Some games don't do themselves any favours, do they? Summoner Wars might as well be called Generic Nerd Game, and it's a real pity - all of the imagination and skill are in the product and not the presentation. I say this not for mockery, but because I'm always advocating games of this ilk - and in the pub, Summoner Wars is universally met with a lack of interest.
The idea of two summoners having a throwdown is an exciting one, of course, and Summoner Wars is not only an original take, but a tremendously adaptable and varied one - worth mentioning, by the way, that this is based on a boardgame. It's for two players and set on a grid-based battlefield; you take turns to summon creatures, move them, and attack. The summoners are also present and each has their own role; some like to get into the action and destroy minions, while others depend on hanging back in kind of super-support roles.
Veterans of HeroQuest may notice some similarities in how matches play out, but Summoner Wars doesn't quite work like any antecedent. Turns are divided into various phases; you build magic, summon creatures, then move them around and attack. But the real strength of Summoner Wars is in how different the armies are - the abilities are asymmetric, so you might end up with an army that depends on sneak attacks up against one that can hold off enemies at a distance. I have a bit of a penchant for the undead lot, Fallen Kingdom, whose summoner is able to sacrifice health to bring down the cost of super-powered creatures, as well as 'resurrect' dead units. Each army's abilities aren't just a little buff but the basis for how they play, informing every single decision.
It's also worth mentioning the business model here, because it's all about the armies. Summoner Wars is free to download, and lets you play with the Phoenix Elves offline; buying a single army unlocks online mode, or you can man up and buy the lot for around a fiver.
There's absolutely no question that Summoner Wars is worth that, though this is a Playdek app and that always brings one problem. It's a company that, in terms of the quality of games they publish, is up there with the very best on iOS (Ascension, Nightfall, Food Fight, Fluxx) - and the audiovisual standards, after a few early wobbles, are universally high. But Playdek's interpretation of online has always been suspect, dependent on asynchronous timed matches and push alerts. It all works as intended, but fundamentally it's difficult to sit down for half an hour and have a quick game with a random - which is what I want from games like this. You've got to just set up a game, cross your fingers and wait.
I have some sympathy with Playdek because the playerbase for the games they make must be relatively low, so a matchmaking system might seem like a waste of development time and resources. But Summoner Wars is a multiplayer game, basically, that lacks both that and any kind of long-term structure around online play. There's a part of me that thinks this doesn't matter; after all, the quality of the core game is so high and surely that's the most important thing. But this is a competitive game where getting into competition is more difficult than it should be. It's hard not to feel Summoner Wars is a great game, verging on superb, that's held back by a highly polished but functionally thin app.
8 / 10