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Dungeon Command: Tyranny of Goblins, Customizable Miniatures Games, and Mage Wars

Jesse Dean
United States
Orlando
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
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Though I expect that to change after I get to play some of the sweet-looking new Essen releases, or if I ever get an opportunity to play Andean Abyss in more depth (outlook: not so good), Dungeon Command is currently my favorite new game of 2012 and that has only been reinforced with the release of Dungeon Command: Tyranny of Goblins.

 


Tyranny of Goblin’s Pre-Constructed War band
For those that intend to primarily use Tyranny of Goblins without any customization I think Tyranny has a lot to offer. The biggest reason why is how different it plays then the other factions is. Playing Tyranny of Goblins, with its plethora of ally-boosting abilities and beneficial attachments, feels like playing a much more disciplined military force then seen with the sneakier drow or rag-tag band of adventurers. So I think this will be quite effective for those who simply want a new war band to play against their older drow or heroes war bands, even if I think the biggest strengths are in how it contributes to the overall availability of war band construction options.

 


Expanding Options for Customizability in Dungeon Command
Dungeon Command is a customizable miniatures game, played primarily with two players, where each player has a commander that provides morale and leadership ratings, initial order cards, a creature card hand size, and a special ability, a deck of order cards that provide special bonuses, and a deck of creature cards which are used to limit the options of what creatures you can have on the board. I have written a review for the base game, which is essentially just the first two packs, so I recommend you should check it out if you want a more detailed look at the game.

For customizable games to really be successful there has to be real opportunities for the players to use their available pieces to construct a wide array of “deck” options. This is not to say that their needs to be a wide array of options for it to be successful as a game, it is quite possible to play say Netrunner or Dungeon Command with just some of the pre-constructed items, but that does not really unlock the full play potential that the game’s offer. However, the potential for customization can be important even for more casual players who do are unlikely to do so, as they want to have the available packs in case the situation allows for customization to be relevant. With only two packs available, Dungeon Command did not really have effective customization options yet.

Customization in Dungeon Command comes along three primary axes: your commander, your order cards deck, and the creatures’ deck. Commanders provide an overall guiding structure for your war band. Several of them provide bonuses for only particular types of creatures, the Sting of Lolth drow commanders being an example of this, but most of them are generally useful, providing bonuses that are just optimal with certain creature or order card combinations rather than being completely useless unless you have certain types of creatures or war band configurations. The cards that are in your creature deck and the ones that are in your order deck are more intimately related, as most cards require a certain level and attribute combination. So in an optimized war band you will want to make sure that either the order cards are such that the you will always or almost always have creatures that can use them in play or that there are ways to get around the attribute limitations of included creatures. A combination of both will probably end up being the preferred way to go.

I think that with the introduction of Tyranny of Goblins there are enough options to make customization worthwhile enough to explore. Part of this is simply due to the fleshing out of a number of attributes that were poorly represented before. The vast majority of the Sting of Lolth miniatures had Dexterity as one of their attributes, so there were plenty of options if you wanted to make a pure Dexterity war band or one that combined it a single other attribute, and with the strength and specialization of the Sting of Lolth commanders. However, all of the other attributes were either lacking cards entirely (Constitution, Charisma) or had such a small number of available cards and/or figures that including them seemed to have a limited amount of worth (Wisdom and Intelligence). Tyranny of Goblins changes that by adding a significant number of creature and order cards that focus on Constitution and Charisma and a number of order cards, though only a single creature, that focus on Intelligence. Wisdom unfortunately remains neglected. With these new cards it is now possible to make interesting combinations of war bands featuring a relatively large variety of creatures sporting Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma and have a reasonable amount of variety and real choices as to what cards to include or not include. Intelligence also has enough support that it is possible to have cards based on that attribute in a support function, though they are not yet significant enough to form the bulk of a war band. This is aided by what I see as one of the most exciting new order cards to be introduced: Arcane Scroll.

 


The Arcane Scroll card opens up the possibility for all sorts of interesting customization options because it allows a creature to use an order card with the Intelligence trait even if they lack the trait itself. While I am not quite sure that it is worthwhile to use this card in war bands that do not have a reasonable number of Intelligence based creatures, it does allow for some interesting options for those that either have them as a subset of the total or even a major part of the war band, giving you the ability to add consistency for the sake of some level of power. It also allows you to pull off some interesting surprises, such as having an otherwise slow unit without range capabilities do something your opponent was not expecting and thus give you an advantage.

Other utility order cards have also been included, providing with interesting options that push the limits of the game further and provide fun decisions during deck-building. The ability to consistently and effectively maintain offenses and preserve your units with defense cards is helpful, but the addition of the strong utility cards, like Arcane Scroll, seen in Tyranny of Goblins is a strong positive on the mind as it expands the potential of order deck construction beyond jamming in as much of the best attack and defense cards as possible into the decks.

The other big mechanical advancement comes from the large number of beneficial attachment cards. A few of these, particularly ones that gave one shot bonuses or card draw income, were featured in the previous sets, but Tyranny of Goblins really pushes this further allowing you to improve the movement or damage capabilities of an individual unit, probably a high-level or otherwise powerful one, further.

This also leaves me pretty excited to see what is coming with Curse of Undeath and Blood of Gruumsh. Curse of Undeath is particularly intriguing because of how it looks like it will have a pretty good mixture of units that will provide a way to flesh out current attribute selections with a significant amount of options for Intelligence-base bands. I am hopeful that Blood of Gruumsh will have similar sorts of options for Wisdom.

Customizability and Game Play of Dungeon Command vs. Mage Wars
When I wrote my previous review of Dungeon Command, I noted that Dungeon Command seemed to be less interesting then Mage Wars from a customizability perspective, with both being clearly superior to Summoner Wars. While I still believe that they are both superior to Summoner Wars in customizability, I think I enjoy the construction process with Dungeon Command more.

Mage Wars uses a restricted point based system for customization that allows a great degree of variance in building options, even if this variance is filtered through thematic limitations. What I did not account for in my initial analysis is the linearity of the Mage Wars economy. Essentially Mage Wars is the tactical miniatures expression of an economic snowball game. You are attempting to build an efficient enemy mage killing engine by spending your currency to affect the relative position of each player’s economy or to advance your position to the eventual goal. So most of the customization options are based around deciding how many cards to have for the construction of engine building, and what combination of cards should be devoted to moving towards the victory condition vs. undermining the ability of other players to achieve those victory conditions.

Dungeon Command has a multi-dimensionality that results in both more interesting game play and construction. Rather than a deeply intertwined system where the one type of income is directly related to board presence and thus victory, Dungeon Command forces players to juggle multiple types of income and build based on the differences in how these incomes relate to the pursuit of their victory conditions. These incomes are largely card based, which allow both for interesting ways for players to build and for WotC to introduce cards that allow do things that do not necessarily effect income or creatures on the board.

The first of these incomes is order cards. At the basic level a player gets a single order card per turn. There are existing cards that can accelerate, and one of the commanders allows for certain units to exchange the morale of treasure acquisition for order card draws, but I still believe that these cards are the single most unbalancing aspect of Dungeon Command, and am still inclined not to play with them. The majority of the order cards are related to attack, defense, movement, or some combination of these items. Even with these cards the increased amount of consideration for building is relevant, as you cannot simply build a tool box of cards that you will find useful. Instead, the distribution of the attributes and levels in the creature deck and how they interacts with the distribution of attributes and levels in the order card deck needs to be accounted for and built around to ensure that the vast majority of the time you will be able to use your order cards while still being able to harness the more powerful, less widely usable cards.

The creature card deck is managed in an entirely different sort of manner then the order card deck. Rather than drawing a single card per turn, a player draws up to a commander-defined creature hand size whenever new creatures are deployed to the board. The ability to deploy creatures to the board is limited by the commander’s leadership rating, which has a pre-set value and automatically increases by 1 every turn. When building for the creature deck, this rating, its rate of increase, and the number of creatures that will be in a player’s hand at a given time all need to be considered. Being able to effectively build a collection of creatures that allows for optimal board presence based on leadership limitations will allow for a particular war band to be more effective than one that frequently is forced to keep a smaller board presence.

The way the creature deck works also allows for some interesting order cards, two of which are featured in Tyranny of Goblins. The first of these is a card that does nothing but provide an immediate increase to leadership rating. This is good, but considering the cost is an order card, which tend to be a very valuable and scarce resource, makes the question of if it is quite good enough quite relevant. After all, if you draw this card you are not drawing a card that will have one less card to use for movement, attack, or defense and while having the ability to bring out slightly bigger creatures is good, is it quite good enough to make up for the opportunity cost. Similarly, there is a card that allows you to discard as many creatures as you like from your creature card hand and then reshuffle your discarded creature cards back into your hand and then draw back up to your creature card hand size. This is a good effect, as it allows you to potentially recover lost units you would like to have back and get rid of cards that are not currently useful but it brings up the same questions of opportunity cost that the leadership increasing card present. I am not sure if they are worth it yet, and I strongly suspect that their overall worth will depend on the particular war band you are using them in, but I very much like the fact that these cards can even exist as they imply that there are a lot of potentially interesting and exciting directions that they can go with future order card releases.

 



Of course, a much more multidimensional economic and customizability process does not necessarily mean a particular game will produce more interesting gameplay. And from a complexity stand point, Mage Wars definitely has Dungeon Command beat. There are more abilities, more special powers, and more ways that individual units can create conditions on other units. So people who appreciate this level of complexity will probably enjoy Mage Wars more than Dungeon Command. I am one who typically does appreciate this sort of complexity, and I still enjoy Mage Wars, but I find that the items that Dungeon Command brings to the table, more interesting construction, a less straightforward economy, and more spatial complexity, are sufficient to make Dungeon Command my preferred tactical combat game of choice.


Conclusion
Tyranny of Goblins is an exciting addition to the Dungeon Command, not just because of its fun and effective pre-build war band, but because of the options it creates and possibilities it implies for future Dungeon Command releases. I am still disappointed that there are not more possibilities for purchasing order cards and miniatures in a less expensive fashion, but even with just acquiring one of each new set, it still looks like there will be plenty of fun possibilities.
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