I seldom feel as conflicted about a review as I have been assessing the DnD: Onslaught starter set. Inside the box is a great little wargame that will feel familiar and approachable to fans of DnD 5e. Minor flaws aside, the game has character in spades, providing narrative scenarios with classic DnD flare and tense competitive games. But the cost… the cost!
Onslaught pits two teams of adventurers against one another as they battle it out in a dungeon. The starter set comes with two warbands of six models, and you’ll pick five to play with for any match.
A spread of classic DnD classes and DnD races are present and – though greatly simplified – they play as you expect them to. Eladrin Cleric Mistral can heal and teleport, Tiefling Warlock Bedlam curses enemies to do extra damage, Dragonborn Sorcerer Rockpyratrix lobs fireballs and sprays fire from their burning hands, and so on.
The rules will be familiar to DnD 5e players. After an Initiative phase in which the players secretly allocate initiative cards to determine what order their adventurers activate in, players will pick heroes one at a time and take a turn, using the same Standard, Move, and Bonus action economy as 5e.
The DnD 5e combat rules have been tweaked a little to give quicker, more definitive combat: attacking means rolling two d20, adding a modifier to the best result, and comparing it to the enemy armour class. For a 5e player this feels like you’re always rolling with advantage, but it makes combat decisive, with fewer turns lost to whiffs.
As well as basic attacks that characters can use each turn, they also have cool-down abilities. Use an ability and you’ll set a little dial on the character’s stat card to a cool-down number, which ticks down at the end of each turn until the ability is active again. You’ll use another dial to track adventurers’ HP, which may reveal a new Speed or AC stat once they lose enough health.
Then there’s another dial to track the XP characters get from doing adventurer stuff – opening chests, hitting foes, healing friends, or a unique XP condition for each character. Five XP points will unlock one of two little upgrades for a character. I can see plenty of strategic depth in picking which characters you’re going to prioritise levelling in a match, and which level-up you want.
The dials initially struck me as gimmicky, but they preserve information about the game state from turn to turn without adding a lot of chips and tokens to the board, or dice that could easily be swept away. Remembering to decrement the cooldown dials as turns end took me a while to lock into memory, and picking up on every XP trigger is generally a faff, though more practice should sort that as well.
The choice of scenario massively shapes the game. Though the learning scenario left me cold, everything else I’ve played has been excellent. The three competitive scenarios in the book are a standard choice of deathmatch, capture the flag, and hold ground, while narrative scenarios will see you attempting to ferry a helpless prisoner to the opposite corner of a dungeon guarded by a ravenous troll and ettin, or stealing treasure from under the nose of a slumbering dragon.
That’s a literal dragon, too – the box has a wealth of pre-painted WizKids DnD miniatures, including a young black dragon, troll, ettin, kobolds, gnolls, and twelve adventurers split between two factions. WizKids sculpts are excellent and the models are cast in a fairly firm plastic. The paint jobs are solid: decent quality for pre-paints, and something that a confident mini painter could build on.
So far, so good, right? But that heap of pre-painted plastic comes at a cost. The DnD: Onslaught starter sells for around $120 / £120, and, look… it’s just not worth that.
I’m really, really frustrated writing this. The dragon, ettin, and troll are nice minis, but they’re only necessary for the narrative missions. Knock them out of the box and the product would be no less compelling as a competitive war game, and a hell of a lot cheaper. As it is, the box is priced to compete not just against other wargames and WizKids’ own DnD board games, but with the heavyweight titans of the tabletop gaming world. It loses.
If you want to spend that much money on a dungeon crawler board game with narrative scenarios and tactical depth, Gloomhaven is a hair cheaper and was considered the best board game in the world for multiple years – and it has an even cheaper cousin, Jaws of the Lion, which is still a fantastic game in its own right, not to mention an even better sequel, Frosthaven.
If you want a skirmish wargame and you’re willing to build and paint your own models, Marvel Crisis Protocol is one of the best miniature wargames out there, with excellent minis, lovely 3D terrain, and a slightly better price. For a DnD-like skirmish wargame, Frostgrave is ideal, and if you already have a mini collection all you’ll need is rules. If you just want a head-to-head tactical challenge, Wargamer has lists of two player board games and war board games to recommend, almost all of them cheaper.
Nicholas Yu and Travis Severance’s game engine works well, bringing the flexibility of DnD 5e combat to a wargame while making welcome nips and tucks to ensure a smooth 1v1 experience. I took this game to WASD Expo in London and taught people how to play it – it’s good! And WizKids’ upcoming expansion packs promise to give this game the support it needs to entertain invested players for years: new warbands, new scenarios, and new fighters that expand the existing teams.
But this starter set is the only entry point, and the price isn’t right. I’d go so far as to call it fundamentally misconceived: someone making decisions did not look hard enough at the competition before they signed off on the components and the price bracket for the box.
A starter set for a wargame should entice players with its great value and instant appeal – it should be trivial to say to a friend “come on, it’s easy for you to get started too!” That’s just not the case for the Onslaught starter, and I fear it may throttle the game before it has time to shine.
DnD: Onslaught streamlines DnD 5e’s combat system into a smart skirmish wargame, but luxury components and a bloated starter set mean the price is eye-watering. Jump in only if you can afford to: otherwise, wait for a better value starter to this great game.