Too Common for Me
One thing not mentioned about my sojourn to Japan was the long hours reserved for myself away from friends and creature comforts of home. One of the defining element of our lives which we hardly pay much attention to (or too much depending on who you ask) is the importance of entertainment. Part of the whole idea behind the Industrial Revolution was to develop more leisure time for the average individual that they could enjoy personal pursuits and self-improvement without being enslaved to the daily toil of the farming life.
Which, given Victorian sensibilities, I can only assume is code for them trying to get people to stop drinking so damn much.
Well, unfortunately, I’m already on that Victorian bandwagon and am hardly going to fret away what few pounds sterling I have on something so ephemeral as alcohol. And in this glorious age of technology, we’ve done a pretty thorough job of expanding the options for amusement. Games, movies, television, songs and art are all available for a pittance with the connectivity of global telecommunications.
But despite the global reach, there’s still a strong regional influence. All of this is to say that there’s not a hell of a lot to do in Japan if you don’t like watching Japanese variety shows, observing Japanese baseball games or drinking in Japanese pubs. I didn’t have my precious computer either so most online options were restricted especially given Kait’s rather spotty Internet provider.
Thankfully, some of the local ALTs thought to band together and hold a boardgame night. Unfortunately, they did it once while I was there. However, it did remind me of the digital program for running the games I owned at home. Course, then I remembered that Kait hates the digital interface and won’t play with me on it.
So, the long and the short of it is I ended up spending a fair bit of time playing Summoner Wars by myself. How’s that for a rambling lead-in?
Yes, this is going to be another damn Summoner Wars post. Yes, this is mostly because I’m busy with other work and haven’t done much that’s exciting since coming home other than lie in bed and try to recover from this flu. Such is life.
Actually, if I’m being honest, my discourse today didn’t come quite as organically as I pretend. What truly got me thinking and poking around with the game systems of the heavily flawed game was the four hour bus ride to Hirosaki. I tried to download some Android app games to amuse us on the road only to find that most mobile games are utter trash. Sorry, that’s elitist. Most mobile games do not meet the stringent requirements of my refined tastes.
However, while we spent most of our time lobbing digital artillery in a free version of battleship, I remembered that one of the things I found fascinating with Derek’s smartphone (back in the day) was how he was able to play the boardgames we usually pulled out when I visited on his bus rides to and from work. I poked around what was available (read: free because I’m not convinced I’m going to use any app enough to warrant a purchase) and lo and behold Plaid Hat Games had a version of the game online. I gleefully downloaded it, then had the damn thing crash on my four or five times while I refused to register my Google account with its psychographic services.
I did manage to get it working… somewhat. I’d be more annoyed if I properly signed up for it and it was still this unstable. But I’m not here to review the software. Instead, playing the game repeatedly with only the Phoenix Elf summoner Prince Elien made me realize something important about Summoner Wars:
It’s a bad game.
I know, I’ve complained about its design before and at this point I’m unlikely to be selling anyone on it anyway. My continued discourse around it, once again, lies in my sister’s interest and the fact that it is so simple that analyzing it is much easier. It’s like learning to dissect a fetal pig before plunging wholesale into a dead body trying to figure out what killed it. I’ve listed the numerous issues that Summoner Wars has faced before. But it wasn’t until I was playing match after match against the AI and soundly trouncing it in games against decks and cards I’d never even seen before that I realized just how poorly the game is made. And we can argue subjectivity and whatnot until we are blue in the face but I can categorically state the game is bad on one objective criteria:
Summon Wars is highly unintuitive.
This is to say, the way to win at Summoner Wars is not the way you’d expect to play when you first look at the rules. Course, pick up any game and you’re not going to understand its intricacies or nuances, however the design of the game itself seems to underline the intent of its design. Perhaps I’m putting too much credit in the programmers hands, but when the official mobile app isn’t even programmed to play in a manner that would lead to victory it makes me think that the design itself is doomed to failure.
So what am I getting at? Simply put, Summoner Wars hates commons. It’s a game that, thematically, is meant to simulate a combat between opposing armies. But all of its gameplay elements discourage or outright punish you for fielding an army. Common units are the most prominent piece of a player’s deck and are easily the least valuable. Worse than that, they’re negative value.
It was rather remarkable, actually, watching the AI lob legion after legion of its own forces against my side churning into an unending meat grinder of points that skyrocketed me to victory no matter which opponent I set myself against. It didn’t even matter if I tried playing with my faction’s worst cards as the matches continued to be lopsided so long as I didn’t mimic the suicidal tactic of wasting all my resources on buying the rank and file soldiers of my deck. I couldn’t help but think how discouraging this must be for newer players to be presented a system, given a baffling rundown of how it works and then intuitively play over and over again in a manner that only assured defeat.
Seriously. Can you imagine what chess would be like if the very act of moving your piece towards your enemy was categorically losing option? If you, as an uninformed player, are told the rules of a game, the mechanics shouldn’t work against the general idea of how you expect to play.
So why do commons suck so much in Summoner Wars? A shorter question to answer would be “when do commons not suck?”
Let’s look at a basic component of the game to highlight the issue. The two primary combat phases–movement and attack–are both regulated by the same restriction: a player–unless a card specified otherwise–can move with and attack with a maximum of three cards per turn. Ok, seems harmless enough. Except, the goal of the game is to kill the enemy’s summoner, a card which is permanently on the board and in play. Given the short length of the board, the high value of the summoner and the importance of keeping her alive, you’re most likely going to be using one of your three precious movement/attack options on your summoner. There is no benefit to putting a unit on the board which you aren’t planning on moving or using for an attack since there are almost no passive abilities that give you a general benefit. Playing your summoner defensively is far easier than offensively since the situations that allow instantaneous reinforcement don’t usually happen on the enemy’s side. Thus, you’re able to use your summoner with far less risk than someone attacking. Thus you’re incentivized to play defensively…
Another issue with common units is that they’re just so fragile. The vast majority are one or two health and getting two or more dice on an attack is pretty easy. This is to say that your poor common is, on average, going to live one round. If you can’t hit with it that round then you’ve just wasted your magic summoning it. Ambushing units on your side makes it more likely that you can get into position than marching them across the enemy’s empty spaces. Thus, defensively you’re at an advantage and…
It just keeps piling up. The real nail, however, is in the game’s fundamental economy. The resource you have for using many of your events and summoning your units is magic. Magic is composed of the units killed by the forces you control or the cards dropped from your hand. Since you always draw up to five at the start of your turn, there’s really no reason for you to hold onto the numerous commons that make up your deck. Furthermore, putting them on the table costs magic and if they just turn around and die to your opponent then you’ve given them magic. Most commons cost one or two magic. Champions, on the other hand, cost around six. So they’re about a turn of discarding your hand, have double or even triple the attack and health of a common and usually have unique or stronger abilities in comparison too. Champions, with their larger life, are more likely to last more than one round so can make the treacherous crossing into the opponent’s territory. They have the attack value to actually do damage while alive too. They’re so expensive you’re not likely to have many out at the same time and since there’s a limit on unit movement and attack, it’s hard to deal with them strictly through commons on the enemy’s side. Especially without using more magic to do so.
Champions are better in every way. They have a downside, of course, and that’s their cost. All decks in Summoner Wars have 32 cards (2 walls, 9 events, 3 champions, 18 commons) in them so that puts a hard limit on the amount of magic a player can generate in an entire game. If you only want to summon champions and let’s say you want to summon all three, you have to devote 18 magic to them. Using your own cards to build magic is the most assured way to get your magic so you’re devoting over half your deck to summoning those champions. And that’s not even taking into account any of the 9 events you may want to play or your 2 walls buried in there as well.
Let’s do some math!
3 Champions at 6 Magic = 18 Magic
32 Deck – 18 Magic = 14 Cards
14 Cards – 2 Walls – 3 Champions – 9 Events = well I’ll be damned.
So, in conclusion, Summoner Wars restricts the number of commons you can use per turn and makes them compete with higher valued champions and summoners. It designs them to be fragile and unable to compete with champions and summoners in a one-on-one engagement or even with each other. It then forces you to decide whether you want those commons in the first place or would you rather have the economy to afford those game winning champions. Because every common you put on the field is a common you have to kill of your opponent’s if you want a champion.
And if he’s saving up for his own champions then… well…
But this isn’t all doom and gloom. I’ve been working on an idea.