Review: Dungeons And Dragons ‘Dungeon Command’ Miniatures Game Delivers Both Hits And Misses

There are many different ways to enjoy “Dungeons and Dragons,” the hobby gaming property most known for its core roleplaying game. For instance, take the newly-released “Dungeon Command” miniatures game. As a skirmish-scale combat game, “Dungeon Command” aims to break down some of the barriers of miniatures gaming by using pre-painted figures in small 12-on-12 battles.

Complete armies (known as warbands in “Dungeon Command”) are sold in ready-to-play faction packs, with options to further expand and customize a warband in advanced play. Today, we’ll be reviewing those first two faction packs: “Heart of Cormyr” and “Sting of Lolth.”

Just the Facts:

Players: 2-4
Playing Time: 90 minutes
Age: 12 and up
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
MSRP: $39.99 per faction
Release: July 17th, 2012 (first two factions)

The Gameplay:

The point of “Dungeon Command” is to kill off the opponent’s units. It’s as simple as that. The most common route to victory is to defeat enough units to reduce your opponent’s morale level to zero. This is a moving target, since morale can occasionally be boosted during play, and means that the required number of kills will scale upwards as game time increases. Alternatively, a player can win instantly if their opponent ever has zero units left on the board. Games don’t run over the advertised 90 minute time simply because players will eventually run out of units to field.

Actual turn-by-turn gameplay in “Dungeon Command” is surprisingly simple. Turns begin with some basic bookkeeping (resolve start-of-turn effects, untap creatures, and draw 1 Order card), and move quickly into combat. In the Activate phase, each of the active player’s creatures will move and take actions (either through abilities printed on their creature card, or through the use of cards from the player’s hand) in any order. Outside of movement, which is always free, these card-driven actions are typically attacks, heals, status refreshes, buffs, and bonus movement, but only one may be chosen per turn.

Following the Activate phase, the active player can use creature cards from their hand to deploy the corresponding creature miniatures to the battlefield. The only restriction is that the combined level of all deployed creatures must not exceed their controlling player’s Leadership value. Leadership goes up by one point every turn, so room is slowly made for larger, more powerful creatures.

All of the complexity of this game is contained in the cards, so lets cut to the chase and run through the important stats and symbols you’ll encounter across the various card types. First, the player must choose a Commander card for his faction. This choice will set many of the basic stats of the warband:

Commander cards set the Creature Hand and Starting Order Hand size, starting morale, and starting leadership. There is also a special power printed on each Commander card.

The real meat of the game is in the Creature and Order card decks, though:

Pictured above, the War Wizard is of Level 4, has 60 hitpoints, and is capable of making a 30-damage ranged attack or 10 damage melee attack. Specific abilities (in this case, “INT” for “intelligence”) are printed in the header of both creature and order cards. In order for an order card to be used by a creature, a matching ability must be present, and the level of the order may not exceed the level of the creature.

The field of battle in “Dungeon Command” is roughly 22 squares wide by 14 square deep (minus a few squares for walls and other obstructions), and each player gets their own 3×7 deployment area. The choice of a square grid over the more tactical hexagon-shaped grid commonly seen in most map-based miniatures is a curious one, as success “Dungeon Command” is often determined by a player’s ability to maneuver. That task has been simplified with the more basic map layout.

The starting setup for a Lolth versus Cormyr battle
A closer look at the Cormyr setup. Starting creatures are randomly drawn from the creature deck, and deployed within the owner’s start zone.

At this point, it’s worth noting that there are zero dice in “Dungeon Command.” All randomness is contained in the luck of the draw from those decks of Creature and Order cards, and all actions resolve using pre-determined effect text. Without a doubt, this makes “Dungeon Command” more strategic, as half of the randomness is resolved before you are required to make any decisions on your turn (the second half of randomness is what cards your opponent is holding, which are not revealed to you until the  moment they are used).

On that same thought, players are truly at the mercy of the cards. A bad hand can really screw you, but is that any worse than a few unlucky die rolls that you could get in some other miniatures game? Here’s how I see the difference: with dice, you perform your best move but may come up short with a bad roll, whereas with cards, a bad hand staring you in the face tells you to not even bother trying. The latter just doesn’t seem as enjoyable.

A variety of Creature (above) and Order (below) cards from the Cormyr faction pack.

For an example of how cards can stall out your game, picture a starting hand of high-level creatures that can’t be deployed under the current leadership point cap, along with Order cards that have mismatched skills for the creatures you already have deployed. Even if you dump those cards to refresh your hand, you now know those cards what later value will still be trapped in the discard pile when time comes to actually use them.

All things considered, though, combat between the Lolth and Cormyr faction packs that I tested out seemed very balanced over numerous matches. Two players could each pick up a faction pack and easily enjoy their time with “Dungeon Command,” but there is also a huge potential to go down the rabbit hole with this game system. In the advanced rules, players can fully customize their creature and order decks, even combining content from multiple faction packs (there are several more planned for release, including a goblins pack already on store shelves.)

I never felt the urge to start customizing a warband, though. While the matches were enjoyable, the focus on movement finesse and the lack of die roll-induced suspense made for a miniatures game that never truly got my blood pumping.

The Components:

  • 12 Prepainted plastic miniatures of varying sizes
  • 1 Rulebook
  • 2 Large double-sided battlefield tiles
  • 2 Small double-sided battlefield tiles
  • 2 Commander cards
  • 60 cards:
    • 12 Creature cards (one for each miniature)
    • 36 Order cards
    • 12 D&D Adventure System cards
  • 68 Tokens:
    • 30 Damage tokens
    • 6 Treasure Chest markers
    • 12 treasure tokens
    • 4 Morale and Leadership markers
    • 8 Creature identification tokens
    • 8 Miniature identification tokens

The sculpts of “Dungeon Command” miniatures are made from a soft plastic, which increases the model’s longevity, and sculpt detail is about as high as you could ask for given the limitations of the plastic. A nice touch is having each creature’s name molded into the underside of each miniature’s base (there is also an actual photograph of each miniature on it’s corresponding creature card, so you’ll never mistake one for another).

The majority of the sculpts are re-purposed from past D&D games, but here, they all come pre-painted. Each miniature has varying degrees of detail in its paint, job typically varying with size. The larger models do a better job of holding detail, and it shows in the finished painted miniature. Overall, you can expect at least serviceable paint jobs (approximately 4 colors on every model). As someone who has played more serious miniatures games in the past, I still did not feel any need to retouch these models, but you easily could if you are so inclined.

The Cormyr models (left) have much more detail to paint than the drab forces of Lolth (right), but regardless, the larger models for both forces have the superior paint jobs.

Component discussions always wind up centering on “bang for your buck,” and that’s exactly what you are getting here. For instance, take Fantasy Flight Game’s “X-Wing Miniatures Game,” released at nearly the same time with the same exact retail price and a roughly equivalent amount of cards and cardboard bits in the box.  “X-Wing” gives you three models of such quality that they invoke visions of George Lucas hovering over Chinese factory workers to make sure every brushstroke is made properly. “Dungeon Command” gives you four times as many models, but with an average quality production. Miniatures gaming in general has a reputation as a money sink, so putting quantity over quality is not a sin here. It’s actually goes a long way in making “Dungeon Command” competitive in the hobby gaming marketplace.

From a production value standpoint, the card stock and print quality is what you’d expect from a major publisher who knows what they’re doing. The only component I was a bit unhappy with were the large Commander, which are printed on heavy card stock rather than a sturdy cardboard slab. On the quality side, I had varying degrees of off-center printing in the die-cut counters between both of my faction packs. In some cases, up to a quarter of a number’s text had spilled off the counter and was left on the sprue.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a bonus component of each faction pack: a D&D Adventure System card to go along with each miniature, allowing all 12 to be used in co-op dungeon crawlers “Castle Ravenloft,” “Wrath of Ashardalon,” and “Legend of Drizzt.” I may have met “Dungeon Command” with a lukewarm reception, but the D&D Adventure Series games are must-play titles for any thematic board game fan. Getting more models (and painted ones at that), for the Adventure Series is a huge boon.

It’s not hard to score sets of “Dungeon Command” on sale for $30, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that if there wasn’t even a “Dungeon Command” game, and this was just 12 more creatures for D&D Adventures, I would still consider pulling the trigger on a set. If you can use these miniatures to help you run a 4th Edition game of actual D&D roleplaying, then that just sweetens the pot.

Final Thoughts:

Two stock warbands battling in “Dungeon Command” is an undeniably enjoyable experience, just not one I’d universally recommend. It’s a great way to scratch the miniatures gaming itch with some skirmish combat, that is, if you already have the itch. I just don’t see “Dungeon Command” leading an army of gaming converts to the miniatures tables. If you weren’t already interested in miniatures, “Dungeon Command” doesn’t have the universal appeal to hold every gamer’s attention.

On the other hand, while I am not compelled to go deeper into the warband customization, perhaps that is a blessing in disguise. There are many people who are in fact interested in miniatures games (myself included) but can’t commit to the significant cost in both time and money. If you’re just playing with the stock sets, “Dungeon Command” shortcuts all of the barriers to this type of gaming.

If you are that time-strapped guy who always wanted to try miniatures games, “Dungeon Command” could very well be the perfect choice. You no longer have any excuses! If that’s not you, then simply try before you buy. “Dungeon Command” is by no means a bad game, it just doesn’t belong on every hobby gamer’s shelf.

Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast provided complimentary product for review