All behold Dust Warfare, the second coming, the saviour of wargaming... or is it just another tale of the Emperor's new cloths? Honestly I've sat amused the past few weeks, or months watching as many proclaimed Dust Warfare to be a Warhammer 40K killer. The next big thing. The best game ever. Will it be a Warhammer 40K killer? No I don't think so, the biggest threat to that particular franchise is Games Worshop themselves. Could it be the next big thing? Possibly, if Fantasy Flight games pull their fingers out and support it properly. Is it the best game ever? Well I guess you'll have to read on to find out won't you?
This little book is being touted as a hobby saviour by many, a way of salvaging something from the supposed 'inevitable' wreck that will be 40K 6th Ed, when it's actually a 143 page hardback rulebook, about the same size as a Games Workshop Codex or a Privateer Press army book. When I open it's pages choirs of angels can not be heard singing and I am not bathed in a warm light of pure goodness, the binding on the pages though is stitched and the quality is noticably higher than the books from many other game firms, so that's nice. The hardback cover of the book is a matte finish and the pages inside are fairly thick paper, finished in satin as opposed to high gloss, it is not a Holy tome descended from the heavens. The book contains a good level of fluff and it is interlaced with unit descriptions and special rules, it doesn't herald the dawn of a new age of enlightenment and prosperity for humanity. The core rules themselves start on page 26 and finish on page 50, meaning the rules themselves only take up 25 pages, so it's not as daunting a ruleset as the 143 page count might suggest. Special rules cover a further 8 pages, while battle set ups and scenarios take up 16 pages. The army lists for both the Axis and Allies factions take up roughly 14 pages each. At the back of the book are a number of pages designed to be photocopied and used as tokens and counters in the game. That's your lot, it doesn't give you the answer to the meaning of life, or cure caner or AIDs... it's a rulebook for a wargame, so can people please stop putting it atop a pedestal it's never going to be able to stay on?
|Getting my Axis forces sorted|
I'm going to be honest here from the outset, I'm a bit of a fan of the work of Andy Chambers. Yeah I've heard the stories of him being a difficult bugger to deal and work with, but I've usually found his games fun to play and with a nice set of core mechanics at their heart. Plus the few times I've met him I actually got on with him quite well, so perhaps we're both just similar awkward buggers. I certainly think Games Workshop were left the weaker for him departing. I thought the core mechanics he developed for Starship Troopers were pretty solid too, what scuppered that game was a lack of factions and you can see the progression of some of those idea, both good and bad, here in Dust Warfare. However, I think many reviewers, gamers and possibly even Fantasy Flight Games themselves have done a certain Mack Martin a bit of an injustice by singling out Andy Chambers as the games designer. Putting his name solely on the cover may have been a good marketing move, but from what I can gather this game is as much a product of Mack Martn as it is Andy Chambers. So right now I'm going to open the review of the gameplay section with a thank you to Mack Martin as well. So thanks Mack, I appreciate your work... even if I think the product both Mack and Andy have produced is flawed.
Yeah, I think the game is flawed, but I want to start with a defence of the one thing many are taking pot shots at, see I told you I was an awkward sod. The dice mechanic in Dust Warfare is exactly the same as the dice mechanic in Dust tactics. And It's actually come in for a fair bit of criticism from some quarters, and while I can appreciate some of the complaints, I happen to think the mechanic on the whole works fine and is easy to comprehend and understand very quickly. The idea is that each dice has a target symbols on two of the faces, while 4 faces are blank, if it was a typical D6 you'd see the targets in positions 1 and 6. So rather than alternating the to hit roll required to adjust the level of skill or potency of weapons, the game just adjusts the amount of dice you roll. So a unit that rolls 12 dice as opposed to a unit that rolls 6 dice is twice as good in effect. I'm not quite sure why this has got so many up in arms over it. I don't think it's really any different to any other games that have 'fixed' values to hit and manipulate the probability by increasing or decreasing the amount of dice rolled. It actually offers greater scope for variance, than any 'to hit' chart could have, because theoretically I could roll an infinite number of dice. It also act's to speed games up and makes identifying how well an opponent has rolled really easy at a glance, no need to check whether that really was a 4 and not a 3. One thing I will say though is that I hate the Dust dice! They're too square and don't roll very easily, plus I find them too big to roll and they often knock miniatures or scenery out of place. An enterprising dice manufacturing company might make a killing off of producing some smaller dice with rounded corners... just saying! Hint, hint. Now somebody get on with making some.
|Slowly my forces move up|
So onto the meat of the game, I need to get this off my chest straight away. Can people, please, please, please stop saying this is the best game ever? Because it's not. It's a good game and has laid some pretty solid foundations on which, Fantasy Flight Games should be able to build a good solid wargaming franchise on top of, and eventually a more refined and better constructed game. If you enjoy it then that's great, I can see why many people would, because compared to some games out their, the more popular franchises, it does feel like a breath of fresh air. Make no mistake about it, Dust Warfare is fun to play, and it has a far amount going for it, but it is a flawed gem. Not so flawed that I don't enjoy playing it, but flawed enough that I won't play it all the time, but I will play it. Fantasy Flight Games have said they have pretentions for Dust Warfare to be a tournament game, and while I can see why they'd say that, and why they'd think it was suitable for such games, I think there are just too many loopholes within the game and the mechanics for it to be tight enough to ensure the best gamers will win 8 times out of 10. Once the random element of the game is having more of a say on proceedings than players tactical choices on the board, I feel a game is unsuitable for tournament play. I'd say the best gamers are likely to win 6 or 7 times out of 10 in Dust Warfare, at best. It's the initiative phase that causes issues, the initiative phase is too random, and at the same time open to manipulation.
|School boy error. Ranges make such elevated positions pointless.|
Lets though start at the beginning before getting to the crux of my concerns. I'm going to say that the standard game size has to be at least 400 to 500 points, because at any lower points levels you have the dreaded problem of potentially having rock, papers, scissors match ups. It's not as bad say as something like Malifaux can be at its worst, but it's still pretty bad at times with lower points values. Units are split between 3 categories of unit (troops / walkers / flyers) and these are then further subdivided and categorised, so you can end up with a force at say 150 to 300 points that just can't deal with some things your opponent might have brought to the table. Between 400 to 500 points you should have a balanced build that should be able to deal with most things and it'll be how you marshel your forces that determines whether you're successful. However, at 500 points and above the games core mechanic around the initiative and command phases starts to fall apart and creak a bit under the strain. But before I get there I do want to talk about something I think is a neat move... the Battle Builder. This is basically a table split between three things, Objective, Deployment and Conditions, each with in effect four levels, starting from 0 and going up to 3. Both players have two points to spend on arranging the battle. Now this is something I touced upon in my series of articles on game balance, the need for players to have some say on how the battle should be fought based on tactical choices made about their forces. This is a neat attempt to give players some control. It's not perfect because it just invariably means you end up with a set up neither of you wanted, or both players have control of one thing in their favour... but it brings a bit of balance to things.
|An Allies walker skulks around at the back of the board|
It's not a bad start though, or an attempt at solving a problem that has existed for a long time in most wargames, the bad match up. The mission your army just struggles with. Personally I'd have done it a bit differently and had a 'swing' style points attribution with the standard game type in the middle at zero and then plus and minus 2 options either side and allow people to add or subtract their two points. I might also have done a few other things differently with it... but, as it is though it's a good addition to the game and a workable one that hopefully other companies will try to emulate and perfect. This then leads us into the 'Initiative Phase' of the game. This is a really, really important part of the games core mechanics, and the first part of the jigsaw that starts to look a bit out of place for me. The idea is simple, you take a dice for every unit you have, and roll it. If you roll a hit you get an order to use in the command phase, but it is the side with the lowest number of hits that is given the initiative and gets to go first in both the Command Phase and the Unit Phase. That's a big problem for me, and it has tended to swing games massively that I've played and I don't think it works how the game designers intended it to. The fact that such an important mechanic in the game is left open to random chance isn't great. I get that as a side is being depleted, they should in theory be more likely to win the initiative and try to wrest some impetus back from their opponent, but it's not always that clear cut.
|The Allies fall back after their lines take a bit of a hammering|
You see the amount of dice you roll has bugger all to do with the points a unit is worth. So a 95 point Heavy Walker rolls one dice just the same as a 9 point unit of light infantry. I'm sure you can see where I'm heading with this right? Yep, elite builds are more likely to get the Initiative Phase than standard builds or horde builds, well on probability they are any way. You can also do clever things with targeting the opposing army. Whittling all their units down to 50% strength, because in the next Initiative Phase they'll still roll the same amount of dice because unit strength doesn't effect the dice rolled. I did this once, my opponent had effectively lost 50% of his army across every unit, yet I'd lost about 10%, all in one unit. I won initiative and obliterated him in my next Unit Phase. But is going first such a huge advantage? Well yes, in the Command Phase you get to target units that could be a threat to you first, either by taking them out or at the very least loading suppression on them so that your opponent has to spend time removing those suppression counters, or just use the regroup order to remove them, wasting their own resources in effect. That in and of itself gives the player who gains initiative the first time the battle-lines clash a massive boost. The fact this 'big' advantage is then turned into a 'HUGE' advantage in the Units Phase just seems unfair. You see by going first in the Units Phase you get to yet again pile more misery on your opponent by taking out their big threats with impunity. You get to use both of the two actions a unit gets and not have to worry about saving some for reactions...
|More cowardly hiding tactics from the Allies... come and take your beating coward!|
Unlike your opponent who is going second, who should they decide they wish to react to one of your units by either moving or shooting, will have to weigh that up with the fact that it will reduce what their unit can do in their own Unit Phase. I get that initiative is meant to give the losing side a bit of a fighting chance to get back into the game, but it isn't certain is it? It's still random and it's still done on the roll of a dice. Having played the Cursed I was lucky enough to win the initiative the first time our lines clashed, this gave me the ability to absolutely smash two of his units and one of his walkers. Next turn even though he was rolling less dice he got one more hit than me in the Initiative Phase, from that point onwards playing the rest of the game just seemed pointless. I had in effect obliterated too much of his force for him to come back into it in any meaningful way, no matter how many Initiative Phases he won. The Initiative Phase can really mean games get out of control quickly and can get away from you, and once you find yourself at 50% of your opponents force with your walkers either damaged or obliterated the reality is all the Initiative Phases in the world aren't going to swing it for you. In my experience 70% of the games were won by the faction that won the Initiative Phase in the round the two forces got within the 12" to 16" range. That's far too big an influence on a games outcome for me.
|Well two can play at that game... and I'm better at it. Take that!!|
So while the idea behind the Initiative Phase was a commendable one, to try and keep the games close, and I'd applaud it on principle I don't think it has been implemented all that well, and I'm not convinced it works. It is open to abuse via list building, careful target selection and a few unlucky rolls is all it takes to screw you over. A far better system would be to have had the amount of command dice rolled linked to the amount of points still on the table. That would remove any benefit elite forces might get from gaining initiative or any bonus horde forces might get from having a lot of orders to spend in the Command Phases where what they do can't be opposed by reactions. If I can see these chinks of light in the system they've created you can bet your bottom Euro that some of the hard nosed competitive types have also already pulled the game apart in the same manner I have. It's not difficult. In fact I'd like to talk about how reactions work in the game currently. Much has been made of reaction orders by the games supporters, and how great they are, and I'll concede they do add a lot of tactical depth to the game. But they are not anywhere near as useful as ARO's are in Infinity, nor do they impact as much or in the same ways.
|Eventually the Axis closed in on the battered remnants of the Allies forces|
The reactions in Dust Warfare can only be triggered if what you see is happening within 12" of the unit you want to react, or if it's the Unit Phase, you can't react in the Command Phase. This means big guns that are there to lay down suppressing fire as things advance don't react in the way they should and neither do snipers. I get that it is necessary to keep the game fast paced, but it does seem weird to this gamer that a sniper in a crows nest isn't responding to troops running between cover... you know, as a sniper would. It's just another reason why the game actually feels like a 'game' and not a simulation or an interactive story, it's one of those jarring reality checks that break any suspension of disbelief that might have occurred. Now I know WWII ended, and I know we haven't discovered alien craft, but when in a wargame when you have those moments where you suddenly feel you aren't fighting a war, but playing a game it can sort of ruin the vibe of a game. It's a bit like vanishing rockets and grenades in Infinity... so I missed but where did that grenade go I just threw, or tried to, what happened to it? In Dust Warfare it's I can see it, it's in my range why can't I shoot it as a reaction? By limiting the range it does allow gamers to be more aggressive, but even that feels weird, running squishy humans in front of a heavy walker with impunity just feels unrealistic and wrong.
|Gentlemen, can we please talk about this like mature adults? Dakka Dakka... no!|
I also feel that any game that makes you consistently have to flick through the rulebook to look things up also breaks the illusion a wargame can often create, and Dust Warfare's over use of special rules and it's insistence on putting rules for one unit on multiple pages spread throughout the book just adds further to the feeling you're playing a game. Fantasy Flight Games clearly told the games designers that they wanted them to use the same unit profiles as were used in Dust Tactics the board game... except those don't really offer the same sort of nuance you'd normally find in a wargame. So Andy and Mack's solution was to add lots and lots of special rules. It's a move I can understand and one from a designers point of view I support. But, the way it is handled within the rulebook and how awkward it all is just leaves me thinking that Fantasy Flight should have left the games designers to just design a wargame, not a wargame with board game profiles. They got these guys in no doubt because they're good games designers, well just let them come up with good design. It's clear that the designers felt hamstrung by this and indeed the dice mechanic, as quite often they do things like 'invert' the mechanic so misses count as hits. They've worked well I guess within the limitations they were given, but it does leave you wandering what they could have achieved if those limitations weren't there.
|Mental note to self... rocket fists and walkers don't mix!|
Fundamentally though Dust Warfare remains a fun game to play with friends, if you don't take it too seriously. It's also not a bad first attempt at a wargame from a company that is more used to producing card games, board games and RPGs. Although hopefully Fantasy Flight will take the criticisms that I and others have made on board. Because Dust Warfare really could be a fantastic franchise for them, if they invest in it properly. The current rules are here to stay probably for the next 4 years at least I'd assume, and that's fine, they're perfectly serviceable as they are. However, the core rules currently only have army lists for two factions, the Allies and the Axis forces. A third faction the Sino-Soviet Union has just had it's rulebook released. Three forces are not enough for a wargame to thrive. It might be OK for a board game, but Fantasy Flight Games will need to pull their fingers out quicker than they are and get at least a fourth faction out in well under a year. Four factions are what wargames needs to survive, it's the bare minimum requirement, and whether this fourth faction is the Japanese, some other human force or the alien Vrill doesn't really matter too much, the game will need it to survive. As it stands with two factions and a third just released the game is only worth 6.5 out of 10. Add in another faction and that's probably a 7 out of 10, any further factions beyond the fourth and the score will depend on how well balance in maintained between the factions. Wargaming is a highly competitive marketplace right now, and I'm sure Fantasy Flight Games have already learned some valuable lessons. I'm still optimistic the game could morph into something that is really worth playing and that it might become a big player... just not in its current form.
|The 'Big Three' need to be the big four or five before it can truly take off.|
Detail 7 out of 10
The pages and artwork throughout the pages is just fantastic, and just flicking through the pages you get the sense that its a great book and clearly had high production values lavished on it. But, the book was laid out by a complete moron. The one detail a rulebook has to get right is how easy it is to use. Quite often you can be left searching three completely different sections in the rules to work out how a weapon or unit works. Here, let me give you an example, the profile for the HPW VI-A Königsluther is on page 130. However, you have look up its 17.3CM FPK Zwei Weapon on page 110 to see if it has any special rules... guess what... it does and you have to flip to page 58 to see what they are. Why? Why the hell can't you just put the special rule next to the weapon profile for Gods sake? Why do I have to flip through three different sodding pages to understand how one weapon in the game works? Honestly the blisteringly stupid way the book is laid out is the reason this rulebook gets a 7 out of 10 for detail as opposed to a 9 or even a 9.5. Whoever laid the book out like this needs to be punished severely, it's the worst laid out rulebook I can remember in recent history. Truly dreadful. Awful.
|A typical sort of double page spread|
Which, as I say is a huge shame, because the individual pages are fabulously designed. The pages are designed to look like they're part of a military briefing note, and the pages are full of artwork produced by the likes of Paolo Parente (obviously), Laurent Lecocq, Karl Kopinski, Dvide Fabbri amongst many pthers and it really does bring the world of Dust to life. The art direction on this product is brilliantly evocative of the world Paolo Parente has created. Sure I've seen some of the artwork in various Dust Tactics rulebooks, but never presented this well, and in such a nicely bound book. The images of game boards are also truly splendid, and are the match of any better established firms out there, like Privateer Press and Games Workshop, so clearly no expense was spared. The tables they present in the rulebook do make you want to play the game on the most awesome looking boards around, they're really are that motivational, as all good game boards should be. The rules themselves are also littered with really good and descriptive diagrams that explain the rules really, really well. It's just a shame that the way it is laid out just makes it so difficult to use as a rulebook. If they want to look at how it should be done they need to look no further than the Freebooter's Fate Rulebook.
|It's the walkers... they make me want to play.|
Quality 9 out of 10
There is however no denying that this is a high quality product in terms of construction of the book itself. It has to be with all of the flipping backwards and forwards between sections you'll be doing when you play the game. The spine is a solid construction and the binding is stitched not glued, which means the pages shouldn't fall out as easily, and I'm grateful of that little extra expense having been spent. The cover is hard wearing and certainly durable enough for a wargames rulebook, but given my knack of spilling fizzy drinks on my books I was a little bit gutted not to see a high glossy cover, that is able to withstand me throwing fizzy pop all over it. Although the matte finish does feel nice and textured under your fingers. The pages though do meet my very high standards of being satin finish. I'm sure many of the regulars round here will know by now my penchant for satin pages, suffice to say they have almost all of the benefits of glossy and matte pages with none of the downsides. Why would anyone use anything other than satin finished pages? The book is full colour, and I do mean full. The pages are very lavishly designed and they make full use of the colour printing throughout the book, which is done to an exceptionally high standard, despite me thumbing through this book intently I have not once noticed any smudging or colour runs, and the pages still look as good as new, no dog ears.
|If some enterprising company were to produce some decent tokens they'd make a killing.|
Service 8 out of 10
I ordered the rulebook while it was out of stock at Maelstrom Games, luckily I think I ordered just as a new shipment arrived and I got the book about 4 days after I'd ordered it, and considering it was out of stock that's not bad for our industry! As usual it came in a suitably sized box and wrapped in bubble wrap, as I've come to expect.
Price 7 out of 10
This book cost me £28.75 for a 143 page rulebook. Admittedly it's a hardback rulebook, but when I look at the fact the Warmachine hardback rulebook, which runs to 256 pages cost me £27 I have to question honestly why the Dust Warfare rulebook costs so bloody much? Warmachine Prime MkII costs me about 10.5p per page, meanwhile Dust Warfare is setting me back roughly 20p er page, almost double. It doesn't get better when comparing it with other companies rulebooks either. So far I haven't come up with a good answer to that conundrum as to why it costs so much. Maybe they're not running this rulebok on the razorblade principle of selling the rules cheap and then back loading development costs onto follow on sales with the mini's, because Dust Tactics remains the core Dust product around which, the business plan is built. It will harm them though with some. Because the more I compare it with rulebooks from other games like Dark Age or Infinity and the more it looks expensive.
Overall 7 out of 10
I want to be able to get sucked up in the hype surrounding this game I really, really do, but I can't. Do I enjoy playing the game? Hell yes, it's a blast once in a while, and visually it's a really appealing product on the table, and it's certainly evocative. However, the key phrase in that previous line was "once in a while", I couldn't play Dust Warfare week after week. I think it's flaws and it's grating foibles for me would just piss me off way too much for me to trest it as my go to game. So for me the question is why on earth would I spend nearly £300 getting a decent sized force for a game that I'm not going to play all that often? The answer is I wouldn't. However, I do own the original Dust Tactics Core set and the Revised Core set, which actually give me a decent amount of miniatures for both the Axis and Allies forces, so why wouldn't I play it when I already have two armies? The answer is I can't think of a good reason. Would I advise gamers to go out and buy into Dust Warfare if they didn't already own Dust Tactics? No, no I wouldn't. It's an acquired taste for me, and I wouldn't go around advising people to front the sorts of cash required on a game that might not be for everyone. Go get the rulebook by all means and see what you think, or have a demo game, just don't jump in with both feet before testing the waters. There are people who right now want to have an alternative to Warhammer 40k, and they hope that Dust Warfare might be it, on this evidence I think it still needs some polish, but if 6th Edition is rubbish maybe it'll not need it. Peace out!