December 11th, 2010
In Focus Review - Dust Tactics from Fantasy Flight Games
Many companies have tried to mix board-game and miniatures/war/skirmish games together in the past, but no one has yet been able to pull it off in such a way that the wargaming crowd has embraced it fully with open arms. There's been a few good attempts, like Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) Tannhauser, of course there's Space Hulk too, and more recently Incursion from Grindhouse Games. In the end they all have ended up being really good games in their own individual ways, but it's clear that they're all still board games with miniatures, mixed in with some mechanics and ideas borrowed from the war/skirmish-gaming genre at the rules level.
Dust Tactics is the latest game to attempt to mix a board-game with a miniatures/war/skirmish game. It has an interesting background too, because it has been a while in the making, as this was once being produced by AEG, but then right before Gen Con 2010 they announced that Fantasy Flight Games would be taking over the launch of Dust Tactics. In roots Dust Tactics is based on Paolo Parente's world of Dust. It's another weird war setting in which it's 1950 and the Nazi's are still going at it with the Allies, creating an alternate Cold War scenario altogether. Add to that a sci-fi twist with sci-fi weapons technology, plus some Mecha units, and you have the world of Dust Tactics.
What's in the box...
First up Dust Tactics comes in a huge box. This is a box even larger than the largest Axis and Allies core games. Once you open the box at the very top you'll find two huge ziplock baggies, which contain all of the playing surface terrain tiles, scenery tiles, rules, scenario booklet and a promotional Dust comic book.
The next layer on one side of the box reveals the four walker models (2X US & 2X Nazi), which are all encased in a protective 2-piece form fitting plastic tray. The other side of the box holds two smaller white cardboard boxes, which hold the 16x Nazi, and 16x US models. A few cardboard slots are cut so that they can hold the plastic ammo crates and tank trap models, and lastly there's a section cutaway to hold the stat cards for all of the models, and underneath those you'll find the special dice needed to play Dust.
The first thing I found unique is that the dice at a glance look like any other D6 (six-sided dice), but a closer inspection reveals that there's only 2 opposing sides of each die with anything printed on them. The other four faces are completely black, and there's nothing more than a targeting reticule printed on the two opposing sides. Effectively there's a two in six chance of success on every one of these special D6, and there's 12x of these special dice included with Dust Tactics.
The stat cards are in full color complete with a photograph of the model the card represents, only the photo shows a studio painted version. The standard edition of Dust Tactics comes with unpainted models, which are however primed and ready for painting. There is a Deluxe Edition that can be purchased, but it will set you back $200 more than the standard version, as it sells for $300.
Every stat card includes all you really need to know in terms of how many dice you need to roll, or if you can roll any at all, and the variables of using a variety of different weapons (more on this later). I like that they're large cards too, about the size of a bingo card, not a trading card like most.
The models are plastic, but are definitely of wargaming quality. The only odd thing about them is that all of the human-size models twist at the waist like an action figure. I personally think this takes away from the visual impact, because you can see the tiny gap left by the mechanism required to allow the model the freedom of torso twisting movement. I think the sculpting detail and quality is really impressive, and by design you can tell that they're meant to be painted.
The Allied/US models are primed green, while the Axis/German models are primed in gray, so there's already a nice thin coat of primer on the models to move forward and paint them if you wanted to. You could also play with them right out of the box. Extra care was taken in the packaging of these models too, because inside each cardboard box, each one of the models was sealed in their own individual plastic ziplock baggies.
The tank traps all two of them, and the four ammo crates really don't do much for me visually. Personally I think the tank traps look uninspiring and boring. They look like tree trunks more than any tank traps or any dragon's teeth that I've ever seen. Of course you could add some color to them when you paint up the models, if you pursue that route, but I think of those scenery/accessory pieces more as a bonus, than a value added feature. Once most players have seen them first-hand they'll no doubt feel the same. After having seen the stuff they give away with the AT43 models, these few bits look really bad in comparison.
Moving over to the other side of the lower section of the behemoth Dust Tactics box we find the Mecha/walker models. Great care was also taken with these to ensure they get to players intact and unbroken, because they're concealed in form fitting clear plastic trays, which are sealed shut with tiny bits of clear tape. A few of the parts are left off the models to make packing them a little easier, but they can snap into place nicely with no glue for gameplay. Or you can simply use some plastic glue or CA glue to make the assembly more permanent, the choice is yours. But if you do assemble and glue them, they won't fit back into the trays they shipped in.
As for the models themselves, pictures really don't do them justice. There's loads of little crisp and tiny details on each one, and they're articulated really well, as the turrets and weapons all move freely. You can look at these and believe that they could have been real, because they look so rooted in WWII technology, and it's done so well, that it just doesn't really look sci-fi if you didn't know any better.
The board tiles are also two sided, and each one measures 11-inches by 11-inches square. One side depicts an urban environment (they say indoors in the rulebook, but it looks urban sci-fi to me), the other side depicts a wintery snow covered outdoor environment. There's nine cardboard terrain tiles in all. Also in the box are 18x two sided terrain squares, which you can set on the terrain tiles to change the layout of the board overall. Both sets of tiles are printed on thick cardboard, with a texture to it, so they seem quite durable.
Both the rulebook and the Campaign book Operation Blue Thunder are 23 pages each, and they're also kind enough to include a Quick Start Guide, which is printed on two sides of a sheet of cardboard with the same dimensions as the rule/campaign books. So that covers what's in the box.
The rulebook is quite short and to the point. Playing the game isn't terribly difficult either. Being this is a board-game and not a wargame, they keep it somewhat simple. There's enough models in the box to play games with 3x 5-man squads, 2x robots and a single hero model per side. The rules have a miniatures wargame feel, even though it is a board-game. Each model can perform two actions each turn, and they can move and fire, fire and move, move twice or make a Sustained Attack, which is not moving at all, and gaining the bonus of being able to re-roll each miss once.
Line of Sight is figured out by tiny circles on the center of each square on the terrain tiles. Attacking is worked out based on what weapon you decide to use, versus what the armor value is of the target. There's only 3 different types of armor which is represented by a silhouette of a troop, tank and airplane on each stat card.
The beauty of it is that all of this info is readily available on each Stat card for each model. If I want to use my Shotgun on the opposing models who are considered an armor value of 2, then I get 3x dice to roll, and if successful each hit will do 1 point of damage (on the card this is listed as 3/1). However it shows on the little chart on the stat card that a Shotgun can only hurt a vehicle with the vehicle symbol value 1 armor. Anything higher than that will require a different weapon.
Attacks are all declared before rolling for them, very much like in BattleTech, because this simulates simultaneous attacks and a single flowing sequence of combat, and it keeps you from using a final shot left over from killing say a tank, to use on another target. IF you declared shooting model X with weapon Z, then you can only follow through with that course of action, even if a shot or two puts them out of action early. They also handle cover as Hard Cover or Soft Cover, and depending on the situation a Cover Save of sorts is allowed, so you do sometimes end up with the chance to eliminate hits by rolling to cancel them out.
Each round of play includes an Initiative roll off with both players rolling three dice, and the side with the most successful results goes first, and then activation alternates between players until both sides have activated all of their models. Once both sides are done initiative is decided again, and another round begins. There's really no more to it than that.
To simulate the effect of special weapons, they change up the rules a little too. For instance a FlameThrower lists the dice roll as 1/+, which means you roll 1 die per model targeted. Another more powerful weapon has a 2/+, which means you roll 2 dice for each model targeted, and successful results each do 1 point of damage. The troop models in the game are eliminated by a single point of damage.
The two hero models, and the robots handle things a little differently, as they can sustain more than a single point of damage. They're not taken out of the game, nor are their capabilities effected by taking damage, only once they're reduced to zero points left will they be taken out of the game. I only saw one weapon that had a unique damage type, which can eliminate all remaining health points of a model. So for the most part, the hero and robots can take quite a bit more than the basic rank and file troops.
The rulebook does explain things quite well, plus there's a variety of photograph examples depicting various things that can occur in play. Therefore they do a good job of visually showing players how to play via example quite well. I also found a variety of Special Abilities listed in the rulebook too. Self Repair for instance gives a vehicle a chance at repairing damage via successful rolls. The Sniper ability allows the model to pick which model in a unit is killed, or if the hero takes the damage or not. So you could effectively take out a specific model with say a special weapon more effectively this way.
The Campaign book starts off with six pages worth of fluff covering the fictional Operation Blue Thunder Campaign. The next eight pages includes all of the details for 8 different game scenarios that you can play out, complete with images of how to set the board up, and what units to take and so on.
The rest of the book pages 15-22 covers all of the units for both sides, with pictures of what they look like nicely pained up, along with some fluff and how tactically they can work best for you as a player. Lastly page 23 shows images of models from the Artillery Strike expansion pack (BUT there's no promise as to if this will ever be released or not from FFG when asked about it, it seems this is left over from when AEG was handling Dust Tactics). The back cover also has instructions detailing how to assemble the four robots, as they do come mostly assembled already, but you will need to attach the barrels and some of the smaller options that didn't fit on the models to keep them safe for shipping inside the box.
I think a lot of people are expecting Dust Tactics to be a traditional miniatures wargame in a box, and it really isn't. It does come with models that you can use in most any 28mm scale weird war WWII-ish game for sure. And all of the models look really nice, so nice that you could paint them up how you see fit and integrate them in with many other similar scale models for more traditional Weird WWII-ish wargaming.
But Dust Tactics is still a board-game which only uses models that are near the same quality as what wargaming enthusiasts demand in plastic. The gameplay is quite brutal, and most games don't take but an hour or so to play right out of the box. Some could argue that the robots and hero models not being degraded in performance as they take damage makes them a bit unbalanced, but for the most part this is game designed to simulate brutal combat, and the strongest models will be the ones that can take the most damage and dish it out too. That seems to be the case with the robots for sure with the weapons that they employ, some of which have unlimited range even.
However both sides have a hero, both sides have two robots and both sides have 3x 5-man squads worth of rank and file troops to work with, each with a unique variety of weapons to choose from to boot. So I have no complaints about one side being better than the other. I like them both, but I prefer the look of the Nazi/Axis models a little better.
On the surface Dust Tactics looks quite balanced. I haven't played 100x games to say for certain it can't be broken either, but of the 10x games or so that I've played, I felt that Dust Tactics was pretty well balanced. Granted some weapons are more devastating than others, but you simply try and take those units out first then, as as you would in another other game.
Dust Tactics isn't going to replace a true wargame by any stretch of the imagination, because it's still a board-game which uses some wargaming mechanics and limits play to the board it comes with. There's said to be some “Advanced rules” in the works to allow you to play it more like a traditional wargame breaking players free from the confines of the current board/tiles, but there's no release date set for these rules, nor has FFG discussed what format they'll be released in.
There's one thing that's a little misleading in the documentation included within the game too, which is the product of being handled by one company (AEG), and then last minute right before release handed over to another company (FFG) to bring it to market. When this was a product under AEG they had planned to release all of the expansions listed in the back of the rulebook. Things have changed now.
I spoke with FFG recently to see what's in store next for Dust Tactics, and they told me that they plan to do things quite differently than what AEG had planned out. The only expansions listed for release at present are just the re-packing of the models included in the Dust Tactics board game in separate 5-man squad boxed sets.
So if you want to add more troops to your copy of Dust Tactics, you can buy any of the 5-man squads included within the game in six different stand alone sets later this Winter. That's all they'll say about expansions at the moment for Dust Tactics. They won't confirm or deny if the other expansions previously mentioned by AEG will released or not at this time.
In terms of cost the standard edition of Dust Tactics doesn't come cheap, as it will set you back $100. I've seen it priced as low as $79.99 online, which isn't too bad either. The models alone you have to figure may be worth that or more if they were sold by most other companies in this industry. The single 5-man squads could easily sell for $15 each, and there's six of those total included with the game, so there's potentially $90 in just 30 troop models alone.
The robot models which are WWII-ish Mecha tanks essentially, are easily worth $15-$20+ each too and there's four of those included in the box. Add to that, all of the models are primed and ready to be painted. Even unpainted they look nice straight out of the box. My only gripe about the models is that the freedom to move them at the torso does look a bit peculiar at a glance for the man-sized ones.
If you think about it there's 36 models total, four of which are quite large, and easily bigger than Privateer Press's largest plastic Warjacks, with equally as much detail. Privateer Press charges $35 MSRP per model too. If you based the cost of Dust Tactics on the models alone you're paying $2.70 per model and getting all of the game components for free. That's based on the $100 MSRP for the boxed set, if you can pick it up for less than $100 those numbers would be even more impressive.
Many wargamers will buy Dust Tactics just for the models alone, and I can't blame them if they did. The game itself isn't ground breaking, nor will it replace most popular wargames out there, but it can be fun, and it's a nice way to get in some miniature model fun in a board-game environment with some friends. I can see this being a solid weekend game to pick up and play with family and friends both, because it's about as complex as HeroClix, and it won't take hours to make it through a couple of turns.
I'd also say that Dust Tactics could even be the kind of game to introduce new potential players to the mechanics of a wargame, and wargaming models, without the full on complexity and learning curve of the more traditional core wargames that are out there too. It's not a traditional wargame in a box, but Fantasy Flight Games has come closer than anyone else has yet with Dust Tactics. Again at the very least Dust Tactics is worth getting just to acquire the models, if you happen to pickup and enjoy the game as well, well that's a bonus.