Wednesday 20 April 2016

Review - Dungeon Command

Published by Wizards of the Coast
Designed by Chris Dupuis, Peter Lee, et al
For 2 players, aged 12 to adult

Dungeon Command

It feels like forever since I last updated my blog. It's certainly been longer than it should have been. Definitely longer than I intended it to be.

You see, despite all evidence to the contrary, I am a real person, with a real life, and real commitments.

I have a hundred things I need to do, hundreds more I want to do, and an incredibly small amount of time to do it all.

I am a novelist. I write books for young adults. But because the necessity to feed my family is a constant burden, I spend more time working as a freelance writer for other people than I do working on my own books. In fact, most of my time is spent making money in this fashion, because apparently Monopoly money isn't legal tender.

When I'm not working for other people, I try to spend time on my books. But as I already mentioned, I have a family. A wife and a daughter. It's amazing how much time it takes just being part of a family. Honestly, I don't know how I manage it.

But when I am not working, not running errands, not doing general DIY around the home, not taking my wife out shopping, and not playing with my daughter, I try to spend time on my books.

But I also run this blog, and I like to put out fresh content every week if I can (which, clearly, I can't),

And of course, one of the important things about running a blog where I review board games, is actually playing those board games.

And my shelves are stuffed with a lot of really, really good games that constantly demand my attention.

You can see the situation I'm in.

With a finite amount of time, sooner or later something has to give. I have to let something slide, as other more pressing, or more interesting, things slot into the queue.

And that's pretty much what happened with Dungeon Command, a game I was incredibly excited about receiving, but which never really got the time it needed - and deserved - to become a regular in my board game rotation.

So, what happened? Where did it all go wrong?

Dungeon Command bronze dragon

I saw the announcements for Dungeon Command several months before the product launched, and I was immediately enamoured with the concept: A small, skirmish-level game that uses cards rather than dice, with nice prepainted miniatures in the ever-popular Dungeons & Dragons universe. It even includes a small deck of cards that allow you to use the miniatures in the Dungeons & Dragons adventure board games, such as Castle Ravenloft. I don't play those games, but that doesn't mean I never will, so that seems like a nice bonus.

I ordered a copy of the Sting of Lolth and Heart of Cormyr factions as soon as I could, and I was all set for this to be a new addiction for me.

I envisioned purchasing each new faction as it hit shelves, customising my forces, creating huge maps with epic fights, writing narrative campaigns...

And then the games turned up in the post.

Dungeon Command is a very attractive game. The artwork and graphic design is top notch. However, the quality of the components is not to the standard I had hoped for. The cards are thin, the boards do not fit together well, and the boxes feel like something you would normally get with a cream eclair inside.

But worst of all, the prepainted miniatures are poor.

Well, not all of them. The big ones are pretty decent. But a lot of the smaller ones lack detail, or have a very watery coat that has run over the wrong areas of the model. The Sting of Lolth set is particularly lazy. Most of the miniatures are black with just a few dabs of poorly applied colour.

Dungeon Command prepainted heroes

Sure, I could repaint them, after all, I am a miniatures painter. But (and I may have mentioned this already) I don't have very much time, so I pick and choose my painting projects carefully. I enjoy games with prepainted miniatures because it is one less painting job for me, which means I get to spend more time with my Games Workshop stuff.

So, while I was still excited about the concept of the game, I couldn't help feeling disappointed about the quality of what I had received, especially as it was necessary for me to buy two boxes of the damned stuff...

Wait... I should explain that...

Dungeon Command is a faction-based game, but there is no "base set." You can't just buy a box and have everything you need to play. Each box (there are five of them now, but only two when I made my purchase) contains enough boards and models for one player to play half a game. Technically, there is a way to split the box to play a mini version of the game with just a single faction on a small board, but to my mind, you'd have more chance of making a satisfying meal from the hole in a bagel.

So, to experience the "real" game, you need two boxes. I suppose you could try to find someone else who plays the game, and then you would only need to buy one box; but I only game with a small, highly-specialised team of experts who are trained to withstand extended periods of my company, and I provide most of the games, so that wasn't an option in my case.

Right, where was I?

Okay. I was a bit disappointed. I thought the stunning artwork deserved better than the quality of the components.

But poor components do not a poor game make, so over the next few weeks I tinkered with the game a bit, playing a few solo games and getting a feel for what it was all about. And I was impressed. The central mechanisms are sound, and while the miniatures do not stand up to close scrutiny, eyeing them across the table isn't so bad. I actually started to feel much more positive about my purchase as I drilled into the rules, and they started to reveal the hidden strategic depths.

The game involves two factions facing off in a relatively small arena, which is not an uncommon theme; but what elevates this game and makes it something worthy of note is the use of order cards to perform special actions.

Oh yes, and the fact that combat is deterministic, with no dice-rolling involved.

At the start of the game, both players pick a leader. These characters obviously lead from the back, because there are no miniatures for them, and they never appear on the board. They are just a jumble of unique stats that dictate how many units you can bring into play, how big your hand size is, and that sort of thing. The most important stats are "morale," which acts like health, and results in a loss for your side if it ever reaches zero; and "leadership," which gradually increases as the game progresses, and which dictates how many units you are allowed to have in play at any one time.

Dungeon Command character cards

After picking a leader, you draw two hands of cards. One hand contains creatures, which you are allowed to bring into play at the end of your turn if doing so would not take the total combined levels of all monsters you have in play above your total leadership value. The other hand contains orders that you use in conjunction with creatures to do cool stuff.

The aim of the game is simple: Kill the enemy creatures. Each kill lowers the enemy leader's morale, and brings you one step closer to victory.

Dungeon Command golem

On your turn, you activate all of your creatures. For each creature, you get to make a move action. Additionally, you can use orders to make the creature do something, use powers printed on the creature's card, or perform special actions such as collecting treasure.

Every creature has basic attack options, which inflict a standard amount of damage (no dice rolling required). However, it is when using the creatures in conjunction with order cards that things get interesting. For example, you could use a Fireball order with your wizard to make him hurl a fireball across the board, or you could use a Web order with your giant spider to make it fire a sticky web that pins enemies in place.

Dungeon Command action cards

Obviously, not all orders work with all creatures. For a start, each order requires a certain ability. For example, only a creature with the Intelligence ability is able to use the Web order card. Additionally, the level of the creature must match or exceed the level on the card, which means only your best creatures get to do the really cool stuff. In fact, sometimes even your best creatures aren't good enough. The incredibly powerful Sneak Attack order from the Sting of Lolth box inflicts enough damage to take out almost any enemy, but it requires a level 6 creature. The kicker? There are no level 6 creatures to use it.

So, how do you pull off Sneak Attack?

Simple. The game includes an assist mechanism, whereby adjacent creatures get to add their levels to the level of the currently active creature, but only if they have the necessary ability printed on the order card. Assist a level 4 creature with a level 2 creature, and you have enough levels of power to perform the Sneak Attack.

It's a very clever system. It forces you to think about your positioning carefully. Additionally, you have to consider what creatures you need to have in play to make best use of the order cards in your hand. There is no point having a hand full of Intelligence-based orders, if you don't have any Intelligent creatures on the board.

But that is just scratching the surface of the decisions you are going to have to make every turn.

Every action is classified as Standard, Minor, or Immediate. Pull off a Standard action, and your creature is exhausted, and is not allowed to perform any more orders until your next turn. That means it is open to a counterattack. However, Minor actions do not exhaust a creature, so it has the chance to perform defensive orders later on. These defensive orders are classified as Immediate, and give you the chance to block incoming damage, escape combat situations, or bounce damage back onto the attacker.

There are also rules for cover, which allow creatures to perform a special dodge action to avoid ranged attacks, but only if they are not exhausted at the time. There is even a special ability called Cower, which allows a creature to avoid all of the damage from an attack, but the owner of that creature must reduce his or her morale level by 1 point for each 10 points of damage avoided. In other words, the player gets to keep the creature in play, but does so at the expense of moving closer to overall defeat.

Factor in different terrain types, cards that attach to creatures to give them new abilities and power, and special powers unique to certain creatures, and you end up with a seemingly simple game that is actually quite complex. It certainly isn't something that is quick to pick up and learn. Even once you grasp the rules, it is going to take a long time to learn the very specific combinations of abilities and levels necessary to activate your order cards.

Dungeon Command tiles

This is a game that benefits from... no, requires... a lot of plays to develop the skills to make it a truly enjoyable head-to-head battle.

And that, really, is a major issue.

New players going up against established players are going to get battered.

You can't just sit down and start playing this game. You need a really good grasp of the mechanisms, and how the different types of cards interact. You need to know the combinations available to you. You need to know when to play a certain type of creature, when to cower, when to hold back on an order. And by stripping away the luck element associated with dice, the gulf between the skill levels of the players is all the more apparent.

This game needs time, repeated plays, and a regular opponent (or opponents) of a similar skill level. And that's even before taking into consideration deck-building.

Oh yes, deck-building.

Buy more factions, and you gain access to new creatures and new cards; then you can mix and match them to create killer combos and deadly armies.

Dungeon Command creature cards

But I don't know much about that, because honestly, I've never done it.

Honestly, I've never done very much with this game at all.

Like I said, I tinkered with it solo for a while, but I quickly realised it was a game that required an investment of time. Besides, it's predominantly a two-player game, with a multi-player variant that isn't particularly good, and in my house two-player games just don't see the table very often.

So, Dungeon Command got relegated to the shelf.

Soon enough, other games came along.

More accessible. More immediate.

Dungeon Command gathered dust.

Then Wizards of the Coast released three more expansions in quick succession. I didn't buy them, because they came out too quickly. I still hadn't played the game - didn't even know if I really liked it - so I wasn't going to buy more stuff.

And then, just like that, Wizards of the Coast dropped the game completely.

No more factions.


Sure, five factions is more than enough content. There is so much game and strategy in every one of those boxes, I'm pretty sure an avid fan would never get bored.

But there is something about a game being dropped so unceremoniously... And before I had even got it to the table once.

Dungeon Command umber hulk

Since then, I have played it a few times, and it's as I feared.

It requires effort. It requires experience. It requires regular plays.

If you do not know the combos in your deck, or the best way to link an order card with your creatures, you are just fumbling blindly, doing the best you can with what you've got. You aren't experiencing the best the game has to offer.

With time... time to learn the intricacies of each faction... time to develop strategies... time to build new decks... Well, this could be one of the finest skirmish games available.

But time is something I just don't have.


  1. I suspect that the game existed as a way to clear out the last stock of D&D miniatures, which is why it seemed a bit of an afterthought and got dropped soon enough. I may be wrong, but that's how it looked.

    1. You may be right, but I do think the game is genuinely good. It certainly demands a level of investment that I didn't expect in order to master it.

      Maybe it just didn't get the sales they wanted or expected.

      Then again, this isn't the first time Wizards of the Coast have just dropped a product.

      Thanks for taking the time out to read my review.

    2. Oh yes, I didn't mean it as a criticism; GW did the same thing and we got Lost Patrol out of it, so it can work.

    3. Agreed. Lost Patrol was a particularly good example of reusing sculpts (those scouts really got some use between Lost Patrol, Tyranid Attack, Advanced Space Crusade, and Ultra Marines). But we won't mention Mighty Warriors...

      I am really looking forward to the new edition of Lost Patrol this June. It comes out three days before my birthday, which is pretty sweet timing!

  2. I saw this some time ago, they were so cheap... they were so cute... but then again, I already have a game that brings to the table almost the same sensations, and that is Summoner Wars, and it doesn't ask for that much time to start enjoying the game :D

    Love each and every review you do, so don't stop, even if it takes time to do the next one.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. Hopefully it won't be so long until the next review.

      I played a bit of Summoner Wars, but I found that often the game ended with the two leaders chasing each other around the board, with no tricks or units left to play. That put me off investing in the game, although I admit, I was tempted by the most recent starter box.


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