Tag Archives: WotC

Under Attack – Dungeon Command review

DC COVER

It still leaves me gobsmacked that Dungeons & Dragons has been around for so long. I’m even more surprised that this game that I loved to play when I was a kid is now seen as an acceptable pastime – seriously, the amount of times I got beaten up for playing it at lunchtime rather than going outside to play football… life is so much nicer now that geekiness has been deemed cool. I see only one problem with D&D; it can come across as somewhat impenetrable. Look at the RPG shelf in your local game store or bookshop. The sheer amount of different rulebooks, guides and scenarios must appear baffling to someone who hasn’t even rolled a twenty-sided die. Creating your own character and getting thrown into an adventure taking place almost solely in a group’s collective imagination is daunting enough for an experienced player. Consider that some of these could take place over the space of weeks or months in real time… no wonder some people think gamers are crazy.

Thankfully, there are a couple of ways in that are less time consuming as well as a bit lighter on the rules. We’ve previously looked at the Adventure Game series here on littlemetaldog.com (including the excellent Wrath of Ashardalon) but now there’s another route you can use to scratch that D&D itch in under an hour: Dungeon Command.

At the time of writing, there are five different versions on Dungeon Command available. I currently own the Curse of Undeath and Blood of Gruumsh sets which focus on undead and orc characters, but other boxes take influence from all manner of areas of the D&D universe. Rather than taking control of a single character, you act at the commander of a group intent on only one thing: wiping out the enemy. It’s a very different experience to regular adventuring, but one that is really quite enjoyable.

It's an OWLBEAR! There! In the back! YASSSS!

It’s an OWLBEAR! There! In the back! YASSSS!

Each box set comes with twelve pre-painted miniatures which comprise one squad, though there’s also enough in there for two players to get a small taste how Dungeon Command works. Tiles are also included along with cards and various markers – all you need to do is find someone with another set, put together your arena by combining your tilesets, then you’re ready for battle. It’s here that you’ll discover the most notable difference: there’s NO dice in this game. Considering that you’re probably used to rolling all manner of small numbered polyhedrons if you’re even vaguely aware of role-playing games, this is quite the change. Instead you’ll be using Order Cards to determine what your minions will do, meaning that you’ll have be in a very different frame of mind if you want to win. Dungeon Command is all about the big picture – quite surprising considering the small area that your skirmishes will take place in.

As mentioned before, you’re looking to simply wipe out the opposition forces on the board. Doing so will lower their morale and victory will be yours if you get the other player’s down to zero. You can also win by having a higher morale when one player has no minis on the board at the end of a turn – particularly useful when playing games involving three or four people (because yes, the rules account for that too). The Order Cards you have at your disposal will allow for the bending of rules, and bring in a wide variety of strategies – do you go all out and try to beat down the enemy, turtle up and react to their moves or rely on magic over force? Dungeon Command offers you these options and more besides.

As you’d expect, you won’t start off with a whole army, though your small squad will quickly grow as your Leadership increases. Orders played are removed entirely from the game, as are defeated minions, so despite the face that the game plays in a very straightforward manner it’s far from easy to get to grips with. Forward planning is the key to the game; it’s not the kind of thing you can just play a couple of times and think that you have it down pat. Multiple plays will be rewarded as you formulate new plans, constructing strategies that will hopefully crush your enemies. Of course, their skills will be improving too, so be careful!

Here's what you get in the Curse of Undeath set. As you can see... quite a lot.

Here’s what you get in the Curse of Undeath set. As you can see, it’s quite a lot.

Each faction pack really manages to capture the spirit of their theme – the orcs in Blood of Gruumsh are all about face smashing while the Curse of Undeath tends to look more to dark magic. That’s not to say that the various undead minions can’t handle themselves in combat, and you do get a MASSIVE dracolich in the box…

On that subject, the quality of the minis is really rather good. The painting is to a decent standard in both the sets I have, and even the more fragile looking ones are sturdy. It helps that they’re well protected in the custom-designed box that come with each set – no danger of them getting smashed or crushed in transit. It’s amazing how many companies don’t consider this aspect of design when they provide games that come with a bunch of minis, but the Dungeon Command series should be held up as a great example.

So, we have a quick playing skirmish game with a nicely put together set of rules that comes with fantastic components. Whether it’ll be enough to convince the average person in the street to get into the world of D&D… well, I’m not so sure. It’s just so different to what you’d normally expect from Dungeons & Dragons, I don’t think many newbies would be willing to make the leap to its bigger sibling. As a standalone experience though? Well worth checking out, definitely.

The original Dungeon Command sets were released in 2012, with Blood of Gruumsh coming up later in 2013. Designed by a veritable army at Wizards of the Coast, you can pick up copies of all five sets from Gameslore for the comparatively bargain price of £25.99 each. Considering that includes 12 painted miniatures, that really isn’t bad at all…

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Chairman of the Bored – Axis & Allies 1941 review

Once again, Stuart “The Judge” Platt steps up to check out another game. This time a copy of the newest version of Axis & Allies landed on his gaming table, but how did his experience of this long-running franchise go down?

I would imagine most in our hobby will be aware of Axis and Allies.  This, along with Risk, is the more mainstream face of area control games, also known as the ‘dudes on a map’ genre.  A&A is a legendary war game with a somewhat fanatical fan-base who analyse each new release and modification of the rules with a passionate scrutiny normally reserved for Games Workshop’s cash cows.  Where would a beginner start? How does a rank amateur with no previous experience get into this legendary series? Well, their 2012 release claims to be a beginner version – let’s see what Wizards of the Coast hype has to say:

1941: THE WORLD IS AT WAR!

Quick and Convenient: Axis & Allies 1941 is designed to be set up and played more quickly than any previous A&A game. In essence, this is a simplified A&A experience that will introduce players to the A&A mechanics and play style. Play time runs between 1.5 to 2 hours.

Set up was pretty easy – once you identify the minimal differences between the miniature boats that are provided for each of the 5 factions (US, UK, Russia, China and Germany are the players in this scene) the board is laid out and ready to go.

Game flow consist of players committing resources to buy troops which will arrive at the end of that turn, then moving every unit on the board.  Firstly those that are fighting leading to a whirlwind of dice and retreat or destruction, then your models who are not fighting will move. Next, reinforcements are added and you hand over to the next country.

Sounds simple enough, and it is – but it’s also very, very, very slow and tedious.

As you have a relatively limited amount of troops and resources, every move you make is vitally important.  Also, because of the irregularities of dice, you feel compelled to over-commit to each combat to make sure you come out on top.  So you’re pretty much doing ONE important thing each turn, and moving the rest of your troops round to defend and you’re finished.  For a very long time.

Insert joke involving wordplay regarding board / bored here.

As everyone else plans out their turn, executes and rolls numerous dice in a tedious, outmoded and luck heavy combat system, you sit and watch and wait and because the board can change so much between one turn to another, any sense of planning your next move is pointless.

In our playtests, people left the room between turns to check on other games, make a drink and read the unabridged Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

I gained NO pleasure from this gaming experience whatsoever.  I wanted to feel like I was playing with toy soldiers within a framework of rules feel fast, fun and fair.  Instead A&A is an antiquated, rigid, boring mess of a system that doesn’t allow fun to come to the surface.

So what’s wrong? Well, gaming has moved on in the last 30 years and no one appears to have told A&A.  The combat system is awkward, fiddly, time consuming and ultimately only marginally better than flipping a coin.  Also, the current trend for the micro-turn appears to have spoiled us.  Modern games (both in the Euro and Ameritrash styles) now lean towards shorter turns and a faster pace.  Axis and Allies is such a dinosaur in this respect.  It neither fulfils a quick, fast, war gaming fix (something that Memoir ’44, for example, does much better) or is deep or strategic enough to satisfy the heavier war gamer crowd.  It just doesn’t work.

Let me help you out, WOTC, and rewrite your hype for you.

1941: THE WORLD AT SNORE!

Slow and Impotent: Axis & Allies 1941 is badly designed to be set up and played more slowly than any game ever.  In essence, this is a tedious A&A experience that will introduce players to the A&A mechanics and play style. Play time runs between forever and the end of existence itself (which may come as a relief.)

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The original Axis & Allies was designed by Larry Harris back in 1981, but the version Stuart looked at was released in 2012 by WOTC. If you’re feeling somewhat masochistic,  Gameslore have it in stock for a shade over £20.

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Adventure Time! D&D Wrath of Ashardalon review

It used to be that to play Dungeons & Dragons was to bear the mark of the geek, the scarlet letters D&D were marked on your chest making you the prime target for mockery. Of course, as most of us have grown up, we have moved on and now see it more as a badge of honour, something to wear proudly. All of those evenings spent around kitchen tables, carrying a d20 in your pocket, lugging a stack of books around with you… we enjoy our games, we love to play. However, if you’re going to throw yourself into a decent D&D campaign, you need to make sure you’re there for the long run. You’re looking at hours of play, spread over the course of weeks or months. You’re looking at commitment. But what if you don’t have that time? We get older and our free time goes out the window, but we still want to play. How can we scratch that itch?

Last year Wizards of the Coast released something new in their D&D line – Castle Ravenloft. This was a new bite-sized approach that took elements from the 4th Edition books and turned adventuring into accessible chunks. With no Dungeon Master involved, this was stripped down dungeon crawling, the players versus the game. What WotC didn’t quite get was how ridiculously popular it would be – Ravenloft sold out within days of release as the followers from the Cult of the New fell for it in a big way. Copies of the game exchanged for well above RRP as Wizards scrambled to put together a second print run, which is now at least vaguely available. So what does the company do? Announce a second game in this new modular line and get the hype train rolling all over again – Wrath of Ashardalon!

So, it’s basically more of the same… but considering how highly I regarded Castle Ravenloft, I was incredibly excited about the follow-up. Wrath takes the original game and expands on it, enhancing the streamlined D&D experience a little more – not so much to make it scary and hard to understand, but there are a few differences. More on those soon, but first (if you’ve not tried this format before) how does it work? With no DM, the responsibility for running the game lies with the players themselves. Set characters are chosen with pre-rolled stats and (to begin with, anyway) an adventure is chosen with a set objective – the box comes complete with a book of scenarios to try out. Complete the mission and you win, fail to do so (and there are so many ways this can happen) and your days of glory come to a swift end. Each turn follows a set pattern, beginning with the Hero Phase – here you move around the board and attack any enemies unfortunate enough to encounter you. In traditional D&D style, everything is resolved using the ubiquitous d20 along with any modifiers. Rolling equal or more than the target number generally sees success, and recalling this single rule is probably the hardest part of the game.

The next phase is Exploration. The expansion of the board is controlled by players, as any players who have characters standing at an unexplored edge of a tile draw a new one from the stack. A small arrow shows the direction it should face (pointing towards the character who discovered the new area) and a scorch mark signifies where that tile’s monster should stand to begin with. This monster is decided by drawing a card from the Monster pile, placing it in front of the player and grabbing said monster from the box to be put on the tile’s starting spot. Something else to take note of is the colour of the arrow; white is fine, but a black arrow means another card must be drawn and resolved immediately from the Encounter Deck. This also happens automatically if no new dungeon tiles are drawn, thus encouraging exploration of a new area at least once per turn. Encounters could be anything from stacking the monster deck in a certain way, triggering a particularly nasty trap or (occasionally) spotting some treasure – but yes… most of the time it’s something pretty awful.

Midway through a solo adventure. This one ended in an ass-kicking. It *always* ends in an ass-kicking.

The final phase of each turn is the Villain Phase, where all monsters on the board spring to life. Working your way around each player in turn – remember, there’s no DM – any monster cards that are in front of them are activated. Again, the simplified rules come in to play – easily understood and followed explanations are given for each monster that cover every potential possibility, be they adjacent to a hero or on the other side of the board. All you need to know is that eventually they’ll hunt you down and attack, you’ll get poisoned or dazed and eventually get killed.

Death happens a lot in Wrath of Ashardalon, but thankfully you’re on the side of good so you have some Healing Surges. Rather than having individual surges there’s a collective pot, meaning that particularly inept and squishy wizards who enjoy throwing themselves into the thick of battle can use more than one if they need to, not that I speak from experience or anything. All the usual D&D tropes are there, Daily Powers, traps and treasures… but Wrath of Ashardalon expands on the previous experience by adding new tile types and cards. Boons can make your life easier, while the additional Adventure cards give you allies to control. Watch out for the new Chamber tiles though, because that’s where the really bad things happen.

If you ever managed to get your hands on a copy of Ravenloft (which is still quite the challenge, at least here in the UK) you’ll know that WotC really tried to push the boat out when it came to the components. I know that some of the design decisions made by the team rattled some cages – a few folks thought that the minimal approach just wasn’t D&D enough – but they’ve elected to stay with the look for Wrath of Ashardalon. Everything is of high quality, from cards to the thick cut tiles that will make the scene for your adventures. You can certainly tell that Wizards are going for a big franchise here, making a grab for the Descent market, with piles of beautifully sculpted minis that are aching to be painted – the main villain of the piece, the dragon Ashardalon, is particularly impressive. There’s no way I’m going anywhere near these with a brush though – I’d hate to ruin them due to ineptitude and thankfully they look great without the need for my childish attempts at ‘enhancement’.

Calling them miniatures doesn't feel right when one of them is THAT BIG.

So, the game plays very well and looks great. There’s little downtime as players are always involved as they negotiate their way around the dungeons, and even those who may have deemed D&D as frivolous before will admit that this is very well put together. There is, however, something intangible that I think requires a mention. Wrath of Ashardlon really feels like something exciting. It’s taken what Ravenloft started and expanded, adding in new elements while keeping the game system fun. As mentioned earlier, the package ships with a book of 12 adventures, but those merely feel like a beginning. This big box feels like opportunity, it feels like potential. After a few hours of playing, my mind began to wander back to another dungeon crawler that had a major effect on my childhood as a gamer – Advanced HeroQuest. The hours I spent coming up with maps and adventures, writing awful scripts to read out as my friends dragged their way through fight after fight… all this came back to me.

So much is possible with this system that WotC have developed (and are still refining). The fact that you can crossover with Ravenloft (and the upcoming Legend of Drizzt) means that there’s a wealth of opportunity here. To those who complain that the twelve adventures in the included book aren’t enough – and there are a few dissenting voices – I urge you to go back to your youth, go back to the reason you picked up these games, and use your imagination. The route that Wizards of the Coast are taking looks to be one that will provide you with a stack of adventures later down the line (I reckon we’ll see a release along the lines of Descent’s Road to Legend before too long) but in the meantime focus on that one word: PLAY. This is the tabletop equivalent of a sandbox – set yourself a target, randomly generate a dungeon and see what happens. I guarantee you that there’s little else out there at the moment that can provide such depth and enjoyment in comparatively bite-sized chunks. And if anyone mocks you for playing D&D in 2011? Chuck your d20 at them. Wear your badge with pride. It’s the grown-up thing to do.

Wrath of Ashardalon was released in 2011 by Wizards of the Coast and was designed by Peter Lee, Mike Mearls and Bill Slavicsek. Between 1 and 5 people can play and it will cost you around £40-50 in the UK (if you can find it, as it’s currently quite tricky to find in your local game shop!). Persevere though – it’s well worth trying to track down a copy.

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