Dystopian Wars – A Review

As the new rule book for Dystopian Wars has been out for a little while now I thought it about time I commit myself to an opinion regarding the revised rules.

The first rulebook was good but often confusing, particularly when it came to tiny flyers (fighter tokens) or anything that wasn’t a core/main rule. It felt like a rule book written by model designers if that makes sense? Let me put it another way; in my line of work I deal with web developers. They are very clever people but they will only ever do what is asked of them and in organised blocks. Not because they can’t be bothered but because they work in set parameters. They don’t always see the bigger picture or how point A flows to point B. That’s just how they think. It kind of feels like that with the first edition of the rules. It always felt like they assumed you knew as much as they did so rules were almost half-finished or vague because it was almost like you, the reader, already knew it.

Unfortunately for Spartan Games this was a feeling felt by a lot of people and so the v1.1 rule book came out a lot sooner than expected, even before Firestorm Armada, it’s older sister, set in the distant future.

For the uninitiated, Dystopian Wars is a Steampunk game set in 1870 and the world is a very different place thanks to key changes in the timeline, such as the South winning the American Civil War and the discovery of uranium far sooner than it should have been. Were nuclear driven paddle steamers not enough, the discovery of The Vault, an ancient repository of knowledge, in Antarctica has catapulted technology forward to such a point where robots stalk the fields of battle and particle accelerators are mounted on mighty ships of war.

One of the great things about Dystopian Wars is the background and Spartan Games has worked hard to justify the existence of all the nations and their differing ship design and technological distinctiveness. The great industrial age is such that all the great nations have muscle enough to attempt world domination and the Covenant of Antarctica, who shared the awesomely awesome Vault technology freely, have unleashed their fleets to teach everyone a lesson.

As with so many games the detail in the background is sacrificed for space, the shortfall being found on the Spartan website. This is fine but unless you visit the website with any regularity you can find that the back story is a little fragmented and I’m of the opinion that it’s important to know what you’re fighting for. Even if your main objective is to ‘kill em all’ it’s only right that you should know why.

Generally though, the concept of Dystopian Wars is way cool and over time I think the background will be reconciled so players will feel a part of a coherent world. I for one would be happier with a bigger, slightly more expensive rule book with fluff in it. In a market competing with the likes of GW & Privateer, a rich background is everything.

So aside from the cool background and the freaking awesome models, what of the game itself?

For a start Dystopian Wars allows you to fight land, sea and air battles with enough unit choices to field impressive forces for all three. Or, if you’re feeling brave all three at once. The ambition is quite something as the game mechanic has to work for 4 potential types of game. It can lead to some generalities but overall it works incredibly well.

The rules are solid enough but unfortunately the rule book is still a pain in the arse to read and there are times when it still feels like you’ve skipped a page. There is no flow to the book, with each part of the mechanic grouped together rather than the rules set out by phases of the game. Examples don’t always relate to the part of the book and there’s more bold copy than a comic book which distracts rather than helps to understand the rule. This does mean that for the first few games there will be a lot of rule flicking. And considering I’ve played a few games of Dystopian Wars now, I know what I’m talking about.

I must stress that it does not make it a bad game. Far from it actually but it does mean you’ve got read through the rules a couple of times before you’ll get the hang of all the game’s nuances. It’s just frustrating because it has and will continue to put gamers off.

Like a certain other Steampunk game that I reviewed yesterday, players take it turns to move a ship or unit during which you can move, shoot, ram, board etc. Providing you stay focussed the turns and therefore the action flows very fast. And because your actions can have a profound effect on how your opponent performs, strategies and manoeuvres are continually being reassessed which makes it a challenging game to master and hugely enjoyable with it. I played a game recently with Lee of The Chaps. Both of us were getting to know new fleets and as we set about manging one another the game became an increasingly intricate series of turns or bold frontal offensives as we sought to close to optimal range without leaving ourselves vulnerable to attack. As I mentioned there was an element of rule flicking but it just slowed the game down, it didn’t stop us from enjoying it. And replaying will make it a little faster each time.

The game mechanic, too, works well. The number of shots you can fire is determined by the range of the guns as well as the style of play that the fleet list tries to steer you towards. But, in a nutshell, the closer you are the more dice. Simples. Damage is sustained by the firing ship matching or exceeding the targets defence rating which in turn gives a point of damage and impacts on the effectiveness of its weapons. Where it gets tasty is the exploding game mechanic. In a nutshell any rolls of 6 represent a lucky hit that causes a secondary explosion. A one hit counts as two affair. However, you also get to roll another dice for each 6 you’ve rolled. A roll of 6 equals to hits and roll again and so on. It means that, if you’re lucky you can get a pool of hits far greater than the number of shots you fired. This represents the lucky hit causing a series of explosions throughout the ship which dramatically increases the chances of causing a critical hit.

It’s a cool and unique feature but can sometimes unbalance the game to the extent that a lucky bit of dice rolling and the damage caused can be just insane which can be very entertaining when it’s you rolling the dice but is infuriating when it’s your battleship being taken to pieces by a frigate. Needless to say this can result in a critical hit but the results are more annoying than game changing. And as critical hits can be repaired but points of damage cannot it almost seems irrelevant. The only big advantage to a critical is two damage points to one and as ships take damage their weapons become less effective – fewer dice can be rolled.

The two big rule improvements/clarifications surround tiny flyers and auxiliary weapon systems. With the previous version of the rules, tiny flyers and how to deal with them were so poorly explained that I would avoid taking them at all costs. The rules have been significantly improved in this area to the point that they’re actually a viable choice in your fleet.

However, in a simultaneous act of brilliance, the auxiliary weapon rules have been clarified to the extent that they can now be used when ships come under fire from rockets or torpedoes from any distance, rather than the previous 4 inches. Which was pointless. Equally ships are allowed to attempt to shoot down tiny flyers that should try to attack. This means that these weapons are not the hand of God they once were. Early in the game against a strong deployment few rockets/torpedoes, if any, will get through. But as ships sustain damage they can be singled out and utterly decimated from the skies. This suddenly makes everything far more tactical and suddenly there’s a benefit to the ‘shredded defences’ critical hit result.

The other nice thing is that it encourages you to deploy your fleet sensibly. Ships operating on their own, even Dreadnoughts, will fall foul of such attacks even with impressive array of defences. But the fact that those defences are used now is a big tick in the box.

In my opinion I think Spartan got these rule changes pretty much spot on as although tiny flyers are deadly they will still get torn to pieces by a well deployed fleet that are able to bring multiple defence turrets to bear. However, as ships take damage and systems fail, fighters can exploit this drop in effectiveness and strike. Think X Wings verses Star Destroyers and you get the general idea.

There’s a lot of layers to Dystopian Wars and a lot of very cool rules, special rules, fleet specific bonuses and the like that make it an incredibly enjoyable game it just suffers from, to use my analogy from before, having the developers do the designing. It really needs to be set out how the game plays.

Overall Dystopian Wars is an excellent game with great ambition and superb models. With practice it can be a fast paced and action filled game. It is just let down by a rule book that, without wishing to offend anyone, feels like it wasn’t set out by a writer. But, that said, stick with it because once it all clicks you’ll have a great time.

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3 thoughts on “Dystopian Wars – A Review

  1. Tend to agree about the book, though 1.1 is a massive leap ahead from the original.

    The game does play well and pretty fast once you’ve got the basics down. Simulation it is not but a fun game with some fantastic models at a good price point.

    I also think the setting is very rich and I’m sure more history and background will come out over time.

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