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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.

dungeon command blood of gruumsh werebear

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.

X-Wing Wave 2 Review

X-Wing big ships - firespray and falcon

If an evil genius were to invent a machine to suck money directly from the bank accounts of gamers, it’d look a lot like the X-Wing miniatures game. If he were to go back and tinker with it, seeking to make to terrifyingly irresistible, and add the power to suck in non-gaming Star Wars fans too, it’d look a lot like the wave 2 miniature releases.

There are four new ships to add to your collections. The Empire gets Boba Fett’s Slave-1 and the four-cannon TIE interceptor while the Rebels resist them with the A-Wing fighter and, of course, the one we’ve all been waiting for: the Millenium Falcon.

I have to admit I passed on Slave-1. Ever since I was a small boy, watching Empire Strikes Back on the cinema screen in slack-jawed amazement, I always thought it looked ugly and ungainly. And as a big ship, it’s pretty pricey. I’ll probably pick it up at some point for all the usual, tedious, nerdy reasons: completeness and a cool-sounding scenario. But for now you get reviews of the other three.

X-Wing TIE Interceptor

We’ll start with the lone Imperial ship that remains: the TIE interceptor. It only featured briefly in the original trilogy films so, unsurprisingly, you don’t get any big-name pilots or upgrades. What you do get is an astonishingly flexible ship. It’s a TIE fighter with an extra attack dice, and a new “boost” feature which allows you to make a 1-length straight or banking move after it’s normal move.

Think about that a moment. It’s still got the TIE barrel roll ability, alongside its speed and agility rating. It might be fragile without shields, but It’s a hard ship to pin down into a firing arc, never mind actually hit. And as long as it survives that extra firing dice ensures it can dish it right back to its tormentors. The mere existence of this ship should be warning to Rebel commanders to pack more missiles.

Not being a huge Star Wars nerd, I’m confused as to why the wave 1 TIE ships were pale gray, but the interceptor is dark blue. Otherwise you’ll know what to expect from another figure using the basic TIE chassis.

X-wing A-wing

Oddly, while the Imperial side gets a fighter that’s approaching the terms of an X-Wing in terms of firepower and utility, the Rebels get the equivalent of a TIE fighter in the A-Wing. To my astonishment it’s actually slightly more maneuverable than the Imperial mainstays, having the same dial but with one extra green action. It has shields, but only two, and a paltry hull at the same value.

Continuing with the similarities, it can’t barrel roll but it has the same boost ability as the Interceptor, which is almost as useful, and it has the same agility value. But unlike most imperial ships the A-Wing can carry missiles. Given it’s relatively cheap point cost, loading these things up with warheads and unleashing first-attack hell looks like a viable strategy.

The model for this is so tiny that I actually felt slightly cheated by the price when I first saw it. But of course a few gram of plastic isn’t going to make any meaningful different. And it’s actually a really lovely little thing with an amazingly detailed paint job for a pre-painted figure.

Anyway, these are both valuable additions to the game. At first I was worried that there might be a problem with power creep here: the TIE interceptor is superior to the basic TIE for not a lot more, and the A-Wing isn’t hugely underpowered compared to other Rebel ships for a quite a lot less.

But the costs do seem to work out when they’re actually on the table. What’s rather more dispiriting is that both these ships seemed tailor-made to be used en masse. Interceptors, fragile but packing a powerful punch, are going to draw massive fire if used in ones or twos. A-Wings on the other hand look be used like a skirmish screen or as a swarm, both requiring multiple models. Could get expensive.

X-Wing Millennium Falcon

Speaking of which we have yet, of course, to talk about the big ship. The Millennium Falcon. And it is big. Palm-sized. And hugely detailed to match. It’s a feast for the eyes. And since it packs pretty much every remaining famous name in the genre amongst its pilots: Han, Chewbacca, Lando – Luke Skywalker is even in there as a crew upgrade – it feels utterly essential if you’ve bought into the base game.

There’s a fair amount of brand new stuff to look at in the box for this as well. In addition to the expected slew of upgrades the Falcon brings with it some new concepts. It has crew upgrades, so you can have Han in the cockpit, Luke on the guns and Chewie repairing the engines all at the same time. There are also new title cards which you can apply to specific ships to mimic something from the film: in this case a “Millenium Falcon” title to apply to basic freighter which helps make it more like the fastest hunk of … oh, you know.

So you know you’re going to end up getting one anyway. But what’s a bit unfortunate about the Falcon, and indeed all three of the ships I looked at in this new wave expansion, is that they’re just not that different from what’s already there. I’ve already made an explicit comparison between TIE fighters and the A-Wing. The TIE Interceptor is the Imperial equivalent of an X-Wing. And the Falcon is probably the worst offender of all being very much like a souped-up Y-Wing, even down to the circular firing arc.

It’s sad, but pretty much inevitable given the simple rules framework of the base game which is an essential part of its accessibility and appeal. Instead it feels to me like the real strength in these new Wave 2 additions is actually the cards. The upgrades, missiles, modifications and of course the unique pilot skills on offer. The amount of choice in the system to build you 100 point squad has now reached hugely impressive levels, with enormous amounts of variety you can recombine together to try and get a new tactical edge.

It’s a phenomenon, X-Wing. A buildable miniatures game that’s just sucked in people across the geek spectrum for all sorts of different reasons. And so far there seems little reason to imagine that it’s going to let them go anytime soon.

Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game Review

Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures game box shot

It is Christmas day, 1980, and I am six years old. I go running through the house, rich with the smells of festive cooking, past beaming adults, trailing behind me a full stocking, to sit on my Gran’s bed and open my presents. Tearing feverishly at the brightly coloured paper, I hope against hope that my hearts desire is nestled inside. And it is: Luke, Han and Leia come tumbling out onto the duvet in all their plastic glory and I am filled with the glee that only a child on Christmas morning can know.

In years since I have lost interest in Star Wars. Long before the prequels, without fanfare or particular reason I simply started to find Tolkien and Star Trek more interesting. As an adult, I left behind my childish things. Even the nostalgia worn thin: when I sat and watched A New Hope with my daughter recently, I consumed it like any other fun family action film. But when I opened a box and found the detailed, hand painted X-Wing miniatures inside for one moment, one brief flicker in time, I was back on that bed again, surrounded by the garish confetti of Christmas paper, trying to still my beating heart.

For some of you, that will be a siren call. If it is, you should stop reading, now, and go to buy this game. Those that remain will probably want to know a bit about the mechanics. It uses a points based system to allow each side to select a variety of starfighters and upgrades for them, and pilots picked from a roster of children’s dreams to fly them. Biggs Darklighter and Luke Skywalker in the base game. Wedge Antilles and Darth Vader amongst the expansions.

Each craft has a unique maneuver dial allowing the player to secretly pick a movement path, and once everyone has chosen these are revealed and the ships moved. Each fighter gets to pick an action from a roster individual to the type and then those in range and firing arc can attack. You roll attack dice and defence dice based on the ships stat line then compare hit results against evade results to see how much damage is inflicted. There’s a deck of damage cards, and critical hits provide unique disabling effects. Accumulate too much damage and a ship is destroyed. Last man standing wins.

Star Wars X-wing miniatures game in action

It’s a simple, streamlined game and makes for a smooth, fast play experience that feels the way it should, filled with tension as you try and predict where enemy ships might go and excitement as the dice spill over the table. The individual movement, action choice and statistics for each craft are spot on from the nimble but fragile TIE fighter to the bloated gun platform that is the Y-Wing, wallowing in the vacuum. Planning your own movement and trying to anticipate the enemy provides a tactical base into which action choices insert a solid extra peg. Dice and cards make a heavy contribution toward success. There seems a good balance of these two elements in determining a winner, the game rewarding both skill and luck.

But for gamers used to all the decision making happening as the game plays out, X-Wing may provide a surprise. Like most points-based squad building games there’s a significant amount of strategic pleasures to be gained from looking at ship, pilot and upgrade combinations and building the most effective force you can with your points allowance. But again, like most points-based squad building games that means there are so many possible combinations that they can’t all be balanced, and there’s a risk of one-sided games and petty squabbling over one faction being “better” than another. Ignore it. There’s strategy here, but what the game is really about is playing the Star Wars theme in the background, and pushing primal buttons in the collective geek brain.

The base game comes with one X-Wing and two TIE fighters, each with four pilots and a small collection of upgrades. It’s not enough. With only three craft there’s no synergy, no outflanking, little interest in squad building. To try and wring maximum value from just three ships the game provides scenarios to build on the basic dogfight. One heavily favours the rebels, another the imperials, but they do offer variety and they do work with custom-picked forces and they illustrate how much mileage there is for fans to do their own thing with the game. The box also has some tactics-free quick play rules which are of no interest to hobbyists but are simple enough to parents play the game with young children, and three ships will suffice for that.

Y-Wing miniature expansion

Ideally though, you need more. Doubling-down on base game sets is the best value option but also the least interesting. Far better to pick from the expansion miniatures. The Y-Wing is my personal favourite as it feels qualitatively different to everything else available right now, with its ship-disabling turret weapon and ability to suck up punishment. Two expansions, one for each faction, is enough. More is better if you can afford it. Just be aware that it’s the sort of expandable game that can rapidly become a money pit. There are more and bigger ships coming in the near future, including the Millenium Falcon. You know you’ll want one. Budget for it in advance.

You’ll want one because when the ships are on the table and the dice are flying alongside them, you can’t help but get sucked into the slipstream. The painted figures look fantastic as they close to combat range, jockeying for position. The endless variety gained from open movement, squad combinations and different scenarios ensures a vast mine of narrative potential, each game, each thrilling ride inscribing its own little legends on the collective consciousness of your group.  The only barrier keeping you anchored in tedious reality is the lack of a star field background to play on. Make one.

X-Wing seems to be the realisation of something that I thought would never exist, but have often wished for: a miniatures game tailored for the board game hobbyist. You get all the value of customised army building and the joys of open, distance-based maneuver and combat on a tabletop, unconstrained by the confines of the board. You have none of the grind of assembling or painting figures, and clever design tweaks ensure measurement dispute over things like positioning and firing arcs are minimal. But if you’re prone to arguing about rules trivia, you’re playing it wrong. It’s a game about tension, excitement and reliving your childhood dreams. It’s an expensive game about priceless things. Play it.

X-Wing Miniatures Game in Review

The highest praise that I can give to Fantasy Flight Games’ new X-Wing miniatures game is that it makes Star Wars awesome again. It sloughs off decades of garbage with the Star Wars brand slapped on it. This is a game where Jar-Jar Binks never existed and the Clone Wars are just a cryptic reference. X-Wing, as the title suggests, gets back specifically to the really awesome faux-World War II fighter jockey stuff that I particularly loved when I was a kid. It is the spaceship dogfight game that I have wanted my whole life, writ in a modern, masterfully streamlined set of rules that all but step politely out of the way of the fun and cinematic action.

It is not a Wings of War ripoff. It uses some of the great design from that game along with ideas from the old Crimson Skies game, an obscure Euro called Techno Witches, and other games in its genre as a jump-off point to arrive at one of the least fussy, least messy tabletop miniatures games that I’ve ever played. The commitment level is low, requiring no paint, no assembly, and only a couple of ships to get going. Anyone can jump right in and pilot a flight of TIEs, barrel-rolling and blasting through asteroid fields and trying to get an angle on an enemy Y-Wing.

Any reviewer of X-Wing that attempts to rewrite the rulebook to explain the game is missing the point. This isn’t a game about which rules simulate which aspects of a subject matter that is essentially farcical to begin with. It’s not about how accurately it models or represents anything, and it’s not about the kinds of minutiae and millimeters that bog down other miniatures games. It’s a game about feeling. As soft-headed as that may sound, what works about this game above all else is how it feels to play- and how it captures the essence of the timeless, Manichean duel between X-Wing and TIE fighter, Rebel and Empire.

You don’t get to premeasure your programmed, dial-selected movement, so the maneuver you pick may cause you to bank right into an asteroid or wind up going over or under another craft in a very subtle abstraction of 3D space. There is a sense of movement and momentum. You have to be able to anticipate, know your ship’s limitations, and know when to risk making a difficult maneuver that incurs a stress token, thereby cancelling your ability to do a barrel roll or acquire a target lock-on for that turn until you recover. You’ve got to use the Force.

Combat is a straight-up shoot-out. I love a contested die roll. Red attack number indicates how many dice you throw, green is what the defender rolls. In one roll you’ve got concussion missiles streaming toward a target while it desperately tries to evade. Pick a focus action for the round and you can use the special eye icon as an extra hit or evasion. If a hit is scored, either shields are reduced or the damaged ship takes a card to count against its hull. Critical hits require that the damage card be played face-up, providing a sense of narrative told by ammo explosions, blinded pilots, or other impairments.

As in most miniatures games, building a force is part of the game. It’s point-based, with 100 point games representing a tournament-class battle. By using a system that puts the pilots and ship stats on cards and identifying tokens separate from the miniatures, each miniatures can represent anything from a Rookie X-wing jock to Wedge Antilles. Ships can also take on secondary weapons and skill cards including proton torpedoes, droids, and special tactics that modify actions or provide unique abilities.

The miniatures are awesome. One of the important things about this game to me is that it crosses that gap between game and toy and speaks to that part of me that still wants to play with toy X-Wings and TIE fighters. The implementation across the board is fantastic, with ship-specific dials for selecting movement and standardized information presentation throughout the game. The rules take about five minutes to explain to a new player before a first game and they’re memorized by the second. One odd component note- there are no pictures of any characters in the game barring one close-up of Darth Vader. FFG’s licensing arrangement with Lucasfilm may not allow them to show Biggs, Luke, and other characters, but at least it’s an opportunity for the publisher to showcase some exciting, all-new Star Wars artwork that’s exclusive to the game. No movie stills, not really a problem.

There is, unfortunately, a two ton Hutt in the room and that is the cost of the game. The core set ships with two TIEs, an X-Wing and all of the maneuver templates, dice, and markers you need and it retails at $40. I think this is a ludicrous price point for a starter, especially since it doesn’t even contain a paper map to use as a play surface. Online it can be had for $25, which is much more reasonable but it makes me question whether or not FFG is setting its retail prices intentionally higher than they should be to accommodate the deep discounters. Expansion ships retail at $15 each and come with a dial, tokens, pilot cards, and a base. These can be had for $10 online.

The game is completely playable for two out of a core set, but anyone that gets into the game should expect to immediately want to spend $100 or more on expansion ships or additional core sets. This isn’t entirely out of line with common market prices for miniatures games- but there is definitely a sense of sticker shock in the board gaming community. With more ships already inbound including the first medium-sized ones, this is a game where the sky is the limit as to how much you can spend on it.

But it’s also one where the sky’s the limit on where it can go. Scenario design, further development, fan add-ons, and competitive play are going to happen and are happening right now. It has the makings of a blockbuster, and between the FFG and Star Wars brands it’s definitely finding a player base regardless of the price. This is a Cadillac game and you can really get what you pay for out of it. I can attest that I’ve already played it more than any other game I’ve purchased this year, and I’m already certain that it will be played frequently on my tables for some time to come.

It’s the game to beat in 2012, the best thing I’ve played all year.

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.