Other than the ongoing D&D Next public playtest, the latest big new thing in D&D news is the return of miniatures skirmish gaming in the new Dungeon Command game. I’ve played several games with my sons (ages 14 and 8) using the Sting of Lolth and Heart of Cormyr factions, and we’ve all enjoyed the game very much. If you’re familiar with the D&D Miniatures skirmish game that Wizards of the Coast produced from 2003–2010, you’ll find that Dungeon Command has a number of elements similar to the earlier game—most noticeably, a number of reused figure sculpts—but it incorporates several new concepts and components that really enhance the gameplay.
Dungeon Command is sold in “faction packs.” Each faction pack includes twelve prepainted miniatures, with two statistics cards for each figure. You use the pretty, colorful stat cards for Dungeon Command; the other set lets you incorporate the Dungeon Command minis into the Adventure System line of boardgames (Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, and Legend of Drizzt). There’s also a small deck of order cards that allow your minis to perform various maneuvers, and two leader cards. Unlike the D&D Miniatures skirmish game of yore, Dungeon Command doesn’t put your leader out on the battlefield with the rest of the troops, to be eliminated quickly with dire consequences following. Instead, your leader persists throughout the game as a presence without a specific battlefield position. The leader cards, which are much larger than the other creature cards, also track two important quantities—Leadership and Morale—that change as the game progresses.
In case you don’t already know how to play Dungeon Command, here’s a quick summary. You start by setting up the battlefield, which is a process similar to laying out an encounter area using Dungeon Tiles. Each faction pack includes two 8×8 tile and two 4×8 tiles, which fit together in jigsaw-puzzle fashion like the tiles in the Adventure System games. The tiles are double-sided; one side depicts an indoor scene, the other an outdoor scene. Once you’ve got the battlefield set up, you select your starting creatures. Your leader’s leadership score determines the total number of creature levels you can control. Next, you draw your hand of Order cards, and then send your creatures out to beat up your opponent’s creatures until one of you has been reduced to 0 Morale. Your creatures have a few built-in options for moving and attacking, and you create more complex and varied maneuvers by playing Order cards. Order cards are keyed to action types (standard, minor, and immediate), creature levels, and key attributes (Strength, Dexterity, and so on).
I’m obviously not trying to give a summary of the entire rules set here, but two features deserve special comment.
First, Dungeon Command’s leadership mechanic cleverly keeps the tension mounting until the very end of the game. In the older D&D Miniatures skirmish games, you deployed your entire force at the beginning of the game, and your opponent whittled away at them. If your opponent took out your leader or other important pieces early, the game could become just a painful forestalling of the inevitable defeat. In Dungeon Command, your ability to keep creatures under control depends on your leader’s current Leadership score. The brilliant innovation in Dungeon Command is that your leader’s Leadership score goes up every turn, allowing you to bring out more and/or stronger creatures onto the battlefield as the game progresses. I played many games of D&D Miniatures in which one player or the other was effectively, though not officially, knocked out of the game with at least half of the actual turns left to go. I’ve never yet seen this in Dungeon Command. You always feel like you’re still in the game, like you still have a fighting chance, until the bitter end.
Second, Dungeon Command’s combat is completely diceless. By default, attacks simply hit, and they deal fixed amounts of damage. Naturally, Order cards can change all that. Some Order cards let you avoid or reduce damage; others let you boost damage, restrain an opposing creature, or things like that. My mind so closely associates D&D combat with rolling a d20 that I wasn’t sure at first how I’d feel about diceless combat. By the end of the first game, my doubts had evaporated. The system works, and works well. You do still have a certain random element, in the “luck of the draw” from the Order deck, but the combat system really does put a premium on smart tactical choices.
My sons and I enjoy Dungeon Command very much. However, we had the benefit of playing with review copies. The $39.99 MSRP for each faction pack is a pretty substantial barrier to entry. The Icosahedrophilia store (powered by Amazon) and some other online retailers sell the packs for $10 to $15 below the MSRP, making it easier to get into the game, but even $26.95 per person can be a steep investment. The price isn’t out of proportion to the cost of production, but that fact doesn’t put any additional money in anyone’s pocketbook. I can say this: in my opinion, you’ll get more enjoyment for your money by purchasing a Dungeon Command faction pack (assuming that someone else you know and would like to play against does the same) than by spending those dollars on coffee, or on many of the offerings at your local cineplex.