I finally got a chance to play the new miniatures boardgame Dust Tactics last night, and after two games, here are my impressions. The short answer? This game rocks!
Firstly, what is Dust Tactics? Well, some of you may remember a tabletop miniatures game with a sci-fi theme called AT-43. This caused a bit of a stir a few years ago as it was one of the first fully pre-painted miniatures games. The rules were relatively simple compared to venerable sci-fi game Warhammer 40,000, the miniatures were nicely sculpted and painted and ready to hit the table, and things were looking good for Rackham, the French company who had taken quite a gamble by plunging into the pre-painted world in such a big way.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take off quite as well as expected. There was an abortive distribution deal with Fantasy Flight Games, Rackam changed hands, and eventually they went under and AT-43 was pulled. While AT-43 is still my favourite miniatures game, and I made a large investment in the miniatures that will last me for many years of gaming, at the moment there are no signs of AT-43 returning to the market.
Which is a shame, but what’s it got to do with Dust Tactics? I’m glad you asked. Well, AT-43 was originally going to use the Dust licence, and be an ‘alternative WWII plus scifi and supernatural’ game based on that world, created by Italian illustrator Paolo Parente. But something happened along the line: AT-43 became far-future sci-fi (though still with a recognisable WWII feel), and Parente and his collaborators continued with their own miniatures game, which became Dust Tactics and—ironically—is now published by Fantasy Flight!
It’s possible that the Dust creators have learnt from the example of AT-43, because Dust Tactics releases are coming at a much slower and more careful rate. And instead of a full tabletop miniatures system, the core game is a boardgame/miniatures game hybrid. At first I thought this was a disadvantage, but after playing the game I can see that despite the very simple rules, there’s a lot of flexibility and possibilities for this game, and somehow it still manages to be ‘cinematic’ in feel despite the simplicity.
So how does it work? The key to the game is that simplicity. Games are usually played on nine terrain squares, each of which is itself divided into nine squares. Instead of using a tape measure to measure the moves of each miniature, you simply put the five man squad or robot tank in a square. Line of sight is then measured between central dots in the square, with some easy rules for soft and hard cover. When you shoot or engage in close combat, you refer to each unit’s card, which not only has a nice big picture of the relevant miniature(s), but a few lines detailing the weapons it uses, their range, how many dice they roll and how much damage they do per hit. Dice marked with hit symbols on two faces do the rest!
If it’s so simple, why is it so good? That’s the magic of gaming. It took just a few minutes to explain the rules to my friend, and after one round we were both starting to realise that the game had a lot more to it than had been immediately apparent. One of these surprising realisations is that the square movement grid, coupled with the differing abilities and specialisations of the units, gives the game an almost chess-like feel. Far from charging into conflict right away, we started identifying which of our units and which of our opponents were the long range specialists, which were especially effective at close combat, and how to avoid, or move quickly to engage, the appropriate units.
During each of your unit activations you get two actions: you can move and shoot, or shoot and move, or move twice, or shoot twice (actually shoot once and get a re-roll on misses). One of the units is a bit faster than the others, and the Allied robot tanks can jump over obstacles, so all in all movement wasn’t at all predictable, and good use of cover (you get two ammo crates for soft cover and two tank traps for hard cover) made a big difference to your long-term survival. Combat is quite deadly however, so one mistake can spell disaster! However with a healthy dollop of luck, anything can happen and the outcome was always in doubt.
But beyond all that, the game has that special something that got us laughing, cheering and most importantly, imagining the scene. On the table, a few plastic models were moving about on cardboard tiles, but it was very easy to imagine the real scene—as the Allied robot tank rumbled forward and let fly with a stream of napalm over the Germans, the German tank grabbed it with its claw, ripping its turret off while the squads let fly with laser rifles around their feet—and to me, that’s the hallmark of a great game that you are going to come back to again and again. I call it the ‘cinematic value’ of a game, and it’s there when the rules recede into the background and you feel like a movie is playing out on the table before you.
In the core game, there’s a series of eight scenarios that link together into a mini-campaign called ‘Blue Thunder’, detailing the invasion of an enemy base in Antarctica. There’s a nice range of challenges from ambushes, survival, demolition to straight-up slugfests. As you get to know your units you’ll be trying out different strategies and chosing different forces (especially armed with a few expansion units), so there’s lots of replay value even before you embark on the extra campaigns already available separately.
I highly recommend Dust Tactics. It’s the perfect game for those gamers who love miniatures wargaming but don’t have the time to get into more complex and extensive systems, but it also promises a lot for the gaming hobbyist, with two campaign expansions and several expansion tanks and squads available already. I hope this article has given you a little bit more insight into the game.
Dust Tactics is a tactical miniatures board game for 2-4 players. In an alternate 1940s reality, alien technology fuels gigantic machines of war as the forces of the Axis and Allies clash over rare mineral deposits that could inevitably decide the outcome of the war. With over 30 highly detailed miniatures, 9 double-sided terrain boards, 12 custom dice, unit cards, terrain, and plastic scenery, Dust Tactics delivers everything you need to wage battles in the world of Dust.
One platoon of allies, comprised of 2 robots, 15 soldiers, and hero Captain Joseph Brown.
One platoon of the axis, comprised of 2 robots, 15 soldiers, and hero Colonel Sigred Von Thaler
4 Ammo Crates and 2 Tank Traps
9 two-sided cardboard Terrain Tiles
12 Unit cards (6 allied and 6 axis)
12 custom dice
18 two-sided Terrain Squares
Quick-start rules sheet
Blue Thunder campaign scenario booklet