Summoner Wars (designed by Colby Dauch and published by Plaid Hat Games) is for 2 to 4 players (it's best with 2 or 4), ages 9 and up. About 30 minutes per game.
I first "met" Colby Dauch, designer of Summoner Wars, at Heroscapers.com, a fan site he established (and still runs) that's dedicated to the brilliant Hasbro board game HeroScape (my pick as the #2 board game of 2004). So it comes as little surprise that his first published game plays like a card game version of Heroscape.
It is also no surprise that as a huge fan of Heroscape, I immediately fell in love with Summoner Wars.
Fantasy armies battle for supremecy
In Summoner Wars, each player controls a fantasy army, such as dwarves, elves, goblins or orcs. Each of the decks has one "summoner," and the winner is the first to destroy his opponent's summoner card. This game is all about attacks; there is very little opportunity to hide or defend in any meaningful way.
The board is a grid six spaces wide and eight spaces deep. (The original starter sets included "boards" printed on folded, glossy paper. Plaid Hat Games later released a "deluxe" board, which is now sold out. But the Summoner Wars Master Set released in 2011 includes the deluxe board and six all-new armies.)
Once the board is set up (each army has a specific starting layout), the game is played in six phases: Draw, Summon, Play Event Cards, Movement, Attack, and Build Magic.
At the start of your turn, you draw cards until you're holding five. If your draw pile is empty, you no longer have a draw phase, which helps ensure a quick game but also forces you to make some difficult decisions.
Summoning is how you bring new units onto the board. You spend magic points (acquired in the Build Magic phase) to summon new units. The cost ranges from 0 to 8. A summoned unit must be placed on an empty space next to one of your wall cards.
Next, you can play any event cards (including wall cards) in your hand. These give you special powers, such as extra movement, increased attack power, and the ability to deploy reinforcements.
During the Movement phase, you can move up to three units up to two spaces each.
To attack, you choose up to three different units to attack an enemy. Some units have swords and must be orthogonally adjacent to an enemy to attack. Others use bows and can be up to three clear spaces away (again, orthogonally). Resolving attacks is simple: Roll the number of dice equal to your unit's attack value (typically 1 to 5), and any roll of a three or higher is a hit unless a unit's special power says otherwise.
Every unit you destroy is placed onto your Magic pile. In the Build Magic phase, you can also play any number of cards from your hand to your Magic pile. All of the cards in this pile can be used to summon units in future rounds.
Special abilities twist and break the rules
That's the game... except for the special abilities, and taking the best advantage of your special powers is the key to Summoner Wars. Every unit in the game has a special ability, twisting or breaking the basic rules in some way. For example, a Tundra Orc fighter may be able to attack, move and then attack again. And if Dagger, a champion of the Cloaks faction, gets behind an enemy card, his attack value increases from 2 to 5.
The units' special abilities make Summoner Wars so clever and addictive. Every faction has unique strengths and weaknesses that must be understood to be truly effective. Playing as the Phoenix Elves requires a much different approach than playing as the Fallen Kingdom. (Having said that, you can easily jump right into a game. Playing Summoner Wars and discovering the potential card combinations as you go is a blast.)
Summoner Wars has never failed to leave me wanting more. If you've never played, I recommend the 2011 Master Set as the perfect introduction to a great game.
Base games and expansions
Here's a complete list of all the Summoner Wars games and expansions published to date:
Summoner Wars Master Set
Summoner Wars Starter Sets
Cave Goblins vs. Guild Dwarves
Phoenix Elves vs. Tundra Orcs
Summoner Wars Faction Decks
Summoner Wars Reinforcement Decks
Goodwin's Blade (Fallen Kingdom, Vanguards, Mercenaries)
Grungor's Charge (Guild Dwarves, Cave Goblins, Mercenaries)
Hawk's Strike (Cloaks, Jungle Elves, Mercenaries)
Rukar's Power (Phoenix Elves, Tundra Orcs, Mercenaries)
Summoner Wars Promo Cards