You Don’t Kill Your Own Units for Magic

This is what happens when box covers look cool instead of being conducive to my terrible cropping.

Hard to believe it’s only been a year since I bid adieu to Summoner Wars. When I wrote that piece, I believed it was my final paean to a game that kindled friendships and shaped my approach to the tabletop hobby. Only a short time later, Colby Dauch mentioned he was working on a second edition. It didn’t seem real. Even after chatting about it on the Space-Cast!, I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it would ever materialize.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve played the second edition of Summoner Wars nearly every day. Some part of me still doesn’t quite believe it. The other part has to acknowledge that it might not be the same this time around. The same friendships. The same community. That same pull to create new factions and discuss rules on the Plaid Hat forums.

That all comes later. For now, I want to tell you about Summoner Wars, and why the second edition feels like coming home.

Unrequited in both cases.

Sneeks! My old friend. Sera Eldwyn! My old flame.

Summoner Wars is about assassination. The goal is to kill your rival. Nothing else matters. You can spend yourself into the ground, cower as a hostile army advances on your position, and watch as your best friends are blasted to pieces. As long as the other summoner draws their dying breath before you, that’s a victory.

This might not seem like a big deal, but that straightforward framework informs everything that follows. Summoner Wars — the original — was designed as a cheaper alternative to games like Heroscape. You know the genre: tactical combat, lots of miniatures, the sort of thing everybody ogles on the table, and expensive both to play and produce.

Summoner Wars went the other direction. The terrain was compressed to a simple rectangular grid and the miniatures became cards. Casting its head honchos as summoners meant nobody began with their army already deployed. As a match progressed, units were purchased and placed next to magical “walls.” This was a natural fit for the game’s economy. Every card could either be used for its printed effect as a unit, an event, or a wall, or discarded to increase your supply of magic. Killing units also increased your magic. This was the final application of glue that held everything together: each card on the table was purchased with blood, whether your own or your opponent’s, transforming every summoned troop and discarded card into a tradeoff.

This was also the first sign of Summoner Wars’ rather peculiar metagame. Magic didn’t only come from killing enemies. Any unit would suffice. It wasn’t long before clever players came up with optimal approaches. By killing their own units, hiding behind their stout opening walls, and burning every common unit from their hand to afford powerful champions, certain victory was within reach. Pair that with another clever player and you had two sides staring across no man’s land rather than having a summoner war. Dauch and his codesigners scrambled to bring the metagame back into balance. Tougher commons, anti-champion units, smarter powers. Summoner Wars lived a long life even after somebody realized they could murder their own pals, regardless of whether they were playing the evil Ret-Talus or the righteous Sera Eldwyn.

Still, the game had been gamed.

Personally, I like the new art style. It pops better. It's more distinct from a distance. But hey, de gustibus non est disputandum and all that.

Poring over a hand of five cards feels as good as ever.

The big transformation of the second edition is that the entire thing has been assembled with the benefit of hindsight. In some cases, the solutions are deceptively simple. There’s no more killing your own units for magic; your options are limited to discarding cards from your hand or hunting down opposing troops. It’s a small thing, but it removes the cheesiest opening moves with the wave of a hand.

Other solutions are more sweeping. Squirreling away your summoner can still be useful, especially if you’re hurting. But going a turn without attacking now inflicts a wound on your summoner. Meanwhile, your walls — renamed gates, which makes more sense anyway — are more fragile than before. Left unattended, they’re liable to crumble. Far better to protect them with affordable units. Those little folks have been significantly beefed up, by the way. Champions still make focal points of themselves whenever they stride onto the field, but they aren’t quite as overwhelming, largely because common units are more likely to last longer than a single turn and deal respectable damage on their own.

There’s also more flexibility to everything. Spells can be played in any printed phase instead of only during a specific event phase. Which means that some appear during the summoning phase to allow a unit to pop straight out of your summoner, or during movement to hurtle units around the board, or squat around between turns to mitigate damage. Deck construction isn’t present yet, but the rulebook promises that summoners will be able to swap out spells in addition to units. It’s anybody’s guess whether this will bear fruit, but the idea of reworking an entire deck right down to its bones is exciting.

Attacks have also become more flexible. Instead of rolling regular six-sided dice, the addition of custom dice throws the doors open. Previously, all attacks landed on the same odds, with no difference except that ranged attacks were straight upgrades of melee attacks. Ranged attacks are now slightly less likely to hit, only dealing wounds on four of a die’s faces compared to five for melee. Meanwhile, two faces also show a special symbol. What’s it for? Pretty much whatever the designers decide. Healing. Extra damage. Protective shields. Self-damage! All sorts of stuff that we can’t really get into without discussing the factions.

Speaking of which, why not? The factions have always been the coolest thing about Summoner Wars.

It's also nice that the new visual style uses wider cultural touchstones.

Plaid Hat has always excelled at giving each faction its own identity.

Five of the six factions in the inaugural set will be familiar to players of the original game. This might sound like Plaid Hat is repeating old tricks, and it’s true that some familiar faces appear in the crowd. But on the whole, each faction has been outfitted anew. In some cases, this results in wildly different styles of play.

We’ll start with the most familiar. In their original incarnation, the Cave Goblins were about strength in numbers, spitting out zero-cost units that were usually worth their weight in farts. Sometimes less, since they made for easy magic harvesting by your rival. The same is true here, but only to an extent. Cave Goblin units are still cheaper than old dirt and put up about as much resistance, but they make up for it with free attacks, a few crazy tricks of maneuverability, and free attacks. Under normal circumstances, only three units can attack each turn. If that sounds restrictive, the Cave Goblins agree, so they tend to fill up the map with units whose attacks don’t count against that limit. Even better, they’re highly mobile. Beast Riders sprint past enemy defenses and get an attack bonus if they travel far enough. Climbers move past gates without any trouble. Clingers grab onto traveling friendlies, also smashing the limit of three moves per turn. And these are all designed to complement Sneeks, the Cave Goblin summoner, who can swap positions with one of his expendable troops. The goal is to overwhelm any opposing defenses with cheap units, get right in your rival’s face, and dash in Sneeks for the killing blow.

Familiar, right? Fans of the original are probably thinking, “Wow, none of that is new.” But it feels new. Certain units are sturdier. The starting deck has been balanced more carefully. Above all, the Cave Goblins seem to punch harder than before. You aren’t just killing them for magic. You’re getting rid of legitimate threats.

Similarly familiar are the Breakers, formerly known as the Benders. They’re all about control, in two separate but complementary senses. First, they have mind control. Their summoner, Tacullu, takes command of any unit she kills. Even better, her personal event lets her take control of every unit within two spaces. Remember that Cave Goblin horde? If properly positioned, Tacullu can seize control of the whole thing for the duration of a turn, making them pick each other apart while she hides herself away. Second, the Breakers are experts at disrupting enemy positions, using lots of push effects to shove the ranks of the enemy army apart. When paired with their Deceiver unit, who deals damage whenever a unit moves away from an adjacent space, you can effectively rake enemy units across a wall of Deceivers like cheese across a grater.

The Savannah Elves reimagine my old favorite faction the Jungle Elves, renowned for their absurd mobility. That mobility returns intact, but only if you earn it via the “boost” system, which places special tokens on units to bestow new powers. The Lioness, for example, gains a boost whenever she attacks; these then increase her life, upgrading her from a glass cannon into a tungsten cannon. The Rhinoceros tramples over enemy units to deal damage, and can move farther for each boost, while Border Archers spend boosts for additional attacks. These units are poised to become absolutely devastating, but only after careful preparation. Boost-granting chants, summoner Abua Shi’s spirit bond, and the ministrations of Spirit Mages are both essential and time-consuming. Playing the Savannah Elves isn’t just about power, but about properly tending that power until your troops overflow with destructive energy.

Gotta love a semi-invincible lioness.

Even the familiar factions have been renewed.

Part of what makes Plaid Hat’s approach so compelling is that each faction is built around a unifying idea, but with extra strengths to reinforce their identity. One of the best examples is the mirroring of the Vanguards and the Fallen Kingdom. On a mechanical level, they’re two sides of the same coin, dipping into their discard piles to retrieve units. Yet they feel completely different in practice, to the point that resurrection comes across as a divine blessing for one and a horrific disruption of nature for the other.

The Fallen Kingdom, you might have guessed, is the “horrific disruption” team. Ret-Talus is all about raising the dead, but in the virulent sense. Undead Carriers beget more Undead Carriers straight from the discard pile. Other abominations are torn directly from Ret-Talus’s side, or even from other units using the Blood Summon event. This is an act of violence, inflicting wounds on the card doing the summoning. But Ret-Talus knows his troops will soon return to the earth they sprang from, so he also has an event that accrues boosts as units die, then uses those boosts to heal wounds from a single card — including himself. When playing as the Fallen Kingdom, resurrection is a temptation, an act you’re always persuading yourself you can undertake just one more time. And it might be true, provided you time it just right.

Sera Eldwyn of the Vanguards, by contrast, shepherds her troops rather than abusing them. After attacking, she can pull a Citadel unit out of her discard. But this unit goes to her hand, where it can be spent as magic again. There’s a tidal rhythm to her hand management that’s more naturalistic, life forces ebbing and flowing, rather than being torn from mortal vessels and stuffed into cracked ones. Her living troops tend to be well-kempt. One of the best Vanguard champions, Coleen Brighton, rolls dice whenever a nearby unit is attacked. For every one of those special results, the attacker rolls one fewer die. Meanwhile, Temple Priests also roll dice in order to “attack” friendly units and heal them. Where the Fallen Kingdom’s battlefield is a riot of souls torn from the soil, the Vanguards present ordered ranks that maintain one another’s posture and constitution. They don’t only look like armored foot-knights. They behave as such.

Perhaps because of their novelty, my current pick is the Polar Dwarves. Their thing is cowering behind fortifications, including special structures called Parapets they can fire over. Don’t assume this is the same as turtling. The Polar Dwarves can push around their own structures, creating creeping glaciers that soon crowd into opposing territory. They even have Ice Golems who behave as both units and gates, trudging forward and slugging things, but also popping out new units. It isn’t uncommon to watch as more and more of the board disappears behind them, scraped barren by the passage of their gates, while Ice Mages chuck icicles from behind their defenses.

Oh, and they have Bear Cavalry. So, y’know, favorite faction.

Notably, the Vanguards and Fallen Kingdom were two of the original game's weaker factions. Now they're plain scary.

Protected units who get healed after taking damage. That’s the stuff.

The joy of Summoner Wars comes from placing these factions on a collision course. The Savannah Elves need time and space to tend to their units, so what happens when they’re immediately assaulted by Cave Goblins? The Vanguards benefit from proximity, so what happens when they’re pushed apart by Breakers? Even within the same matchup, the shuffle of each deck produces new surprises. Earlier this evening, I played a match that saw the Breakers adopting an unusual brute-force approach against the Fallen Kingdom, and almost winning because on two occasions they mind-controlled a horror named Elut-Bal who had erupted from a cultist. The battlefield was a scorched wasteland of undead who couldn’t decide which side they fought for.

These matches have more momentum than before. Battles are propulsive and exciting, rolls are tense, and every summoning phase sees new possibilities popping into existence. Perhaps I haven’t seen enough to recognize the makings of another stiff metagame. That’s entirely possible. But for now, this feels like the promise of Summoner Wars made good. Summoner Wars without the cheesy early murders, the endless bunkering, the focus on champions to the exclusion of all else. More importantly, more than Summoner Wars sans negatives, this feels like Summoner Wars as designed by a more experienced team. The phases are smoother. The factions are crisp, distinct, and absent the bloat and complexity that marked the original game’s back half. The only thing I miss is getting to place enemy cards in my magic pile. The magic pile is gone entirely, replaced by a magic tracker. And that’s such a tiny detail that I’m embarrassed to have brought it up.

Point is, the whole package is comfortably familiar. It’s also closer to its ideal form, more about clever maneuvers and exciting combinations and unexpected swings of fortune. I have yet to play a boring match or experience any significant confusion over how an ability functions. I’m sure a few lie in wait. But those seem like exceptions, not constant threats.

Now let's find out what happens when I like a game so much that I can't find much negative to say about it.

The killing blow.

Summoner Wars feels like coming home. A year ago, that homecoming was reminiscent of returning to a childhood space and finding it smaller, dingier, not as grand as it had once seemed. Today, the second edition makes for a warmer return. Like watching a favorite film and finding that, rather than aging poorly, it reveals new nuances and depths. Like walking into a house and finding it comfortable and inviting and ready for a pillow fight.

Will it last? No idea. I hope so. The tabletop hobby has changed over the past decade. It’s more saturated, more competitive, even populated by a few titles that took cues from what Summoner Wars got right the first time around. Either way, there’s nothing quite like catching up with an old friend. Welcome back, Summoner Wars.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on April 16, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. We need to schedule a game night!

  2. We need to schedule a game night! Sounds fun!

  3. Alexandre Limoges

    I had an entire collection of the first edition, protected from A to Z with official sleeves. And never played a game more than I played that one. I sold it for reasons similar to the ones you evoke. It happened that mid-covid, having lost the chance to play with the friend who loved it as much as I did, I returned to it and found it less compelling, more capricious, more fragile, maybe, than I used to.
    I have high hopes, I must say..,.

  4. We need to schedule a game night! Sounds fun! And get pizza!

  5. I can’t oversell how much of a big deal the title “You Don’t Kill Your Own Units for Magic
    ” was to me. I simply could not get past the existence of the strategy of last hitting your own cards for magic, and now i’m really curious if I would like v2!

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