Call Forth Consistency – Summoner Wars Rant
So, it appears even with my post on resolutions, neither of my co-contributors managed to put something up despite their promises to the contrary. I am shocked – shocked I tell you! But mostly I’m just happy they demonstrated my point about New Year’s resolutions. Never fear, though, I will never leave you dear reader. I am enduring just as are my misguided rants. Today’s is going to be on Summoner Wars.
For some background – I was introduced to Summoner Wars first by Derek who raved online to me about how great the game was. Then, when Jeremy picked it up and I got to play it, Derek had nothing but harsh criticism for it. Go figure. However, that didn’t dissuade me from the little past time. It’s cute and quaint in its own way but it isn’t Netrunner for all the positives and negatives that entails.
But that doesn’t really tell you anything about the game.
Summoner Wars features a slightly asymmetrical confrontation between two players on a custom but simple board. Each player chooses a faction represented by a pre-fabricated deck of cards containing one Summoner, three walls, three different types of commons and three unique champions along with a handful of summoner specific events. I would probably liken the game as a mixture between Chess and Magic: The Gathering but with a focus on simplicity and accessibility. It offers some synergy between the cards, most of it focused on proper timing with events. The factions offer their own unique abilities, however, whether it be from the Swamp Orcs and their spreading walls that cover the field or the Deep Dwarves who all feature special abilities that each cost magic but have powerful timing events that make all of those abilities free for one round.
Most interesting is the economy of the game is focused around magic. Well, that in of itself isn’t interesting, but magic is built either through conscious discards from your hand or by landing the final blow on a monster or wall. A player is forced to make tough decisions about whether they want to play their little common minions or discard them for magic to build up a large enough pile to bring forth a champion (all of whom cost far more than the commons). Positioning becomes important as players try to control the board and ultimately the flow of dead bodies by their movement and placement of walls. More importantly, my sister and I have found that it is almost as valuable to kill your own guys as it is to kill the enemies. You only have the opportunity to attack with three cards per turn, however, so it becomes yet another balancing act of choosing whether to go for a full out assault or making quick strike forces which you then murder before the enemy has the opportunity.
It’s quick to pick up, taking a game or two to grasp the basics fairly easy. And the fact that it’s a deck based game with very simple deck building rules as well as pre-constructed armies means introducing new players is a breeze. While I applaud Netrunner for its complexity, it does have the issue of forcing players to keep up with new releases in order to stay competitively viable. But almost a third of a Summoner Wars deck is locked; you can’t mix and match events between summoners, can only have three champions and you must stay within faction when building (or include mercenaries). There’s a very limited pool that doesn’t grow nearly as fast as Netrunner. Especially when new releases for Summoner Wars are often new factions.
So the simplicity is Summoner Wars greatest strength. You can sit down and play it right out of the box without having to construct a deck and when you’re done you can just shelve it knowing it’s ready to go next time you want to battle your opponent.
This isn’t to say the game doesn’t have its flaws. What I want to focus on today, however, is less on the game systems on more on its “fluff.” Specifically, one of the biggest issues I have with Summoner Wars is its art and its themes.
Each faction follows the same formula: stereotypical Tolkein fantasy race preceded by a generic adjective. You have the likes of Swamp Orcs, Sand Goblins, Tundra Orcs and Guild Dwarves squaring off against one another. Elves are on display in the delightful Phoenix (fire), Shadow and Jungle varieties. The closest we get to a unique offering are the Mountain Vargath which are goatmen… from the mountains. So, bonus points for representing goatmen which don’t see ubiquitous fantasy representation but it’s not like we really ran off with the idea here.
Even worse is that the themes of these factions is absolutely lazy and thoughtless. My biggest gripe with the game is that I detest the art. And I don’t mean this just from a style perspective. Though, style is one of my biggest issues. The direction they went with is a very simple, painterly direction. There’s few details and each card is over dominated by the three primary colours used to distinguish each faction. The event cards for the summoners show a zoomed in section of their face which just further highlights the basic design. You could argue that this helps to place the emphasis on the text but Summoner Wars, as mentioned, isn’t a particularly complex system and if Netrunner and Magic: the Gathering can afford to have some rather beautiful art than so can this game.
But outside of the direction, I think the biggest problem with this approach is that it makes all the cards from one faction blend together. Distinguishing between an Jungle Elf Archer and elite Jungle Guard is based more on posture than unique silhouette or form. Summoners and champions lack visual punch to really make them stand out amongst the crowd as well. And this isn’t even broaching the ridiculous use of high heeled battle boots on the few females that show up either.
This bland art flows directly from the rudimentary theming of the factions. I almost can’t blame the artists for providing little visual interest in their designs when they are given something to work with like Glurp the champion of the Swamp Orcs. Course, this isn’t an excuse, for a talent artist would be able to design something from practically nothing. If the art is uninspire, however, the theming is just downright apathetic. The Swamp Orcs main feature is that they grow vine walls across the battle field. Let me throw some emphasis on that last sentence: the Swamp Orcs grow vine walls.
I don’t know if the designers at Plaid Hat Games have seen a swamp so let me link some pictures to demonstrate:
Not a vine in sight. I’m not sure why the Swamp Orcs are focused on vines but the Jungle Elves are not. In fact, the Jungle Elves are equally contentious with the majority of their faction filled with elephants, hyenas, rhinoceroses and lions. For those not fluent in basic ecology, all these creatures are to be found in African Savannahs, not the tangled undergrowths that are typically associated with jungles. To top it all off, their second summoner about to be released is wrapped in a white wolf pelt because apparently the artists can’t even be bothered being remotely close to the faction’s theme (yes, I know it’s to keep with the white primary of their faction but they didn’t even need to choose white as one of the three distinguishing colours of the Jungle Elves in the first place).
This gets back to my earlier complaint about how fantasy seems to be drowning beneath the cliches of its genre. On one hand, Summoner Wars attempts to subvert the tropes of typical fantasy by giving some of their races uncharacteristic ecological backgrounds. But then, when I look at the Tundra Orcs, there’s nothing that really makes them unique from a standard orc other than they have blue skin. They’re still barbaric savages decorated in bone and scraps of cloth. Why aren’t the Tundra Orcs wrapped in hides and furs to keep them warm? It seems like such a logical conclusion from their name.
To finish, I just want to include a picture of a dwarf from the upcoming Obsidian game Pillars of Eternity. Little has been revealed about the setting but I think the image will do most of the talking for me.
At the end of the day, Summoner Wars isn’t ruined by it’s poor art and horrific faction themes. But it’s not made better by them either. Other games are celebrated for their different factions and spend the appropriate time developing them and distinguishing them. The Corporations in Netrunner are all very well realized and I think it makes the game as a whole a lot better for it.