Just When I Thought My Interest Was Dead…It Rose From The Grave!
I said before, in my review of the launch packs, that I wasn’t a big fan of the game system because it lacked a lot of the "white knuckle" factor because of the efficient model the system has at its core. Well, Curse of Undeath doesn’t undo the fact that this game is geared towards being a purely strategic skirmish game without any real random factors. But what it did was rekindle an interest in the game for a variety of reasons, not the least of which are the quite wonderful miniature sculpts that were in this box. I’m actually considering picking up the Goblins pack just to see how it plays out compared to the previous iterations.
Anyhow, this is how it went: my buddy came down this weekend and brought his Dungeon Command sets, hoping to prove me wrong. In what can only be called fate, Wizards sent me a copy of the Undeath pack, which arrived Friday. Thus, I literally had no reason not to go forward and give it a go, especially since at this point, I am not one to tempt fate. It turns out that I stand by my assessment of the original game products, as products, but no longer do I think the system is, in and of itself, a failure. Rather, the system is actually pretty good, but the other packs’ lack of interesting things to do when being attacked really turned me off.
See, I never got the Tyranny of Goblin pack and I gave away the previous Dungeon Command packs, so I had pretty much written the game off. It’s not a bad game by a long shot, and I can see the draw for some people, but suffice it to say that from my five or so plays, I really just wasn’t into the game, despite being a huge miniature skirmish kind of guy. That said, Curse of Undeath really kind of changed my mind on what the game offers, because this particular pack brings a lot of what I believe was missing in the other packs.
You see, the other packs I’ve played with to this point felt dry, predictable, and served the game’s model for the sake of the model. The deterministic approach of the game is such that most of the time, you attack with your critter of choice, it does a predictable amount of damage, and then the other player does the same. There weren’t a lot of really good countering options, truly strong ones that did more than simply reduce an amount of damage done. With most skirmish games, and my most, I mean every other one I’ve ever played, the dice are either your ally or nemesis, and your attacks are not guaranteed. That simple randomness is what made your toes curl as the die is cast while you prayed to whatever God you pray to in order to come up with a favourable result. And so it goes, until one side is crushed.
Dungeon Command turned skirmishes to date on their head in that respect, because while other games like Star Wars Miniatures, for instance, have predetermined damage amounts, there is always the chance, slim as it might be, that the little battler will whiff. With Dungeon Command, there simply isn’t a case where an attack would miss, and therefore much of what gets your heart pumping was missing. While that didn’t change with Curse of Undeath, but what did change was the idea that you really couldn’t do much about it other than reduce the damage dealt by playing a card against an attack. Even that hasn’t changed, but the decisions just feel more meaningful based on the new cards.
With Curse of Undeath, you have a lot of new ideas that evolve from the simple fact that undead tings don’t generally tend to stay dead once it’s been re-animated. Vampires can drain life from their enemies and heal, and some of the critters that are killed get to get back up. There’s a mounted critter that once killed doesn’t just go away, but rather just has its steed slaughtered and you can put the rider right back into play where the steed was killed. And that’s just the beginning of the awesome that they put into this release. I mean, it almost feels like a different game because of what got put into the box.
It starts with the commanders, in fact, because these two have a lot of flavor that is due, in part, to the theme of the box. These are evil bastards who want death to reign, and it shows. The other factions are much more tame as far as theme, and while I’d not say it was painted on, they were more of the fantasy tropes that people have come to expect. Undeath is really built on the idea of undead things doing undead thing deeds, starting with the idea that if you kill off an enemy, you can summon them from the grave as skeletal critters. This has been abstracted into allowing one of the leaders to gain a higher leadership level per killed unit, which really adds to the box’s theme of hordes of dead things rising up from the abyss to chew up the living.
Then, the whole feel runs through the units, which is comprised wholly of skeletons, ghosts, and zombies, with a dash of skeletal dragon wizard. The miniatures are easily the best of the bunch, with a nice base coat on each, followed by a highlighting and a wash coat which is better than Heroscape’s by leagues and, in fact, better than the other packs that I’ve seen. The wash on some of these miniatures is a low point, though, because the reddish tones don’t really match the figures’ ivory base coat, so they just look a little bit off. The dracolich, for instance, looks like he was bathing in black cherry Jell-o, for instance. Still, for a prepainted miniature, they’re pretty damned snazzy. The art is also very good, as it was in the other packs, but that’s to be expected from Wizards at this point. But that’s not really what makes this pack special; it’s the powers and abilities of this lot that really made me fancy these more than the others.
As noted, Zombies can rise from the grave, which ensures a nearly limitless supply of cheap, front line cannon fodder. On top of that, you have skeletal warriors, and a mounted skeleton that I spoke of before. Once the mounted skeleton is killed, you can drop a skeletal warrior right on the spot that the critter dropped, which means you lose no table position. Then there’s a ghost which ignores walls and can’t easily be hit. On top of that, you have a devil dog, a naga-like skeletal tomb guardian with four arms and multiple attacks, a vampire that regenerates, and some sort of death knight who hurts you just by being near him. Finally, you get a lich which can spawn creatures and a dracolich which is, essentially, the King Daddy of the faction, with three attacks and a skeletal paw full of whoopass. All in all, this is easily the coolest faction I’ve seen, with the most true variety in what they do.
Now, that said, the critters and their innate powers aren’t really the draw. It’s the order deck that really made this into a bad ass little set, and primarily due to the fact that the cards in this set are very different from the first two. For starters, they’ve included some cards that really could be used in Dwarf or Drow decks more than this, and it’s apparent that this was the idea, since they depict Dwarves and skinned creatures. Two of them are simply magic sword cards that can only be used by humanoids, which are pretty standard fare. The other two, though, are cards that allow one creature to dodge a bunch of damage. The fact that these were included gives me the feeling that future iterations will include cards that are best suited toward building custom decks, which I think could be a real draw if a tournament scene were to emerge for the system.
The faction-specific cards, though, are where it’s at, though. I am not in a position to talk about power creep at this point since I’m only three games deep into this faction, but I will say that I beat the living crap out of the Drow and Cormyr factions. The magic of this pack is in the fact that most all of the cards are deeply rooted in avoiding damage and healing as a result of causing damage. Paired with the durability of the characters and their abilities, it makes for a fearsome and potent faction that actually makes you feel as if you have meaningful things to do when being attacked. I still miss the dice, and I’m still staunchly against deterministic attacks in a skirmish game, but this new faction’s abilities really got me over the hump to enjoying Dungeon Command.
The final thing to talk about are the cards for the Dungeons and Dragons Adventure System games, and this one is a shoo in for the best, because it gives Castle Ravenloft a delicious new set of baddies to beat upon with great disdain. Now, new doesn’t mean better, and if you have Ravenloft, the Zombies are the same model, although these are painted, while the rest are new. The only complaint I have is that the cards are rather bland, with none having any special effects. This is particularly puzzling as there’s a baddie called a Hypnotic Ghost, which I would’ve thought would daze a hero, but in fact doesn’t do anything more than most other baddies do. I’m only a tiny bit disappointed in this, though, because when it comes to those games, anything new is a good thing.
Why I Like To Play With Dead Things:
- New mechanics in this pack make it something really different than the others
- The models are really quite nice
- Anything that spices up Ravenloft is awesome
- – Nice that they included cards for other factions to include in their warband
Why I Want To Beat Edward And Bella To Death:
- The wash tones on some of the models are really odd looking
- The DDAS cards included in the set are pretty uninspired; nothing new to see here
- In an unrelated matter, any vampire wearing girly sparkle dust should be killed
What this pack did for me was show me what Dungeon Command ~could~ be. I stand by my assertion that the lack of randomization takes a lot of the white-knuckle anticipation away from skirmish games, but what this taught me is that when the cards are interesting enough, they can make up for a lot of the vacuum. It’s sort of like reaching in your pocket and grabbing a box cutter when some drunken idiot is talking tough to you at the bar…you know something the other guy doesn’t, and it’s really going to ruin his plans for the night.
I was really pretty much done with this game system, but thanks to my buddy Frank, I think I’ll check out the Goblin pack and see what it has to offer. I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed playing with this faction as much as I did, and while I miss the dice, this goes a long way to making me think that maybe the system isn’t the problem as much as the initial factions released.
Check out the game system at the Wizards site: