Teaching Time: 10 mins
Playing Time: 40-60 mins
Setup Time: 10
Value For Money: Mid
A lesser known game, Summoner’s Isle resulted from a successful Kickstarter run by Robbie Munn of Peculiarity in 2018. It’s a small box area control game, essentially a fantasy Dudes on a Map game. Its decent looking, quick to play and reasonably satisfying.
Game turns are staggered, at first randomly but in later turns based on reverse score order. Players spend energy summoning creatures, most powerful creatures first, then move and attack with them, most powerful creatures first again, and then gather energy from the position their creatures occupy on the map. First to 36 energy or highest energy after 6 turns wins. Combat involves rolling a single D6 with a number bonus depending on the creature attacking with a set score based on the target (unless you’re attacking a sprite, which has a target also based on a D6 roll). Games are pretty quick, running to around 20 mins for two players, and the board state can change totally each turn.
The game looks good and is generally a high-quality product. That said there are a couple of weird things, it comes with a canvas bag in the box which performs absolutely no gameplay purpose and smacks of the stretch goal that it was, when you first see it you assume there’s some sort of blind chit pulling process in the game but there isn’t. Also, lovely though canvas bags are, you can’t see into them and tossing all the tokens in for storage either slows down set up, or forces you to tip them all out untidily at the start of every play session. Another real pity is that the box is beautifully printed inside throughout, which you’d never know since the plain card insert totally covers the bottom image, putting you in the annoying position of either throwing something out as soon as you receive it, or living with the lovely image being obscured. Those two minor quibbles aside the game looks really good, the double-sided board is the star of the show here, it’s both clear and has a great central image with some very nice graphic design. The monster tokens are equally pretty, if there is a complaint its that the silhouetted monsters don’t quite seem to sit in the same graphical world of the fully illustrated board and it can be a little tough to picture the monsters themselves from them. That aside the components are of a decent quality with solid punchboard, well-constructed board and custom dice.
The single biggest problem with the game is the combat system. As previously mentioned its based on rolling a D6 with a set target number, and players activate all of their creatures of a particular power level at a time. This means that, in the two-player game particularly, its entirely possible for a player rolling good dice for a turn (or even okay dice for a turn) to wipe their opponent utterly off the board with little or nothing the target can do about it. In many turns its unusual to see more than six combats for a player, particularly again in the two-player mode, so there’s not really enough dice rolled for luck to be mitigated out either. When the dice behave there’s a feeling of a decent enough tactical game here, but the constant possibility of a single rampaging creature cutting the heart out of your scoring base means those choices never feel much more than fly away, leaving the feeling that this is a game of high dice and a wish that there was more dice mitigation, or even better, removal.
Tactically the game allows for some nice short-term tactics. The fact that combat is quite swingy means that planning further ahead than the current turn or so can be a fool's errand, but this has the upside of both decreasing disengagement since players are never sitting back due to having the next five turns already planned and cutting down on analysis paralysis. It also means that the whole board state can and often does change from one turn to the next which means that players will rarely feel out of the running, however badly a single turn goes. Creatures are placed and activated in power order, with the strongest going first, which does mean that the placement of certain weaker creatures can amount to little more than points bleeding cannon fodder, leading to a certain unfortunate level of player disengagement.
A sort of headwind mechanic is employed for player catch-up, with points being taken off if you are too far ahead on the scoring or added on if too far behind, actually making it more of a rubber band move than a headwind. This combines with the heavily shifting board state to mean that however badly things go, there is always a genuine chance to get back into the game. The added points when low make particular sense, since victory points are the energy spent to summon creatures then without this mechanic the second or later players would almost certainly be eliminated on the first turn, but the headwind part of the mechanic can feel arbitrary and frustrating. Rather than something like creatures costing more to summon at higher score levels, a true headwind effect, this is simply, lose 3 or 5 points if you are over a certain arbitrary score line. The result is that a player on the boarder of such a line can be dis-incentivized to actually engage with the game, since picking up a single point can lose them three. More frustrating is finding out that being one point ahead of another player when the two of you straddle the boarder means you’re about to be put two points behind them. Since this scoring point is triggered by summoning and conquest the feeling is ultimately of being taught not to engage with the game, which is disappointing, and can exacerbate the inaction produced by cannon fodder placement mentioned above. It probably effectively stops run-away leaders, but in a six-turn game that auto ends when someone reaches a set points level anyway there is already a more natural control on someone running away with things as it is.
The auto end condition has a slightly peculiar caveat to it, in that the rules state that if a player wins the game by having the highest score on a time-out, then win, but do not gain the title ‘summoner’. To be declared ‘summoner’ one needs to end the game by a points victory sudden death. This may be personal taste, but I find this sort of hedging a little frustrating. Is a game time-out a sort of ranked group loss then? Is winning with 36 points the ‘real’ win? Its certainly true that thanks to the score reducing rubber band effect its only possible to win with the 36 points effect by ending the game with a fairly dominant turn, but if this is a more dramatic, satisfying and climactic ending, why is it not the only ending? Gaining 36 points in the 6 turns provided is a testing challenge certainly, but its hard not to worry that the turn limit exists not to make the target a challenge but because the game would drag without it. Its hard also not to feel that the game could have been improved if the higher scoring levels, rather than forming a tar-pit along with a chaotic board, had created a following wind, allowing more awesome and impressive final turns to win spectacularly and swiftly.
Quibbles aside, Summoner’s Isle is a solid, small box, area control game allowing players to smash through a satisfying Dudes on a Map game in about ten minutes per player. It provides games that are always close and gives tactical challenges without forcing brain burning analysis paralysis. It looks great on the table, particularly given its price level and sits neatly on the level of filler game with depth and gateway area control.