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.

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.

Hawk Wargames Goes Live!

It’s been a long time coming but the Hawk Wargames website has gone live. This is not only big news for Dave Lewis, the founder of Hawk Wargames and the creator of Drop Zone Commander, but for the community as a whole. Simply because Dave has been so active on Twitter that every single one of us has been there with him for the journey. It didn’t occur to me not to stay up and wait for the site to go up. DZC was the runaway success of Salute 2012 and one of the most eagerly awaited games of the year.

The excitement within the community has been palpable but it’s well deserved considering how hard Dave has worked and how awesome the models look. And they really really do.

Click on the grabs below and it’ll take you to the corresponding parts of the site. I demand nothing less than huge amounts of pre-orders because, quite frankly, it looks amazeballs! All I need to do now is find £250 to get the mega awesome PHR army deal of awesomeness. How hard can it be…

Once I do manage to get my grubby little mits on the rules and toys you can expect a full and gushing review.