That’s right, it’s finally that time. I didn’t want to rush this as I’d already been lucky enough to play test the game and had penned a first look review that can be found here.
So for those that have been living in a cave/under a rock/on Mars/in the long lost city of Atlantis (delete as appropriate), Dropzone Commander is a 10mm sci-fi game set in the distant future in which humanity has been forced to abandon Earth and her core colonies (known as the Cradle Worlds) after an alien race known as The Scourge invades.
Skip forward a couple of centuries and humanity is ready for some payback. Add into the mix the mysterious Shaltari and the Post Human Republic – a human faction that heeded the warning of the Scourge’s coming from an advanced alien device and fled to a distant world only to return altered. And quite frankly; bad ass. So four factions, all with their own agendas and kick ass cool model range; sounds like a ball game to me.
Which actually is the first big fat skyscraper sized tick in the box which is fluff. Lots and lots of lovely juicy fluff to give your factions a unique feel to go with their unique look, plus that all important reason all the arse kickery. Which, to be honest, can really lack in a few games I’ve looked at in the past.
So on to the aforementioned arse kickery. The thing that makes Dropzone Commander rather special is that it’s emphasis on combined arms. Dropzone Commander’s force organisation is built around battle groups starting with a dropship and working its way down. The idea is a simple one and grounded in modern warfare; armies are made up of smaller, better trained, units that require rapid redeployment to deal with the constantly changing tides of battle.
Although there’s no shortage of sci-fi games availabke, there hasn’t been one that so actively encourages the use of infantry, armour and aircraft so completely. The downside with this is that ground units are relatively slow and rely heavily on dropships which means that if they all get blown up you’re pretty much buggered. This is both good and bad as hunting dropships with gunships and fast movers is an easily exploitable tactic but encourages players to structure their army around mutual support.
The rules themselves are familiar enough, their influences easy to spot. However rather than alternating turns it alternates activations which, for gamers familiar with the likes of 40k and Warhammer, will be an odd. What makes a gaming nuance a genuine tactical twist is the fact that each activation activates the entire battlegroup, not just the one unit. As I mentioned in my first look review, this can, and probably will, lead to you forgetting to move models in the battlegroup if they are spread out across the board. But that’s more gamers having to keep their eye on the prize than the rule being broken.
The activations themselves allow you perform two actions rather than a prescribed series of actions. Again this adds a tactical flare which means that units in the open can fire then bugger off behind cover which is very cinematic, makes complete sense and makes that initiative role so important as it’s the difference between a daring move paying off or your take unit getting blown to tin foil because they got caught in the street.
All units have weapons assigned to them as part of their profile. I’ve heard some people grumble about this but at the end of the day, it’s a 10mm game, there’s feck all point in getting too fiddly when there’s plenty of other fiddly bits to remember. The weapons follow a fairly standard format – energy verses armour, the number of shot and accuracy. There’s also two range bands. Full range and countered range.
The idea is this – full range is the range of the weapon (obviously) the other is the diminished range when shooting at a model with active counter measures. It’s a nice idea but if I’m honest, I’m not a fan. Active counter measures are things like targeting jammers and the like that interfere with systems or the projectiles themselves. There’s also passive counter measures which are things like shields or short-range point defence. The thing is when your enemy invents a jammer you invent a jammer jammer. And active counter measures just doesn’t explain away the time-honoured tradition of pointing a gun in the vague direction of the target and just pulling the trigger.
It’s not that the rule doesn’t work, I just think a penalty to hit for active counter measures would have been a more elegant rule, especially as passive counter measures is, effectively, an armour save. But as everything except lovely squishy infantry has (at least) active counter measures it’s actually a bit pointless and you may as well just have long and short-range.
But there are a lot of rules in Dropzone Commander. Aside from the 16 different clarifications for terrain/scenery, there’s also 5 building types, each with 3 subclasses and 15 special rules just for weapons. It’s a lot to remember, made harder because special rules are usually abbreviated so you’ll be getting plenty of use out of your book looking them up. It’s on the hand a fantastic level of detail meaning you can create any gaming board you can dream of and all your units will be individual but my concern is it’ll impact on the flow of the game until you’re really familiar with them.
These grumbles aside the mechanics work well and the emphasis is on rolling fistfuls of dice and blowing things to buggery. Which is always a win. And yet another tactical layer is the fact that, for the most part, ground units can’t shoot air units and vice versa. There are anti-air units but these can’t target ground units. Again units performing very specific combat roles and encourages you to take a balanced force – although does rail road you into always taking certain unit types to cover your arse rather than what you’d like to take. Although this isn’t dissimilar from having to take a HQ choice and two troop choices in 40k.
The final piece of the tactical puzzle is infantry. Hawk Wargames has placed a high premium on the most vulnerable units in the game and challenges the gamer to not only keep them alive in their almost as vulnerable bullet magnets but to use them to capture buildings and, more importantly, hold objectives. This means, of course, that you can blow up buildings which is fun, albeit time-consuming. Buildings can take a lot of punishment and although this is representative, it’s a little too representative. Your infantry will be crushed by falling masonry (yes it’s a rule) long before the building comes crashing down. Which is a bit disappointing.
The other side of it is CQB which is utterly brutal. It’s a nice set or rules and will result in fist-fulls of dice being rolled and infantry bases being returned to figure cases in droves there’s just a lot of stages to it, at least on paper, but once you’re familiar with it, it flows very well. It suffers a bit from being totally different from the rest of the game and the change in pace is noticeable but again this is more because to begin with there’s rule checking. I’ve read the rule twice and I still don’t fully understand when the combat is actually initiated. This said, when we tested CQB it seemed to happen very fast and people got manged so that has to be a good thing.
The DzC rulebook is also crammed full of lovely scenarios and complete army lists for the four factions so for slightly more money than Dystopian Wars you get a stronger rule set that’s laid out in a sensible fashion (although I would have had flyer moves in with movement) that looks gorgeous, has all the faction army lists and scenarios, all in one book, rather than having to spend more money than the rule book faction specific scenarios. This is better.
Dropzone Commander is very good. It presents tactical challenges across all levels of the game, right down to not only how you move a unit but how you move a battlegroup, in what order and which actions are carried out first. As I said in my original post, it’s a lot like chess in that you always have to be thinking about the move two moves away. And you always, always, have to keep your eye on the prize as your force is far too dependent on each other to win the game if you’ve taken heavy losses.
It’s a beautifully put together book with lovingly written background. The sheer amount of effort that went into this game and the sheer excellence of the models means you have to forgive it the odd obsessive rule. My few gripes aren’t enough to put me off the game at all as it’s overall a very solid, very well thought out rule set with a robust concept behind it. And I have every intention of collecting a PHR army (to start with) just as soon as I can.