There is only one way, and there is only one place, where you can go to become a true Summoner; you must prove your mettle, your cunning and your skill on Summoner’s Isle. Only those who are able to balance their energies, and wise enough to harness the powers of the land can ever hope of becoming a Summoner.
Game: Summoner’s Isle
Designer: Robbie Munn
Artist: Simon Holland
Player Count: 2 – 4
Run Time: 40 – 60 mins
Summoner’s Isle is an area control game, pitching equally matches forces against one another across a small, interconnected map. Energy is the only commodity in this game, used to determine the winner and also used for Summoning magical creatures, and as the game title suggests, you’ll be doing this quite a bit. In this game you’ll be looking to completely and exclusively control Territories, doing so will grant you a little Energy bonus as your Summoner is more directly connect to that area of the Isle. You’ll also want to make sure you have a few Sprites in each Territory, as these little magical creatures also buoy up your power. Ensuring you always reap more than your sow is key to success. It’s very difficult too.
Creatures are Summoned and perform their actions in a strict order: Wryms –your Energy-draining power houses, Trolls – the stalwart core of you magical little force and Sprites – that are really only very good if you have loads of them. Each has a different cost to Summon, each has a different amount of actions it can take, and each has its own attack/defence modifiers. Attacking is obviously pretty good for you, as it stops your opponents controlling too many Territories, and in vanquishing an opponent’s creature you’ll earn a little Energy for your troubles. This also makes losing each battle fairly costly.
At the end of each round, each player, in turn, adjusts their Energy, first depending on how much energy they have they’ll gain a little more, or even lose some. After that their Sprites grant a little bonus before finally, the Island itself grants the dominion bonus.
Managing your Energy expenditure is a very tricky balance to master, and the whole tracker and bonus system works wonderfully to create a very neat economy. You need to spend it to make it, literally, but if you spend it poorly, or too rashly you’ll end up out of magical-energy-pocket. Being too conservative is also not going to do you any favours, particularly towards the end of the game. The game, if not the other players drive you forward, it feeds on the conflict which is exactly what you need to do.
For me, a sign of a good game is one where the ‘game’ lingers after the components have been put back in the box, and that is what has happened each and every time I played Summoner’s Isle. As the tokens are been cleared away people are pointing at Territories saying things like “I should have protected that more.” Or “I should never have let you hold that for so long.” Tactics were discussed and strategies refined, despite the small box size and the apparent simplicity of the game it has a deceptive strategic depth.
With only three types of creatures, one would feel that it is fairly obvious how each should be used, but that really isn’t the case. Wyrm’s are built for attacking and Sprites are made for defence, but you need your Sprites to defend on-masse otherwise they are no good at all. And sure, your Wyrm will charge through pretty everything on the board – but with only two actions you never want to leave your Wyrm open for attack from a host of Trolls or worse yet; another Wrym. This does mean that people who occasionally suffer from Analysis Paralysis are likely to find themselves overwhelmed with choice in this game – as there is always something you can, you will always be able to affect the ebb and flow of the game, how much and how well is all down to you.
At times it can feel like this game can be unforgiving, where errors in placement and unfortunate die rolls can be crushing, costing you creatures and energy bonuses, yet the catch up mechanic never really drops any player out of the game – I’ve seen some pretty monumental comebacks over a just a couple of turns, and I’ve seen “runaway leaders” quickly stumble and fall.
On my playthroughs of this game I’ve found that time has been eaten up, for such a small box, Summoner’s Isle eats up the minutes, but in doing so you are rarely left out of the game with little to no downtime. The staggering of Summoning and Actions having been broken down across the creatures meaning you will never have to wait long for your go, and yet that between your Wyrm’s attack and your Troll’s, the landscape will most likely have changed significantly. Further to this the combat system, a simple blend of rudimentary deterministic and a single die roll, keeps the pace of action up – with such a small map, and with scores usually very tight and balanced, each player is invested in all combats, even when they are not their own. I found that there was plenty of whooping and groaning from everyone around the table when the die was cast – in fact I was told to stop bringing “really fun games” to my gaming club as “fun” interferes with all the MtG that other people are trying to concentrate on. True story.
Summoner’s Isle is a beautiful, dynamic game of area control and hand/troop management with a carefully balanced economy. The game propels you forward into the conflict which is resolved quickly, deftly and – often – loudly. The catch-up energy tracker means that getting too far ahead is a really hard fought battle, and falling behind is easy to recover from. Win or lose a game of Summoner’s Isle you’ll want to come back as you’ll be convinced you can play it better, but so will everyone else.
Edit: Summoner’s Isle will be coming to Kickstarter sometime in September 2018 – the best way to stay informed is to Like the Summoner’s Isle Facebook page here.