Goodbye Summoning Stones, Hello Crystals

As much as I loved Fernanda Suárez's illustrations for Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, Martin Abel's cartoony style really takes the cake here.

I have a great fondness for Summoner Wars. Six years ago it became my most-played game of all time, prompting me to assemble custom tuckboxes for each of its factions, pen over twenty articles both here and elsewhere, and at one point I even designed a custom faction based on Central European serfdom and manor-dwelling therianthropes. No, you can’t see it.

That said, Summoner Wars had a few problems, many of which only became apparent over time. Its units grew more complicated and text-heavy with each new set, pro-level strategies became increasingly counter-intuitive to ordinary play, and it never sat right with me that one of its premier opening strategies was to cannibalize your own units.

Crystal Clans, from Summoner Wars designer Colby Dauch, plus J. Arthur Ellis and Andrea Mezzotero, in many ways plays like an antidote to some of that game’s biggest errors. But is it enough? Let’s figure that out together.

It looks better in person. For whatever reason, it freaked out my camera.

The board is peculiarly luminescent.

For fans of Summoner Wars, the broad concept of Crystal Clans will be immediately familiar, even as it takes a few careful steps in the other direction. Two clans stand on opposite ends of the field, their home bases separated by rows of rectangles. On your turn you’ll summon units, march them out, and execute attacks. As expected, each of the game’s clans are colorful and distinct, bringing their own approaches, abilities, and weaknesses to the field.

Perhaps the most immediate change-up is that there are no phases in Crystal Clans. Where Summoner Wars straitjacketed players with a highly regimented procession of steps — first summoning, then moving, shooting and thwacking, and finally managing your magical economy — here you’re free to do whatever you like whenever you like. Want to open your turn by throwing some units into battle? Go right ahead. If the melee doesn’t go in your favor, you’re free to summon a new set of troops or move someone else to replace their fallen comrades. Even the act of replenishing your hand is an action, letting you decide when to pick up new options.

This allows players quite a bit of latitude in how they choose to prosecute the battle. The sole limitation is the board’s initiative track. Every action incurs a cost that pushes a sky-blue crystal along the track. Summoning a lone soldier or moving a weaker unit might only push the track by one or two pips, while pounding an entire squad onto the table could cost eight or more. Your turn ends whenever the crystal reaches your opponent’s side of the table, but your current action gets to finish in its entirety — for instance, by summoning three guys at once. This gives Crystal Clans a powerful sense of tempo, one where you’re allowed to choose between minor actions that will severely limit your opponent’s next turn or big splashy moves that give them the ability to mobilize in force.

But what really cranks up the tempo to prestissimo is your ultimate goal. Rather than emulating Summoner Wars’ tendency to bunker up behind walls, Crystal Clans is all about pushing, pushing, pushing. In order to win, you must acquire four magical crystals. Most of the time, though, these can only be gained by holding two of the map’s three crystal farms. More than that, nabbing a crystal is expensive, often giving your opponent’s next turn a big head start on the initiative track. But holding the midfield is usually worth the cost, letting you choose when to score and when to overhaul your forces, and pressuring both clans to constantly jockey for position. There are only nine spaces on the board, but they sure see a lot of traffic.

How much do you enjoy rock-paper-scissors?

The battle system is sometimes thrilling, other times infuriating.

One of the game’s more abnormal aspects is the way it fields armies. Rather than spreading them out, one per space, you can pile three troops together in a squad, splaying their stats but sadly concealing their sublime artwork. There are ways to break the three-troop limit — it wouldn’t be a Plaid Hat dueling game otherwise — but most of the time a squad caps out at three. Unless separated, they will move together, battle together, and often make use of only the abilities of the topmost unit.

It’s when two squads clash that this system both comes into its own and outs itself as somewhat clunky. In battle, both players throw down a card from their hand — or from the top of their deck if that isn’t an option — and compare the bottom portion of both cards. This functions a little bit like a game of rock-paper-scissors. If you’ve chosen a battle tactic that trumps your opponent’s tactic, you get the stronger ability. The opposite is also true, with matching tactics or weaker tactics earning a more marginal benefit. Most of the time this means some extra attack or defense, but some clans boast powerful unique benefits, like moving out of conflict, adding a new unit straight into the fight, or removing units from the game entirely.

It isn’t quite as directionless as it sounds, and allows weaker squads to overcome the odds, especially when you’ve set aside a powerful tactic for just the right conflict. It’s also nice that every card pulls double duty as both battlefield unit and combat tactic, lending the game a slight hand management angle.

That said, this system also has the unfortunate effect of making many units feel weirdly samey, robbing them of their identity by burying them beneath their squad leader. There’s a chance they’ll pop into the open when the card above them is killed, but squads often wipe each other out rather than inflicting piecemeal hits. Worse, the whole thing feels burdened by battles being too functionally similar — there are no “ranged” units, for instance, beyond the Stone Clan’s tendency to leave the occasional ballista sitting in an adjacent space, and certainly there are fewer movement tricks and nontraditional attacks than Summoner Wars provided. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it remains to be seen whether the designers will be able to distinguish each clan’s approach to battle in the future. For now, there’s already some ability overlap between clans, which doesn’t bode well for the system’s elasticity.

As far as game goals go, it's nice that these occasionally twist the rules in your favor. Nifty.

You’ll be wanting these.

Of course, the proof has always been in the pudding for a game like this. It’s currently impossible to determine whether Crystal Clans has the legs to stack up alongside its predecessor, which by its conclusion boasted sixteen factions and forty summoners. This game doesn’t need to match those numbers to be a quality product — that would be an insane bar to hurdle — but it remains to be seen whether its core concepts can be spun into new clans and interesting combinations. As of yet, the rules don’t even give us a glimpse of how deck construction will operate.

To its credit, however, this foundation is solid enough that I want it to be successful. I want to make tuckboxes and hold informal tournaments and write twenty articles and dabble in crafting my own faction — and if the folks at Plaid Hat can keep it up, there’s a chance they’ll make that happen.

One of the game’s greatest advantages will surprise precisely nobody, and it’s that the six starting clans are distinct, polished, and handle as differently as a truck, bicycle, and sports car. I’d even go so far as to argue that they’re better balanced than the four factions that brought Summoner Wars onto the scene. The Stone Clan sets up structures in the middle of the battlefield and adds combat bonuses from a distance. The Skull Clan recruits undying units straight out of their discard pile. The Water Clan fills up their opponent’s squads with worthless doppelgangers, then mind controls the best enemy units. The Meteor Clan strives to predict the outcome of battle cards, which sounds worthless until you realize they pull it off by manipulating their rival’s hand. Everybody stands out, and usually in more than one way.

Too bad about the little gem, though. Since it's a little bit rolly, it sometimes misses its number. A flat token would have been better, if not as cool to look at.

The initiative system is Crystal Clans’ best innovation.

Here’s the moment I switched from being suspicious of Crystal Clans to considering what it has to offer.

The Blood Clan looks like a pack of wimps, and their behavior doesn’t do much to counter that notion. Their Horde ability means that most of their units can pile into ever-growing squads that look scary on paper but also resemble paper in terms of ruggedness. I moved quickly at first, claiming my first two crystals before my opponent could mobilize. Then the price of those crystals caught up to me and my opponent — the ultra-tough knights of the Meteor Clan — began walking straight across the table, murdering my elders and shamans and marauders and trappers with very little effort.

I floundered. The Meteor Clan picked up their first crystal. The next turn, they got their second. Then their third. No matter what I threw at them, it seemed I couldn’t dislodge them from the crystal farms they’d claimed. It took everything I had to push them out of the middle zone, and they had an army just one space away, ready to reclaim it and win the game.

That’s when I changed tack.

In addition to being numerous, the Blood Clan is fast. Scary fast. Their Aarock Riders and the hero Condor can fly, moving multiple zones for the cost of one move. And I had a squad of these guys left over from last turn that were within striking distance of the enemy clan’s home zone.

This was a golden opportunity that requires a bit of explanation. To win, you need four crystals. Most of the time, the only way to claim a crystal is to hold two of those crystal farms. However, there’s also a rule that you get a free crystal if your opponent is forced to shuffle their deck — and you can sap their deck by taking an invade action while in control of their home zone. For three measly pips on the initiative track, they’re forced to discard as many cards as your raiding squad is strong.

My squad had sixteen attack strength. Just enough to force the Meteor Clan to shuffle their deck. The cost of my fourth crystal put us way over onto the other team’s side of the initiative track, but it didn’t matter. The Blood Clan was victorious.

Yeah, I dig these guys.

An interlocking defense.

At its best, Crystal Clans is full of moments like that, where clever moves rule the day over brute force. Battles can be swung in your favor, the tempo of the initiative track can be bullied to prevent an opponent from having the actions they need, and your squads can be employed in such a way that they run circles around their enemies.

Crystal Clans still has a lot to prove. It remains to be seen how deck construction will materialize or if additional clans will be as distinct as the first handful. But for now, I’m intrigued. The gameplay is brisk, intelligent, marches to a killer tempo courtesy of its initiative track, and knows how to land a punch. This starting box just might be the beginning of something great.

Posted on April 4, 2018, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Alexandre Limoges

    I was wondering if you would review this one… Summoner Wars sits in my top 3 all time. I have played hundreds of games and own the entire collection, sleeved, in the alliance box. It’s the heaviest game in my collection.

    When I read the rules of Crystal Clans I was not sure. It reminded me a bit of League of Legends, or Dota 2, but there was something about those stacking units I was not sure about. I am still lukewarm about it. It does not help that the buzz was so weak around this PHG offering. There used to be a time when I would just buy every game that Plaid Hat would come up with on pre-order. Ashes and Dead of Winter cooled me down.

    But this is a Colby Dauch game… I guess, at this point, that I am still waiting – on the fence. As you, let’s see how it develops…

    • I’m in a similar spot — the over-packed Alliances set, one of my favorite games… except I hate sleeves and don’t get to play it as often as I’d like.

      As for Crystal Clans, it’s a lot better than I thought it would be. But now it’s up to those guys to stick the landing. I’d love to have another periodic release game like Summoner Wars to get sucked into, but at this point the jury is still out.

  2. Andrew Symons

    Great review (as always). You say units feel samey but the clans feel different. Do you feel that there is less interesting tactical play in how you order or stock units within a clan?

    • Good question, Andrew. Perhaps I should clarify. The units are (usually) distinct, but piling them together — which covers up their abilities and artwork — turns them into nothing but their attack/defense/activation stats.

      There’s something to be said for the decisions that come parcel with the squads. Should you place weaker units up top to absorb hits, or a heavy unit to maybe block a bunch of damage but surrender his higher cost if he bites it? Are you facing an enemy who flanks (deals damage to the bottom of your squad rather than the top of it), or a Flower Clan enemy with Sleep (negates the attack of your topmost unit)? Which unit’s ability do you want on top of a clan? These are all things you need to consider.

      While the units strike me as somewhat less tactically interesting and diverse than those from Summoner Wars, that isn’t as simple a verdict as it may seem. For one thing, I’m not necessarily talking about the first handful of factions that Summoner Wars put out, I’m talking about all sixteen factions and all forty summoners. The comparison is skewed, not only by the breadth of Summoner Wars, but also by my hard-earned mastery of it.

      More than that, I appreciate the way Crystal Clans pitches its conflict. It’s about pushing forward, not huddling behind walls. It’s about doing as much as possible with as few initiative points as possible, rather than churning away most of your common cards to find and produce your champions. It’s about carefully timing the proper moment to take a crystal and heap initiative upon your opponent.

      In short, it provides some great tactical quandaries. For now, though, my primary worry is whether Plaid Hat will be able to produce new ways to bend to those quandaries.

  3. Wow, thank you for the mini review! Your reply really details the play and shows great insight. Not sure it’s got me off the fence but it’s solid shove in that direction.

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