Yesterday I had the extreme pleasure of going up to the nerve centre of Hawk Wargames in Kent and having a play of Dropzone Commander.
The first I noticed when I stepped into Dave Lewis’ office was just how hard this guy works. His desk runs the length of the room with a computer at each end and in between the surfaces are covered in proofs, bits of models, piles of rulebooks from which to draw inspiration. Dave’s commitment is incredible and I’m not exaggerating when I say he works 19 hour days every day to bring his vision to gaming tables everywhere.
Of course the other thing on his desk was a cabinet. And in that cabinet was some of the most beautifully cast and painted models I’ve ever seen. They. Are. Gorgeous. And the love and care that they were painted with is evident. The photos on the website, although superbly done, just don’t compare to holding (yes he let me touch them) them and taking in all the detail.
The quality of the resin used puts Games Workshop’s Finecast, Forgeworld and Spartan Games to shame. As does Dave’s quality control. He showed us a ‘miscast’ that he had failed. He is, quite rightly, taking the quality of his product and his brand very seriously. Being a long time gamer he knows, as he puts it, what he hates, and cutting corners or cutting costs is just not an option.
Each force is very distinctive in both look and style of play to suit your particular brand of violence. But, to be honest, I could have been told the Post-Human Republic were made of paper mache and fired rainbows, nothing is going to stop me collecting those models because they are so damn cool. And this is a game where the rule of cool is very evident, to Dave’s eternal credit.
PHR Neptune Medium Dropship
And his chosen resin mix is tough. ‘Watch this,’ Dave says as he picks up the hull of a Shaltari Gaia heavy gate from his desk and throws it against the wall. Both myself and Lee of The Chaps – who Dave allowed me to bring along – took a sharp intake of breath as we watched the model collide with the wall and bounce off clattering to the desk. I picked it up and checked it over. Not only was there not a scratch on it but the glued on aerofoils were still intact. So; impeccable detail, flawless casting, near indestructible. Yep, I’d say the models are worth the money.
Shaltari Gaia Heavy Gate
But on to the game itself. I won’t go into too much detail about the fluff as I’d much rather save that for the full review in the coming weeks, and Dave has asked that I not be too specific about certain rules at this stage as things are subject to change. Although I can talk about the mechanic and phases etc. I’m quite proud to say that between us and the guys from 6inch Move, who were also invited along, we were able to contribute some cool additions which (fingers crossed) will be making it into the final version of the game.
In the game we played we used the Scourge, fast and munchy, and the UCM, slow and shooty. Somehow I ended up on the side of evil which may well explain my truly diabolical dice rolling through out because there’s always a part of me who wants my own side to lose. At least that’s my excuse.
Dropzone Commander works using alternate activations, but with a twist. Rather than move and shoot a vehicle or squad or blokes, you activate a group. Allow me to explain; You’re army is structured in tiers. So for example, in the case of the UCM, the Command vehicle may have scout elements attached to it which allows it to better use its special rules. The Scourge command unit – the ominously named Desolator – can have light transports attached to it carrying Minder Swarms which are, basically, floating AA guns that allow you to completely lock down the local airspace. Which is way cool. If you activate one element in that group you activate them all, wherever they are on the board.
At first this seemed a little messy. A lot messy actually as there was more than on occasion we forgot to move all our units in their activation. But it does work. It’s just a very different way of playing. In 40k you move your army, shoot your army and then punch some people in the face. In Dystopian Wars you move a unit, shoot a unit and possibly punch some people in the face if you every get close enough. Either way from a tactical point of view, be you the one doing the shooting or being shot, you focus on one element of the battle at a time and, equally can make an educated guess as to what the enemy does next and plan accordingly.
In Drop Zone Commander, elements can be deployed and dispersed so when activated hit multiple parts of the enemy’s line at once. Or, equally, if kept together, punch a hole through lines to allow another task force to move through. It’s a very tactical game. Add in fighters streaking over the battle field and it feels every bit as cinematic as it’s intended to be. The thing about Dropzone Commander is that it’s all about combined arms. No unit can survive for long without the support of the other elements, particularly its parent dropship. Not only are dropships armed but they’ll allow you to pull your forces out of a sticky situation. Equally, not everything can shoot at everything. The majority of vehicles cannot shoot at dropships. The majority of dropships cannot shoot at other flyers. Interceptors can shoot at bloody everything. But it means that your dropships will not get torn to shreds if they try to extract a unit, unless they’re foolish enough to fly over a hot zone full of anti-air fire. As I say, it’s all about combined arms. The game rewards you for taking a well-balanced force, however it will brutally punish you if you use it unwisely. But that’s war for you.
What this means is that although dropships are the focal point of the game and account for some of the coolest models they will not win you the game. Nor will you lose it if they all get shot down. What is cool though is that all flyers are assumed to be 6 inches off the board, even if the flying stand isn’t. This means that they can fly over buildings lower than 6 inches. But, more to the point it means that they can’t fly over buildings taller than that. This presents some genuine tactical problems and on a board full of skyscrapers your dropships are going to be as much a hindrance as a help.
Another nice touch is that infantry, despite all the cool tanks, flyers and walkers, are really important to your success, and they’re surprisingly durable. What Dave has recognised is that no matter how many tanks and planes at your disposal, its soldiers that will win the war. If soldiers make it in to a building the only way you can weed them out is by pounding the living shit out of the building and let the falling masonry do the work – which is massively entertaining – or you have to send in troops of your own to get them out.
Close combat can only be fought in buildings. At first this made no sense to me because I have been raised on a diet of Assault Marines manging people in the face. But ask yourself; when you’re fighting street to street why do you want to run at someone and mang them in the face when you have a perfectly good gun with which to shoot them in face? And, more seriously, when they have guns to shoot you in the face? CQB is brutal. I mean brutal. And therefore awesome. It’s also very slick so although it will have a genuine impact it won’t take ages to work out and there won’t be time wasted trying to find the combat resolution rules.
Initiative flows back and forth nicely and combined with the way units operate that balance of power in the game can change very quickly. In fact, the Scourge had the edge for much of the game despite losing the initiative 5 out of 6 turns. Strategy cards specific to each faction are drawn that can tip the game in your favour if used at the right time. Generally speaking they won’t win you the game but it’ll throw up some nasty surprises. Although the UCM managed to get an emergency extraction card getting the all important 5th objective off the board right on the last turn, but you win some you lose some. Which actually sums up Dropzone Commander in some ways. Nothing is without cost. There isn’t anything in the game that’s too powerful or comes without a handicap. Even then Desolators super mega awesome energy field of energy (not its real name) isn’t without its drawbacks. For a start to get the best out of it you need to move it into the middle of your enemy lines. Which means keeping it alive. You then need to annihilate everything around it because if you don’t it’ll get torn to pieces in the subsequent activations. Plus, as we found out to our horror, it can blow up your own units as well…
Dropzone Commander is a great game. I wouldn’t say it’s a pick up and play kind of game, but that’s by no means a bad thing. It’s incredibly tactical; from your formations to your deployment to how you activate those formations once the game has started. Combined arms is vital but so is balls and bayonets and holding your nerve. It’s a game that has replay value to rival the likes of 40k especially as there is tremendous emphasis on terrain and how that makes your vehicles, particularly flyers, perform so you can have some really incredible scenarios if you have the patience to create the boards. I rather suspect that Dropzone Commander, especially those incredible models, will be an instant and enduring hit.