April 20, 2012

Board Game Review: Dust

Dust (Fantasy Flight/Spartaco Albertarelli and Angelo Zucca, 2007)
2-6 players / 12 + / 60-180 Minutes

Some guys have all the luck.  You know the type.  They had the good mommas that didn't hit the hooch and the daddies that didn't run off with the tramp next door.  Yeah, now those guys ride down the street in their long, black DeSoto to their grandpappy's bank where they sit on their saddle pads all day as a vice president throwing around million dollar bills and go out at night with some classy broad hooked to one hand and a tonic in the other.  I'm not one of them guys.  I hate them guys.  So you can imagine my surprise when she walked in - like I was cold-cocked by a Joe Louis left hook.  Tall, lean, swank, sober, she was quite the dish.  She was 100% glamor, with legs that went all the way up, and knew it.  Bold and confident she walked in.

"What's a dame like you doing in gin joint like this?"

She smiled innocently and sang sweetly, "Well, Sam, I'm your new commander."

I looked her up and down incredulously and smirked.  "Well, it sure is the modern man's new army, eh?"

"Hmpf," she shrugged her shoulders, "a girl's gotta make a living.  Now go ready my mech.  I'm feeling a little gypsy and it's time to give the other side the big kiss off."

Yeah, some guys have all the luck...

What You Get:

Enough plastic to make an Arab emirate even more wealthy.  Specifically about 780 miniature army pieces!  That's 130 for each player!  The majority are little tank figures, with a number of mechs, fighters, bombers, and subs thrown in for variety.  All are well molded and compact to avoid arms or attachments breaking off, yet still retain fine detail.  And while the game is fiddly, don't stress that you'll have to deal with all 130 of your pieces - you shouldn't come close to using them all, unless you're turtling, in which case you'll lose.  The board/map-of-the-world is unique in both its minimalism and construction.  The stoic map with muted colors is devoid of any geographical references and it's six pieces fit together like a puzzle.  It looks sharp in a subdued kind of way and uses connected circles to denote areas, as opposed to the more familiar political boundaries.  The puzzle-style fitting is unnecessary - it does not lay flat and creates a noticeable warp.  A collection of little factories round out the plastic bits while a handful of cardboard tokens are included to ease in score-keeping.  There are 10 solid, custom, six-sided dice used for combat resolution.  And finally, the game provides a deck of sturdy, linen-textured cards.  These are all imaginatively illustrated and highly expressive.  If playing with children, especially young boys, note that the artwork tends to exaggerate female features, although the only overly-ridiculous image (still not explicit) is on the last page of the rule book and thus easy to nonchalantly set aside.

Your legion of Mechs and Victoria's Secret models await!
The Quick Rundown:
A bit wonky.
Could have done without the puzzle.

Dust is a world conquest war game with dudes (and dudettes) on a map.  But it is a unique world conquest game.  First of all, you accomplish this domination with massive mech warriors, stolen alien technology, and fashion supermodels.  And so while you'd logically expect the major capitals would be Paris, Milan, and New York, actually all political identifications and references are nonexistent.  Instead, your fearsomely, fur-coated Frauleins will simply fight over anonymous circles.  Particular locations of alien technology, evenly dispersed about the globe, become more important than major urban centers in this alternative, pre-WWII setting.  You see, apparently a careless E.T., or two, left some advance weaponry laying about for some Axis and Allied explorers to find and exploit.  You will lead a faction in its bid to control and consolidate these new powers to make dang sure one of your models gets the cover of the SI Swimsuit Issue to debut in about 30 years.

The most entertainingly unique mechanic of Dust is the card deck.  You begin with a hand of five cards and are able to purchase more throughout the game.  At the start of each round, all players will secretly choose one of their cards and then reveal them simultaneously.  The card you pick will determine what order you play that round, how many production points (money) you can spend to purchase new units, how many times you can move, and how many times you can attack.  On top of all that, it will also have an illustration that gives you a specific role that round and a certain rule-breaking ability.  For example, the nurse gives you a chance to save battlefield casualties, the mech dropper allows you to airlift as many mechs from around the world into one battle (very powerful), and the ballistic missile gives you a free bombardment against one enemy zone.

Fighter, bomber, mech, tank, and sub.

Battles are also quite different from many standard titles of this genre.  The custom dice create quick and simple fights where a unit gives you a set number of dice to roll.  The card you choose limits both your movement capabilities to maneuver for an attack, plus the actual number of battles you are allowed to declare that round.  Movement is quite abstracted, especially amphibious or naval transport.  And going into enemy production centers and capitals can be a murderous proposition; so in a sense, kind of like Paris, Milan, and New York, after all.

E for Everyone:

While most other dudes-on-a-map war games are just above the 'E' rating, in my opinion, Dust is just simplistic enough to slip in under the 'T for Teen' barrier.  The primary reason for this is that Dust is a very close Risk clone, whose added moving parts are not overly cumbersome.  It has varying unit types, card play, and a different means of production, but they are all still nicely  streamlined.  In fact, the combat resolution mechanic is even simpler than in Risk.  On top of that, it will not take you as long to play a game of Dust, though not to fool you into thinking it's a short affair.  'Long' is a relative term in the war gaming genre.

Groovy dice.

It regards to game length, the victory point track is a nice addition for gaming with kids.  Now, there is an "epic" version or rules set, if you want to spend an entire afternoon.  However, the "premium" rules set is just right for an enjoyable experience of conquest gaming with children or maybe even other hobby gamers not used to the genre.  You earn one point for each capital and resource area that you own, plus one point for each majority you may have in number of production centers, land areas, and sea areas.  As soon as one player has reached a designated threshold at the end of any given round, they are declared the victor, much like the way we finally defeated the Kaiser in 1918.

As much as a victory point track may seem as inappropriate to a war game as a Rockefeller in Wal-Mart, the mechanic is ideal for younger kids in that it focuses their energies on those targets necessary to achieve victory points.  The strategic scope is more refined, and thus not as intimidating or overwhelming.  Sure, this will turn off seasoned grognards who like to strut around like Napoleon with economy of force, flank attacks, and envelopment, but it sure is a blast for quick and brutal smash-mouth slug-fests.  This is not a game for the prim and proper, gold-tasseled, dandies of the General Staff.  But for the mud-slinging, rifle-toting, over-the-top trench grunts - yeah, this is their cup of tea.

The card mechanic also works to hone a strategic focus and reduce individual turn length, as well as throw in an unpredictable element which adds to the fun.  First off, the card you choose each round gives you some extra production points to add with those earned from your factories and resource areas.  It also gives you a set amount of moves and attacks.  However, it is never strong in all three areas.  So from your hand, you have to decide that round whether you want to focus on building up your forces, maneuvering around to protect your interests and set-up for an assault next round, or just go all out on the offensive.  Because you won't be able to do all three.  Then again, you may want to use the card instead for the ability it provides, rather than worrying about production, moves, or attacks.  That's because playing the right role at the right time can prove invaluable to your situation and/or significantly derail another's plans.  Of course, don't forget that the reverse is true, as well.

The invading horde!

Combat is as simple as it is brutal as it is unique.  First, you compare all the units on each side to determine who has "tactical supremacy" and, therefore, who rolls first - which is a huge advantage.  Then, you simply count up how many dice you get to roll based on what kinds of units are in the fight.  For every "target" symbol rolled, you knock out one of the enemy (in a certain order).  The unforgiving element rearing its ugly head is that knocked out units don't get to return fire...hence the advantage to rolling first!  Production centers and capitals give extra dice for defenders, plus the defender has automatic tactical supremacy in capitals.  So while those sweet victory point targets may be as tempting as honey, remember it's still on the comb and in the hive!

The game is not completely void of drawbacks.  In 4-6 player games, downtime between turns is still an issue, and indeed downtime always seems like an exacerbated problem when playing with kids.  Confrontation, while victory point oriented, can still be contentious since this is essentially an "every man for himself" title.  Temporary alliances can always generate some personal chagrin from the opposing side.  The role cards can provide opportunities to really hammer the point leader and play catch-up, but there is still a runaway leader issue; especially if most of the trailing players are not on the same mental page.  In its worst scenario, that can create an anti-climactic endgame in which the winner is essentially a foregone conclusion, and the last round our two are played on autopilot.

Okay, I'll Shut-Up Now:

In the end, I give Dust the board game an 8 on the Geek scale (Very good game.  I like to play.  Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.).  It's tight strategic focus, simple combat mechanics, unique and instructive card play, fluid style, and victory point emphasis create an ideal war game for younger kids.  Yet it also retains some nuance that adults can enjoy.  The theme is fun and different, the miniatures of good quality, and the artwork addictive.  After introducing your kids to war gaming with the iconic Risk for its basics in strategy and dice-based combat, I would then recommend Dust as the next step.  Plus, it's a nice change of pace for adult conquest gamers, as well.

The role cards.

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