m saying is that it was one of our most exciting games yet, and I can’t really tell you all that much about it.
Match Two, in which the Tundra Orcs swarm everything until it’s dead.
You don’t want the Tundra Orcs to win that first die roll, but they did again anyway. This match started almost exactly how the first one had — except Torgan left himself open to taking a wound from a Fire Archer and the orcs didn’t cannibalize their own guys for magic this time. Okay, maybe “almost exactly” was a horrible description.
More importantly, the Tundra Orc player took a long look at their strategy. Maybe the Phoenix Elves hadn’t won because they were overpowered. Instead, maybe they won because their team relishes playing it safe, keeping their low-attack troops out of harm’s way until they can strike in force, scaring everyone into leaving them alone until they’re unbeatable — and that’s exactly how the last match played out. Maybe the Tundra Orcs lost because they’re supposed to be taking big risks, wagering massive quantities of dice and hoping to be on top when the arrows and gristle stop flying.
So this time, the Tundra Orcs charged forward even though they didn’t have enough troops to sustain the assault. They were outnumbered, but it turns out they were outnumbered by tiny Firelings and wimpy Fire Archers. Even the scariest Phoenix Elf common unit, the Fire Dancer, can sort of be ignored if you have troops with lots of life points.
It wasn’t smooth sailing. Grok got pummeled by Duke Ramazall and quite a few Tundra Orcs died at the hands of those pesky Phoenixes. Even so, bit by bit, the orcs came around the south side of the board and blocked the elves’ Walls. They shifted their Ice Walls into aggressive positions, stampeding over flanking Firelings en route. They summoned to those Walls, even though the summoned units wouldn’t live out the round. They bought expensive common troops and protected them with Ice Armor events, and killed so many elves that they had plenty of magic to replace whatever soldiers they lost along the way.
As we played this match, we were thinking there was no way to beat the Tundra Orcs. Not with their Ice Armor that makes a common unit basically invincible for a turn. Not with their stampeding glaciers that can block in an entire army and summon soldiers onto the enemy’s side of the board. Not with their meaty champions who just will not die even if you have all the guaranteed hits in the world. Not with their common units that can take out even the best champions in one turn if the dice are on their side.
Queen Maldaria was so desperate to defend herself that she summoned everything she could: Phoenixes, Fire Dancers, champions. The instant they appeared, they were cut down and added to the Tundra Orcs’ magic pile. She managed to make a near-comeback at the end with some clever positioning and a last-ditch champion, but her life ended surrounded by two Shooters and Ugg. And Ugg somehow remembered a past life in which he had been killed by the Queen’s Phoenixes, so he didn’t go easy on her.
Here’s why I love Summoner Wars, and the moral of the story. Three of them, in fact:
1. Summoner Wars is shockingly balanced. Yes, some factions perform better against certain others, and yes, the Guild Dorks are mildly overpowered. Even with those caveats, Summoner Wars is the most balanced asymmetrical game I’ve ever played. It has sixteen factions, more if you count the four new second summoners, and they’re so immaculately balanced that battles almost always come down to skill rather than a bad pairing. After our first game, we could have sworn the Phoenix Elves were overpowered. Now we’re not so sure.
2. Summoner Wars is absolutely enthralling. The luck of the draw and dice mean that two games will rarely progress in a similar manner, even when it’s two people playing the same two teams over and over again, as we were doing here. Now and then I see a critic say the luck factor is too high, and I want to slap them with a frozen salmon.
3. I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating: Summoner Wars is a game of skill. Even with that luck factor. In both games, Somerset and I were busy mitigating chance, managing damage control and aggression and economy- and hand-management. All at once. The player who best juggles these elements wins.
For me, these points were illustrated by these two games. Wildly different, incredibly exciting, spiced by luck, and both won by the player who managed their faction better.
Not that it made it any easier to craft them into interesting reading.