Shell Case Shorts 8 – Winner

August’s Shell Case Shorts was all about sci-fi as the prize was nothing less than a signed copy of Dropzone Commander from Hawk Wargames.

There was some great entries but the winning entry had to go to Erin Freeman (@SixEleven) for not only setting his story in the Dropzone universe but for telling the story from the point of view from a dropship pilot, something which is at heart of Dropzone Commander.

So, without further a-do I give you…

Seventeen Minutes – by Erin Freeman

Seventeen minutes. Seventeen minutes was the amount of time between take off and being knocked out of the sky. Seventeen minutes and my world would be turned upside down.

It was supposed to be a fairly routine mission, do it by the numbers and go home. We’d done a hundred like ’em and there was nothing to make us think this time would be any different. What’s that saying about pride and a fall?

***

The roar of our twin vindicator cannons reverberated around the cockpit of the gunship, rattling the consoles in their frames and shaking the fillings loose in my head. Another target suppressed. It it rarely matters in war whether you hit the target or not, just whether or not they’re able to fire back. My gunner takes his finger off the firing stud as the temperature gauge starts to turn red and the lack of noise is striking. It doesn’t last for long as movement ahead provokes another withering hail of fire. Something vanishes into a push of red.

The special ops team we were escorting and providing close air support for had been on the ground for four minutes. In that time they had moved into the nearby building and were clearing it room by room. I could hear their comm chatter and bursts of weapons fire. It was messy in there. Above them, my tub and the dropship the special forces had ridden in on were doing their damnedest to keep out of reach of the anti-air fire coming their way from floors our boys had yet to clear. But for all their determination each pot shot only brought more torrents of fire from our guns on to their heads. 

A red light winked on the main console accompanied by a dirty squawk. I tapped at the light, irritated, the missile lock detection system had been playing up for days but none of the mechanics had been able to fix it. A swift thump to the console and the light went out and the squawking along with it. A burst of comm traffic from headquarters warned us of light PHR walkers in the area. I couldn’t help but smile. It was me that had reported them in the first place. Everything we’d seen on the West side of the river had been light walkers and infantry. Nothing we couldn’t handle.

Not that it mattered either way. The mission had been designated Priority-one which meant come hell, high water or immanent crushing defeat, we had to complete our mission. UCM Intelligence had indicated the structure the spec-ops team was in was a hub for a network of underground tunnels that connected to buildings two kilometres behind our lines. They’d been making monkeys out of us, and mince meat out of our men, for weeks and the brass had just about had enough.

The plan was drawn up with the usual flare that the UCM was renowned for. Turn up. Shoot our way in. Complete the mission. Shoot our way out. On top of that we only had a vague idea of which building possessed the tunnel network. It was only the volume of light weapons fire we took coming in that validated our suspicions. 

The comm burst to life in my headset again although it was chopped to hell with static. A lucky shot had hit the communications relay and was now threading everything with static. I recognise the merest sound bite long enough to recognise the voice of my wingman, Janus. I looked over to him waving to get his attention before tapping my head set and then drawing a line across my throat so he knew my comms were down. He nodded his understanding and signed that light walkers had been spotted moving on our position. I signalled my understanding and passed the information to my gunner who was already spinning up his guns.

***

Ten minutes into the mission and the barrels of the vindicators were glowing red as their ammunition ripped apart PHR infantry caught in the open and sawed through the legs of a light walker attempting to protect them. The entire area was choked with smoking wreckage and the burst bodies of the dead. The mission was going well, almost too well. Apart from having to continually adjust the dropship’s position to target the oncoming PHR infantry, the mission was shaping up to be as much fun as escorting a senior officer around a recently secured city sector.

What’s that saying about being careful what you wish for? 

I was torn from my musings by the threat detection console going crazy. System jammers sent the electronic countermeasures haywire and the missile lock warning shrieked like a frightened child. As I struggled to re-engage counter measures the world was suddenly replaced by a searing white light and the sound of shredding metal, explosions and screaming.

For what seemed like an age all I could see was white light as my brain tried to decipher just what had happened to it. As my vision gradually returned to normal everything felt simultaneously normal yet out-of-place. All I could hear was the chatter over the Comm informing me of the bloody obvious, that PHR heavy walkers were active in my sector. There was no howl of engines. No wind noise. And a strange sense of weightlessness. I had just enough time to realise that we were going down before the ground rushed up to meet me and everything went suddenly black.

***

I came to only moments after blacking out. My cockpit was a charred mess and the stink of burning plastics hung in the air, mixing with the taste of blood in my mouth. I numbly fumbled for the canopy release and with a systematic bang of exploding bolts it blew clear. I was immediately bombarded by the battle unfolding on the streets. The crack of small arms fire, punctuated by the crump of grenades all with the undertones of flyers streaking overhead and the familiar whine of vindicator Gatling guns opening up.

Bullets ricochet off the hull of the downed gunship with a comical spanking sound focussing my concussed mind.  Glancing behind me I could see that neither my co-pilot or gunner had to worry about being focussed ever again. How I’d survived a nose first impact with the ground has remained a mystery to me but I was eternally grateful none the less.

Above me Janus’ gunship was still airborne, furiously jinking and bouncing his aircraft in an effort to avoid the worst of the anti-air fire. The hull was scorched and dented from a few lucky escapes where explosives had glanced off or failed to detonate. A smoky contrail and a desperate near miss gave Janus a target of opportunity. I watched from my cockpit as he expertly wheeled on the spot and targeted a crumbling residential building two blocks down.

The familiar, comforting, sound of the vindicators rippled into life and the facade of the building exploded into an expanding cloud of dust and debris before the entire side of the building, already undermined from centuries of neglect broke away altogether and toppled into the street bringing with it broken bodies in opalescent armour.

I remember punching the air like some wet behind the ears, green back, rookie. The PHR deserved everything they got for standing in our way when by rights they should have been fighting alongside us. My elation was short-lived, however, when another rocket burst from the shadowy depth of a nearby tenement and crashed into the back of Janus’ gunship. Flames and smoke belched from the number two engine and the deep throaty engines became plaintive and stuttering.

For a moment I could see Janus struggling with the control stick, desperately trying to keep his bird aloft. He’d lingered too long, stayed on station to try to provide cover for what was turning into a cluster fuck. The gunship lurched upwards, looping drunkenly  down a narrow street. I lost sight of him but the explosion and resulting fireball reaching skywards moments later told me all I needed to know of the fate of my friend and his crew.

With nothing left for me to do but survived I yanked my rifle free from its magclamps on the cockpit floor and made a run for it. I already knew the PHR had me zeroed in as the odd opportunistic shot had come my way. I ducked, I wove and put as much covered as I could between me and where I suspected the sharp shooters were hiding. I felt a round tug at my tunic but ignored it. Stopping meant dead.

I slid to a stop behind a pile of concrete just as a PHR heavy walker lumbered into view. I recalled the garbled comms transmission. Heavy walkers active in your area. No fucking shit. In the area they looked like plucked chickens. On the ground they looked like big scary chickens with massive guns. It’s torso swiveled, weapons tracking skywards as it sought out fresh targets. 

They say in combat time slows down and reactions faster and senses heightened. I don’t know if that’s true or but because when something big comes up against something equally big hell breaks loose to the extent your mind wants to find the darkest corner possible and hide. When the shooting started my instincts took over. I’m not sure how I managed to scramble beneath the debris, let alone curl up into a fetal position, clutching my head as the ground reverberated with the concussive forces being unleashed around me. By the time silence has returned to this corner of the city two more aircraft were smoking wrecks on the ground and the third had bugged out, smoke pouring from its engines.

I risked a glance over the debris and felt the colour drain from my face as barely 10 feet away stood the walker, weapon systems smoking and the sensor dish mounted to its body clicking and whirring. I had no doubt in my mind it was looking for survivors, something else to shoot at. After a few long minutes it loosed a volley of shots into my downed craft almost, it seemed, out of principle and stalked off with what I can only describe as a sense of disappointment.

***

I stayed put for a few minutes to make sure the walker had genuinely moved on before I broke cover. I had to link with the special forces unit and somehow get the hell out of this God forsaken city. With no chance of rescue, at least not from the air, I had to move. The first rule of being downed behind enemy lines was evade capture and, frankly, I was too pretty for prison. My options were clear; either try to hot foot it back to base or link up with the spec-ops and exfill with them. As base was the other side of a war zone it was really no option at all. The second rule of survival training was await for rescue. In the absence of rescue I decided I’d settle for the next best thing; somewhere to hide.

I peered over the balcony rail of an Easterly facing apartment on the 5th floor of an old tenement. In its heyday it would have been quite luxurious but the centuries, and the Scourge, had been cruel. Overlooking the crash site I was in the building diagonally opposite that of the spec-ops team who were plying their trade in. I could only cross my fingers that they were having a better time than I was. 

I stood watch at that balcony for what felt like hours when in reality on minutes were ticking by. The scene below me was oddly calm, the nature left to run-amok oblivious is to the sudden violence unleashed moment before. The scene was ruined seconds later by the walker once more striding into view. It’s body swiveled, as it began to scan the ruins and buildings in the area once more, seeking easy prey or any survivors it might have missed. Hot on its heels a couple of units PHR infantry, clearly emboldened by the presence of such awe-inspiring weapon of war, trotted into view. I immediately dropped down behind the balcony, gripping my rifle tightly. I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt fear or, for that briefest of moments, gave into the real chance that I might not make out in one piece.

I risked a glance over the balcony, with great timing as ever, as I’m just in time to see the target building implode. Spec-ops had continued with their mission, despite the chaos unfolding outside. As the PHR forces scattered I realised that the spec-ops were already out and moving to envelope the PHR infantry. Caught unprepared and in the open the PHR infantry were torn to pieces. The walker, quicker to recover turned and began stalking towards the UCM infantry, its weapons spooling up. I wanted to shout a warning but at this distance it wouldn’t be heard.

My eyes scanned the sky in vain for some sign that reinforcements were on the way to save the out-gunned elite soldiers. And once again my timing was uncanny as no sooner had the thought entered my head but a second squad of special ops broke cover from the building opposite my own. It turned out they were keeping tabs on the battle all along and had been waiting for the opportune moment to strike. The walker had its back to the men as it stalked towards the first squad. To my surprise they ran for the building I had taken refuge in. My angry objections died in my throat as the entire bottom three floors of the building they had just vacated disappeared in an expanding cloud of fire, debris and shattered glass.

The PHR walker immediately span on the spot, forgetting all about the spec-ops team it was hunting. It gave the soldiers the opening they needed. Aiming for the weaker knee joints of the walker both teams unleashed their anti-armour rockets, blasting apart the poorly armoured joints, smashing the legs apart and pitching the walker into the ground with a fatal and final thud.

Time seems to slow down as I watch, such a fearsome machine of war put out of action by the simple act of surprise and a few well placed high velocity armour-piercing rounds. The earth shakes as it crashes down into the ground, smoke trailing from a variety of wounds. I can’t say the sight of it doesn’t fill me with a mixture of emotions, the first of those is vengeance for the downing of my fellow pilots, pride in the ability and quick thinking of our troops comes a close second.

From my vantage point it looked like a slaughtered bird, letting out various groaning sounds that I could only assume were its systems and power plant failing before the walker’s shattered body gave up and went limp, fluids and gases venting from its cracked armour like blood.

The loss of the walker took the fight out of the PHR troops who turned tail and ran for it…towards the building I was hiding in. Broken or not they spotted me soon enough and a hail of gunfire was spattering all around my vantage point within moments. Abandoning my vantage point I ran back into the building, looking for the nearest stair case to move higher into the structure. I dive into the stair well, my heart pounding. Below me I can hear yelling and then a flurry of gunfire. The blood rushed in my ears as I gripped my rifle tight, risking a glance over the railings to determine how much time I had.

I could feel the icy effects of panic creeping over me, threatening to drain my energy and slow me down. Evade capture, evade capture, evade captures. I repeated the mantra over and over giving me drive to move my aching muscles once more. I hit the stairs just as an explosion below shakes the building and I get knocked from my feet. I didn’t wait to find out what happened I just ran.

***

Bursting through the door to the seventh floor I darted into the nearest room and behind the first piece of cover I can find. Rifle resting on what I suspect was once a sofa, before nature claimed it, I had a perfect view of the staircase so I could cut down anyone that came after me. I clicked the selector switch from semi-automatic to full automatic as the sounds of gunfire gradually moved up the stairs. 

As the last of the gunshots rang out I screwed my eyes shut and waited for the inevitable. Who was I trying to kid? I was a pilot not a soldier and I didn’t stand a chance against a single PHR ground pounder let alone a squad of them. The sense of panic returned and I didn’t have the strength to fight it off. As the door slammed open I dropped down and cowered behind my makeshift barricade.

I remember the slightest tremor of heavy footsteps entering the room. It seems like an odd thing to notice now, but, back then, the headset I’d been wearing the entire time was hissing static. The shot that had caught my tunic had severed the wire from my headset to comms pack and I hadn’t even noticed. It’s funny what your mind focusses on the moment before you die. But instead of feeling the cool metal of a gun barrel against my head I feel a strong hand grip my shoulder and pull me bodily upwards. 

“Hey, get ready to move out.” The gruff voiced beyond my tightly shut eyes commanded me. My heart soared; it was a voice I recognised, or at least a dialect I recognised. Peering through flinching eyelids I was met by the glassy stare of a gruff spec-ops squad leader. He was covered head to toe in shit and gravy and looked every bit the grizzled elite soldier he truly was. I know full well I grinned at him like an idiot. At first his distaste is evident but it eventually gave way to a barely perceptible smile and points out of the window to the west. I stand up and look out. Shielding my eyes against the sun I could just make out a huddle of APCs churning up dust as they raced to reach us.

I slid to the floor and let out a sigh. I glanced at my chrono and smirked. Mission complete T plus 31 minutes.

Dropzone Comander – The Full Review

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.

Dropzone Commander – Model Review

Regular readers will hopefully have seen my last couple of posts about Dropzone Commander by Hawk Wargames. If not they can be read here and here. At the end of a long but extremely fun day of play testing Dave – the man behind Hawk Wargames and Dropzone Commander – allowed us to take a model home each.

I was the easiest person to please having long settled on collecting the Post Human Republic pretty much from the moment I saw the models. Specifically the model I got to take home; the Neptune medium dropship.

For those not in the know, the PHR is an advanced human cyborg race. Once human they fled human space ahead of the Scourge invasion at the warning of a mysterious alien sphere. That sphere is now at the heart of their republic and guides them to this day providing them with policies and technological advancement. Hence all the way cool shit they have that the UCM don’t.

But on to the review. First thing I have to say, and I said it in my original review, is the quality of casting is superb. Hawk Wargames uses a superior resin which makes the models extremely tough – yet flexible – as well as producing a very crisp product. Dave’s standards are also mad high so models that would pass even Spartan’s quality control would be discarded. And considering Dave use to work for Spartan it’s little wonder.

The Neptune dropship is just lovely. It was one of the first models I saw for the game and I was immediately drawn to its organic lines combined with the more recognisable industrial aspects. But even the armour surrounding the thrusters have an organic detailing that ties it in with the rest of the ship.

It’s as if the PHR are doing everything they can to hide the mechanical elements of the ship beneath an organic exterior in reflection of their own physical forms. And the result is something slightly disconcerting. Alien yet not. It’s slightly insectoid but still clearly human. I really enjoy the juxtaposition of it. Even the prow somehow manages to be both organic yet strangely out-of-place and alien. Also, whereas the outer hull is all sexy curves and sweeping grooves the underside is a mess of pipes, struts, magnetic grapples and thrusters. I imagine much like the post-humans themselves.

But as with the best of models, it’s all in the detail. And it really does have some lovely touches. Even the thrusters have detailing all the way inside them. And the Neptune is representative of the kind of detail you can expect across the whole range. The PHR Triton light dropships are so reminiscent of the dropships from the likes of Starship Troopers but, at the same time, very alien. But even at a 10mm scale you can pick out the barrels of the gatling guns. The Shaltari are crazy detailed, with every flat surface made up of repeating patterns and they almost look alive. If you haven’t checked them out on the Hawk Wargames website you really should.

The Neptune comes in 5 parts – two hull pieces and three engines. Unlock a certain larger companies resin kits, each component fits like a glove. Although usual considerations apply when gluing a resin kit. All three engines are also posable so you can have quite a bit of fun with the look of the ship. I’ve modelled mine with its thrusters angled forward so it looks like it’s coming in hot for rapid extraction. When I paint it I’ll be modelling dust billowing out in front of it. It’s so damn cool.

It’s a superbly designed and cast model with all the little details that are on par with the biggest names in the wargaming business. But ultimately, it looks way cool and, most importantly, it’s an exciting model, as part of an exciting range of models. Expect more reviews to follow when the models come out and I get my grubby little mits on them.

A First Look at Dropzone Commander

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.