Monday, August 17, 2015

Dropzone Commander Review

Bowing to peer pressure, and the allure of tiny resin goodies, I have slowly been drawn down the rabbit hole that is Dropzone Commander, by Hawk Wargames.

Scourge and UCM forces face off in a skirmish
My slow slide into a new game culminated with the official DzC tournament at Gencon this July. At this point, with a mostly painted army, and seven games under my belt, I feel that it is high time that I collect my thoughts, and write a review.

Product Line: Dropzone Commander
Manufacturer: Hawk Wargames
Type / Scale: Sci-Fi Skirmish Game / 10mm TrueScale
Theme: Mobile Combined Arms Urban Warfare
Material: Injection-Molded ABS Plastic, Metal and Resin

Dropzone Commander, or 'DzC', as it is abbreviated, is the first game put out by Hawk Wargames. It is a medium-scale wargame, focusing on combined arms combat in a science fiction setting. A typical tournament-level force usually includes around 25-40 models, including infantry bases, tanks, gunships, and the game's signature aerial transports.

The game focuses on humanity's reconquest of the so-called "cradle worlds" from the alien and parasitic Scourge. The exiled survivors of Earth's home territory style themselves the United Colonies of Mankind (UCM), and have spent the years since the Scourge invasion amassing a huge force to retake their home territory. Also featured are the divergent, and highly advanced cyborgs of the Post-Human Republic and the enigmatic Shaltari aliens. Hawk has plans to tell the story of the reconquest over time, and their first expansion book, released in the summer of 2014, introduced a fifth faction, comprised of rugged human resistance, still fighting the Scourge on their home territory seventy years after the initial invasion.

Game play in Dropzone commander centers around scenarios. The main rules contain half a dozen missions, and the Phase I expansion adds in another set that showcase specialized terrain pieces available from Hawk. Each scenario includes basic setup instructions, including how to distribute objectives, focal points and terrain on the table. In each case, victory is awarded to the player who accumulates the most victory points by retrieving objectives, collecting intelligence, seizing key terrain features, etc.. Refreshingly, destroying your opponent's forces only factors in as a tie breaker at the end of the game.

As with most modern miniature games, DzC uses a system of alternating activations, however there is a twist: Each army list is structured into 5-7 "Battle Groups", comprised of one, or more, squads each. Player activations alternate by battle group, rather than by squad. This introduces an interesting dynamic in both army design and game play. Larger battle groups can potentially get a lot done, or bring tremendous firepower to bear on the enemy all at once. On the other hand, moving a small battle group commits fewer forces to action, and forces your opponent to reveal more of his, or her, own plans before you engage.

Another core feature of this game is the use of combined arms. Most units are fairly specialized in their use. Most main battle tanks are designed to control territory and hunt other armored vehicles. Only infantry can enter buildings to search for critical objectives. Scout units can spot for artillery fire, and extend your general's sphere of influence on the battlefield. Another interesting division is between aircraft and ground units. Airborne units are fast, often heavily armed, and are immune to most ground-based weapons. On the other hand, as a rule, they are lightly armored and can be very vulnerable to dedicated anti-aircraft weapons. Successful game play demands that a player balance these capabilities and apply them thoughtfully to the goals laid out in the mission in each game.

As suggested by the name, troops enter the board aboard fast-moving aerial dropships. While it is possible for ground units to drive on under their own power, airborne transports can greatly increase the speed with which your troops deploy into the field and reach their assigned positions. The trade off between the speed and flexibility of transports, versus the basic firepower of additional troops, is another of the decisions that faces each commander as they prepare for battle.

That said, in my opinion, a knock on the game's theme is that it is very often advantageous to minimize your transport options to save points. Once troops are in position, their transports become much less valuable. Thematically, it would be cool to incentivize players to fly more of their troops into battle.

Photo courtesy of Brian Kelly

The actual combat mechanics will feel familiar to experienced war gamers. When they activate, troops may either shoot and then move, or move and then shoot. Attack rolls use a basic d6 roll, modified for terrain or other effects. Each successful hit is followed by a second die roll to determine whether the target actually takes damage. As with other systems, the odds of damaging something is a function of the weapon's strength (energy) opposed by the target's armor rating.

Close combat between infantry is the exception, which uses a somewhat complex system to distribute attack dice among the infantry squads on each side of a fight, followed by throwing a few fist-fulls of dice to determine the outcome of each bloody scrum. Infantry close combat in DzC is quite brutal, and usually results in a clear winner fairly quickly.

At the end of the day, this blog is about miniatures, and DzC is a miniatures game. This begs the question: How good are the DzC models? Read on to see what I think of Hawk's work.

Model size comparison: Battletech (left), Dropzone Commander (Center) and CAV (right)
Hawk started out with a mostly resin line of models. Only the tiny, 10mm infantry models were rendered in metal, rather than resin. The detail of each resin piece is very fine, and quite believable. Hawk Dave is reportedly very thorough in modelling each unit to look plausible for its role, and to be the right scale on the board. It is completely possible to model each transport with its intended cargo embarked. In fact, in many cases, you can load the models into transports without glue, and they will stay in position just fine.

Fit is excellent on all the kits I have assembled. As you might expect, their are mold lines and flash to clean up, but they are in line with other resin manufacturers. Hawk pushes the envelope on how fine they can make detail on resin gaming pieces. Some of the thinnest parts are quite translucent. I haven't had any issues with breakage so far, but I have found that some of the tiniest details can be a bit prone to air bubbles, which can force you to break out the green stuff for repairs or reinforcement. My rating on Hawk's casting quality reflects this.

Last year, Hawk managed to replace the starter army boxes for the four original forces with injection-molded plastic kits. The new versions are still beautiful, and retain nearly all the detail of the resin originals. Thanks to the economies of plastic manufacturing, the starter boxes are much cheaper than the resin ones, retailing for $55 each. If anything, the fit of the plastic kits is even better than the resin; I have found that many of the plastic tanks will hold together without glue! (Although I would recommend using glue before submitting them to the rigors of game play.)

The new material also eliminates any problems with trapped air bubbles. For better, or worse, only the core starter boxes are available as plastic models. Everything else is still being released in resin or metal.

Shaltari Braves in plastic (left) and metal (right)
The one fly in the plastic boxed set ointment is the infantry models. The restrictions of sprue design make the plastic troopers much flatter and less dynamic than their metal counterparts. The level of detail in each trooper is also noticeably less, provided you lean in and squint hard enough to make out the details on a 10mm infantry trooper. That problem is far from a deal breaker, but it is a bit of a disappointment, given how beautiful the plastic vehicles are.

Game Rules: 5/5
Sculpt Quality: 4/5
Model Detail [Resin/Metal]: 5/5
Model Detail [Plastic]: 3/5*
Casting Quality: 3/5
Ease of Assembly: 3/5

* - My plastics rating reflects the very high quality detail of the plastic vehicles, but also the rather disappointing infantry from the same sprues.

All in all, I have really been enjoying Dropzone Commander. Hawk's models are beautiful, and take paint very well. The game is extremely tactical and interesting, but a tournament-scale game is still playable in 2-3 hours, depending on how focused you are. I rated the hobby aspects as average, rather than superlative, because of their minor casting issues, which can require a bit of extra cleanup before assembly, but that absolutely should not turn anybody off of this excellent game.

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