Saturday, July 14, 2012

Dungeon Command: COMMANDED!

Two boxes of awesome.
On July 21-22, Wizards of the Coast will be presenting D&D Game Day, where they will be featuring their new miniatures skirmish game Dungeon Command.  As a servitor within the Wizards Play Network, I have been given the opportunity to host such a game event at my friendly, local, neighborhood game store.  To that end, I was given a demo set of Dungeon Command, which included both the Heart of Cormyr and the Sting of Lolth war bands.  As directed by the included instructions, I set forth to play a few games with some friends so I could understand how it worked prior to actual game day.  Here, I present that story.

Initial Impressions

Dungeon Command comes in two separate boxes.  Each box corresponds to one of two pre-assembled war bands: the Heart of Cormyr and the Sting of Lolth.  The sets are marketed as being enough for one player to play the game; although a limited two player game can be run out of the same box, the expectation is that each person that wants to play will bring their own box to the table.  This makes sense in consideration of all of the other tabletop miniature games out there, which often expect you to invest well into the triple digits before you have everything you need to really play a game.
The Sting of Lolth box interior.
Each war band box has twelve miniatures (ten unique figures with two repeats).  In addition, it has a set of cards (including "Creature" cards and "Order" cards) and tokens necessary to play the game.  Two large map pieces and two small map pieces round out the components necessary to play Dungeon Command.  In looking over the contents, it is immediately apparent that, with exception to the punchboard tokens, all of the components from the two sets are different.  Different miniatures, different cards, and different map pieces.
The Heart of Cormyr box interior.
From an initial overview, the contents of the boxes seem worth the investment.  With the exception of the punchboard tokens, each box adds new content.  As I continued to explore the contents of the box, I determined that the board pieces and cards had been designed with the faction in mind.  The Cormyr board pieces contained "magic circles" that interacted with Order cards in that respective war band deck.  Order cards in each set have abilities that only work with units included in that respective set.  This distinctiveness makes each set feel like something I would want to buy (and, as future sets come out, continue buying).

The Rules and Set Up

The rules did not seem too difficult to read through the first time, although I found that I instinctively skipped sections of the rules.  This was foolishly based on my estimated understanding of Dungeons & Dragons and this game's use of similar terms.  However, basic game concepts are relatively simple: players go back and forth taking turns, with each turn being composed of the same steps.  The bulk of a player's turn involved activating creatures on the map to do stuff.  This was the basic game.  Other than setting up and understanding the game end condition, there was not a lot more to it.  Satisfied with my understanding, I set up the play area.
Look, Ma!  I built a dungeon!
Setup was surprisingly simple.  Each faction has two leaders available that have slightly different abilities; players choose one to lead their war band into battle.  Both players draw their starting hands of Order and Creature cards.  Each player then uses the board pieces in her kit and builds half of a dungeon.  Once that is done, the two are connected.  Each player has to leave two un-walled regions facing their opponent to facilitate this connection.  It's a simple process that can lead to some really peculiar layout opportunities (as we discovered in our second game when one player tried to be creative).  Each "half" of the board has three spaces marked as treasure spots where one of six random treasure chests will be placed.

After building the dungeon setup, players establish their initial starting forces.  This is a simple process.  From their starting hand of creature cards, each player (starting with a player randomly chosen to start) plays Creature cards and places them in the starting area.  As it is throughout the game, a player can never deploy creatures such that the levels of creatures on the board would exceed the leader's current Leadership skill.  Although relatively low at first, the Leadership skill will increase every turn, allowing more creatures on the map at once.  Once both players have their figures on the map, the game begins.

Gameplay and Killing Things

First game, after the second turn.
Players take turns playing the game.  On a turn, each player does some beginning-of-turn maintenance, activates each unit on the map, and then does end-of-turn actions, including potentially playing new units onto the board.  The basic structure of the turn is relatively simple.  What tends to keep the game interesting and engaging is the way that Order cards interact in the game.

Cormyr war band HQ. Beer not included.
When a creature activates on your turn, you have the option to (1) move the creature up to its speed, (2) use any actions on the creature card, including attacks, (3) utilize Order cards, and (4) do any other special actions (such as opening a treasure chest).  Thus, creature turns are relatively simple.  Most significant actions require tapping the creature (WHOOOO!), so a creature only gets one during its turn.  One peculiar thing about the game is that (a) creatures can tap during the turn of an ally to aid them in using an Order card and (b) creatures are untapped at the end of the turn, allowing them to tap for defensive purposes during your opponent's turn.  It was a bit strange getting used to, but it did allow for great gameplay opportunities when specific Order cards made their way into the game.

There are some slightly fussy rules regarding attacking, movement, and otherwise doing things while adjacent to an enemy.  Moving to a space adjacent an enemy normally ends your creature's movement.  Starting adjacent to an enemy makes your speed 1, meaning you do not move a whole lot.  Ranged attacks cannot be made while adjacent to an enemy, so a player has to think about all of these interactions when positioning their creatures.  One feature that was well received, though, was that all attacks do fixed damage (measured in 10s of hit points).  There was no rolling or random determination of damage and all attacks not interrupted by Order cards automatically hit (except in a few circumstances).
Leave it to Lolth to bring a Drider to a Dragon fight.
Order cards can be either a standard action (which requires tapping), a minor action (which does not), or a cards intended to be played in response to other actions (which usually requires tapping the creature, but on your opponent's turn).  From my brief experiences, Order cards where what made the game interesting.  Order cards include things like "leveling up" weaker creatures, having spiders shoot web at enemies, parrying and counter-attacking, and all sorts of other beneficial effects.  So, considering that most other actions were deterministic, the Order cards tended to be where the game found it's random element.

But When Does It End?

Dungeon Command has two end game states.  One happens at the end of a player's turn.  If a player ends her turn with no creatures on the battlefield, she loses.  This means that every single creature in the player's war band has been defeated on the field, as otherwise a creature could be played from that player's hand of creatures.  In the two games that we played, this never happened, although I will not suggest that it could never happen.  It seems more a measure to prevent a game from going on with no end, since a side is bound to run out of creatures some day or another.
It also has wilderness maps on the back!
The other end state happens when a player's morale drops to 0.  Morale starts at a modest level and can be increased by collecting treasure on the battlefield.  However, a player's morale drops every time that player loses a creature.  Furthermore, a player can choose to have a creature "cower" instead of take damage; the damage dealt is done to morale instead.  It becomes a good mechanic because we found it shifted the emphasize of game play.  In our second game, I lost despite having superior forces on the battlefield because my morale had dropped so low in previous turns (due in combination to having troops cower and losing troops of modest morale value).

Wait, Umber Hulk?  Did somebody say Umber Hulk?
So, I found that Morale is a good game mechanic in Dungeon Command.  To a certain extent, it is like your leader's life points, dropped only when creatures under your control die or you choose to have a creature ignore damage (cower).  Yet, it also has the feel of a resource, allowing you to forgo taking damage and instead bring yourself slightly closer to defeat.  Although I suspect that WotC was not the first game designer to come up with such an idea, it feels surprisingly new and interesting in the context of Dungeon Command.


So, it is worth it?  Is Dungeon Command something you should invest in?  After two games, I feel like it is a good game.  Order cards make the game fun in a way that I would not expect in a miniature skirmish game and I suspect that WotC will use this to their best advantage (randomly distributed collectible Orders?  SURE THING!).

But do I want what's inside?
I liked the game and the rest of the test group also seemed to like it.  There are some interesting possibilities that this game could pursue.  For example, war bands can be customized with both different creatures and order cards.  So, a Cormyr player can take the Drow Mage from the Lolth set and at it to his war band.  The Drow Mage will work just as well as he did in the Lolth set.  I suspect as more sets, cards, and figures come out, there will be more combinations to explore.

Most importantly, if you are interested, I recommend finding a local game store running the D&D Game Day event and give the game a try.  If nothing else, you may get yourself a novelty promotional item...

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