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Dungeon Command
Design & Development
Peter Lee & Kevin Tatroe

D ungeon Command is a new miniature combat board game that debuts in July with two faction packs: Heart of Cormyr and Sting of Lolth. In this, the first of four articles looking at the creation of Dungeon Command, designers Kevin Tatroe and Peter Lee describe the early days of the game.

Peter: During the summer of 2010, the R&D and Brand teams talked about the next step for miniatures at Wizards of the Coast. We knew we wanted to do something that was easier to collect than the randomized boosters we'd sold in the past. After some discussion, we decided to create a new miniatures skirmish board game. The previous miniature games got most of its replay value through warband construction, and that requires lots of miniatures to function well. We wanted a game that didn't have such a high cost of entry, so we knew we needed a new design.

We made a list of requirements for the game:

  • High replay value
  • Increasing choices over the course of a game
  • Tactical; not as luck-based as previous games
  • D&D flavored, but not tied to any particular edition of D&D

At the time, there was only one designer working on board games – me! – so I needed to draw in some outside help. Kevin Tatroe was my first choice because he's a good designer; I had worked with him on the revised D&D Miniatures game. He also lived in Seattle at the time, making it possible to playtest the game in person.

Version v20100825: Sketching Out the Mechanics

Kevin: When Peter asked if I'd be interested in designing a new miniatures game for Wizards, I jumped at the chance. Using Wizards' design goals, I sketched out dozens of ideas and pared them down to a few core mechanical tenants I wanted to present:

  • Players pick actions from an ever-changing hand of action cards.
  • Creatures have powers complementing these actions.
  • Players begin with a small number of creatures in play and gain access to more throughout the game.

The first version of the game included just Goblinoid Horde creatures (with just the name Stalwart Heroes as the second faction) and a shared deck of Tactics cards. Each creature had a unique, triggered effect. Destroying a creature gained you victory points, but your opponent gained Recruitment points he could trade in to deploy a new creature from a pool of creatures.

There were no attack rolls. Instead, creatures dealt fixed damage when playing attacks. In a last minute decision, I felt this was too crazy to demonstrate to Pete. I added attack rolls, defenses, and introduced Luck tokens ("spend to gain +2 to a die roll"). It was ready for a playtest.

Pete: For a first playtest, the game showed promise. The "+2" tokens helped mitigate bad die rolls. I liked how destroying creatures resulted in victory points for one side and recruitment for the other, allowing the trailing player a chance to catch up. The game definitely wasn't perfect. Creatures weren't being deployed often enough, and the objectives were too easily ignored.

Time to iterate!

Version v20100906: "I activate spades"

Kevin: Many iterations after the first version, we playtested a version introducing a mechanism to speed up play: initiative cards.

Each player had three initiative cards and creatures each had a symbol matching one card. On your turn, you played one initiative card that you hadn't yet played that round, then activated and took turns with each creature whose symbol matched that card.

This was a turning point for the game—we were no longer just experimenting with rules, but were playing a game. There were still a lot of tweaks to come, but this rule set the tone for the design of the game right through the final design.

Pete: Initiative is a difficult thing to get right. The previous D&D Miniatures game featured turns activating two creatures at a time. If you had more creatures than your opponent, you ended the round activating all your remaining creatures. This had a side effect of a creature potentially taking two attacks in a row (one to end a given round and then, if you won initiative, immediately taking another to start the next round). This dominated warband construction, essentially requiring that players use the maximum number of creatures in their warbands.

The symbol-driven initiative system helped bypass a lot of that. A large army activated more creatures in each initiative phase than a smaller one. This system didn't make it into the final design, but I'll discuss some of those changes in a future article.

Version v20101009: Tactics as a Resource

Pete: Kevin made new versions every couple of days for about a month. During one playtest, I asked what would happen if creatures' abilities were activated by discarding Tactics cards.

Kevin: Spurred on by that simple statement, the next version included an explosion of new ideas.

Each Tactics card gained a type—either Mobility, Tough, Spell, or Hero. Creatures had powers you could use by discarding cards of the appropriate type.

In addition, on a creature's turn, you could discard any number of cards for "minor actions." To shift 1 square, you'd discard a Mobility, to push an adjacent enemy 1 square, you'd discard a Tough, and so on.

Pete: This iteration introduced one of my favorite Dungeon Command mechanics: When a creature moves next to an enemy creature, it stops moving. This interacted elegantly with the Mobility Tactics cards' discard effect of shifting 1 square.

At this point, it no longer felt like we were playtesting a potential game, but instead playing a complete one.

Version v20101108: Factions

Kevin: In the previous iteration, we switched from two factions to three factions of 10 creatures each (Heroes of Hammerfast, Snig's Horde, and House Baenre), plus 6 mercenary creatures that could end up on either player's faction.

To give each faction a unique feel, we now gave each faction its own Tactics deck with different mechanical and thematic tricks. What seemed like a minor change at the time actually had big implications on the game's direction, ending with Commander cards and each faction having its own boxed set.

Version v20110317: Design Turnover

Pete: Near the end of Kevin's design, I realized the terms "Mobility," "Tough," and "Spell" didn't really feel appropriate for D&D, and we already had better names for these abilities: Dexterity, Constitution, and Intelligence. We changed the Tactics card types to the classic ability scores. We now had 6 minor actions. Dexterity allowed a creature to shift 2 squares, Wisdom allowed a player to re-roll an attack, and so on.

The Tactics decks were made up mostly of these 6 minor actions, with the remainder being Special Tactics. Tactics cards could be discarded to take the appropriate minor action or spent to power a creature's special abilities.

After a few more weeks of playtesting and polishing, we decided the design was ready to show to the D&D Brand team. Kierin Chase and Chris Lindsay enjoyed the game, but brought up one question that would knock the game on its side in development: "What happens if we remove the die?"

Tune in next week to see how removing a die changes the game!

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