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Subject: Inspired design makes for an excellent game rss

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Merric Blackman
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Dungeon Command is a miniatures skirmish game by Wizards of the Coast for two to four players. It takes about 30-45 minutes to play the two-player game, which this review will address.

A chief concept in Dungeon Command is that each player maintains their own warband; it is a customisable game. Players construct their warbands from creatures, order cards, map tiles and commander cards. The game is sold in set faction packs. At the time of writing, only the first two: Sting of Lolth and Heart of Cormyr are available.

It is worth noting that miniature games, like trading card games, tend to require a moderate buy-in cost. It isn't the same paradigm as a boardgame where you get everything you need for all players in one box. You can play a starter scenario using just one faction box, but it won't really give you the full experience of the game. One faction box per player is really the minimum for interesting play.

There are a number of design decisions in Dungeon Command that distinguish it from other miniature games I've played. I'm not a big player of miniature games, although I've played a lot of BattleTech, D&D Miniatures, MageKnight and Heroclix over the years. Let's have a look at them and how they add to the game. This review does not contain a detailed description of the rules and gameplay; you can find those in my first play report. This review looks at elements that I believe are notable about Dungeon Command.

Cards, not Dice
Dungeon Command doesn't use dice to determine success. Instead, all creatures do set damage with basic attacks. Order cards allow more effective attacks, special manoeuvres, or defensive parries. If you and your opponent have no cards in hand, you know exactly what the result of your attacks will be. However, if your opponent has a card in hand, then comes uncertainty. Is it a powerful attack? Will it allow a counter to my play?

The game would work if you didn't use cards, in the same way that Chess works: a game about positioning and manoeuvre. The cards allow more variety of action than the basic 'Chess' game, as well as providing uncertainty as to results.

Cards have requirements to play. Each creature has a level and a list of attributes, which the card has to match. A Level 2 STR creature can't play a Level 1 DEX card. The cards for each attribute emphasise different effects, and some cards relax requirements to allow play by creatures of a certain type: Spiders, for instance, can play "Web" despite them being DEX creatures rather than the INT required by the card.

I didn't expect this design decision for this game, but it has proved an inspired one. I have become very frustrated over the years with a single dice roll determining a game, despite all the good play on a player's part. In this game, controlling the timing of the game (and thus players' access to cards) can be crucial. It should also be noted that each faction has one commander that helps you gain access to more order cards (or at least better quality cards).

The Growing Warband
Each player has a leadership score that is based on the commander they've chosen (each set comes with two choices). This score increases at the end of each turn, and determines the maximum levels of creatures you can control on the battlefield at one time.

This means that when a creature dies, the hole it creates can be filled with an equally powerful creature. Unlike D&D Miniatures and Heroclix, your entire force doesn't begin on the battlefield. Instead, you start with a small portion of your force and play new creatures as the game continues. There isn't a death spiral where once you start losing, you'll continue losing because you have fewer creatures than your opponent: instead, you'll have equivalent forces for the entire battle, keeping the game interesting until the end. If there's one design decision that I think really makes this game special, this is it.

Morale, Treasure and Cowering
If you always have creatures on the battlefield, with new ones being played to replace those lost, how do you win the game? A second rating, that of Morale, covers that. Morale is lost when a creature is killed, an amount equal to that creature's level. Once your Morale reaches zero, then you lose the game. (It is also possible that one player has no creatures left on the battlefield, in which case whoever has the higher Morale wins).

That's easy enough; however, the addition of Treasure and Cowering make the game tactically richer. Six treasure piles are placed around the board at the beginning of the game. By picking them up, you can increase your morale. You can also save a creature from dying by cowering - you lose morale to prevent the damage.

These rules work really well. I've seen fast movement creatures - though weak in combat - gather enough treasure to take victory because the slow-moving force against them couldn't kill enough to make up the difference. I've also seen players take 3 morale hits to protect a Level 2 creature because the positioning of that creature was important and losing it would hurt more than the morale hit.

A Game and Two Expansions
Apart from the primary Dungeon Command game, a set also comes with 12 cards for using the miniatures in the D&D Adventure System games - Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon and Legend of Drizzt. The Sting of Lolth set provides more monsters for your foes to face, but the Heart of Cormyr set introduces a new mechanic: the Ally, which adds a new encounter card to the mix that allows one of the miniatures to join your forces as a non-player 'Hero'.

And, of course, the miniatures are also of the proper scale to add them to a Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game (or the Fantasy RPG of your choice). Heart of Cormyr gives you a selection of heroic miniatures, while Sting of Lolth is a drow-themed set that is particularly useful at present, it being the "Year of the Underdark" for D&D products from Wizards of the Coast.

Customisation of Forces
A starting box comes with 12 miniatures and 36 order cards, along with 2 commanders and 4 tiles. Each player requires 12 miniatures, 30 order cards, 1 commander and 4 tiles, so there is a small amount of customisation available immediately. It just isn't that interesting.

One you add a second box to your collection, you have a lot more meaningful options. You are restricted to having four copies of any card or miniature in your warband, and you get one or two copies of each in a faction box. Getting four of everything is likely to be frustrating, as you'll have a lot of duplicate components you don't need.

The secondary market will likely help there, especially due to the separate markets the components have: the order cards are only useful to Dungeon Command players, as people wanting the miniatures for D&D or the Adventure System boardgames won't need them.

Component Quality
All of the components in Dungeon Command are quite attractive to look at, although I've seen better prepainted miniatures than those in these sets. I very much appreciate how durable the miniatures are; they are attractive enough for my purposes, although good miniature painters could do a much better job.

The dungeon tiles have artwork by Jason Engle, who has been designing tiles for the D&D game for many years now. I love the design of his tiles and these ones look very good. I, and others, have noticed slight warping of the tiles in moist conditions, just enough to prove troublesome. This is disappointing, to say the least. The tiles are double-sided, with wilderness on one side and a dungeon on the other. I particularly like the set-up tiles, which depict entrances/exits from the caves and castles for the various factions. There are several terrain types on the tiles, which make for variety in the battles.

The cards - unlike those in the Adventure System games - are full colour and all have original art on them. They really look very nice, and I appreciate that the creature cards have pictures of the miniatures for identification purposes. The card stock feels thinner and less durable than those of Magic cards, and I wasted no time in sleeving my set; I'd advise you do the same.

Cliffs of Doom
Although I like most of the design decisions in Dungeon Command, there is one game element that irritates me: the Cliffs of Doom. When you play on the outdoor maps, the walls of the dungeon become high cliffs and mesas, thus impassable terrain. This is fine for most ground-bound creatures, but for some reason they can't be flown over either!

I can appreciate why it is this way for game-play reasons, but I really wish the designers had found another solution to this problem.

The Right Amount of Luck?
Although Dungeon Command does not have chance-based resolution of effects, the game does still possess uncertainty, primarily in the order of creature cards and order cards drawn to hand; you can't play a creature if you haven't drawn it, likewise with the order cards. Not everyone is going to appreciate this method, which is also used in such games as Magic and Summoner Wars.

I enjoy managing chaos (rather than being managed by chaos, which is how I feel about luck-based resolution at times), and the amount of unpredictability in your draws can be ameliorated by the customisation of the game and the way you can replace dead creatures. However, there will be times where your draw just works against you. It is something to be aware of before you play this game.

Conclusion
I did not expect much of Dungeon Command. Its predecessor, D&D Miniatures had been an entertaining game, but it could be quite random and never quite grasped my devotion (although I loved all the miniatures it provided for my RPG sessions). However, as I played more and more of Dungeon Command in preparation for this review, I realised how good the design actually was. "Good" then became "Great": I really enjoy this game!

The game solves problems I've had with miniature skirmish games before, and does it with solutions that are elegant and effective. The way you can reinforce your warband, the cowering rules, and the card-based gameplay make for a game that I really enjoy. Dungeon Command is an exceptional game, and I am eagerly awaiting the release of new sets so I can see more of what is possible in the game.
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Very well written sir... I salute you.
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duncan easton
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I agree with all of this (although I've luckily not had the warping) and would just like to thank Merric for taking the time to do this and all of the session reports which I found very useful in deciding whether to purchase or not.
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Mike Walko
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I got to demo this game over the weekend, and I was impressed by it. For a long time I've been looking for a tabletop miniatures game that used something other than dice to resolve combat.

I was tired of losing games from a succesion of low rolls, or watching by opponent roll 6's repeatedly, nullifying my attacks, with nothing I could do about it.

I lost the two games I played of DC, but I could clearly point to what I did wrong after. I moved forward too far. I stayed out in the open too long. I underestimated the power of moving units adjacent to one another. They were all mistakes I made that I could improve upon in later games.

I never lost to an unlucky string of bad rolls.

If I can convince a buddy or two to pick up an army, this is a game I'll definitely be buying into.
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Nate Scheidler
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MerricB wrote:

Cliffs of Doom
Although I like most of the design decisions in Dungeon Command, there is one game element that irritates me: the Cliffs of Doom. When you play on the outdoor maps, the walls of the dungeon become high cliffs and mesas, thus impassable terrain. This is fine for most ground-bound creatures, but for some reason they can't be flown over either!

I can appreciate why it is this way for game-play reasons, but I really wish the designers had found another solution to this problem.


I think this rule is to prevent a ranged attacker with flight or teleport from camping atop a mesa in such a way that a melee unit couldn't reach it. Or having to introduce hover. The explanation is "the top is so far up, your unit has effectively left the battlefield". Not perfect, but it helps complete the definition.
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Niko White
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It'd also be really annoying if walls worked differently above and below ground, or for later theme sets or whatever.
 
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Merric Blackman
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In Heroclix, there are both indoor and outdoor maps. Indoors, flying creatures can't fly over blocking terrain, but they can when outdoors. (They can't *stop* on blocking terrain, however).

There's some very good gameplay reasons why flying over outdoor walls shouldn't be allowed in Dungeon Command, but it does stick out as a thematic inconsistency.

Cheers,
Merric
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Many of the D&D tiles sets designed for miniatures and RPGs have little "terrain element" tiles.
A table, an alter, a bookshelf made of some form of Arcane IKEA.

Because Dungeon Command is like "a knife fight in a phone box" adding just one extra element to a well played board really does mix things up.

I really hope they give us some cool terrain in the Goblin set, I'm hoping for a little outdoor hut or circle of ruins to have a little "Rorkes Drift" action in... A brave stand
 
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Tim Norris
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Nicely done!
 
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Nate Scheidler
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MerricB wrote:
In Heroclix, there are both indoor and outdoor maps. Indoors, flying creatures can't fly over blocking terrain, but they can when outdoors. (They can't *stop* on blocking terrain, however).

There's some very good gameplay reasons why flying over outdoor walls shouldn't be allowed in Dungeon Command, but it does stick out as a thematic inconsistency.

Cheers,
Merric


In the future, a plateau might just get reclassified as "obstructing", which I think is a great add already. Blocks line of sight, but not movement. In the plateau, you're too far away for your attack to work but can still scale it slowly or fly over it.
 
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The full map (2 sets, 1 half per set) is a grid of 1 inch squares in a pattern of 16x24 inches if done in the "standard" 2 set rectangle shape.

For Just 1 set, I think the map boards are meant to be set up long and narrow and becomes just 8x24 inches although another pattern may be possible?
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Damo the fool
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In each set are two 8" x 4" tiles and two 8" x 8".

However the 8x4 tiles have a wall around three sides leaving a "usable" space of 3 squares by 6 squares.

The 8x8 tiles have a wall along one edge leaving "usable" space of 7 by 8 squares.

You can make long, s-type, box or L-type configurations:

4884

48
_84

48
48

_4
_8
48

Hope that helps, if you read a few of merric's session reports you can see the tiles, which might help show their size / extent.
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Garyp
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Great review - thumbs up from me in all respects. After a dozen plays this game is one of my favourites.

As a long term M:tG player (many years ago now) I often tinkered with ideas about how that game could be made into a minis based wargame incorporating the exellent combo-ability of powers and effects of the card game with positioning, terrain and theme provided by a miniatures game and, acheive true fog or war, not just randomness - well, DC has done it, and done it very well.

And the game within the game - the meta-game of warband and order card customization - this aspect is great fun and where a lot of the appeal, fun and challenge of M:tG lay. DC provides a similar experience albeit on a much more manageable scale - and I hope it grows, but not to much - M:tG became a monster in that respect.

Added to that the game is easy to set up and tear down, the minis are pre-painted to an OK standard and look good straight out of the box but also can be easily enhanced if that is your thing The cards, terrain boards and tokens are good quality, they are functional and have nice art.

Additionally this game will lend itself to scenario play - build Fellowship and Sauron warbands/card decks, set objectives (locations on the map) to be reached - the Ringbearer must leave the Fellowship once a certain point on the map is reached and go off to destroy the One Ring while the other heroes defend another location - Sauron must stop the Ringbearer and overrun the heroes to have a complete victory while the Fellowship must destroy the ring and hold out - needs some specifics but you get the idea. And the nature of the DC system - minis with characteristics/factors, map board/terrain, order cards for effects and abilities and unknown'ness - makes it easy.

I guess I am coming across as a bit of a fan-boy, but I have played games for a long time, organised a major Sydney games onvention for 10 years as well as run competitions so I see myself as at least experienced. Over the years I have tired of games that rely heavily on dice rolls - maybe I have just become a cranky old man - but I want some fog of war in my war games, not just randomness - not the same thing in my opinion - and I believe DC delivers - and does so very well.

So endeth the rant, but this is a very good game - get into it!
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Paul Doherty
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I for one would love to see a book of scenarios come out for this game that implement exactly the types of things you described above. "Hold this area for four turns to win", or "Retrieve treasure from location X from the opposingteam's side of he board and escape with it" (essentially capture the flag). A book with about 50 of those would be worth having.
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