Guys, how did I not know about Summoner Wars before? I LOVE summoning things!
Okay, so, I just picked up Summoner Wars of the iPhone (although I think I would like to track down the real-life cards-and-chips edition as well, for convenience of playing with real folks made of meat who live with or near me), and I am excited about it for a number of reasons.
Here’s one, not so much a rule as the title to a rule:
Phase 6: Build Magic
Why’s that important? Because six is the final phase, the one which occurs WELL AFTER the phase in which you need magic.
Building magic is important; you use magic to summon units, and you use the summoned units to, uh, war. You build magic by destroying cards, or by sacrificing your own; the former is more fun, the latter is more reliable, and BOTH happen AFTER the step in which you can actually summon some dudes. And that’s clever.
From a strictly mechanical standpoint, it prevents players from surprising one another too quickly; after all, the units which take a lot of magic to summon will only appear on the board when someone has a lot of magic to burn, so if you see your opponent burning four cards at the end of their turn like it ain’t no thing, you can reliably worry that the one they’re holding on to is a doozy, and take some measures to prevent it from killing you too hard–bring back your more fragile units, throw out some protective pawns, or flip the table in a violent rage, depending on your play style. That’s nice!
But what I really like is the way it supports the simple narrative of the game (and the narrative really isn’t much more than “Hey, a bunch of powerful mage-types are trying to kill one another using the power of Summoning”). Magic, you see, is a resource that must be built… rather than beginning with a level of Magic Points which must be preserved or spent, it must be aquired helter-skelter. There’s a tie to the Magic: The Gathering standard of magic being created by lands which are played and then tapped as need be, but lands in Magic are permanent; planeswalkers grow more and more powerful as their battle goes on, even though they may run out of spells with which to use that power. Summoners, however, have a base “power” level of zero, and have to build that up with concentration and effort. And sacrifice… you can’t rely only on destroying enemy units, you WILL have to axe some of your own.
This makes the process feel damnably slow sometimes, especially if you have units you don’t want to sacrifice; you increase magic by drips and drops while throwing out a few common units to stop the enemy tide, until you can afford to field your giant rampaging whatever. Assassin/mole rat/vampire/fire drake/whatever. Even when you do it fast, it’s slow: you end your turn by building up the magic you’ll need for the NEXT turn.
Maybe slow isn’t the right word… maybe the right word is ponderous. Or even… inevitable.
Summoning is like an advancing iceberg… it’s a thing that will happen, and you can SEE it happening before it occurs, even if you can’t quite see what and where it will occur. And that creates a nice narrative verve: imagine Sneeks, the Summoner of the Cave Goblins. He’s yoinking fighters in to being, and throwing them willy-nilly at Ret-Talus’s forces, and undead hoard which can’t match the goblins in sheer number but have a distressing tendancy to just. Not. Stay. DOWN.
The undead hoard advances… strangely, though Sneeks has kept his eyes on the enemy’s side of the battlefield, no new skinless faces have appeared by Ret-Talus’s walls. The enemy fights, taking down two of Sneeks’s own, and then…
…the sky darkens. In the far corner of the battlefield, Ret-Talus glows with power, seeming to draw energy from the very earth below him, his eyes focused on somewhere at right angles to reality as we know it.
In his little goblin heart, Sneeks knows that something bad is going to happen… something horrible is going to come charging right for him, and he has only a moment to issue the orders to prevent it from taking him out entirely. Run and hide, forge a barrier, or charge the enemy summoner himself, in a desperate bid to slay Ret-Talus before he can pull his monstrosity through? What now, Sneeks? WHAT NOW?
(Answer: Sneeks is a goblin. He’s going to run and hide.)
Summoner wars, a pretty badass presentation of magic as powerful, slow, and terrifying in its inevitability.