I was lucky enough to meet the designer of Summoner’s Isle at the UK Games Expo. You can listen to a little interview/chat we had about the game over on The Much Belated 2018 UK Games Expo Special Podcast. The audio is a bit chonky but still, there it is. Anyway, we got to chat about his newly released game Summoner’s Isle which sees players vying for control of an island while moving creatures around the board, summoning new ones and trying to gather enough spirit energy to be crowned the winner. It looked really interesting but I never got the chance to have a game. Cut to two years later and I’ve finally got my hands on a copy and have some thoughts to share with you all.
As I said before, in Summoner’s Isle, you are trying to control various parts of the island to accrue spirit energy. This same energy is used for scoring and summoning the much-needed creatures that will conquer the regions for you. This is a great risk-reward mechanic as the more space you control the more energy you’ll generate but at the same time to summon the creatures needed to do this you have to spend that same energy. It works a bit like the adage, “You’ve got to spend money to make money”, but in this case spirit energy. There are a few different types of creatures with each one costing a different amount and having different stats that will affect how they fare in combat.
That’s right there are fights to be had and energy to be won. By moving one of your creatures a space occupied by one of your opponents you trigger a battle. The attacking player rolls a d6 and adds the creature’s attack, and if this exceeds the defending monster then they are defeated and move into that space. If not, then nothing happens. When defeating a creature you also gain an amount of energy depending on which monster took part. This helps constantly push players to act aggressively and not sit idle in their territory. It also means that you are only a few lucky combats away from making a huge comeback and means that players rarely feel out of the game.
And that is roughly the rules. Each creature has a set number of actions from moving to attacking and players take turns in the order of lowest to highest energy. Once you hit a certain point on the energy track you’ll start to lose energy each turn, and this again means that players who are at the back have a chance of catching up and winning the game. And overall I’ve enjoyed my games of Summoner’s Isle. It’s quick, the board is tight forcing frequent fights and has enough strategy in terms of blocking, creature placement and movement to be a fun little puzzle.
However, I do have some issues. Firstly, while I think the comeback mechanics are nice and make the game more friendly to play, it also means that you can be way out in the lead only to lose to the comeback kid. To put it in Mario Kart parlance, you get blue shelled. And this feels real bad for the player in first place and for the one who overtakes them for the win it can make that victory feel less satisfying as well. Winning is still winning but winning out of chance and because you rubber-banded to that position is a little cheap.
The main reason for this is the amount of energy you can make via battles. While it is unlikely for a few sprites to beat a troll, it does happen and because you are always adding that dice roll anything can happen. Every time I’ve played Summoner’s Isle I’ve disliked the fact that there is a dice in what is otherwise a pure strategy game. While it adds to that everybody is still, in fact, that is important to the core design, it also means that you can lose because of some bad die rolls with no way of modifying them. I think if you could also spend energy to modify this result, it would lead to a far more enjoyable and rounded experience.
And finally, there’s the multiple ways to play. The two-player game is a tight tactical game where players go head to head but the 3-4 player experience is far more random. It also has a lot more downtime as opponents roll against your creatures with you doing nothing but watching as they either win or lose. In a two-player game, this works because that attack directly affects your next turn but with larger numbers, the board state can radically change before it’s your turn again. This means that planning isn’t worth your time and means that you are only engaged on your turn and rarely someone else’s.
Criticism aside, if somebody asked for a game of Summoner’s Isle I’d almost always say yes. It’s a light experience that doesn’t demand too much from you and I can see it being a good introduction to more complicated games for newcomers to the hobby. However, I am always left wanting a little bit more. That being said, for Robbie Munns first game it is a brilliant start to his game design career and I look forward to what he produces in the future.
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