D&D minis are resurrected with this new skirmish game, pitting warband against warband in a deathmatch ruled by shifting orders and a constant influx of reinforcements. Dungeon Command borrows from the old D&D minis game along with a helping of Magic: the Gathering.
Dungeon Command is a non-collectible game — at launch, two fixed faction packs are available. One gives you some wizards, dwarves and adventurers in service of Cormyr; the other is a band of crafty drow and their minions. Each box retails for $40, but you can find them under $30 online. Inside you’ll find a dozen minis, a sheet of counters and tokens, four dungeon tiles (two-sided), an assortment of cards, and a nice plastic tray to store everything. Even if you have no intention of ever playing the skirmish game, it’s a solid assortment of minis and maps, and it even comes with extra cards for use with the D&D Adventure Game (as Wizards has begun branding their series of D&D themed modular board games). That makes this one versatile boxed set.
The skirmish game is pretty awesome, though. It’s a hybrid of a card game and a minis game. That lets you bring a variety of skills to bear, from battlefield control and use of terrain to card advantage and resource management. You have a force of 12 creatures, each of which is represented by a card, and they get shuffled into their own deck. There’s a separate deck of Order Cards, which you use to cast spells, give creatures items, or let them perform awesome attacks.
Each player has a commander, a card that determines hand size as well as starting leadership and morale, plus a special ability. To begin, you draw your creature hand. Each creature has a level (from 1 to 6). You can only have total creature levels in play equal to your commander’s leadership score at any time. That score goes up by one each turn, so between that and attrition, you’ll get to deploy more creatures as the game goes on. You’ll usually have three to five on board at any given moment. This also creates a natural limit, preventing high-level creatures from breaking the game (sort of like the use of mana in Magic). If all you have are level 5 or 6 creatures, they’ll be out there alone waiting many turns for help.
Creatures are assigned actions during your turn. They can move their speed and take a standard action, which taps the card. The most basic standard actions are attacks, which simply deal their damage if the target is in range (no dice rolling). You can also play Order Cards, which may be standard or minor actions. Minor actions don’t tap a creature, so they can take as many of them as you have cards, then still take a standard. Some order cards can be “attached” to your own or the enemy’s creatures, granting some ongoing in-game effect. Some of them are more devastating attacks or spells like Fireball. Some do truly unique things, like letting you draw extra Order cards or deploying a creature in your opponent’s start area.
Order cards must be assigned to a creature (that is, the creatures are taking the actions, not you). There are limits on what creatures can take what orders, based on the order’s level, an ability like Strength or Dexterity, or a keyword like “humanoid” or “evil.” The orders can be really powerful, so this prevents you from just running up your lame 1st level creature and dropping a massive attack order. However, creatures can team up to meet order level requirements, which is how my copper dragon died to a lowly Demonweb Spider, taking 60 points of damage in one shot.
Games take about an hour. The shifting order of battle and changing hand of order cards means things are never predictable. With no dice rolling, the game avoids a lot of the frustrations of minis games. How often have you set up a great tactical play and been blown out by a terrible roll? The simple combat puts a lot of emphasis on good use of the battlefield. Units have traditional adjacent zones of control, so you can clog up tight areas and protect ranged attackers. Bringing enough force to bear to eliminate an opponent’s unit before it can retaliate can give you a huge tempo advantage. Various protective order cards (played as “Immediate” actions) give you another option for running a unit into a vulnerable position to make a key attack.
The game is won by reducing your opponent’s morale to zero. Each time a creature dies, its controller loses morale equal to its level. This isn’t quite a straight-up last-man-standing death match, but it still can lead to turtle tactics and unfocused play. I wish they’d used the victory areas like Mage Knight 2.0 or the old D&D skirmish game. There are treasure chests scattered around the map, which can be collected to gain some morale points. This creates choke points to some extent, but mostly players just rush to grab a few at the start of the game. The mechanism for opening and collecting treasure is really clunky.
Dungeon Command is also saddled with the old 3E grid map and line-of-sight rules. I never liked these rules (pick one corner of the attacker’s square, draw lines to all four corners of the target square). Having played a few games of Dungeon Command, though, I like that they let you fire from cover. You can carefully move into a position where you can hit a target, but the target doesn’t have a clean shot at you (creatures can tap to dodge all ranged damage if they have cover from an attack). It offers a level of tactical maneuvering that’s pretty cool. I guess the real answer here is, tactical minis games should not use square grids. Hexes, people. Hexes.
There are rules for creating your own custom warband, but of course with only two faction packs, there’s not much flexibility. There are three more faction packs on Wizards’ slate, but it’s going to be about half a year before there’s a critical mass of creatures that will allow serious warband building. It would be cool if they’d sell smaller non-random packs of minis and cards (without tiles, rules, etc.). The rules seem designed tightly enough to allow for competitive tournaments, so it would be nice to open up building options a bit more. I also feel like a four-person free-for-all game of Dungeon Command would epically awesome.
Can we just put the board game team at Wizards in charge of everything?