This review is based on a preview copy of the game that was on Kickstarter at time of writing. The game was passed on to me by Rory Sommer of the Board Meetings blog. I would normally have written a full review of the game but time constraints have meant I’ve only been able to get in a single play and wanted to be upfront about how much experience I had with it before writing this piece.
The island is small that is for certain, but what wonders it holds. From the snowy peaks in the north to the temperate south, strange creatures stalk the land, co-existing with all around them. That is until you turn up. Determined to win the title of Summoner you set about bending these creatures to your will, setting them against the forces of your fellow students and channelling the energy obtained from battle into obtaining ultimate glory. Will you emerge victorious or eaten by a Wyrm?
It’s a Kind of Magic
Cracking the seal on this box of magic and monsters you are greeted by a gorgeous double sided board, a bunch of tokens and some dice and a svelte rulebook. The rules were excellently explained and we had no trouble getting going.
The game flexes around the concept of energy: at once your points and resource. The island is a blank slate for your summoning and you start out with enough to create the largest creature you can or a whole host of smaller entities. Each player has access to the exact same number of Sprites, Trolls and Wyrms meaning this game is fully symmetric: the starting condition for each player is the same and their forces are equal. It comes down to your choices to differentiate your strategy.
Bigger is better right? Well not always. Your little sprites will gather energy for you as long as they don’t have any enemies to be afraid of in their little part of the world. They are also better together than apart, giving each other a defensive bonus when it comes to fighting. Trolls are mid weight creatures with the most actions and reasonable power, whereas the Wyrms are super strong but move slow (apart from when they teleport across the map).
You summon and act in ascending order of energy and take it in rounds to summon and activate Wyrms then Trolls then Sprites. As you move around the map engaging in combat, you gather energy from your fallen foes. Whilst this pushes you towards winning, it also sinks you down the initiative track meaning you must carefully consider your strategy from turn to turn. Combat is a simple affair involving a dice roll against the defence of the creature, introducing a welcome element of uncertainty into the proceedings.
The ebb and flow of the game revolves around the accumulation and spending of energy: too much and you lose all your points, too little and you won’t be able to hold the areas of the Island that are key to victory. It’s an interesting calculation for sure and depending on where you sit in the initiative track, your choices will change. Going early means you can go on the offensive, reducing other people’s options, but if the dice fall against you then improvisation might be called for. A later place in the queue means that maybe those things you summon will be dead before you can use them so just save that energy for later, maybe? The core gameplay has lots of simple but significant decisions like this.
Evolve or Die
We played a 3 player game and enjoyed it ok. However we all felt that the game outstayed it’s welcome a bit for what it was, though this may have just been first game issues. We found the game didn’t really change much over the course of it’s run. Where we started out with little energy and a smattering of creatures it wasn’t long before we had pretty much every creature we had on the map. After this the game just became a push and pull between our forces and due to the symmetry, and despite the randomness it became a very flat experience for us.
I think with strategy games like this I just expect something to change over the course of the run: access to more powers, a change in pace towards the end etc. To not find that change was a bit jarring leaving us with that feeling of the game coasting to a conclusion rather than reaching a crescendo. That feeling may change with some more plays and I would definitely like to get it to the table with some different player counts.
Summoner’s Isle is a competently put together game from a designer who has his head screwed on right when it comes to executing his ideas. The project is already fully funded and I have no doubt that Robbie will deliver exactly what he promises. It’s a great looking game in a compact box that plays in a short time frame. That it didn’t light our fire is no slander against it and if you are looking for a small box, tactical game then this seems like a great choice.