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Dungeon Command: Blood of Gruumsh & Series Overview

dungeon command blood of gruumsh figures

Inconveniently Wizards of the Coast decided to release five sets for their modular miniatures game Dungeon Command, and I covered the first four in batches of two. So now we’re left with an odd one. However, the good people at WotC informed me this is the last release currently planned, so it seemed a good idea to cap the whole thing off with a series overview.

But first, the new set. It’s called Blood of Gruumsh which, for anyone passingly familiar with the Dungeons & Dragons multiverse in which the games belong, will signal orcs. For some reason the orcs in this box are a peculiar shade of blue-gray rather than the green which is universally assumed in other fantasy settings. But aside from that oddity they’re the best figures in any of the Dungeon Command sets: solid, detailed sculpts with pretty reasonable paint jobs.

Can I assume you’re familiar with the rules? Take a look at my coverage of the first two sets if you’re not, and not up to reading the rules online. In fact you might want to take a look anyway because sadly, after the notable improvements in the previous two releases, Blood of Gruumsh is a step backward, with the same issues as the first releases.

That’s not to say it’s bad. The orcs do what you’d expect: they hit things, and hit them hard. So hard in fact that a lot of the other factions have the potential to struggle in the face of the orcish onslaught. It’s possible that there may be a bit of power creep with this set, which is unfortunate but I guess that if we were being charitable we could say that it’s pretty impressive that they’ve managed to avoid that so far.

But the problem is that this is another combat-heavy set, much like the first two sets. And as I discussed there, combat cards are pretty much the least interesting thing about the game. So the orcs have much the same issue with piling on the cards until they run out, and then having to stick to the slightly dull predictive combat mechanic. Same goes with the variant cards for the adventure system games: the combat focus fails to sufficiently differentiate these new monsters from the existing ones.

dungeon command blood of gruumsh cards

What this does have over those initial sets though, is the benefit of another two sets in between. Which is to say that with all the models, cards and effects now already in the mix the designers have been able to include a lot more cards with the potential for interesting combinations when combined with those from other sets.

Which brings us nicely on to looking at the series as a whole. From the start it’s been pretty clear that this system was design and sold as a “miniature builder” where you could snaffle up all five sets and use the contents to make your own. It has an awful lot of potential when viewed through that lens: not only does it vastly increase the replayability of the game, but the ability to recombine anything at all – cards, figures, commanders, even board tiles – is actually pretty innovative.

So why on earth aren’t people doing it?

Of course that’s a generalisation. Some people are certainly doing it. But if you poke around the self-selecting slice of gaming represented by the internet it seems clear that people are mostly sticking to the sets as they stand. There’s certainly very little of the sort of feverish arms-races you see in other modular games as players struggle to keep one tactical step ahead of the pack.

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I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that mixing it up simply feels wrong. The system is too steeped in the D&D official material, where you see orcs and goblins working together, but not Dark Elves or undead all tangled up with other factions. You’ll certainly never see the heroes of Cormyr fighting alongside wicked demi-humans in the free and easy manner that the system allows.

The second, and somewhat more daming reason is that the game isn’t quite exciting enough to encourage the depth of devotion required to sift through multitudes of effects and combinations to find synergies and build on them. It’s a lot of effort. And I get the feeling that most of the people who really love Dungeon Command are role-playing game devotees, who’d still rather spend their energies with their favoured hobby if they got the chance.

So where does that leave Dungeon Command? Well, it’s clear that while the system supports multiple players, it’s focussed on two. And it just so happens that I think two of the sets stand above the others in terms of fun and quality. Those are the wave 2 releases, Tyranny of Goblins and Curse of Undeath. I reckon the best way to experience Dungeon Command is to grab those two, forget the rest, and play it as a 2-player game.

And that’s a wrap for me. At least it is for now. Because although Wizards told me they had no more releases planned, they also told me the situation was fluid, and that that might change. And I hope it does – those two top-quality sets demonstrated there was, and is, potential in this system as long as there’s clever design to tease it out. And if they can encourage players to overcome the hurdles involved in creating their own warbands, the explosion is there, waiting to happen.

Dungeon Command Wave 2 Review

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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.

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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.

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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.