Dust Warfare – A Review

I first came across Dust Warfare in August 2011 and it immediately had my interest as I’m a bit of a Second World War history nerd but added a strong element of science fiction which got around my moral issue with playing games of actual wars, especially those in living memory. Albeit only just.

So I immediately got in touch with Fantasy Flight Games and got put on their waiting list for a review copy. And I waited. And waited. And waited. And then I gave up, got in touch with my fabulous sponsor, Firestorm Games, who promptly stuck one in the post to me. So after a year of waiting I finally got my hands on Dust Warfare.

First impressions were good. It’s a beautifully presented full colour book with lots of lovely photography full of lots of lovely mechs with lots of lovely guns. Which is lovely.

As mentioned I’m somewhat of a WW2 history buff and so I was really interested to see what they did with the timeline and the direction they took events to keep the war going beyond 1945. And I have to say I was disappointed. Things just aren’t different enough for the outcome to have been anything different from Germany being financially, militarily and socially exhausted by May 1945, big scary walkers or no. All that’s happened is mechs replaced tanks and they had better armour and weapons for their infantry. It doesn’t change that they were hopelessly outnumbered and out gunned caught between the Allies in the West and the Russians in the East. Only a flimsy and all too convenient breakdown in relations between Stalin and the West causes an outbreak of war between those two factions. This is irritating for two reasons.

1. It’s nonsense as Stalin didn’t have the resources to wage a war against the allies as he was struggling to keep his armies in food let alone materials to invade, wait for it, Madagascar, a strategically irrelevant island.

2. Every faction is on every content meaning that the whole world is contested and thus you can in theory have a battle in downtown NYC. This could be seen as a good thing but what ever happened to exposition. A note saying that Germany is poised to take the fight to the US and either let the gamer write their own campaign or release a supplement.

And don’t even get me started about the Germans having a foothold at Dover. That place was a fortress during the war and as, in this timeline, the Allies had been beaten out of France altogether, there is no way in hell the Germans could must a force substantial enough, by this point, to hold such a critical location with such a huge concentration of allied troops in the area. It’s also worth noting that Hitler never wanted to invade the British Isles because he recognised what an absolutely blood bath it would be. In fact, he had no beef with Britain at all and considered them part of the Aryan race. That’s why he was far more content to bomb us into submission.

With that rant out-of-the-way, I’ll say this, they do work hard to steer events towards an inconclusive war with both sides escalating the arms race to the point that everyone has massive mechs and massive guns and lots of batshit crazy units including war Gorillas and paratroopers in power armour. All I can say is that must be some strong silk…

If you can ignore the history of it then you do have a very diverse setting for the game that will allow you to set your games just about anywhere. And even though the Reds occupy South America, there is nothing to stop you playing a game in a coastal American city.

On to the rules themselves, which, you’ll be pleased to know, I liked.

It’s a very slick system with few stats to learn and speed was certainly at the forefront of the developer’s mind. Which kind of feels like Mr Chambers was doing everything he possibly could to move away from his previous endeavours with his former employer.

Dust Warfare works using alternating turns rather than the increasingly popular alternating activations. However phases aren’t fixed like 40k et al. Units are granted two actions and can choose to spend them in a variety of ways but follow the same time-honoured notions around moving, shooting people in the face and manging people in the face. And the variety of units at your disposal will certainly help with all of those things.

An interesting idea that I’m not completely sold on was the Orders system. When rolling for initiative the loser is the player with the most successes (weirdly) which equates to the number of Orders they can give. Essentially the winning player makes the first move but can issue fewer orders, whilst the losing player stands back to consider his options and therefore can issue more. Makes a degree of sense.

Orders allow you to perform an action with a unit before anything else happens. This can be a move order, or even an attack order. I understand the logic behind this rule but the following thoughts occur to me.

1. It breaks flow of play before the game, literally, has even started.

2. It hampers that unit in their own turn because you can only perform two actions and if you’re moving second you could suddenly find yourself in real need of that second action to, for example, double move out of harms way.

3. It somewhat makes a mockery of having turn based play.

There is a real tactical element to having Orders though as your opponent is unable to react to anything which means you can move or shoot with impunity which opens up a whole host of tactical decisions on both sides of the board and already we’re in the realms of diversionary tactics and sacrificial units. But I can’t help but feel, especially with the reaction rules which I shall cover shortly, that maybe Dust Warfare would have been better if it was alternating activations.

On to the business of maiming. Basically it works like this;

Every model has an armour class and weapons a stat line that indicates their effectiveness against those armour classes. Essentially that armour class affords that unit a degree of protection that rises and falls depending on what’s being fired at them. Heavily armoured infantry will be relatively impervious to small arms fire but will still get blown to small tin foil wrapped hunks of meat by an 120mm cannon.

It’s a very clever system actually and an extremely impressive one at that. A unit will roll to ‘hit’ requiring either a target symbol if you’re using the designated Dust dice, or a 5 or 6 if you’re cheap, to hit. The defending player then gets to roll to see if the armour of their unit absorbs any damage. Where this gets clever is that the unit only has as many dice as the armour permits so if a lightly armoured unit is hosed by lots of machine gun fire and only has, for example, 5 dice it can only, at most, save against 5 wounding hits. The remainder, along with any failed saves, are assumed to have found their mark and the hits are apportioned out across the unit. Terrain types will also grant the unit additional automatic passes.

It’s clever because it essentially acknowledges that you cannot run light infantry into enemy guns and hope to see them come out the other side. Being cavalier with the lives of your men will get them killed. Equally it allows you to fling cheap units into enemy guns to waste their actions.

Also taking hits, not damage, suppresses a unit which takes away an action. This rule is rather open to abuse as you don’t need to kill anyone to do suppress anyone. So taking horde armies will give you an overwhelming advantage on both sides of things. Although it is a realistic reflection of combat so I understand it’s need to be in there, but perhaps toning down a tad.

The final piece of the puzzle is reactions. Reactions allow units to either move or shoot in response to an enemy action within 12 inches of them. There are certain restrictions in place, such as if you’ve already received orders you can’t react – or equally react to an action provoked by orders. Again I’m in two minds about this rule. I like the realism of units responding to enemy contact because, well, you would, but it’s another out of sequence activation in a turn based activation game. My worry is that as the game progresses and units close it’ll degenerate into a morass of action and counter action which would be fine if it were an alternate activation game. I can see certain gamers finding the interruptions to game sequence quite frustrating. Despite that it is a realistic rule which does make sense.

At the back of the book you’ll find some scenarios including some inspired ‘make your own’ rules as well as army lists for the Axis and Allies. If you want Russians you’ll have to buy the campaign book. Aside from the bonkers array of mechs and zombie soldiers on offer the really cool feature is that your command section decides what army you’ll be taking. A nice and necessary rule that means you’ll be taking thematically accurate forces rather than just going bonkers and take whatever you fancy. This is a very good thing.

At its core Dust Warfare is a very clever rule set with good rules that make 100% sense and I love the combat mechanic. It’s simple, balanced and will make for very very quick rounds of shooting/combat. Vehicles aren’t overpowered and when they are damaged it doesn’t take long for them to be knocked out of the fight, as it should be considering the point in history. The diversity of the armies provided by the background and the fact there’s fecking massive mechs running about the place is aces, although I’m not sure of the miniature standard yet. I’m undecided about the out of sequence actions but I understand why they’re there and it’s not off-putting enough that I wouldn’t collect and play the game.

Dust Warfare is an extremely promising game and mental background aside was worth the wait.

Click here for War More Radio’s series on how to play Dust Warfare.

Dust Warfare is available from Firestorm Games priced £28.79

3 thoughts on “Dust Warfare – A Review

  1. Excellent review! A bit different from my own experience of the game, which is always food for thought.

    I especially liked the historic perspective on the alternative timeline of Dust. I really hadn’t given it much thought, and I’m a casual WWII “enthusiast” at best so it was an interesting read. To me it doesn’t really matter all that much though, as I can’t see walking tanks changing the war in any case (I can’t even see the advantages over conventional tanks) which tells me to cling on to that beloved suspension of disbelief and just go with it. 🙂

    Back when I played 40k and other IGOUGO games I remember being really enthused about integrated turns, but trying that out for a while it didn’t really sit right either. After playing games like Infinity, Dust Warfare and reading through a lot of smaller 15mm based stuff (Tomorrow’s War etc) I’ve come to the conclusion that games with a reaction mechanic are what suit me best. That way it’s “always your turn” and creates a connection between the players that I think can be missing in other game systems. It also brings a greater sense of realism to the game I think (although discussing realism in connection to pretty much any miniature game is certainly treading on thin ice!). I’ve never thought of it as breaking the flow of play but that might be a matter of familiarity with the concept.

    The order phase is… interesting. When we first started playing we didn’t really know what to make of it and often both players opted to simply not give any special orders. But as we’ve started to understand how it all clicks together your commanders have become crucial tools in your army. Being able to make an action without provoking a reaction or simply regrouping a crucial unit (clearing it from suppression) can make a big difference. I think the idea Andy Chambers and Mack Martin had with the separate command phase was to really try to bring the imortance of the chain of command to the forefront. I’m not sure if they succeeded with that, but it’s an interesting mechanic nonetheless.

    I like Dust Warfare quite a bit, but there’s certainly room for improvement. The organization of the book (which looks beautiful!) is horrible as you might have to look up four different pages to get the full stats for a single unit (the units own entry, what their special abilities do, what special abilities their weapons have and what those weapon special abilities do). This is inconveniant but can at least be remedied by fan made unit cards!

    What I think might be a more serious issue is the randomness of initiative, considering how powerful it often is to be able to act first. We haven’t really had any large troubles with it so far, but I have a feeling that min-maxers might be able to exploit it. Need to play more to get to the bottom of it though. Hehe!

    Anyway… sorry for going on a bit. 🙂

  2. Another amazing article Phil! I would be lying if I didn’t mention how anticipated I was to finally read your thoughts and opinion on Dust Warfare.

    I agree with alot of your points on the alternative timeline, because in reality the germans couldn’t committ to a multi-front war; considering that was a major part of the real allied victory its hard to go against the reality of the situation. However there are a ton of elements of the story that I do apprieciate. For instance, the inclusion of mechs and all the crazy science-fiction tropes that are associated with the Diesel-Punk Genre or Weird World War 2. Also being a huge superhero nerd(Like yourself), I get that Justice League of America Vibe from this game and this is justified because within the newest expansion (Operation Hades) they are going to include the first “Super Hero” Winter’s Child, which is basically a Russian Captain Atom.

    Usually, World War 2 games come down the “Lord of the Rings” Syndrome; which basically means you already know how it ends, which limits personal creativity and input into the game. What I admire about Parente’s Fictional Dust Universe is that it expands ahead 100 years (1947-2047) so this game has the potential to grow beyond its simplisitic WW2 roots.

    On to the actual game itself, I will agree with Martin (Great job on FireBroadside, I read your stuff all the time) the game really does play different from any other game I know of. Keeping in mind that Pre-Measuring exists in this game and most of the ranges are within 6-24inchs, the reactions are a crucial element of randomness that is not based on Dice alone and that really makes this game fun and dynamic to play.

    Normally I would say, “welp this unit is going to move into range during the unit phase and open up with all the its weapons+the kitchen Sink”, then to realize that my opponent reacts to me with 2 units. Also considering that you are never granted your turn sequence in a predictable fashion, my tactics will have to switch on a turn by turn basis. If I blow up half his army, suddenly he starts getting to go first (Granted if he rolls less) and starts picking my army apart piecemeal.

    The last thing I will mention is that the Custom Mission Builder, is by far the most exciting element of this game. Very much in the same way Warmachine/Hordes has a pre-game battle of the minds(When choosing the best of your two possible lists to use, and your opponent is doing the same). This Mission Builder is like the pre-game poker match to determine who can get the upper hand. Do you have a combat army? Then you will want the limited visability perk, but all your opponent needs to do is to put a point in that category to negate the overall bonus. Granted they could have also benefit from the perk, but they might have more long ranged shooting then you do.

    Anyways, another fantastic read and I would love to discuss more on this topic and the game with you guys in the near future!



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