Playdek's latest iOS conversion of a tabletop game is its most ambitious, and arguably its most successful to date. Summoner Wars [Free] is a hybrid CCG / small map strategy game somewhat similar to Mojang's highly-anticipated Scrolls. This combination of deck-building in the vein pioneered by Magic 2013 [Free (HD)] with tactical maneuvering of the sort seen in Hero Academy [Free] and Outwitters [Free] is a powerful combination for gamers who are fans of both genres.

Summoner Wars is technically free-to-play, but the FTP content is basically a demo, disabling online play, and only allowing the player to play the Phoenix Elves against the computer (who only plays the Tundra Orcs).

The IAP is modeled on that of Plaid Hat's card game, with each faction having a "base" deck and an expansion set, available for 99¢ each. One IAP unlocks all four AI decks, deck construction, and asynchronous online play. Alternatively, one can buy the combo pack for all 8 factions for $7.99 (half price).

This is an appealing model for IAP, allowing players who want to get into the game to just spend a buck or two, while those who are serious can spend the more hefty eight dollars and get a lot of game for it. This is basically the "living card game" model (fixed, non-random expansions), though that phrase is a Fantasy Fight Games trademark, so you won't see anyone else using it.

The eight factions available (nine, if you count the Mercenaries) represent about half of those available for the tabletop game - so if you're already a Summoner Wars fan and you want to play the Filth, Shadow Elves, or Sand Goblins, you'll have to wait a bit. Also worth noting is that the $7.99 combo pack covers only all present decks, not future expansions.

The game's deck-building mechanic works really well, with 3 champion and 18 common (non-unique unit) slots per deck. You can't customize how many or which Event cards go into a deck. As "Events" includes all of the games more spell-like effects (Sorceries and Instants, in Magic's terms), this is something of a disappointment, but it helps promote game balance and means that each match is won based on battlefield tactics with good deck design an edge but never a "lock."

Each faction plays differently, and while the feel is classically high fantasy, Plaid Hat went to some effort to give each faction a unique feel. The Guild Dwarves are stalwart and the Cave Goblins use swarm tactics, but the achieve those "typical" traits with unusual abilities, like preventing adjacent enemy units from moving or getting free attacks.

The game's AI is pretty good, thought the asynchronous multiplayer is where the game really shines. That is also where one of the game's flaws appears: there's no chat feature. It seems like nearly every iOS game has something quirky in its multiplayer mode, but this is a fairly major omission.

The game's other flaws are mainly due to the decision to make it a Universal, rather than iPad only title (like Magic 2013). On an iPhone or iPod touch, the card text is small even zoomed-in, and when viewing the full map, the card art is barely large enough to discern between cards. You can zoom in and show only part of the map, but it's hard to play zoomed in. The game doesn't auto-track to where the action is, so if one of your units is attacked, you have to either zoom back out or pan around to find out where it is.

This combines to make Summoner Wars a must-have for gamers who want more tactical maneuvering in their CCGs or more customization in their strategy games. However, its flaws and the price point for full buy-in mean that it's not for everyone, but being free to try and having a flexible IAP system means that it's worth checking out either way.

TouchArcade Rating

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  • Santiago Zorzopulos

    I love this game, and enjoy it a lot, but this review is far too forgiving of a cumbersome and poor interface. 

    My complaints are the following:

    (1) The menus are not well organized.
    (2) A game this complicated needs a very good in-game manual.  The tutorial is not even close to being enough.
    (3) Speaking of tutorials, it should not be hidden in a sub-menu.  It should be obvious when you open the app where you can go to get help.
    (4) The deck builder is really bad.  To be fair, no iPad game has created a stellar deck builder yet, but this one is particularly bad.  SW deck building has a lot of rules, and they are not explained anywhere in the app, which makes deck building confusing to new players.
    (5) Too many taps are required - especially if during turn phases in which you cannot make any legal moves.  Just skip those rather than making me click "end phase" and then "confirm".
    (6) The app is very unforgiving of mistaps.  There should be an undo command.  Currently, it is far too easy to accidentally tap a creature you meant to heal and instead kill it.
    (7) There should be a match-making system for online play.  This one really puzzles me.
    (8) Online play should have a chess timer for short (30 or 15 minute games).  Considering that even a turn in which I make no actions can take 1 minute or so to complete (due to all the unnecessary tapping), it means faster games tend to devolve into speed wins with no regard toward to the board.
    (9) Why are forfeits counted separately from losses?
    (10) There needs to be some rating system implemented to try to match players of equal skill level.
    (11) As the review mentions, no chat?  That makes no sense on a game that can play out over the course of 14 days.

    And that is just scratching the surface.

    You may think that, given the list above, I didn't like the game, but you'd be wrong.  I love it, I just think the interface is seriously holding back the game's potential.

    • rodgerodger

      I don't understand #8; the game does have a chess timer. And while I don't agree with all of these (I couldn't care less about online rankings, but I'm only 36-29:), you are right about two points:
      6) The game needs more confirmations for actions since it is so easy to make a mistake (which is why I disagree with point 5).
      11) A simple chat function between at least people on your friend's list would be nice. Playdek said it's coming, but not a priority. It should be!

      • Santiago Zorzopulos

        I should have been more specific regarding the chess clock.  The modern chess clock, sometimes called the "Fischer Chess Clock" basically gives you a time "bank," that only begins to count down after some pre-determined amount of time has past.  Like 30 seconds or 2 minutes.  Thus, if you start with 10 minutes and have 30 seconds per move, your 10 minute "bank" will only start to be reduced after the first 30 seconds of your turn.

        Have such a system in a game like this would avoid those situations in which one person is clearly going to win based on the board situation, but his or her opponent just stalls in hopes they run out of time.  

        Also, there is no reason that if you don't have any legal moves, the computer shouldn't automatically advance the turn.  If I'm out of cards and have no creatures in my hand, it shouldn't keep asking me if I want to end my summoning phase.

      • rodgerodger

        I can think of a reason. If you happen to be playing 'live' and your opponent saw it jump instantly to the event phase of your turn, they can probably guess you have no cards to summon. Keep them guessing! To me it makes sense to pass through each phase each turn.

        Usually when the game is no longer in doubt my opponent resigns or never responds and takes the forfeit (I usually walk my summoner to his death like a man!:) However, I definitely see your point about the chess clock now since that would stink if it happened.

  • HungarianUrinalCakes

    "The game's other flaws are mainly due to the decision to make it a Universal, rather than iPad only title."

    Jesus! Don't say that! The last thing we need is developers abandoning the idea of making iPhone versions of their games. I don't understand the logic of preferring no iPhone version to having an iPhone version slightly more difficult to read. I'd rather play it than not play it. Makes sense to me. If you have an iPad and you don't like the iPhone version then don't download it. Simple.

  • Artfoundry

    Wow what an awful review. There were a number of complaints on the summoner wars forum about TA not reviewing the game, so it seems like someone at TA said "ok review it but don't spend much time writing it".

    First, the part about IAPs is all wrong. By buying 1 deck (4 AI decks??) for $1 you get multiplayer and deck building. And there are 7 decks plus 8 reinforcement packs in the bundle (not 16 decks - there are only 8 decks in the game).

    Then there's the statement about the game being universal a flaw - really?? People don't HAVE to play on their iPhones/iPods but having that as an option is great (and it works fine IMO).

    Finally there are grammar/spelling errors (though to be fair, nearly all TA articles have them - pretty poor editing IMO).

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DEARPEDCPTWN3J7RVVT3WKO7L4 Justin Rawcliffe

    I agree. Found it too hard to play, I tried before to play the otherplaydeck horror card game, having never played card games before, I was completely lost,left Unwilling to invest the huge amount of time needed to even learn as it seemed too complicated an confusing.

    • rodgerodger

      There was your first mistake. Nightfall (Playdek's horror card game) is by far their least accessible game. Summoner Wars is simple by comparison:) Better yet check out Ascension, easily Playdek's best and most accessible.

  • jameresper

    Let's get one thing clear - Summoner Wars is just fantastic - fun, strategic, lots of factions,
    cool powers, great depth and variety in a short game. In my opinion it
    easily outshines Hero Academy and Outwitters.

    Just have a look at the glowing comments in the forum:
    http://forums.toucharcade.com/showthread.php?t=143298

    However, as has been pointed out, Playdek could and should have made it quite a bit more accessible. It takes a while to get used to the mechanics and identify the different units.

    BUT, for anyone who likes strategy or turn-based games, I really,
    really encourage everyone you give it a go and get a few games under
    your belt - strategy games this fun and good don't come along often.

    A couple of points about the review

    - The AI can use 4 factions, not just Tundra Orcs

    - Universal is a plus point, not a negative. When you have the iPad,
    great - when you don't and just want to get one turn in when out and
    about, it's great to have the game all synced on the iPhone.

    Seriously, if you're a strategy/fantasy/turn-based/async multiplayer fan - get this :)

  • abodi

    I had never played the physical game before,
    Played the tutorial, which teaches you all you need to know to play the game, seriously it is a good tutorial.

    I knew I'd like it and bought the full IAP bundle.

    What three weeks on Im still playing this a bunch and see no sign of stopping hell I've only really dug into the elves and cave goblins. So there is tonnes to explore.

    Also I play on my iPhone, stuff is small, but absolutely playable. AND FUN!

    If you like tbs and things like hero academy but want more than what academy provides then this game is for you.

    Plus stat tracking is awesome.

  • odi0n

    I'm sorry but the graphics are horrendous.
    I have a iPad 3. Does not take advantage of the retina.

    Also, the UI is very clunky.

    • WakeOfPoseidon

       "I have a iPad 3. Does not take advantage of the retina."

      Are you sure you're looking at the same game as me? The elements are
      small and very faithful to the physical boardgame, but it totally takes
      advantage of the iPad 3's retina screen. I've played this game both on
      my iPad 3 and my wife's iPad 2, and the difference in clarity and
      sharpness is huge! If you played Ascension (Playdek's other game) on the
      iPad 3 before they did the retina update, you would appreciate what a
      difference the retina-ized version is in terms of visual quality and
      sharpness of text.

  • http://twitter.com/LilPips LilPips

    Have to agree with most of the review.  Love the actual board game, but after making us wait 2 years for the iOS port, PHG and Playdek have made me reconsider buying their products in the future.  The UI is horrible, and the promised holy land of multiplayer features (promised months ago) for all of Playdek's games still hasn't materialized.

    Universal is definitely a flaw in this app.  It's barely playable on an iPad.  It's completely unplayable on an iPhone.

  • WakeOfPoseidon

    This is a really good implementation of a great board game. If you have even a passing interest in TBS games, you really need to check this game out. The included factions will appeal to all sorts of different play styles, and they're generally balanced (though some are definitely more tricky to learn than others). Sure, it's missing a few "gotta have" features (most egregious omission is the aforementioned chat in MP, which is sorely needed in a game like this), but you'll be hard pressed to find a deeper game of it's type on the app store. To top it off, the $8 for the digital version is less than a 1/10th of the cost of the physical version (not to mention, several of the factions available in this package are currently out of print).

    It's only been mentioned in passing above, but the MP stat tracking in the game is fantastic. It not only gives you your personal stats (Wins/Loss/Forfeits), but your win/loss stats for each faction. Even better, it gives you a peek into how the "meta-game" is going - you can see community stats on each of factions; which one has the most overall wins, how a particular faction fares against another faction, etc. My only complaint about the stats is that many of them are buried in the menus and not very intuitive to find - maybe a little more transparency on finding these stats would go a long way.

  • http://twitter.com/crunchewy Crunchewy

    I thought the tutorial was pretty good. I had never played the game before and had no problems learning how from the tutorial. Some details of the UI I found later, but in general the tutorial was good, much, much better than the one in Nightfall.

    Also it's not true that you can only play versus the Orcs for free. You can only play the elves, but you can change the computer to any opposing deck. There is a bug with the choose random deck thing, though. Whenever I tap that I always get the Orcs. So the randomize thing doesn't work.

  • soundshaper

    What would you guys suggest for someone who has never ever played any card games before, Ascension? Magic 2013? I mostly play RPG, RTS, Strategy games, but have been interested in the card games for a while already, but it looks kinda hard to dive in form my point of view, hard to learn, to connect to this kind of gameplay where there is not "action"? I would like to give it a go, and I would not want mess up my first impression with a game too hard to pick up or simply a bad game... So please help me choose a good game to start my card/board-game career on iOS... Cheers

Summoner Wars Reviewed by Tof Eklund on . Rating: 4