You Can Kill Your Own Units for Magic
You can kill your own units for magic.
That’s something I always tell people when I teach them how to play Summoner Wars. Over the past decade, I’ve taught Plaid Hat’s inaugural game to perhaps forty people. In person, that is. Online, the number gets fuzzier. Whether through my match reports, faction discussions, or that one rudimentary strategy guide, whenever somebody mentions they began reading Space-Biff! through Summoner Wars, it warms my heart. Maybe that’s because there aren’t many games I’ve felt such a need to talk about. Which is why, after introducing the phases, the way units move and attack, and the clever magic system, I always share three pieces of advice — because, as this game’s advocate, there’s nothing I’d want less than to stomp a newcomer. One, you should try to block the spaces around my walls. Two, keep in mind that units also cost the magic you aren’t gaining by discarding them. And three, you can kill your own units for magic.
Ten years later, with even its would-be successor dead and gone, I want to talk about Summoner Wars one last time.
The premise is pristine in its simplicity. You have a summoner. The other guy has a summoner. You want to kill the other summoner while protecting your summoner.
I’d snark that it’s a concept as old as planeswalkers, but in truth it’s even older. Could ever two wizards share territory? No, of course not, not any more naturally than competing boarboon alphas. Oh, there were ostensibly wizards that got along. Alliances of convenience or inclination. But those were fluff, off-table, in the background. You could talk all day about how the Vanguard and the Mountain Vargath were great buddies; as soon as their leaders were on the field, it was throwdown time.
And what a throwdown it was. Summoner Wars benefited from a hook that cut even deeper than its simplicity, more sharply than its straightforward goal. The entire thing was just so damnably easy to get into. When you bought a starter pack, you had two factions and a creased paper mat. Later, the master set provided six factions and a board. These factions were vastly different — more on that later — but far more importantly they were complete. Reinforcement packs and second summoners and blended alliance factions would later let you tinker with your army composition according to a few rules I can still recite from memory. But those were add-ons. The basic sets provided each faction with thirty-five cards in total, maybe more if they had something special going on. A deck thick enough to provide options, but not so thick you wouldn’t have a handle on their abilities within a single play.
This isn’t to say there weren’t subtleties and advanced strategies and everything else that keeps players involved. It’s just that they tended to be baked into the system rather than built over the top. Magic is a good example. At the end of every turn, you could look at the cards you hadn’t used and decide whether to transform them into magic. Everything you killed also became magic, a tidy incentive to go chasing after minor units, but what you threw into your magic pile was the decision Summoner Wars hinged on. That champion wasn’t merely a champion; she was also potential currency. Every unit you deployed and spell you cast and wall you built was spent economic potential. It was a decision between deploying Benjamin Franklin and George Washington to the battlefield or spending their bills. This generated its own tempo: the slow positional early game, the chaos as formations broke apart and units were hastily summoned to fill the gaps, the lean conclusion with empty decks and lingering troops. The pace of your burnt hand and deck became a negotiated rhythm between opposing sides. Too fast and you decked, at the mercy of a more cautious opponent. Too slow and you were inundated early.
In retrospect, this had some strange side effects. The whole “killing your own units” thing was foremost among them. I remember my inner self recoiling when I first read about that on the Plaid Hat forums. Sure, I could see delivering the final blow to a wounded unit to prevent your rival from claiming their magic. But murdering your starting entourage for an early-game boost? What seemed fair game for teams like the Fallen Kingdom, with its zombies and skeletons, would have been abhorrent to the uptight Vanguard or, well, even the factions that weren’t outright evil. Do the Tundra Orcs enjoy being murdered for magic? Are the Cave Goblins okay with this state of affairs? Does Phoenix Elf society regard their Prince as so above the law that he can blast you in the butt for the sake of a minor mana gain?
Of course, within a week of reading the strategy I put it into practice at one of our game night tournaments. Twelve people had gathered in my small living room to claim the crown. I opened the first match by flinging bolts at my own guys. “Is that even allowed?” my opponent asked. I steamrolled him seven rounds later, with plenty of magic left over. And, in a very small way, Summoner Wars had become a different game. Not entirely better, not entirely worse. Just different.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Ask most veterans of the Summoner Wars what set the conflict apart from other wizard battles and you’ll probably hear about factions. This is the right response, even if it doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s true that the factions were utterly wonderful, full of imagination and variety that would continue to be evident at Plaid Hat Games even long after their golden days seemed to wane. Even those first teams spelled it out. The Guild Dwarves were stout and boasted heroes that required care lest they hurt their friends. The Cave Goblins were numerous and numerous. The Tundra Orcs were little slot machines, hitting hard or not at all. And the Phoenix Elves didn’t like rolling dice, so they didn’t.
Every release thereafter was another surprise, more proof that Colby Dauch and his pals were masters of the asymmetrical faction. The Vanguards were built around defense and healing. The Fallen Kingdom could revive their deceased units. The Jungle Elves could basically teleport to your back row. The Cloaks were masters of deception and thievery. When the master set landed, it was a breathtaking display of invention. Despite the game’s simple ruleset, everyone handled in their own way. There was mind control, obscuring sandstorms, charging ram-boys, swamp vines that spread gradually across the map. All distinct.
Not balanced, however, although that was partly the fault of the original factions. Looking back, it’s easier to pinpoint the series’ missteps than during the thick of it. Some factions fielded powerful champions or common units that could effectively lock down entire lanes, elevating them as tournament favorites no matter how cool the newer summoners were. Certain spells had been designed as catch-ups, bestowing magic or free units if you had fewer troops on the field than your opponent. But this prompted everyone to keep their unit count low, favoring champions over actual armies. This even permanently hobbled those factions as they gained reinforcements and second summoners — Plaid Hat couldn’t very well add more enticing common units to an army that would pop them out for free. Despite the reissue of an early misprinted soldier, Plaid Hat didn’t seem interested in addressing these issues with a second edition. Instead, many later factions were mitigative: stronger common units, anti-champ tricks, weirder options meant to bog down a rush or snipe a summoner cowering behind his walls and burning his deck for champions.
In that vein, Summoner Wars taught me that balance is overrated. Yes, the Guild Dorks were too powerful. Yes, the Phoenix Elves were annoying to play against. That might matter in an official tournament, but our personal matches with gift card prizes and bragging rights featured faction drafts and pick-your-poison exchanges. The imbalances could even be treated as features, letting an experienced player war against a newcomer without self-imposed handicaps or playing soft. With sixteen initial pre-built factions, sixteen additional second summoners, and eight hybrid factions, there were teams aplenty to pick from, but not so many that we hadn’t learned their strengths, deficiencies, and peccadilloes well enough to cobble together an evening of ladder-climbing.
Ultimately, that’s the hidden detail that made Summoner Wars special: it was slow enough for busy adults to play without breaking either the bank or their neurons. There’s no question that Netrunner was brilliant, but it gets called a “lifestyle game” for a reason. I remember the first time I walked into a local Netrunner event with my pitiful starter box and barely-opened data packs. Everybody else had curated binders, decks crammed with as many duplicates as the ruled permitted, and were either half my age or double it. When with some reluctance I was finally granted a table, I was promptly cut off at the knees and mocked by my fourteen-year-old opponent for (tacitly) having pursued marriage, an education, and a career rather than keeping up with Fantasy Flight’s monthly release cycle. Years later I purchased a tournament-winning deck. It was a sleek, mathematical thing, filled with undoubtedly powerful cards that had, in that combination, defeated hundreds of opponents. I never got around to playing it.
By contrast, Summoner Wars was both rigid and flexible in different ways. Each summoner had their pet spells and starting entourage, but otherwise their eighteen common units and three champions could be customized. It took maybe five minutes to prepare a deck, provided you’d glanced over the units. Ten if you hadn’t. That’s the perfect amount of time for slapping together something new while you wait for another pairing to open up. In the meantime, there was always something approaching just over the horizon. New factions, new concepts, a teaser on Plaid Hat’s site. With only a handful of decks released every year between 2009 and 2016, it rewarded attention without ever hoovering it.
It’s impossible to separate my appreciation for this hobby from Summoner Wars. Although it wasn’t the first title that brought me back to the table, it was certainly the one that made me smack my forehead against it. I remember winning a match in an online tournament because I’d brought along a weak unit, a Vanguard angel, which I summoned, flitted over a wall, and dealt a lucky blow to an injured summoner before his orcs could close the gap. I remember discouraging a newcomer with vine walls, their growth so rampant that none of his units could move. I remember playing until four in the morning because our final two players refused to budge, instead plinking at each other’s final defensive wall.
Parcel with that last one, I remember my appreciation for the game transforming, warping, and eventually waning as I got better at it.
Nothing survives contact with mastery. For better and for worse. In the case of Summoner Wars, the game it became was less compelling than the game it had been originally, even as the new factions were built ever more cleverly to bypass the predominant strategies. This slow decay began with the realization that I could kill my starting units. Later, it continued with the realization that commons were a waste of space, an occasional necessity better sacrificed to bring a champion into the world. Years after my first fumbling match, I played against someone I’d met on the game’s forums. It was our first face-to-face encounter. Pride was on the line, and we both knew which approaches would most likely secure a victory. So we circled and feinted, hiding and blocking and building our pools of magic. Not a single starting unit went unkilled to top off that pool. I don’t remember who won. But I remember how sluggish and remote it felt to play well.
A few weeks back, I broke out Summoner Wars for the first time in ages. We marveled over that huge Alliances box, all those factions, all those custom dice from the webstore. We picked out two summoners and played. It was my opponent’s first time, and I won reasonably easily. But I won clean, without cheese. It reminded me of those first years, when the game was at its best because none of its players were yet at their best.
Goodbye, Summoner Wars. You were a bold and clever thing. A flawed thing, too. But beautiful, in the way that only flawed things can be. And, in the end, nothing sums up your peaks and valleys quite as well as the fact that you could kill your own units for magic.