Lolth Stings Your Wallet Due To A Lack Of Heart?
The key to every successful miniatures game ever made has been that it has the innate ability to create tension, to excite the players, and to draw them, as generals into the flames of the battle they are engaging in. It’s not only tactics that count, although a sound system will reward good tactical players, it’s something more. The game needs to invite players into its world, commanding its denizens to battle to the death for their banner. In short, a good skirmish game makes you feel like the battle matters.
Enter Dungeon Command, a new product line from Wizards of the Coast that arrived unannounced on my doorstep last week. Now, I had heard a lot about it from a friend who was on the design team, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this new miniatures game would be sold in sets rather than the blind boosters that have been plaguing gaming for the last however many years. On top of that, these were rumoured to be shipping with cards that allow all the figures to be integrated into the delightfully fun Dungeons and Dragons Adventure Board Game System family. To top it off, we’re talking about a game with an MSRP of forty bones! What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for starters, you can’t really play the game with just one set. You have to have two sets to play the game properly, which means that you’re investing in an eighty dollar experience, not the forty dollars that I was initially looking at. Now, you get twelve miniatures per pack, two big tiles and two smaller tiles, a sheet of counters, and a bunch of cards for that forty dollar pack. Note that as far as I cold tell, these aren’t new minis, either; these are rehashes of old DDM models. In fact, I already own some that have once been re-purposed from DDM and were in the last waves of Heroscape, and some are even in the Dungeons and Dragons Adventure Board Game sets.
Now, as far as production value, this is wicked. The box is a really great design, with a flap that seals shut for travel to your local house of gaming. The art is, as always, spectacular and oozes the aura of Dungeons and Dragons mythos. The minis are pre-painted, which is always awesome, and the tiles are bright, engaging, and beautiful. Everything in the box screams quality. The problem is that you can buy a single DDM starter pack for 20 bucks and be able to play DDM. With this, the minimum buy in is $40, and you’re going to need 2 sets to really play it as designed, so you’re really at four times the initial buy price to play the game when comparing it with DDM. That’s a lot to ask of a consumer, in my opinion, if they’ve invested heavily in DDM. If not, though, it’s not bad at all, because if you don’t have DDM, this is all new stuff to you. I fall into the latter category, sort of, because I have many of these figures under the Heroscape brand, which is a whole different sport.
But, if the game is ridiculously awesome, then it’s a small price to pay, right? I mean, Earth Reborn was in that higher-up price range, right? Well, here’s the issue: remember when I said that a successful miniatures game drew you into its world, made you part of it, and makes you feel like the battle matters? Yeah, this game doesn’t really do that for me. It does a lot of really smart, novel things for a miniatures game, such as borrowing some slick mechanics from Magic The Gathering, adding some new ones to the mix like card-based interrupts that stack, and the game does a lot of new, really smart stuff that I think makes this one of the most unique systems I’ve ever played. It’s like a mash-up of MTG, Necromunda, Dungeon Twister, and Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures, with some new goodies in the box. But the one thing this game really needed that was sorely lacking is the luck factor.
You see, there’s not a single die in the box. No D20, no D12, no D10, not even the stalwart D6. Everything is done by talking, or by playing a card. Casting spells or using abilities is done by card play. I mean, there is randomness in how you get the spells, and which creatures come up in which order for deployment, but really, it’s not a game of doing things, it’s a game about announcements. You announce that you’re attacking, you ask if the opponent wishes to play a card, and if not, well, then you announce that your opponent’s critter takes some damage. It’s almost as if the other guy isn’t playing.
Now, I’m not that guy who has to have dice in the game to enjoy it. I love me some Dungeon Twister, with a passion, and I even like Chess quite a bit. Each game provides a tension that is unique to it, which is what makes them great games. But in Dungeon Command, the fact is that the entire time I was playing each game, I felt as though I was an unwanted passenger on the ride, that everything really was based on tactical advantages inherent in the character cards you drew, which trickles down to being able to play spell cards, since they are tied to abilities and the level of the character you wish to cast it. It’s just a really weird game in that it feels as though the only things that truly matter is which figures you get to play, and position.
As far as the system itself goes, the skirmish rules regarding line of sight, blocking and hindering terrain, and the usual fare for this kind of game all work really well and you can literally learn the entire game in maybe 20 minutes. The basics are pretty simple, and like all minis games, you need to really go through the cards and see what everyone does, and what spells you have. That said, even as basic as it is, it takes a bit of time to really understand the nature the game, to understand the fundamental strategies that will really help make the game into the best it can be. I’d put the complexity on par with Battleship Galaxies, for instance, or maybe just a hair deeper. The long and short is that it’s very accessible.
It’s clear that the design is positional-heavy because there are quite a few cards that allow you to move through enemy zones of control, for lack of a better term, and there are cards that allow you to slide in, strike, and slide out again. But unless a player plays a card to stop a hit, every single attack automatically hits. I think the rubber hits the road at that very point, at least for me. Nothing in life is guaranteed, but in this game, if I close my eyes and swing at you, you’re going to not only not try to avoid it, if I swing wide to the left, you’re going to step into it.
Now back to dice for a minute, what makes games memorable, to me, is the "hallelujah" moments where you, despite all odds, dodge an almost certain death blow and overcome your attacker, or manage to find the one chink in the enemy’s armor and thrust through to his heart, killing him dead as Elvis. This is the "All Skulls, Bitch" moment that we all pine for. And, honestly, the lack of anything really emulating that in this game just kind of turns me off to the whole shebang. I mean, sure, I might pull that one order card and have exactly the right skills to use it or be in just the right place to pull off something resembling one of the aforementioned feats of bravery and might, but it just doesn’t feel like it. I still feel like a sick, fat, middle aged douchebag playing with toys, not a God Emperor of the Underdark, sending forth my glorious legions of doom to crush the Dwarven alliance’s incursion in my rough hewn caverns.
Now that you have heard what I don’t like, let’s talk about what I think you might find awesome, because there is a dosage of awesome sauce in the box. Now, the objective of this skirmish is to kill enough enemy forces to drop the enemy’s Morale to zero, or kill every last enemy dude on the map. They go hand in hand, as Morale points are essentially the life points in the game, and you lose them by having an opponent smoke your critter. The higher the critter level killed, the more you lose. But there’s also Leadership points, which raise by one point every turn, which is how many levels’ worth of critters you can field. Although there is a creature card hand limit based on your leader card, if you want to wait until an opportune time to field a bunch of your baddies, well, go for it, because ambushes are cool when you can pull them off.
A really unique aspect of the game is a mechanic called "cowering" which allows you to block ten points of damage, which is the minimum amount that can be inflicted, and converting that damage into lost Morale points. Now, it’s limited in your use, such as when you have a powerful figure that is on the verge of killing an enemy figure that is behind enemy lines. The downside is that when your critter does get killed, you lost Morale damage when you used "cower", and then you lose it again when he’s dead. So, it’s very risky, but it is a neat tactical choice to be given. I used it once to great effect when I was able to avoid the death of my dragon by cowering, who went on to kill four enemy figures.
Another interesting thing is that there’s a deck building mechanic, of a sort. In order to have a legal "warband", you have to have at least 12 miniatures. So, if you had all of the sets, you have a good selection so you can tune the army to your liking, using whichever leader you wish from any of the sets. Further, you can create your own order deck, limited only by having a minimum of 30 cards. Now, this isn’t really unique as every miniatures game requires you to draft an army. But the card mechanic is pretty unique because it essentially acts as your grimoire of spells, which isn’t really anything I’ve seen in the frame of a fantasy miniatures game. It’s very Battleship Galaxies-esque in that regard, which I thought was a clever way to handle spells. What I will say is that the decks and creatures seem well tuned to one another as provided, but there were some cards I wished I could’ve had when playing Lolth and some cards I wished I’d have had playing Cormyr, so there is an opportunity to really get a finely tuned warband going.
Now, regarding the order cards, these are the star of the show, so to speak. You draw one every turn, and there’s no limit to how many you can have or play in a round. In a way, it feels a bit like old-school D&D when you’d have to wait to charge up your spells. These do all kinds of things, such as spitting webs, allowing you to dodge attacks, or allowing you to break movement rules in one way or another. The slick mechanic here is that for every card someone plays at you, you can stack a blocking card on top of theirs, or even a parry where you do something back to them, potentially. The clever thing here is that it plays out like plotted orders, where each order on top of the last overrides the previous one, and when all the stacking is done, you start resolving them from the top of the stack down. It’s damned brilliant, if you ask me, and if there was one thing I had to point to in all of this as the single shining example of how good design ideas should emerge, this is it. It’s remarkable.
The final, mechanic I want to talk about is the "Assist" mechanic. For some reason, if two level one humans are adjacent, they can join forces and magically use a power that they normally wouldn’t be able to use. So, if you have a level two web spell, two level one guys can join hands and magically create a webbing gland in the active character’s ass cheeks. This really made no sense in the D&D universe, at least to me, but it just further reinforces that this is a game of positional jockeying more than actual fighting.
So, if I had to boil the whole game down, noting why I didn’t like it, it really comes down to the fact that most of the time, you’re not playing cards. Most of the time, you’re moving around, using a standard attack, which amounts to telling the other player what’s happening and him either doing nothing or maybe trying to spend a card to defend. It’s a lot of positional jockeying, which is very good in a minis game, but not a lot of fireworks, which is very bad. While playing Heroscape, there’s times when you involuntarily stand up as if doing so will somehow imbue your figures with some magic or will make your dice roll skulls.
That is what makes minis games shine, that inherent ability to get you worked up. Unfortunately, this game is simply too dry for my tastes, and the tastes of my group. We’ve played Earth Reborn, Tannhauser, Necromunda, Heroscape, Star Wars Miniatures, Heroclix, Mage Knight Dungeons, and a wide, wide array of minis games with different scopes, and this game was the first one (at least that I recall) that received a "meh" response universally.
I think a lot of that boiled down to the fact that when one player is taking their turn, there is often times no interaction. It’s not multiplayer solitaire, but we’ve been programmed for decades that you need to be tossing a die to defend yourself or something, and this might account for our lack of enthusiasm. Some have started hinting comparisons to Epic Duels, but it would be a truly bad comparison. This game doesn’t do the same thing that Epic Duels does, and the only real similarities end in the fact that you play cards to do some things, and you move miniatures around a map. Epic Duels created tension by constantly creating a shortage of resources. If you had no cards, you couldn’t do anything. Hell, in many cases you couldn’t even move. But in Dungeon Command, you can always attack, move, and perform actions. You can literally play the entire game by doing nothing other than declaring attacks and deploying your figures. So, again, I think that the utter lack of tension in the game is what really makes this game less than the sum of its parts.
Now, on the flipside, I’m pleased as could be to have new enemies and outdoor terrain for Ravenloft, and that alone would justify the price in my eyes. I guess the way I look at it, I got a couple of 40 dollar expansions for my D&D Series games, and as a bonus it comes with a mostly forgettable skirmish game included for free. From that perspective, I’m a happy camper. But I would, personally, never have considered the game on its own merits alone.
The minis look good, which is nice, and I really like the fact that they can be used for this game or used in Ravenloft. I mean, the Sting of Lolth set adds 12 baddies to the mix with The Legend of Drizzt Underdark theme, which totally rocks. And the tiles are double sided, and the big ones are like four times the size of a standard cavern tile, so it’s really a shoo in for double use. Tie that in with the fact that the obverse is an outdoor terrain tile, and now you can really pump up your campaigns with battles through the forests surrounding the vile Count Strahd’s castle before climbing the sheer cliffs, battling Ashardalon, and finally reaching the vile one’s crypt. That alone is awesome sauce, distilled. I mean, I cannot emphasize enough how excited I am to be able to create rich, engaging campaigns with town mechanics and whatnot now that this is available.
The Heart of Cormyr pack is essentially straight out of Wrath of Ashardalon, thematically, and so you can integrate that into the Adventure System games as well, and they really do look brilliant. I’d argue that of all of the DDMs I’ve seen, which I’ll admit is limited, these are the best looking of them all. Now there is only one major flaw in all of this regarding the integration into the other game system, which is that these are painted, and the others are not. Now, in these two sets, some of the miniatures are painted copies of the ones in the Adventure System games, which might actually work out in your favor. The only downside is that some will be unpainted and some will be painted, but if you decide to paint your unpainted ones, you run the risk of them being released later in the Dungeon Command series.
It’s your call, and I see no reason why you can’t simply use only the painted ones, which act as an upgrade kit. In any case, I think Wizards really did a great thing by building in dual-use into these battle packs. Really a brilliant idea. I’m pleased as could be to have new enemies and outdoor terrain for Ravenloft, and that alone would justify the price in my eyes. I guess the way I look at it, I got a couple of 40 dollar expansions for my D&D Series games, and as a bonus it comes with a mostly forgettable skirmish game included for free. From that perspective, I’m a happy camper. But I would, personally, never have considered the game on its own merits alone.
As a standalone skirmisher, it simply didn’t capture my imagination, it used rehashed miniatures, and doesn’t provide a favorable fun-to-price ratio, all things considered. I like randomness in my war games, and this was far more of a structured, tight design that really rewards critical thinking and good timing of card use. I guess the upshot is that this is really one of the first German-inspired miniatures skirmish games that I’ve ever seen, and if you like games that have little randomness but want a high-confrontation tactical miniatures game, this might well be what you’ve been waiting for.
The thing that really scares me, though, in my heart of hearts, is that Wizards seems to be moving more toward the MTG and European-style gaming. This, to me, is a travesty. Back when TSR Hobbies was producing games like Dungeons and Dragons, and spawning countless knockoffs like HeroQuest, Warhammer Quest, and DungeonQuest, nobody could’ve envisioned a sword-and-sorcery game that didn’t involve skill checks via dice. Gary Gygax would never have considered, in my opinion, making combat card-based with no real chance of failure unless someone intervened with an opposing card.
The Magic-ization and Euro-ization of Wizards is most certainly intriguing to watch, but I believe it’s a mistake. People associate the Dungeons and Dragons brand with the D20, D12, D4, and most of the hobby dice ever made. To abandon them really stings a bit, at least for me. But that’s just me, and apparently someone at Wizards who knows the game business thinks it’s a great idea based on the last two games released by them, Lords of Waterdeep and Dungeon Command, and as long as I get my annual dosage of Dungeons and Dragons Adventure system product, I guess I will have to be content with that alone, which is not a bad thing, I suppose, because I really like those games a lot.
Why I Applied For Another Tourist Visa For My Return To Cormyr:
- Tremendous quality is seen in the art, the bits, and even the box design
- It was a stroke of genius to include D&D Adventure Game integration
- There’s a lot of "new stuff" about this game, from a miniatures perspective
- If you like Euro games and also like skirmish games, surrender your wallet now
Why I Felt The Sting Of The Travel Agent, Lolth, Who Sent Me To Cormyr:
- There is nothing in this game that really engages you
- An eighty dollar buy in to get the full experience is very steep
- These are all re-issues of miniatures from Heroscape/DDM/Adventure System games
- The lack of tension and excitement contributes to the "dry as toasted rye" disposition
This game was a lot different than any other miniature game that I’ve played, and it was a refreshing change from the usual cookie cutter "move a guy, roll a die" formula that has been around forever. Unfortunately, while it was a refreshing change, the game itself fell quite flat for us. It lacked any tension whatsoever, and while the mechanics are spectacular, the game itself ends up far less than the sum of its parts. Somewhere along the way, the design lost its soul, and I’d argue that it happened when the dice were kept out of the box.
From what I’ve read, people seem to really be digging the game, but not a single one of us here wants to play Dungeon Command again, as delivered. The price of $80 to play this game via buying two faction packs seems egregious for what the game is, but the one truly saving grace which, in my humble opinion, justifies the price, is that the integration into Ravenloft/Ashardalon/Drizzt is simply perfect. In fact, it’s so overwhelmingly well devised that I can recommend this to you based solely on that, if you are inclined to expand that series of games, as I am. Seeing as I will not be getting more review copies anymore, I’m fully prepared to state that I will be buying more expansions for Ravenloft…even if it is packaged with a bland skirmish game.
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