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Temple of Elemental Evil Review


Innovation in game design seems to be in short supply nowadays. Yet you can find it in unexpected places. Take all those wargames that use the same basic rules but have new units, maps and mechanical tweaks for different battles. Playing through these franchises can reveal an ocean of wonder inside those tiny details, making history come to life.

So, just because Temple of Elemental Evil is the fourth game in a series doesn’t mean it’s not going to feel fresh and clever. However, in honesty, it’s going to need to pull out all the stops to impress. A sense of staleness was already present in the last Adventure System game, Legend of Drizzt, back in 2011.

For those unfamiliar, the Adventure System is a series of co-operative dungeon crawl games. The rules are based on a pared-down version of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Players pick a scenario and build a random stack of dungeon tiles. As they explore the turned over tiles will reveal traps, event and monsters. Each creature has a set of simple AI routines to attack and use its special abilities. Easy rules that bring life and colour to the gray flagstones.

It’s a great system. Separate decks of monster, encounter and treasure cards offer a lot of variety from basic mechanics. Yet for all that accessibility, decisions matter. Many hero abilities are one-shot, and timing can be crucial. A particularly neat twist is that monsters often move per dungeon tile. This leaves precise placement to the players, offering the chance of clever strategic combinations.

It also helps to avoid the boss-player problem that’s such an issue in co-operative games. Each player has their own set of powers and controls their own movement and monsters. They can do whatever they like. Yet the standard balance of abilities across D&D character classes encourages true co-operation. Tanks can tank, but it helps if there are Mages for missile fire and Rogues to bust traps.

The first game in this series, Castle Ravenloft, also used scenario setup to add further interest and imagination. The second, and my favourite, Wrath of Ashardalon, had simpler scenarios but chained them together into a campaign. There was some official and some fan-made material to allow owners to use both games together. By the time we got to Legend of Drizzit, there didn’t seem to be much new to offer any more.

So what do we have in Elemental Evil to resurrect this system? Sadly, not much.


There are precisely two major innovations. First, traps are no longer the result of encounter cards but get placed as tokens on certain tiles. This feels like a step back. They do offer players the choice between spending an action disarming the trap or risking it and hoping for a “clear” result. But many trap tiles don’t have monster spaces, so the tension cranks down. And the actual traps are just numeric damage. A far cry from cool stuff like the rolling rock trap in Ashardalon, which saw players fleeing and scattering like fleshy ninepins.

That leaves us with a new campaign. This was the big draw for me: the campaign in Ashardalon was the reason I liked that game best. The series seemed to be crying out for some more detailed rules. Most of all what people wanted was a way to build their characters beyond the arbitrary second level cap on the cards.

They didn’t get that. Although what they did get offers much of the same feel and is an improvement on Ashardalon’s campaign. Now, most of the treasure cards are gold pieces and you use them to purchase upgrades. A thousand gold nets you second level. Then you buy tokens for things like dice bonuses or power re-use. Players carry these between adventures and can use each token once per scenario.

The campaign itself also does a fine job of linking adventures into a narrative. Together with the campaign rules, playing through them one at a time builds a proper sense of camaraderie. It feels very much like a full-blooded role-playing game, with more strategy and less rules arguments.

The flip side, of course, is that the adventures don’t work so well played as one-shot games. The fact they build in difficulty doesn’t help. Neither does a lack of imagination. Most of these lack the spark of originality seen in Castle Ravenloft.

I don’t want to denigrate this game: Elemental Evil is a good game. It’s worth your time and money. Especially so if you’re really up for playing through the campaign, which is obviously the focus of the design. And I would encourage everyone to own and play an Adventure System game. Maybe even two. They’re ace, and they all integrate well together. But you don’t need all four.

So the question becomes one of which is better. And in spite of the new material on offer here, the answer is still Ravenloft or Ashardalon. Unless, that is, you’re looking for a top value way of obtaining some plastic figures for your Princes of the Apocalypse campaign.

Dungeon Command Wave 2 Review


You may remember that I wasn’t hugely impressed with the initial releases in the new mix-and-match miniatures skirmish line Dungeon Command from Wizards of the Coast. The absorbing tactics of the maneuver phase had to be counterbalanced against a dull and predictable combat mechanic. But there was potential there, the maddening hint of unfulfilled promise.

Stand-alone games don’t get a second bite at the cherry. But this isn’t a stand-alone game, it’s a series of modular packs meant to combine together and increase your options. And so I thought I’d put the second set of releases, Tyranny of Goblins and Curse of Undeath through their paces to see if they pushed the envelope, did something more impressive with the creative ideas that underpinned the concept.

In short, they do. And it isn’t an incremental leap either: almost everything I found wanting about those initial releases has been remedied to some extent in their newer siblings. To explain why, I need to break it down in more detail and that’s the focus of the review. So if you want a higher level overview of how the game plays, you might want to check out my previous Dungeon Command review first.

The biggest single point change is the variety of order cards on offer. In the previous offerings most of these effects were combat-related, leading to tit-for-tat offensive and defensive play and a fast burn rate of cards. Here the potential effects are much wider, encompassing the management of existing cards in play, positioning and most importantly, movement, bolstering the most interesting part of the game with further variety.

Now when you attack you have no idea whether your opponent is sitting on a handful of defensive cards, or a bunch of effects he’s hoarding for later use. The uncertainty adds a level of tension that was lacking in the base game, and sorely missed.


These new sets also feel a lot more cohesive and thematic. Goblins are supposed to be fast-moving, and flexible, making up for individual weakness with strength of numbers and that’s just how they feel. There’s even a “grovel” card. The whole thing just made me want to make mean, screechy goblin noises to accompany the actions of my little army of cringing servants. It’s not such a strong effect with the Undead set but there’s still a palpable sense that these are creatures that are summoned rather than merely deployed.

The improvements even extend to simple things. Presentation, for instance. Wizard of the Coast’s infamous fast-warping cards are still in evidence, but the figures in these boxes are better-painted and more varied than their predecessors. They also make better expansions for the Adventure System games, with Curse of Undeath propping up Castle Ravenloft particularly well.

However, the real meat of the changes comes not from these sets as individual items but from the suddenly much extended range of combinations that can be obtained by mixing them with each other and the original modules. When there were just two sets, the mixing and matching of monsters and items seemed more like a theoretical possibility rather than a reality. Now it’s very much worth the time and effort, with plenty of cards and monsters that synergise with those from previous sets. Occasionally the results can be distractingly daft, and the sets are more thematically cohesive left as they are.


With four different boxes to choose from you can now also choose to check out the multiplayer rules that were included from the first releases but unusable without access to duplicate sets. It works well with more than two, subject to all the usual provisos of multi-player like king-making and bash the leader which will either delight you or send you running back to take cover behind your stacks of worker placement clones. Four player perhaps runs a little long for what it is though.

Of these two new releases, I prefer Tyranny of Goblins. It’s just got more interesting cards and characters as well as playing just like a scrawny bunch of mewling weaklings ought to. It also offers clearer and more obviously powerful effects around which you might want to group cards from other sets and build your own custom warband. Plus it’s nice to be able to add some classic goblin fodder to my adventure system games.

One early review of these games I read suggested that if you didn’t like the original sets, there was nothing here to change your mind. I heartily disagree. These feel like a big step up from the previous releases, and make Dungeon Command a more rounded, more exciting and more interesting game than it originally was.

Given the value inherent simply in having more cards and figures to mix, and playing multi-player, it seems bizarre Wizards didn’t release all four together. But now they’re all here, and while it doesn’t suddenly catapult Dungeon Command into my top five from last year, I suddenly find myself awaiting the next series release, Blood of Gruumsh, with more than a trace of anticipation.

Dungeon Command Review

I’ve made no secret of my basically limitless adoration for the new range of Dungeons & Dragons board games from Wizards of the Coast. It’s great that there’s another big beast on the publishing block, better that they’re putting out superbly designed and innovative games. So I was obviously keen to take their newest offering, the modular tactical miniatures game Dungeon Command for a spin.

Each box of Dungeon Command comes with a set of pre-painted miniatures, some double-sided jigsaw board pieces and two decks of cards, one that has the stats for the creatures in the set and another with orders to make them do neat stuff. You need access to at least two boxes to play a proper game, and if you have more then you can have three or four player set-ups. Everything in each box is interchangeable so the potentially bottomless nature of recombining these things should be obvious. And online retailers are offering sets at prices that make owning several of them entirely feasible.

It’s a bold and interesting business model, doing for miniatures games what the “living card game” concept did for collectible card games. But there’s more: these sets aren’t just interchangeable with each other, but also with the superb Adventure System board games. Map tiles from the two types of games will interlock, and each Dungeon Command game has a set of creature cards that allows use of the miniatures in Adventure System games. If it all works, it has the potential to become a massive sub-hobby in its own right.

To answer the question of whether it works we have to play the game. Play in Dungeon Command reminds me very much of lightweight tactical war games, no bad thing in and of itself. Figures move across the board but have to stop when they move adjacent to an enemy. There are ranged attacks and line of sight rules, simple terrain effects and lots of constricting corridors and corners. Clearly, tactical maneuver and positioning is very important in the game and offers the players a lot to chew over as they move pieces around the board.

More controversial is the fact that this is an entirely dice-less game. When figures attack they hit by default and do a set amount of damage. But the picture is muddied by the fact that each player has a hand of order cards which can extend movement, boost damage or provide a basic defence by reducing or eliminating attacks made against them. The result is not unlike play with a combat resolution table: you can be fairly sure that when you attack, the possible result will fall within a narrow range but never entirely certain.

The mix is boosted with variable powers and statistics for many of the creatures in play, different commanders for each side again with special powers and levels of creatures at their disposal and the requirement to match levels and stats on order cards with the creatures you want to use them on. And it first it all works brilliantly, challenging you on multiple levels to maneuver and position your creatures properly to make best effect of their special powers and the order cards you hold.

But order cards are only regained at the rate of one per turn. And since you can potentially play several on each creature you command each and every turn your starting allowance tends to run out extremely quickly. And then the limitations of this dice-less system become clear: without order cards you can tell exactly what each creature is capable of doing each turn. And with that knowledge you can predict what your opponent is going to do in advance.

Theoretically this should mean it becomes a game of deep positional tactics. In reality by the time the order cards run out you’ve done most of your positional tactics and you’re slogging it out with enemy creatures so the game turns into a repetition of “that does X damage, this does Y damage” until someone wins. There is still some unpredictability because you get one new order each turn. But you’ll start to notice that a lack of variety in the cards means that their play follows a fixed pattern: attack orders do more damage than standard attacks, so you soak up the standard attacks and save your defensive orders to counter attack orders. That’s the mold: play an attack order and see if the defender has a defence order.

It’s a shame that combat become so repetitive because the movement and maneuver aspect of the game is really good. Getting your forces where you want them is hard work, and a variety of movement-based orders in deck, many of which allow you to bypass normal movement restrictions like stopping adjacent to the enemy or paying double to move over difficult terrain, allow plenty of scope for creative strategy. The early parts of the game when maneuver is still important and you’ve got plenty of cards in your hand is fun and engaging. But it makes you pine all the more for what could have been when the paralysis sets in.

The rules do have one more trick to keep things interesting once the slogging starts and that’s the option to “cower” instead of taking damage. You win games of Dungeon Command by forcing your opponent down to zero morale. Most of the time you reduce your morale when a creature dies by an amount equal to its level. But if you so choose you can have a creature “cower” when something hits it, in which case all the damage is taken by your morale total rather than by the creature. This is by no means a simple choice because creatures generally have higher hit point totals than they do level, so cowering ultimately means you take more morale damage. But sometimes keeping a creature alive can be the difference between landing a killer blow or ultimate defeat. When to cower therefore becomes a key decision in combat. Unfortunately it’s not quite enough to add the tension and excitement that the late game stages lack.

So the base game itself is a mixed bag. What to make of its integration into the wider world of Wizards of the Coast products? I have two sets to review: the wicked dark elves of Sting of Lolth and the noble heroes of Heart of Cormyr. Do I really need to point out that although you can, mechanically, mix the cards from these two sets together, doing so is going to create a thematic mismatch of truly titanic dimensions? That, of course, may well change when newer sets come out but for the time being it looks like a bad idea. Integrating with the Adventure System games presents a similar problem. The drow figures from Sting of Lolth go down very well with the Legend of Drizzt game, but not so much with the other Adventure System titles. Heart of Cormyr is full of heroes and so doesn’t present its figures as new monsters. Rather they behave like non-player characters which can appear in the game with a new event card. It’s a good idea in theory. In practice it’s a couple of new events amongst a big deck and happens so rarely as to be barely worth the effort.

These initial Dungeon Command titles are mediocre games that start out well but go downhill toward a dull endgame. However they’re built on top of a clever premise that’s ripe with possibilities for the future. With some added variety in order effects and creature powers, more than two players in the mix and properly thematic combinations between sets it has the promise to develop into something awesome. Whether that will be fulfilled whilst avoiding power creep and complexity gradients is in the hands of the designers. Antecedents are not good, but if anyone can pull it off then the talented design team at WotC get my backing for being the ones to do it.