Origins Game Fair 2012

Origins Game Fair 2012: Summoner Wars (iOS) Impressions
As told by Bob Richardson
July 1, 2012 – Card-based combat is nothing new in the gaming world, and neither are grid-based tactical games. However, Plaid Hat Games' Summoner Wars melds these two qualities seamlessly in this deceptively simple, easy-to-learn/hard-to-master tabletop game that is making a move to iOS devices at the end of this month. Its transition from paper to glass is headed by Playdek Games, an up-and-coming company that presently focuses on moving games from tactile to electronic. While at Origins, I had the good fortune of sitting down to take my first crack at Summoner Wars on the iPad. To welcome me, founder of Plaid Hat Games and lead designer of Summoner Wars, Colby Dauch, showed me how it was done in a humbling display of foresight and strategy – all while getting up every two minutes to take care of customers. I also got to speak with Playdek's director of product and business development, George Rothrock.

A quick overview before I talk about the iOS port: Summoner Wars takes place in Itharia, a land plagued by strife and thirst for power. The lord of the Fallen Kingdom, Ret-Talus discovered a summoning stone, and enjoyed dominance over the land for millennia, until the aptly named Dane Lightbringer uncovered another summoning stone. Rather than rally behind the guy named Lightbringer, factions throughout the land sought summoning stones of their own, and let quibbles take precedence over the greater evil. Hence, Summoner Wars.

Indeed, the story lacks subtlety, but Plaid Hat Games' website offers some extra story tidbits for those inspired to learn more about the world and its current situation. In fact, during my meet up with Dauch, he hinted at a developing narrative. True as that might be, who's buying Summoner Wars for its rich strokes of the quill? After one game, you'll be saying, "Story? What story? Let's play again!"

No misnomers here, Summoner Wars features summoners who summon units, walls, and events to thwart one, two, or three opponents (did I mention there's summoning?). However, before any gameplay can occur, players must pick one of sixteen factions – assuming you own all of them – and then pick a scenario card to set up the map. Once the prerequisite troops have been placed, the game can begin. The objective: kill the opposing summoner. Players use their five-card hands to draw out more units, which must be placed next to a wall; without a wall, summoners cannot expand their army. Each unit boasts different abilities, health, attack power, and casting cost. Some units are ranged, while others are melee. Alternatively, players can use event cards for free, but these must be played during their phase, unless otherwise noted. Movement has its own phase, as well as combat. Then, players can discard cards in order to build up their magic reserves to pay the cost of future units.

Sounds simple, right? Well, learning how to play is simple, but winning may not be. Of course, the game's only as difficult as your opponent, but know that there's always someone better, and mastery means understanding each faction's strengths and weaknesses. Though I only played a couple of games, I got a strong sense of balance during each game. Each faction hosts a unique theme, though they never seemed gimmicky or one-dimensional. Dauch assured me that balance is a challenging, repetitious process, but his team tries to avoid simply raising and lowering numbers; creating thematic, meaningful choices is premium to the experience. One might expect the lead designer of any balanced game not to pick favorites, but that's not the case here. After asking Dauch who his favorite faction was, he confidently stated the Sand Goblins, a resilient race that specializes in deception and group assaults. For beginners, he recommends the Guild Dwarves, a faction that focuses on wall destruction. Defensive in nature, this hardy race relies on winning battles of attrition.

In the age of DLC, tabletop games are no exception. Rarely is a game released in its finished state. Whether gamers think this encourages hasty releases by money-grubbing publishers or that this breathes youth into games that need to be freshened up, one thing is for certain: as long as people are buying Summoner Wars, new content will be released. Truly, this type of game lends itself to expansions, and I got a sense from Dauch that each expansion tries to bring something new to the table. Any consumer can sit back and imagine just how stale and repetitive a new installment can be: throw in a couple new factions with a rule-breaking mechanic, print, and let the fans pay your salary. I asked Dauch what players can expect, and he said that we will see new summoners, campaigns aligned with the fiction, and terrain.

In terms of future projects, Plaid Hat Games' upcoming release in August or September is Mice and Mystics, a story-driven cooperative game. Dauch pitches: "You play through a storybook chapter by chapter, and you play through a campaign in which a rich story plays out, and you're going to take part in that story. You're these mice running around, trying to save the day, even though they're seemingly small, and they're going to do that through teamwork and bravery. There's so much cool art, events, and it's all about thematic gameplay. How much can we do with story and theme in a board game, and how can we do that in a way that hasn't been done before? So, we tell a very linear story, but in that story, you have those emerging stories."

Though Summoner Wars itself is the main draw, I was almost more so blown away by Playdek's work on the iOS version. Sleek and intuitive, Summoner Wars just makes sense on the iPad. In terms of visuals, I was stunned at the frames per second and colors both in the game's menu and in the game itself. One could argue that visual appeal in this kind of game is not that important, and in an aesthetic sense, I'd agree. However, in terms of interface and user-friendly functionality, not only are the features attractive, but everything that needs to be on screen is there, and it can be minimized or moved.

Of course, the product isn't finished, and I did have some problems, but Rothrock assured me that Playdek was aware of all these issues, and they'd be hammered out by release. Just to note, some graphics covered up the board a bit too much, hiding cards, which could affect gameplay. I also experienced difficulty when double-clicking units in order to read their description, which resulted in wasted movement points. These seem like easy fixes, though, and with the quality of work I observed throughout, I expect Playdek Games will have no problem resolving these issues in a tasteful and creative manner.

Even more impressive than the visuals are the features and functionality of the prospective finished product. As he walked me through the menus, Rothrock discussed the yet-to-be developed tutorial that will welcome players and seemed to punctuate his statements with accessibility. These are lessons console and PC developers could learn. Summoner Wars will have online support, "pass and play" support, and even AI opponents. A key feature to the online component is asynchronous play, which will allow for more relaxed play or quick turns at work when the boss isn't looking; however, RPGFan does not endorse these actions (get back to work, slacker!)

For those lacking foresight or those who enjoy haphazardly walking into traps, Summoner Wars will offer one free faction to play, but all future "packs" will cost money. So, go ahead – try the game out for free. Might as well get your wallet out beforehand. To make matters worse, online support will also require purchase. Though I should have known better than to have asked, when I sheepishly questioned Rothrock about offering players the ability to mod the game with visuals or the like, he responded that, from a player perspective, he would absolutely love this feature, but he would love it even more if players used what Playdek offered them.

When I asked Dauch if he was open to Steam or XBLA support, he seemed open to the idea, assuming it made sense. On the same chord, I asked Rothrock what games he thought would be hardest to port to iOS. Social games immediately came to mind, but he also mentioned games that draw on "experience" would not work; for example, games that reach their climax when the fate of the game comes down to a handful of dice slamming down onto the board.

Boasting their millionth play for the iOS port of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, a popular deck-building game they ported, Playdek clearly knows what they're doing. I asked Rothrock if they had plans outside of porting games to iOS devices, and he emphatically stated that yes, they had plans to make games and meet the needs of the gaming community. Managed by veterans in the gaming industry, I have every confidence that Playdek will succeed in these goals.

Finally, I asked Rothrock if he could give our readers any tips on breaking into the industry and achieving the dream job of making games. Filling roles as a 2D and 3D artist, senior producer at Sony, teaching at the Art Institute of California, and now as director of product and business development, he seemed like an obvious person to ask about working in gaming companies. Rather than offer a trite answer about technical skills, he stated: "The soft skills are very, very important. Working in a team, collaborating. Working under direction, working under deadlines. In my career – just sort of my personality – but working within constraints. Being happy to work within constraints. Anybody can say, 'What if we did blah blah blah?' You know, it's a huge thing, but what can we do in a week? I used to tell my students that. Video game consoles are basically a box of restrictions. As much as they get more powerful, there's still only so much they can do. There's only so much RAM, access speed on the disc, and the sooner you get comfortable and even excited about that – the 'what can I do with what I have' mentality – it'll pay off in dividends. This is the very best mentality in managing, artwork, design, coding, or even in testing."

In Dauch's words, what makes Summoner Wars so great is, "Ease of entry, depth of mastery." What's more, sitting down and chatting with Dauch and Rothrock – seeing and hearing their mannerisms – it became clear to me that these guys were and are gamers. They know what gamers want, and they love what they do because they're passionate about games. I learned in this brief experience that PC and console RPGs aren't exclusive to those mediums – board games draw on the same sensibilities. When I asked Dauch to pitch his game to our readers, he said, "If you like Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre – any turn-based, strategy RPG, then you should be playing board games."

We also have a small gallery for Summoner Wars up as well. Don't miss it.

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