Dungeon Command – Miniatures Game Review
Dungeon Command. Miniatures game review. Publisher: Wizards of the Coast. Designers: Chris Dupuis (Risk: Legacy), Peter Lee, Kevin Tatroe, and Rodney Thompson (Star Wars Role Playing Game, Saga Edition). $39.99 for each warband; two warbands are required to play the full game
Passed Inspection: A great reboot for the Dungeons & Dragons miniatures line. Packaging them in matched sets makes it easy for collectors and dungeon masters alike to pick up all the minis they need in one go. Card-based game play that is engaging and quick.
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Failed Basic: At $80 for the full experience, it’s a little expensive. The combat is not as deep as the latest edition of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game.
The Edition Wars
The Fourth Edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game (DnD 4e) was quite a departure from the versions that had come before. What many of its detractors will tell you is that, although 4e is a traditional dice-and-imagination roleplaying game, it channeled the worst parts of the massively multiplayer online genre; attacks turned to "powers" complete with cool-down timers, and sat alongside a complex series of buffs, debuffs, and ongoing effects. The detractors will say that in trying to add flair to player actions they devalued them, turning complex combat actions into repetitive button presses.
What 4e did have going for it—and still does in its waning years— is the breadth of the combat encounter ruleset. The battles I was able to create as a DM were elaborate affairs taking place across bridges, over tundra and crevasses, on rotating platforms and down vertical mine shafts. Most importantly, they all felt tactical, like every choice and every move meant something. With the release of DnDNext, ne DnD 5e, sometime in 2014, I’m concerned that the universe will lose some of that crunchiness in favor of advancing the narrative story. But products like the newly released Dungeon Command (DC) assure me that Wizards of the Coast (WoTC) see the value they’ve created in 4e and want to keep the strategic fires burning.
A New Paradigm for Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures
I’ve skirted around the edges of the DC‘s predecessor, the unfortunately named Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game, since it came out in 2003. I collected the models solely for use in my 4e campaigns, and the D&D Miniatures cards that came with them sit unused to this day. The quality of the painting on these pieces, their resistance to wear and tear, and the exotic sculpts have always fascinated me. But I never became invested in the Miniatures system itself. This is mainly because I’ve always objected to how Wizards of The Coast (WoTC) has sold the pieces: in sealed random packs. Sure, you got one huge, two larges, and a handful of medium and small in each pack, but putting together a realistic 4e encounter from a few boxes of minis was a near impossibility. If anything these packs hinted at what devoted collectors could put on the table if they merely had the money. They drove many people, myself included, to the secondary market for matched sets. I’ve been elbow deep in more than one tub of factory seconds at GenCon picking out dozens of duergar, scores of skaven at a time in order to flesh out a series of battles dramatically.
Dungeon Command understands the collector’s problem and has first and foremost changed how these miniatures are packaged. DC is sold in warbands, sets of logically matched units that go so far as to share a common paint scheme. The Sting of Lolth set, for instance, features a half dozen drow, all in common livery, as well as their spider and umber hulk familiars. Opposing it is the Heart of Cormyr, a heroic group of humans, elves, dwarves and halflings all lead by a majestic copper dragon. Coming expansion sets promise goblins, as well as the undead. And at $40 a box for 12 miniatures, as well as all the accompanying cards and accessories, that’s not a terrible deal in my book.
Unfortunately, you’ll need two sets of miniatures to actually play a full game of DC. That means $80 sunk to get started. That’s a lot of money for 24 figures, comparable to nearly 40 randoms purchased through Miniatures packs. Sure, a single box contains rules cribbed to run a half-match between two players out of a single box, but that concept barely serves to show you the basics of the game before it ends. But I’m here to tell you that despite the heavy front-end cost the system itself is as quick as it is complex and a lot of fun.
Bread and Circuses
The main conceit of DC is that you’re the leader of a band of mercenaries and must keep your charges happy in order to entice them to remain in your employ. When the game starts, each side will crack open its warband box and unload a set of puzzle-piece tiles (much like Castle Ravenloft) to build the map. An open field and an underground cavern, somewhat reconfigurable, lend diversity, but it wouldn’t be too hard keeping to the spirit of their design when kitbashing your own playfields.
Those familiar with 4e will not need a key to see the difficult terrain, the environmental dangers, or the areas of cover and lines of sight. The mechanics, as well as ranged combat and shifting when in combat, are carried over wholesale from 4e. What will be new to those same players are the many piles of loot evenly scattered across the board. Land one of your band on the loot and gain a treasure chit, good for +1 to your warband’s morale.
In the early game there’s a casual scramble for these bonus points. Every round your leader (there’s two in every box, each with unique abilities like increased movement for spiders, or blah di blah blah) gains a leadership point. That point increases the total value of units allowed in play for that side.
DC is not nearly as complex as 4e, not by a long shot, but it is quick and satisfying. The game itself becomes a battle of carefully managed attrition. Lose a cleric to a ravaging drider? Lower your morale by the value of that dwarf, and on your next turn cash in your wizard card to spawn that miniature onto the map in your start zone and go get your revenge. But the graveyard fills up rather quickly during the course of the hour it takes to play. Run out of either units or morale and it’s game over.
When I first opened the box I was fearful that I’d lost the die they’d given me. Turns out there are no dice in Dungeon Command. Instead of running the risk that a player would drop an expensive copper dragon or umber hulk onto the map and then critically fail their attack, the game instead relies on a deck of action cards. The result is a game that trades random rolls for a keen strategist’s tactical agency. Having the right card in your hand and waiting until just the right time to play it is very satisfying.
The action deck is filled with instant reactions for defense and devastating attacks for offense. Central to it all is another concept gleaned from 4e; keywords, here expanded to include character attributes like strength, dexterity, or intelligence. Perhaps a rule only applies to units with the spider keyword, while only units with the intelligence keyword can use the most devastating spells. This creates a dynamism inherent to each miniature. Rogues are lightly armored, but have access to twice as many action cards from your hand thanks to having both the dexterity and strength keywords. Alternately, while expensive and robust, the dragon knight can only use strength cards. Better yet, the graphic design of the action cards and the unit cards makes it all very transparent to the player. At a glance you know what aces you have up your sleeve.
The resulting game is fast, barely more than an hour each time I’ve played. With the evenly matched sets out of the box it’s also a tight race. So much depends on using the right positioning and the right powers that eking out a two-point victory has always felt like an accomplishment. However, future expansions and rumors of single units or random packages promise to add more flavor to the game. Players can customize their warbands, their action decks, and lace together mixed units to create unusual combinations. Chris Dupuis (Risk: Legacy) and his team have cut in the addictive deck-building mechanic from Magic: The Gathering to make a designer drug of miniatures-collecting unlike any I’ve seen before.
Bottom line is this is an expensive game, as expensive as Leviathans or Zombicide, games with huge collections of exotic miniatures and complex rulesets. But I think the potential for this game is big, both as a value to dungeon masters struggling to find matched sets of miniatures for their tabletop session, and for fans of collectible card games and miniatures games of all types. Rarely does a game do double duty in the way that Dungeon Command does. Pick up both sets of minis currently on the market and you’ll have enough to fill the table for several months if you also pick up the latest 4e module, Rise of the Underdark, as well as play a great game of Dungeon Command. It solves problems on both sides of the issue, moving more miniatures for WoTC and giving players a good shot of tactical 4e-styled gameplay. Expect this game to have legs; the nearly 10-year lifecycle of its predecessor gives us some clue to how long we can expect it to be around.
Armchair General Score: 90%
Solitaire Suitability (1 low, 5 high): 2; possible, but not a lot of fun
About the Author
By night Charlie Hall is a writer for Gamers With Jobs (www.GamersWithJobs.com). His relevant interests range from pen-and-paper role playing games, to board games and electronic games of all types. By day he is a writer for CDW Government LLC. Follow him on Twitter @TheWanderer14, or send him hate mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He, his wife, and daughter make their home in far northern Illinois.