Gonna Have Your Mana
So let’s continue where I left off last week regarding Summoner Wars and it’s design… decisions.
To summarize, the game does not seem to meet its assumed design goals with numerous detractors complaining about how the game promotes and encourages stalemates, passive play and general undesirable attitudes. Last time, I pointed out a few of the game rules that I feel contribute to these issues. Today, I want to discuss my way of overcoming them.
Way back in the summer, I shared my lovely discovery of house rules and homebrews–how a personal touch can take a game and make it all the more tailored to my tastes and preferences. I got to thinking to myself, since I won’t be playing this game with anyone but my sister, it doesn’t matter if I explore a few tweaks and changes to the game that would improve the style of play that my sister enjoys. Namely, she wants to rush across the board and smash face. Coincidentally, this style also appears to be the same that beginners and the Android app utilize so I figured if I could get the system to work as such it would be closer to the design goal that Plaid Hat Games set out to achieve.
So, to accomplish this, I took a moment to stop viewing Summoner Wars as a player and started looking at it as a designer. I thought to myself, “What would I do if I were approached to design Summoner Wars 2.0?” I let the sky be the limit with the tweaks and changes I could accomplish. I looked at the system and pondered what were the key elements to its identity and what parts of it drew me to it. What sets this boardgame out from the rest that should be highlighted?
Really, it’s the blend of board and card that I found the most intriguing. Without the strategic movement and zone control, Summoner Wars is just an incredibly watered down and less dynamic game of Magic: the Gathering. It struck me as such a missed opportunity that the game didn’t have a greater interaction with the board itself. Sure, placement of walls could help funnel or block off avenues from an opponent but the size of the board, the numerous movement options available and the forward summoning off walls mechanic helped to really reduce what strategic value there was in controlling the spaces on the board itself. There is little gain moving your forces and fighting for those spaces between your side and the enemy’s when he can instantly summon reinforcements on his turn and undo all the work you’ve done on your turn.
And the more I thought about it, the more I really didn’t like the summoning mechanic. Ostensibly, it’s made to advantage the aggressor as a forward wall should allow better reinforcement of an assault into enemy territory. The unfortunate reality is that wall summoning wholly benefits the defender. So something there had to change.
I remember a number of suggestions from people in the community was to remove the benefit of gaining magic from killing your own troops. And while I could understand the reasoning behind that, I didn’t like it for several reasons. One, I didn’t think it would encourage more common troop usage since you wouldn’t be able to reclaim some of that investment when you played the card. And two, it didn’t address the fact that building commons for magic was near universally the better move.
And that’s when I started to think about the resource management of Summoner Wars. In my review of the Alliance set, one of the things I harped on repeatedly was that cars with abilities which cost magic were, invariably, worse than ones that didn’t. The biggest reason was that their abilities were never really worth the additional payment. As I pointed out in the last article, if you wanted to play all three of a standard set of six costed champions, you’d have to build every single common in your deck (and thus have to self kill the ones starting on the board) to afford them. Having commons with abilities that cost magic was even worse. On the one hand, you can generally view it as a one time payment since commons only last a turn, but if chance goes your way and that card doesn’t die then you’re now invested way more into that card that is ever worth the price of its ability. Or you don’t use it on the second turn in which case it’s a blank card ability wise.
This turned out to be the biggest problem. The hard limit on the amount of magic in the game wasn’t actually an interesting strategic element. It was a restrictive one that strangled gameplay into one of two styles: either you commit to the subpar common spam and hope that lucky dice will see you through an assault that will otherwise flood your opponent with far more magic than she’d normally expect to have, or you save all your cards to fuel your three big hitters. And the great irony, once again, is that going champion focus is more advantageous because if you’re building all your commons for magic then you’re going to be drawing lots of cards at the start of your turn. You get enough economy in two turns of building in order to play those champions as well as get the draw you need in order to find them in your deck.
And this was the crux of the issue. Magic generation was too good. It is my opinion that if you want to play a champion then it should come at some sort of equitable cost. Say, if there was a way to restrict the amount of magic earned per turn, then you couldn’t be assured you’d have the resources to pull out that champion on your next turn if your opponent realized your plan and tried to counter your passive play with an aggressive attack. Furthermore, if we divorced magic generation from being restricted solely to your deck then it would diminish the influence of paid abilities on your economy management. It wouldn’t, however, diminish the strategic weight of using abilities.
So, after making a rather lengthy design document of changes and ideas, I sat down to start testing them. What I discovered was actually surprising. Very few changes needed to be made to completely flip Summoner Wars on its head. While I would still explore a different direction if heading Summoner Wars 2.0, I didn’t actually have to create an entirely new game to save the original.
Here are the Major Changes (TM):
- Magic Drain: There’s simply no way to address the game without touching on this event. Everyone recognizes it’s a problem. I wanted to weaken it but not make it useless. Thus, Magic Drain was turned into, “Choose an opponent. Remove up to three cards from the top of that opponent’s Discard Pile and place them on top of your Discard Pile.” (As a side note, I personally removed all “fewer Unit” restrictions on every Event card since this was an unnecessary element that encouraged people to not play commons.)
- Summoners: All summoners have a generic ability inherent to being a summoner. It reads, “Instead of attacking with this Summoner, you may move the top card of your Discard Pile to the top of your Magic Pile.”
- Summoning: The summon phase was revamped. Instead of summoning beside a wall, all players summon units into a Reserve Pile. While in this pile, a unit is not considered “in play” in regards to being targets for events and abilities. During the Movement Phase, however, they may enter the battlefield from the back row of the player’s board. During the summoning phase, however, a player may spend 1 Magic to place one Unit from their Reserve Pile adjacent to a Wall they control. To be clear, this ability is limited to once a turn. You can reinforce an attack but it is slow and costly. Likewise, you can try and dislodge attackers from your walls but it will cost you magic and unless you have board control, it will be without reinforcements.
- Building Magic: The Build Magic phase is split from the Discard Phase and occurs first. All Units, when killed, do not go to a player’s Magic Pile but to the killing player’s Discard Pile. During the Build Magic Phase, the player rolls a die. On a result of 1-3, the player may add one card from the top of their Discard Pile to their Magic Pile. On a result of 4-6, the player may add two cards from the top of their Discard Pile to the Magic Pile. During the Discard Phase, players place any number of cards from their hand into their Discard Pile.
So what does this confusing mess mean?
Every player has a passive 1-2 Magic generation during their turn assuming they have cards in their discard. That said, generate magic is very difficult on your first turn unless you either play an event (I’m currently testing both players draw a full hand at the start of the game instead of only the second player) or you make a kill. This makes the first turns very interesting. Obviously, killing your own units is easiest since you’ll have more cards in position to attack your units. On the other hand, having less units means that you have fewer answers if your opponent rushes across the board. With so little magic, your second turn you’re very unlikely to put more than one unit on the board and chances are it’s coming in from reserves instead of being summoned off the wall.
Suddenly, the early game has become incredibly important. Starting with five units on the board is now a boon instead of hindrance. And playing defensively got so much harder. The game really changes when, at best, you can generate 3 Magic a turn. That means if you want an average costed champion, you have to save up two turns worth of magic. Possibly three if your dice are poor. Which brings me to an interesting point: Why make magic generation random?
Summoner Wars is a game that relies inherently on chance. Even with the best planning, everything can turn on a dime if you roll all misses and your opponent rolls all hits. I feel part of the skill of Summoner Wars is understanding the odds and adapting to misfortune. I wanted specifically to make economy generation an uncertain action. If I’m sitting with Silts in my hand, I want the player to have to make a decision informed by the fact that they don’t know with 100% certainty whether they can have Silts out next turn or the turn after. It, once again, encourages common play since their low cost is now an advantage. You probably have one or two magic floating around in your pool since you automatically generate that at the end of your prior turn. Is it more important to get out a defender now to protect Krusk? Or can you afford to wait one or even two more turns to get the powerful Silts to the board?
And with the slower arrival of champions, it gives a greater window for a common focused strategy to gain board advantage and momentum. Before, an aggressive player basically had one turn to try and win on an assault unless they had secured a large economic advantage earlier in the game. Now, an aggressive player can have up to three turns of an advantage against a defensive player.
So, the good news. These changes made the game very exciting and very different. Not only is aggressive common play viable but it’s practically the default. In my testing, I’ve noticed a huge inversion in the decks that are really powerful. Suddenly, the Mountain Vargath have become a powerhouse which, when looking strictly at their numbers, they should have been from the start.
There is bad news, however. This doesn’t balance the game by any means. This just makes a new power balance. Sadly, the difficulties of the game have made it such that my goal of not needing to rebalance specific factions or cards (outside of Magic Drain) a near impossibility. Oddly enough, the Filth seem to come out even better with the new changes and I’m toying with a specific change to their faction to bring them more in line with everyone else. And the biggest losers? Turtlers. The Deep Dwarves and Tundle in particular have really taken a hit. Turtling and defensive play right off the bat is a much harder strategy to adopt. I don’t have a problem with this, however. While Tundle is a lot worse beneath these rules (I changed his ability so that he can Meditate for 2 Magic instead of 1, by the way), if he does manage to sit back and make a massive stack of magic, he is really powerful. Getting to that late game, however, is a slog.
Overall, I’m really happy with these changes. Granted, there’s a lot of finicky situations that arise and I often have to errata some interactions or powers on the fly to adapt to the new system. For example, I move the choice of boosting units to when they enter the battlefield and not when they are summoned into the Reserve Pile. Partly, this keeps from having to balance tokens on a stack of cards. Mostly, this makes it so they aren’t completely awful to use.
But I’m really happy with the outcome of these tweaks so far. While not perfect, it’s surprising how big and how positive an impact they’ve had on the game so far. I’d recommend people to try it out if they are looking for a big change up to how Summoner Wars can play. At the very least it casts old mechanics into a new light that’ll make you look at the game in a way you hadn’t before.