Dungeon Command: A Review
Dungeon Command is a tactical miniatures game by a Wizards of the Coast (WotC) design team that included Peter Lee, Kevin Tatroe, and Rodney Thompson. In it each player represents a particular leader leading a warband of creatures that, in the basic mode of play, are thematically integrated, but with options for players to construct their own combination of creatures and cards.
Dungeon Command is in many ways a sequel to the Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures game first released in 2003, and then re-released in 2008. I played this previous version of the game, and in my time playing this game I met both Peter Lee and Kevin Tatroe, and had a friendly relationship with both of them, though I have not regularly talked to either of them since the game stopped production in 2008. I received a review copy of this game, though it was through www.2d6.org, not through any personal connection to WotC or the designers.
Dungeon Command, unlike WoTC’s previous excursions into the miniature game market, is not a collectible miniatures game. Instead it features pre-defined packs each of which has a specific allocation of miniatures and secondary pieces that are used to play the game.
Dungeon Command’s models appear to largely be based on those that appeared in the D&D Miniatures game. While this is not problematic in of itself, as they are well-painted and evocative of the creatures they represent, I am particularly fond of the umber hulk, it is slightly annoying if you already have these miniatures in your collection and are thus purchasing them again.
In addition to the array of the miniatures included, each faction pack also comes with two main decks of cards (creature and order), four cardboard tiles to represent the battle map, two commander sheets, and a large number of small cardboard tokens which are used to help track game state. All of these are of good quality, and I did not notice any of the warping that was complained about in other sources.
Dungeon Command is an exception-driven game. The basic structure is pretty simple, but there are a number of interesting things going on, both within this structure, and layered on top of it in the form of the commanders, order cards, and creatures themselves to push the game into something I quite enjoy.
Order cards are essentially special powers that you can give to creatures that meet the requirements, allowing you to use one of their normal actions in order to either provide an improved version of a regular action or to give it a new capability. These cards are typically provided at a fairly slow pace, with only a single card received each turn, leaving players with interesting tempo decisions about how and where to deploy these cards. Players do not have hand limits, so it is possible to build up a hand of cards that is sufficient to have a single, explosive turn. The risk of doing so is that the player could fall so far behind before this turn happens that they still do not win or potentially timing the explosive turn at the wrong moment, leaving the player vulnerable to a sustained counterattack by their opponent.
The order cards themselves are pretty interesting, particularly the ones that allow a player to break the rules of the game beyond the obvious do +X damage or prevent X damage effects. One of my favorite is the Stealth card in the Sting of Lolth set; it allows a player to take one of their miniatures that meets the ability requirements and is not in line of sight of an opponent of the board and then, at the beginning of their following turn, place it at anywhere on the board that is adjacent to a wall. This is both thematic and fun, providing a way to effectively allow a newly recruited unit to get into the action or a vulnerable, but concealed, unit to escape from a particularly tough opposing unit. Similarly interesting effects give you the ability to make a creature a hero (getting the adventurer subtype, a level, and some bonus hit points), use summoning circles to recruit new creatures, assume a defensive stance, or even make an end run from your opponent’s start area to your own in order to get a big bonus to morale.
How you recruit and manage your forces is also fun and interesting. Each of the available commanders has a starting morale rating, leadership rating, and creature card hand size. At the end of a player’s turn their commander’s leadership rating increments and then the player is able to recruit new creatures from those that are available in their creature hand until their total level on the board equals their commander’s leadership rating. New cards are drawn until they equal their leader’s creature hand size. Whenever a unit dies it deducts its level from the commander’s current morale rating and if the current morale rating ever hits 0 then that player loses.
Because of this structure, losing an early combat or a useful creature is unlikely to lead to an immediate loss for that player. The limits to the quantity of units on the board, as well as how quickly a player can recover from the loss of these creatures means that while the morale loss from units destruction is bad, as they are closer to a loss, it is also something that can be recovered from or even done strategically. It seems that it will be frequently a good idea to sacrifice a small or medium sized unit if you can take out a key unit of your opponent’s and also pave the way for one of your bigger or more important units. This separation of the resources that are used to determine who is going to win the game from the resources that are used to establish your board presence also allows for what I see as a helpful illusion of tightness. This allows players to feel that they are still in the game and involved in interesting decisions even when previous mistakes may have left them in a position where they have little chance to recover. So even if one side or the other has had a decisive win, it does not feel so crushing because they still have plenty of creatures on the board and are still able to meaningfully interact with and potentially win if things go their way.
Of course this potential for recovery is reduced by the lack of variance in combat resolution. If you attack another unit, then generally you can expect the attack to do the damage listed on the creature’s card unless a player uses one of their order cards to either increase or reduce damage. These order cards present the potential for outs and swings in position, and management of them seems to be as important to winning as creature management. This management is further highlighted by the differences in how order cards and creature cards are drawn; you get one order card a turn, but always draw creature cards until you reach your creature hand size. This makes it fairly easy for you to recover board position in the face of the destruction of a large part of your forces or a large creature. If your opponent had to use a large number of cards to do so, then this makes even be better, as it allows you to use your new, fresh force and your card advantage to apply enough pressure that you will be able to, at worst, make up for your losses, or potentially even use this deficit to win the game.
There is one style of order card that I find to be problematic: bonus order card draws. Both the Heart of Cormyr and the Sting of Lolth pack have a card that provides this bonus and it seems that a particular side getting both this card and one of the units it can be applied to has a big bonus over the course of the game, as at worst it will replace itself, and at best it will provide a large, steady order card income over the course of the game. Because of the ease in replacing lost forces noted above, I suspect that with skilled players that the order card advantage provided by these bonus draw cards will be sufficient to provide a win. Considering how well balanced the game appears to be otherwise, I hope I am not right about this. Even if I am, it will be a simple matter to just not play with the bonus draw cards. Removing them from the deck does not seem like it will severely detract from the game.
The interplay between losing due to morale and the tempo-based interactions from order card hand size and creatures results in a pretty broad decision space. The randomized flow of creature and order cards ensure that each individual match can feel distinct even if you are both using the same faction pack. I expect that the warband building rules will only enhance this variability, allowing players to test out different warband configurations and combinations. Unfortunately, it appears that doing so will be difficult due to the need for multiple packs to build custom warbands.
This is also my biggest problem with the potential of the game. If players want to build custom warbands they will need to spend quite a bit of money buying multiple $40 packs in order to get just the right order cards and miniatures. For casual players, this will not matter much, as the game out of the box is pretty fun as it is, but players wanting to take the next step with the game will have to overcome the cost hurdle.
Comparisons to Mage Wars and Summoner Wars
I see Dungeon Command’s main competition as Mage Wars and Summoner Wars. Both are shorter tactical miniature games that offer a number of possible factions to play and the ability to customize your side. Each one has its own particular strengths and weakness, and I think all of them could potentially be enjoyable to those who want this style of game.
Mage Wars has the advantage when it comes to customizability. Its point system and the sheer variety inherent in the available cards allows for a player to build a “spellbook” that fits their own preferences. There are some limits that are placed on a player based on the particular caster they choose as their character, but these are soft limits rather than hard limits; a player simply has to pay more to get cards that are outside of their spheres of influence. Mage Wars also has the advantage of an inexpensive expansion pack, that lets player buy additional staple cards, making it fairly easy for players to customize their decks even further. On the down side Mage Wars takes longer to play then either Dungeon Command or Summoner Wars, has a painfully generic theme, and is less approachable then either of the other options. It throws everything at you at once, requiring you to absorb so much information that it can be overwhelming to new players.
Summoner Wars biggest advantage is price. It is the least expensive of the games, and the shortest, making it easier to play multiple games in a row or fit it in between longer games. Summoner Wars also has the largest variety of factions, each of which plays in a reasonably different manner. Unfortunately, it also provides the least amount of variability, as certain units are required and you can’t change out event cards at all. It is also the most simplistic of the three and lacks much of the depth of Mage Wars or Dungeon Command.
Dungeon Command is somewhere between Summoner Wars and Mage Wars in game length. It is the most expensive of the three if you want to customize your side, as it is not as generally cheap as Summoner Wars and lacks the inexpensive expansion packs of Mage Wars. Thanks to having the fairly extensive and specific Dungeons & Dragons background material, it is probably the most thematically satisfying. I also think that it has the most enjoyable game play of the three, having just the right amount of variability, depth of decision making, and complexity. It is also the only one of the three that actually has miniatures.
Though I am apprehensive at some of the financial limitations of customization, Dungeon Command is still the most successful lighter tactical battle game that I have played. It is very approachable for a casual audience while still being enjoyable for those who prefer a much meatier experience. I have every intention of buying the next pack, Tyranny of Goblins, at the very least, and am looking forward to seeing if they can continue to provide as rich of a game experience with further packs as they have with the first two.