Summoner Wars: Second Edition board game review - one of the best two-player card games gets even better
Since starting at Dicebreaker, I’ve made it no secret that Summoner Wars is one of my favourite competitive card games to ever grace the tabletop. I’ve talked near-endlessly about how great its system is, how (to my dismay) it was effectively discontinued and how desperate I was to see it return in a brand spanking new edition or reprint to get it back into mine and everyone else’s hands.
Well, guess what? Coming soon from newly independent studio Plaid Hat Games is a stunning new second edition of the first game it ever released, featuring brand new art, reworked factions and a revised ruleset. So this should theoretically be an easy review - after all, it’s the same game, but newer and better! Let’s find out, shall we?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of what’s changed and what I think about it, I should probably explain what Summoner Wars is and how it works - because I can guarantee not everyone looking at the second edition has played the first.
Out of the gate, Summoner Wars distances itself from many of its card game contemporaries.
For the uninitiated, Summoner Wars is a two-player competitive card game in which you and your opponent control powerful magic-wielding summoners as they lead their faction in a quick and bloody fight to the death.
The goal of the game is simple; reduce your enemy’s summoner to zero health and you win. The path to get there, though, will require all the card combos and tactical mastery you can muster. That’s because, straight out of the gate, Summoner Wars distances itself from many of its card game contemporaries. Instead of the units and spells you cast in some abstract battleline in games such as Magic: The Gathering, your summoner and their subordinates physically exist on a grid-based battlefield, moving, casting and swinging their swords around the board. You’ll not just have to use the right cards at the right time, but also learn to form shield walls and flank, fire on your foes from range, and pick the best place to drop your powerful spells in a far more spatial and strategic battle of wits.
Gameplay is turn-based, separated into a series of rounds in which players summon new units and erect structures on the battlefield, move and fight with any units already on the board, and discard cards for resources before drawing a new hand. Players alternate moving, attacking with and reinforcing their warriors, trying to crack their way through their opponent’s defences and deal some vital damage to the enemy summoner whilst also trying to protect and defend their own.
While you start with a few units and a structure already on the board - plus your summoner, of course - the rest of the tools at your disposal sit in a deck of cards that represents your faction. It’s full of events, warriors, epic heroes and gate cards that you can build on the battlefield to act as spawn points for new units that join the fray.
To get those units out of your hand and through those gates you’ll have to spend magic equal to the cost listed on their card, tracked by a token on your side of the board. You can earn magic either by killing enemy units or discarding cards you don’t want at the end of your turn before drawing your next hand. Your generic troops are pretty cheap to summon, with some even being free to bring on the board, but you might want to save up your magic for one of the three powerful champion units hiding in your deck that can be devastatingly powerful - in exchange for a hefty fee to acquire their services. You’ll be using those basic rules to trade blows with your opponent, as well as casting powerful events unique to your summoner and faction to turn the tides in your favour until one of you comes out on top.
At its roots, Summoner Wars is pretty standard fare. You move your units and roll some dice to see if they hit each other. I’m sure you’ve seen something of its ilk before, but its execution is what makes it such a fantastic piece of game design and one of my all-time favourites. You’ll find when flicking through the cards in your deck that all of the factions break those familiar rules in their own unique way.
At its roots, Summoner Wars is pretty standard fare, but its execution is what makes it such a fantastic piece of game design.
The Master Set box that serves as the Second Edition’s first available starter set comes with six asymmetric factions, each with their own personal flair for the dramatic and powerful, with bespoke units, events, and mechanics all led by their own unique summoner. The mind-bending Breakers can use their powerful magic to manipulate the battlefield in their favour and even take control of hostile units to turn them against their own friends and allies. The Polar Dwarves can erect powerful structures and moving constructs of ice to both protect themselves and attack enemies with, including massive ice golems that can act as mobile spawn points for your units. The Fallen Kingdom’s necromantic summoner Ret-Talus can damage himself to resurrect fallen warriors from the graveyard, as well as imbuing them with powerful and explosive magic that, whilst effective, can be deadly to both friend and foe.
These factions are the heart of what makes Summoner Wars so great. All feel completely fresh and unique from each other, providing endless combinations and match-ups out of the box with the included pre-built decks. There are additional rules that allow you to further tinker with those decks to create your own special forces.
Summoner Wars is a slick and moorish card game that provides a really interesting tactical puzzle without needing to write a small novel on each card to make it interesting. (Yes, I am talking about MTG’s latest set Strixhaven.) The game creates a rigid ruleset that it then delights in breaking, rather than further complicating, in order to build up its interesting card effects.
For example, units can’t move through other cards - except some units have trample and can therefore pass through common units, dealing damage to them as they do so. Units can’t move more than two spaces each turn... except for units that can charge up to four spaces in a straight line, dealing extra damage to those they attack once they arrive. Those are just the most basic abilities! Some units explode when they die, while some spells allow you to move buildings and hit people in the face with them. There’s always an interesting effect on each card you draw that can change the tide of battle; that shifting power struggle between each side is what makes it such a fun and frenetic tactical battler.
If the first edition of the game is anything to go by, expect there to be plenty of post-launch support for Summoner Wars 2E, with new pre-built decks and starter sets to either play with or mine for cards that you like. Touting itself as an expandable card game rather than a collectible card game means you avoid all the gross booster packs and rare cards that go for hundreds of dollars online because of an artificial scarcity that some companies build into their game. (Yes, I am once again talking about Magic: The Gathering.)
The original game saw numerous different decks to play with, including new factions, mercenary packs that were basically full of units you could use in any deck and bigger expansions, such as the allegiance box that contained six mash-up decks containing units from two different factions. What that means for the consumer is that you know exactly what you’re buying whenever you pick up something supplementary for the game - either because you want to play with the deck that you’re buying, or because you want some of the cards inside for building a deck. In general, extra decks for the first edition tended to be pretty cheap; I could usually find one for under $10 if it wasn’t low in stock, so expanding your set of factions shouldn’t be too expensive as long as you’re not obsessed with collecting every single card in existence. If you’re grabbing the Master Set that I was sent for this review, there are six factions in there ready to play from the get-go - around 15 different matchups - so there’s plenty of action to witness before you start getting tired of what’s in the base set.
We’ve talked a lot about the first edition of the game to this point, which is all well and good, but we should discuss some of the new features and changes that come with this lovely fresh start that Plaid Hat has made for Summoner Wars. There’s a lot of good stuff in Second Edition that should tempt those that have already played with the previous cards and some things that those new to the series will massively appreciate.
There’s a lot of good stuff in Second Edition that should tempt those that have already played and some things that those new to the series will massively appreciate.
Let’s start with my absolute favourite new addition: the digital online support that’s already available for anyone who wants to either play online or try out the game. If you’re reading this and you’re intrigued, but want to give it a go for yourself, there’s a free demo where you can play with two of the base factions against a friend or the AI. As well as being a good way to try out the game, it’s also a fully-fledged online version of Summoner Wars that you can buy into in a few different ways.
For $2.95 a month you can have full access to every single faction that currently exists in the game to play with at your leisure against a pretty decent AI or against friends and foes online. There are discounts for yearly subscriptions and you can sign up for a $30 dollar per release subscription, which will give you a copy of both the physical box and digital versions of every faction pack to come until you cancel. On top of those options you can just buy access to a faction for a flat fee of only a few dollars to own the right to play them online for the rest of the game’s existence.
This is a really fantastic thing to see for games like this, especially in the midst of a lockdown where playing card games with your friends is more difficult than ever. The best thing about Summoner Wars Online is that it runs directly in your browser - which means you can play it on pretty much any device, your phone included, without having to download an app or launchers to make it run. Obviously, it’s not as polished and pretty as something like Hearthstone or MTG Arena, but for a relatively tiny price tag that you can cancel whenever you like I genuinely think it’s pretty impressive - especially as you can then use that service to inform your physical purchases before laying down loads of cash on a faction box you might not even like. More of this please, games industry.
If you cursed yourself for missing the first iteration of this game, there’s no better time to jump on and check it out.
Another refreshing change is a full new suite of art and illustrations including entirely new aesthetics for some factions. Some players may not vibe with the slightly more stylised and cartoonish aesthetic in the second edition, at least in comparison to the old art, but it feels a lot less functional and a lot more fun in my opinion. The dull colours and quite generic illustrations of the original box are replaced with far more vibrant and poppy visuals. Not to mention a far more diverse cast of characters, with half of the six starting factions led by female-presenting sorcerers and far more people of colour than in previous sets.
There have also been a lot of quality of life improvements that I think will be welcomed by long-time fans of the game, and in general up the quality of the production. The rounds and their order have been tweaked to make the order of operations for cards a lot easier to parse. You now track magic using a counter on the board rather than having to manage multiple piles of cards and then sort them back into the right deck after each game. Deck construction is vastly improved, with all cards sharing the same art on the back - meaning any card can be put into any deck as long as the symbol on it matches one or more of those on the summoner’s card. In general there’s been a lot of tidying up and revamping, which massively adds to the overall experience. If you cursed yourself for missing the first iteration of this game, there’s no better time to jump on and check it out.
It’s genuinely quite difficult to find any flaws in this second edition. Plaid Hat has massively impressed me with everything it’s been putting out into the world recently; as soon as it announced a second edition of one of my favourite ever games, I knew I had to get my hands on it.
That said, I will say that the inlay for the box - if you’ll allow me to be an absolute dork for a second - is pretty lacking. It’s basically just an open box with a divider, but the divider isn’t wide enough to fit the cards horizontally. Even while getting the box to the Dicebreaker office to film the video of this review the cards went everywhere and I had to reorganise them all, while knowing full well that they would just get messed up again on my way home. There is at least plenty of room to add expansions into the main box itself. The review copy we were sent also came with very few damage tokens, which I believe was a production error that Plaid Hat is working on fixing.
It may feel like I’m picking on small things here but I really cannot recommend this game enough. It’s the perfect one-on-one card game for anyone who loves tactical combat reminiscent of games like XCOM and lots of lovely thematic rules with a huge amount of replayability. I don’t think it will surprise you given how glowing this review has been when I say I can thoroughly recommend Summoner Wars: Second Edition. Just make sure you buy the new box and not the old one - although they are pretty cheap now if you want another way to test the waters. I’ll see you on the online battlefield.
Summoner Wars: Second Edition is available to pre-order from Plaid Hat Games (US) or Zatu Games (UK), with a release expected in June 2021