Board Game Review: Dungeon Command
Tristan Hall lays it all out on the table and gives us a review of the Dungeon Command miniatures battle wargame. What does he think? Read on to find out!
Wizards of the Coast cash in on their Dungeons and Dragons miniatures product line by producing this compartmentalised collectible board game series, the first two sets in this series are: Sting of Lolth (a Drow Elf-themed Underdark set) and Heart of Cormyr (a bog standard Forgotten Realms D&D Heroes set), which this review concerns. Each box gives a player enough components to play half of a game of Dungeon Command, and whilst there are rules for breaking the game down into quarters and playing a slim line version of the rule set using only one box, the game is best served when two players have access to and battle using one box set each.
Every box also contains monster cards for the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure System games which allow you to use the included miniatures in Legend of Drizzt, Castle Ravenloft and/or Wrath of Ashardalon. Also the Dungeon Command tiles are jigsaw fit compatible with the D&D Adventure System game tiles, and whilst there are no specific rules supplied to use these in your ‘AS’ games if you have any vested interest in those games, the cross compatibility possibilities between both sets of games are indeed very tantalising.
Biases - I love the D&D Adventure System games! They are great little dungeon crawlers with cool components which are easy to set up and play and deliver great cooperative play. The fact that Dungeon Command’s components work in tandem with the Adventure System games was the driving force behind my interest in Dungeon Command.
What is it?
Dungeon Command is a straight-up miniatures battle game. There is no particular driving narrative or theme, no asymmetrical victory objectives, just straight up war. Each player chooses a leader character for his misfit war band that provides certain in game benefits and bonuses and determines the starting key characteristics which will win or lose the game: Leadership and Morale.
A player’s Leadership increases by one each turn and represents the total number of levels’ worth of figures he can have in play, e.g. Leadership 6 means a player could have 3 x Level 2 minis, 6 x Level 1 minis, etc, or any combination thereof.
The object of the game is to reduce your opponent’s Morale to 0 by destroying his creatures. Each time a creature is destroyed, its owner loses Morale equal to its level.
How does it play?
A dice-less cross over between Magic the Gathering and any standard miniatures battle game with a stripped down rule set that allows fast and clean play. There are deeper strategies to be pursued over time through devious card play and careful positioning and defence, but on the surface the game is very easy to just pick up and play and get into in a short amount of time.
Each player deploys troops into his sort of ’end zone’ and then takes turns to activate all of his creatures one by one. At the end of each of his turns a player can then deploy more reinforcements if his Leadership allows.
There are simple and easy to grasp line of sight and movement rules, and built in terrain on the tiles (some dangerous, some just blocking) which can hinder vision and movement, all of which deepen the strategic placement and advancement of your miniatures.
Each player starts with a hand of special Order Cards and gains another one every turn, which allow him to play sneak attacks, special moves, spells and various other cool effects that will help his war band or hinder or attack his enemies. After you finish a turn you untap all your ‘used’ creatures and may use them again during your opponent’s turn to try and defend themselves with defensive Order cards you might have, or you can also tap them to take advantage of terrain cover shown on the tiles to try to block attacks.
Activating a creature allows you to move up to its speed and then perform an action, which is usually an attack, but which can be boosted or altered using Order Cards.
Some of the order cards are very cool and some even quite thematic for a Forgotten Realms-set war band battle. One card in particular comes to mind: “Behind Enemy Lines” – the Heart of Cormyr player can play this to put a hero into play in his opponent’s play area. He must then race this hero back to his own ‘end zone’ and if he is successful he can boost his Morale by 4 points. The chances are that his enemies will hunt this hero down and exact bloody revenge before this is all possible but the morale boost reward can be awesome if timed correctly! There are many other cards with similar game changing effects and abilities.
There are Treasure Chests strewn about the map which act as a great potential distraction for players. If you detour to go and grab them you can boost the morale of your warband, but you need to balance this with actively making attempts to defeat your enemies. Going out of your way to collect Treasure Chests whilst neglecting your opponent can prove disastrous.
Every creature has its own attack set and some even have their own cool special abilities such as different types of movement like flying over or burrowing under tricky terrain. Some units can heal or summon other units.
And every unit has the fun ability to Cower! If one of your units is about to take fatal damage you can have him Cower and take the damage to your warband’s overall Morale instead. While this can occasionally be useful for keeping a crucial unit in play, more often than not it can prove a false economy because if you let your unit go, it allows you to bring in more, bigger units instead on your next turn. This provides a nice, tricky balancing act.
What are the bits like?
Each set comes with 12 pre-painted D&D minis which are mostly reprints from the old line of the Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures games, two big 8x8 jigsaw fit tiles and two little 8x4 end tiles, a bunch of little tokens representing hit points for the figures, and some tokens to differentiate between duplicate minis.
The tile art is fantastic, some of the best in fact – by the very talented Jason Engle, and the tiles are double sided to allow for indoor dungeon and outdoor grassland arenas. But you only get four tiles in each set, which means you’ll play through the variability of these setups in short order.
WOTC dropped the ball with this big time on the D&D AS games, and up until those games released it kind of became the standard to get decent looking cards in fantasy adventure board games. With expectations duly lowered with monochrome decks and single colour hero cards it was nice to see them step it back up for Dungeon Command (and Lords of Waterdeep) with the inclusion of full-colour art on the cards. Some of the art is really nice, some not as good, but on the whole pretty impressive stuff, and nicely thematic for the D&D setting.
The minis are pretty good quality with wildly varying quality paint jobs. From a non-painter’s point of view it has to be said that some paint jobs are pretty shocking in fact. One wonders how much WOTC would have saved had they simply included unpainted models, without seriously impacting the overall quality of the product.
And there are no dice – but this is D&D heresy! I actually think this is a really good feature. Having the characters deal out a set amount of damage with each attack allows the designers room to develop boosts for these attacks through play of order cards and by making attacks Sneaky or Poisonous or whatever. So yes, a dice-less D&D combat board game – but it works.
Some not so good:
The rulebook is coarse but paper-thin and feels like a homemade print out more than an official glossy manual – a big step down from the Adventure System games. As is the game box itself, which is made from flimsy card which does not feel like it will last the test of time at all.
Hit points and damage, etc are in tens instead of units. This adds an extra layer of math (well, an extra zero anyway) to the proceedings, but is supposedly designed to make you feel like characters have lots of health and are inflicting tons of damage. It’s unnecessary, but hardly game-breaking.
The plastic insert housing the minis takes up most of the box and was the first thing to go. Whilst it serves a purpose in preserving the minis from damage players should take extra care to pry the minis from their homes as the various bending appendages or pointy swords and weapons can undergo undue stress if one is not careful.
How does it compare to the Dungeons and Dragons Adventure System games?
The comparison isn’t really fair because the AS games are cooperative dungeon exploration games, but if you imagine them more abstractly as a sort of minis skirmish game where one side is the players’ heroes and the other side is the game’s AI monsters, you’d actually get a fairly close approximation. Mainly because the order cards in Dungeon Command add so much variance to the proceedings. Whereas in the AS games you could draw traps and encounters and use hero powers to attack, in Dungeon Command you’ll actively be playing these cards from your hand against your opponent instead.
As it is, the games stand side by side nicely – one for a cooperative dungeon crawl fix and one as a competitive tactical skirmish game. The cards supplied in Dungeon Command to allow you to use your figures in the AS games are a really nice touch, and it wouldn’t be difficult to convert other D&D minis into the existing Dungeon Command system. In fact, many fans are already doing this as we speak.
Is it any good?
There’s a deceptive amount things happening at once in this game, and it feels like there is always something to be doing, even during your opponent’s turn. Because of the nature of the card play, you can play some effects during your opponent’s attacks, deflecting blows or escaping from attack, or Cowering. The upshot of this is that the downtime feels very minimal once you both have a handle on the game, although some decisions can be appropriately agonising.
Considering that this was purchased primarily as in expansion addition to the cooperative D&D board games it has been an absolutely pleasant surprise to find a wholly playable and intensive skirmish battle game in Dungeon Command.
Whether or not you have a vested interest in the D&D franchise, Dungeon Command makes for a great, light skirmish game, with deeper tactics emerging through devious card play and positioning, and which can be played in under an hour with a little experience under your belt. With a ton of new expansion material in the works too, there should be a wealth of further replayability and variability beyond what is already in the box.
If you can find a decent deal on the first two sets and you’re looking for a lighter fantasy skirmish game, jump on in.
•Fun, tense game!
•Beautiful tile art with varying terrain effects
•Interesting order cards with colour art and cool, thematic in-game effects
•12 cool minis with varying quality paint jobs
•Lots of replayability in the Order card decks, less so in the creatures available (unless you buy more boxed sets...)
•Fast-paced – actions are resolved quickly and easily with no dice rolls!
•Simple, easy to learn rules
•Tons of expansion material in the works (this could be a Con if you’re a completist)
•Price – make sure you get a deal; as this can be over-priced for what it is (your country’s price may vary)
•Space-consuming plastic insert – be careful popping out your minis!
•Cheap paper rulebook
•Cheap paper box
•No dice! (just kidding – this is a big bonus in this game)
Tristan Hall is a board game player and designer, avid video gamer and movie lover who juggles life as a writer, producer and Dad with his insatiable appetite to crowbar playtime into an otherwise prematurely grown up existence.
Forum username: ninjadorg