Dungeon Command is a pleasing mixture of Dungeons & Dragons miniatures and a tactical card game
Wizards of the Coast has been on something of a roll when it comes to board games, and the number of new products released in the past few years is only surpassed by the variety. While games like Wrath of Ashardalon are a good way to sneak in a quick dungeon crawl when a full Dungeons and Dragons session would take too long, Conquest of Nerath looks at war from a macro perspective, and the just-released Lords of Waterdeep has players hiring adventurers and vying for control of a single city. Wizards of the Coast isn’t afraid to take the world of Dungeons & Dragons and zoom in and out to varying degrees, offering board games that show sweeping wars or intimate battles.
The Dungeon Command system is another example of that love of experimentation. It’s a competitive miniatures game for two to four players, but the tactical aspect of the game play is handled by a well-designed card system. While your creatures’ placement on the map is important, what they do is controlled by the Order cards in your hand and each characters’ innate powers. It’s fast-paced, clever, and often brutal.
There is a cost to get in
Dungeon Command isn’t a self-contained experience, as every player needs to buy one of the 12-character starter sets for around $30. Each box comes with tiles to create the dungeon or outdoor setting, 12 non-random miniatures, Order and Character cards, and counters used to keep track of damage. These miniatures can also of course be used while playing other Dungeons & Dragons board games; this doubles as an easy way to add content to your existing games.
The box itself keeps everything organized and ready to play, so setup is simple. Two players can play a limited version of the game by sharing a single set of characters, but it’s not ideal. Each player, up to four, will need to have their own starter kit, and you can mix and match characters to create your own army if you buy multiple kits.
The game has a few mechanisms in place to make sure you can’t simply outspend your opponents to create the perfect army, so players with multiple kits may have an advantage in variety, but not tactics.
It’s always tricky to summarize the rules of a game, but here goes: Each player has a card for their commander, and this gives you everything you need to know to set up your army. Let’s take a look at an example card.
The Creature Hand number is the amount of Creature cards you pull at the beginning of the game, and the starting Order Hand value is the number of Order cards you pull to create your hand. The starting leadership level gives you the amount of monsters you’re allowed to field when play begins, so if you have a leadership value of seven, you can send two level three and one level one character into battle, or a level four and a level three. You can only field monsters from your Creature hand and the Leadership cap, which goes up by one every round, makes sure your army grows organically and at a regular pace. Your Morale value works like hit points, so when one of your monsters is destroyed in battle you lose their level in Morale points. Your creatures flee the battle and your opponent wins when your Morale reaches zero.
Each creature you field has its own stats, and uses either melee or ranged attacks. This is old hat if you’ve played a tabletop role playing game, but the magic comes from the use of Order cards, which grant you special movement or attack bonuses, or can be used to buff your character. Each Order card has a level attached to it, so a level three Order card can only be used on a level three creature or higher. Each Order card specifies whether it’s a standard or minor action, and immediate action cards can be used to fight back or dodge when being attacked. Springing a trap on your opponent only to be fought off by immediate action cards is a bummer, but you only draw one Order card per turn; I often found myself harrying my opponent just to get him to burn through cards and deplete his hand.
Knowing when to use your Order cards and how to move your characters into position is key, and you almost always have a number of tactical decisions to make per turn.
There are no dice in this game so every attack hits, but your Order cards give you plenty of chances to mix it up in battle. My opponent attached an Order card to one of his creatures that allowed him to draw TWO Order cards per round, which is a monstrous advantage, and then moved that creature behind his more powerful units. That became my highest value target.
So I had to design a sort of moving tank. My dwarves give adjacent units a ten point buff against damage, which was helpful, so I moved everyone together to try to cut through his ranks. I started to bank any Order cards that gave me an Immediate defensive action to try to lay siege to his troops and take out the character with the Order card buff. It may sound complicated with words, but the rules are easy to understand, it takes a matter of minutes to set up a game, and you can expand the board for up to four players with designs included in the instructions.
The fact that your Leadership level raises by one every round allows players to escalate play by bringing in higher level creatures with more abilities and powers. The Leadership index is interesting for another reason: Your opponent is suddenly adrift in Leadership points if you wipe out two or three lower-level characters, so they can begin to bring in the big guns. I’ve been a part of matches that looked incredibly one-sided for the entirety of the game, only to have my opponent turn the tides with skillful use of his Order cards before bringing in their most powerful character. He was able to keep me at bay while only having one morale point, and in fact he was able to take the win from me. The play may be fast-paced, but clever tactics can negate almost any advantage on the battlefield.
This is a quicker, somewhat lighter experience than many of the Dungeons and Dragons board games, but it’s no less deep. The use of Order cards in battle makes every skirmish feel like a duel, and layering cards on top of your existing abilities allows for some remarkable killing blows; it’s wonderful to be able to watch the smug look on your opponent’s face turn to horror after you play an Immediate action card that negates his carefully planned attack.
While the $30 asking price for each starter kit may scare away players who enjoy to pay one price for the whole game, the fun of playing against your friends is more than worth the money. Card players and miniature enthusiasts will both find something to like here and, even better, they may begin to understand the appeal of both styles of play. You can also download the rule book if you’d like to peek at the rules before you buy. My verdict? Dungeon Command goes into regular rotation, and I’ll be buying two more starter kits for four-player battles.