Do you remember Dungeon Command, the fast-paced tabletop skirmish game set in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, using card mechanics that echoed Magic: The Gathering? If so, you’re one of the few who does.
The game appeared in 2012 and sank beneath the waves by the following year. When it was first released, faction packs of Dungeon Command retailed for around $40. Now, expansions for the out-of-print game fetch big bucks on the secondary market, where they may sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay. Meanwhile, even as D&D has reached perhaps its most mainstream moment, most have never heard of—and may never see—this unusual title.
To understand Dungeon Command, though, we have to look at the history of Dungeons & Dragons and, more to the point, the companies that make it. In 1997, buoyed by money from their successful collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering, Wizards of the Coast bought TSR, the company that, until then, had been the makers of Dungeons & Dragons. By the year 2000, Wizards had released the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons—the first new edition since 1989, and the first under their ownership.
The result catapulted D&D into popular culture in a way it had never enjoyed before, helped along by something that had happened behind the scenes. In 1999, Wizards of the Coast was acquired by toy and board game giant Hasbro, giving the company—and its products—access to substantially increased advertising resources and market penetration.
By the time Dungeon Command hit store shelves in 2012, Dungeons & Dragons was on its fourth edition, which focused more on miniatures and granular gameplay using grid-base map tiles. It proved less popular than its third or later fifth iterations. At the same time, Wizards of the Coast was creating a range of ancillary products.
Probably the most successful of these were the various installments in the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure System board game series, which took the rules for D&D and skinned them onto a simplified dungeon crawl board game, released across a variety of different adventures, each of which could stand alone or be combined and most of which are still in print today.
The first of these, Castle Ravenloft, beat Dungeon Command onto shelves by two years, and can still be found in most gaming stores.
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Into this moment came Dungeon Command. Like the Adventure System games, Dungeon Command distinguished itself from much of the rest of the marketplace by not having a single “core” game. Instead, it was released across five (eventually) faction boxes, each one of which contained everything you needed to play the game—except for an opponent with their own faction box.
When the game first launched, only two factions were available: the “good guy” Heart of Cormyr faction and the Sting of Lolth box, which featured dark elves or “drow” and their various allies. Before the series folded in 2013, three more boxes were released, offering undead, goblin, and finally orc factions to the mix.
Dungeon Command could be seen as a sort of reboot of the Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Game, a collectible-miniatures game that sold pre-painted miniatures along with stat cards in “blind” booster packs from 2003 until 2011.
In fact, the miniatures in Dungeon Command are, at least for the most part, repainted versions of minis from that line. Alex Lucard, writing for Diehard Gamefan when the game was released, called it “an odd mix of the old D&D minis game with Magic: The Gathering.”
It is the second part of that equation that makes Dungeon Command so interesting as a historical anomaly, especially at a moment when Magic has just launched a new expansion, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, that pulls D&D’s most iconic setting into the realm of Magic for the first time.
In some ways, Dungeon Command will be very familiar to anyone who has played a miniature-based skirmish game or, for that matter, a game of D&D. Each faction box comes with a handful of double-sided tiles depicting dungeon and outdoor environs, and you combine these tiles with the ones from your opponent’s box to make the battlefield. Then you move miniatures onto the tiles and try to defeat your opponent.
The key difference in Dungeon Command, however, comes in the form of two decks of cards. One represents the various creatures you can command, the other is a “command deck” that controls what powers, abilities, or actions you can give to those creatures.
In practice, these cards work much like the ones in Magic: The Gathering—you even “tap” them when they’re used. It is thanks to this card mechanic that we get perhaps the game’s most unusual departure from normal D&D: there are no dice involved in a game of Dungeon Command. Instead, the cards handle all the randomness that the game entails.
Perhaps the most melancholy aspect of Dungeon Command is how obviously it was designed to incorporate future expansions that never came. Here’s just one example: Each creature has certain keywords that determine which cards can be played on it. The Sting of Lolth box contains at least one creature with a keyword not shared by any of the cards that come with that faction.
The back of the rulebook that comes with each faction box explains rules for “building your own warbands” by combining the contents of other boxes, and it’s clear that the designers expected more expansions to come down the pike than the five faction boxes that we eventually got.
Unfortunately, the future envisioned by the makers of Dungeon Command was never meant to be.
By the end of 2012, Curse of Undeath and Tyranny of Goblins had joined the initial two faction offerings, with Blood of Gruumsh—which added orcs and ogres to the mix—hitting in 2013. It was the last addition to the line, however, and today there are only these five factions available for anyone who might want to play this odd and innovative (if short-lived) game that lived and died in the shadow of its more famous and popular cousin.