Monday 26 August 2013

Review - Summonaria


Published by Salamander Games
Designed by Josh Fry & Chad Scott
For 2-4 players who have no other games to play

Is it ever right to review a game you have never played?

Technically, I suppose it's not.

You haven't played it. You haven't experience the game "in action." You haven't learned to appreciate the subtle nuances of the design.

So, it probably isn't right to judge a game you have never bothered to punch out the game components for. But for Summonaria, I'm going to make an exception. Why? Because I simply cannot bring myself to waste an evening (or more) playing this game enough times to be in a position where it becomes "fair" for me to pass judgement.

Here it is then. My totally unfair review based on exactly zero plays...

I suppose I should start at the beginning. A while back, I was looking to expand my game collection with some games that were different to the bulk of what I had. I mainly had very theme-heavy dungeon-crawling adventuring sort of games. I was also (as always) looking on eBay for out of production games that I could add to the Vault.

While searching, I found a seller who had some copies of Summonaria that he was offloading for about £5 each including postage. A cool-looking war game, with lots of different magical factions battling across a grid-map, for £5? Count me in.

Unfortunately, as soon as I received the game, I realised the error of my ways. The first clue was the quality of the components.

The box is nice enough, but it is about three times as deep as it needs to be to hold the contents. This isn't a massive issue, but it's annoying for people who don't have a lot of shelf space. However, once the lid was off, it became apparent that the production quality was not great. The rulebook is a horrible stapled thing in black and white that looks like it was run off on a photocopier, and it comes with a double-sided sheet of errata with about nine corrections, plus a bunch of alternative rules

There is also a smaller booklet with a colour cover that describes all the wizards and units in the game. Looked promising until I opened it and found yet more black and white pages.

Summonaria Rules
The rulebook, unit description booklet, and errata sheet

The units in the game are represented by large tokens that each show a full-colour picture of the unit, along with its vital statistics (attack, life points, movement) and the combination of elements required to bring the unit into play. The artwork is very pleasing, and the tokens are large to make the most of that artwork. Unfortunately, the cardstock is incredibly thin. This means the tokens get creased and marked easily, slide around if there is a bit of a breeze, and are difficult to pick up and manipulate. (Of course, I am guessing, as I never even bothered to unpunch the tokens.)

The game also ships with a deck of cards that isn't great either. The cardstock is okay, and the corners are rounded; but the good stuff ends there. The cards show different elements like toadstools and gems that are required to summon units into play, so they don't need to look amazing; but the artwork on them is boring (functional, but boring). The borders are also black, and will clearly start to show signs of wear after just a few uses.

The board is probably the best part of the package. It is thick and nicely illustrated, and speaks of the quality that is definitely lacking elsewhere.

Summonaria Board
The board

The final component in the box really highlights the cheapness of the production. You get three dice. One D6, one D8, and one D10. These are used when units attack. Considering most units roll at least two of the same kind of dice when they attack, and some roll three, you simply don't get the dice you need in the box. I know most gamers have dice, but they shouldn't be expected to add their own to a new game. And they certainly shouldn't be expected to reroll the same dice three or four times for a single attack.

But enough about the components. I suppose you want to know why I am "reviewing" this game without playing it.

The truth is, I read the rules, and it became obvious that the game is just horribly flawed. I knew I was never going to like it, so there really is no point in me playing it.

The game revolves around wizards, who are battling to seize control of towers around an island. The wizards (the players), have access to special resources (cards) that are combined together to summon magical creatures (the units).

So, on his turn, a player will draw two resource cards. He will then use cards to summon a new unit (if possible), which will be placed at the end of his turn. He will then move existing units, and fight enemies.

In principle, that sounds okay. Drawing resources randomly could potentially be annoying (if you never get what you need), but the rules do allow you to make use of resources, even if they don't exactly match your requirements.

For example, a Darkling requires 1 toadstool, 3 gems, and 2 dragon fangs. If you don't have this combination, you can use extra toadstools in place of the gems and fangs. You can also user gems to replace fangs. Basically, each resource can be substituted for any resource that appears to the right of it on the unit token.

Summonaria Cards
The cards. Pretty, aren't they?

Okay. So far, so good. Mitigated randomness. Creating recipes to summon units. Nothing there sounds awful, right?

But wait... I'm getting there...

The biggest problem becomes apparent when you start moving units around. Each unit can move a certain number of spaces (indicated, perfectly logically I'm sure, by a value displayed in a circle on the unit token). If a unit wants to fight, it must have at least one movement point left. Furthermore, fighting finishes that unit's movement.

Now, imagine I have a unit with two movement points, and I am exactly two movement points away from your unit, which also has two movement points.

See the problem?

I can't attack you on my turn, because I would need to move two spaces, leaving me adjacent to you, but with no movement points left to instigate a fight. Of course, you can't attack me on your turn for exactly the same reason. Neither of us can try to move into a better position, because as soon as one of us moves even one space closer, the other player will be able to attack first. So instead, we just stand there and stare at each other.

This inability to strike out to attack your opponent is compounded by the fact that if you attack a unit in their home territory, that unit gets an extra dice to roll in combat. This actively encourages players to "turtle" for long periods of time within their own defensive perimeter.

But I'm just getting started on why combat sucks so badly.

When a unit finally manages to get into an attack position, that unit will roll some dice. The number and type of dice varies, so you may get to roll 1D6, or you may get to roll 2D8, or maybe even 3D10. When you roll, every dice that turns up a 1 is considered a hit. Yeah. You read that right. Only the roll of a 1 is a hit. Those units that roll 1D10 in combat only have a 1 in 10 chance of ever landing a blow.

On the plus side, if you do land at least one hit, you get to roll all of your attack dice again, and then again, and then again, and so on until you roll your dice and fail to land a hit. Of course, the chances of rolling a hit are incredibly low, and because you only get one of each kind of dice in the box, it can take an age to actually finish a combat.

If the defending unit survives the attack, it gets to retaliate in exactly the same way; but I am sure by then your opponent will be too fed up to care.

So that's basically it. You stand around for ages, then you roll lots of dice. The aim is to take control of towers around the board, and if you ever have a majority control, then you win.

Summonaria Tokens
You will note how all the tokens are unpunched. Wonder why...

Controlling towers not only brings you closer to winning, but also makes it incredibly difficult for your opponent to retaliate. This is because units in the tower effectively get an additional hit point, but also because if you own a tower in your opponent's territory, your opponent only gets to draw one resource card per turn, making it tough to generate the reinforcements required to retake the tower.

All in all, I just don't think the game is well thought out. By the time I had finished reading the rules, I had realised I would probably never play it. I put it on the shelf, just in case; and there it has stayed for quite some time.

But now I am sick of looking at that box. It is time to get rid of it.

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