Dice Command, the small box WWII game debut from Ejected Planet, caused me to reflect on the expression that “war is the continuation of policy by other means”. I did not anticipate this sort of reaction when unpacking the box and reading through the rules. By appearances it’s a tactical combat game, reminiscent of out of print Quantum, with its dice-as-soldiers on a square grid. Certainly there are more than a couple similarities. But where Quantum plays out like spicy chess, Dice Command recalls the attention-management of grand strategy.
I think I was watching Saving Private Ryan, sometime in high school, when I fully realized the logistical realities of war. If someone in the midst of it all can send and receive mail, for instance, that means that there has to be people in the military whose job it is to distribute mail, which means that there has to be mail collection facilities with people working on them, and people whose job it is to track where everyone is in the battle. And that’s only mail! Food, transportation, communication–all of it requires a logistical network behind the people doing the shooting and bombing.
I did not expect Dice Command to be as much about the logistics as the shooting. With its vaguely Omaha Beach terrain details I thought it would be a game about tactical maneuvering, a sort of portable Memoir ‘44. Don’t get me wrong–there’s definitely some tactical maneuvering. But the heart of the game lies elsewhere.
Fundamentally there’s a rock-paper-scissors dynamic at play between light infantry, heavy infantry/artillery, and developing nuclear weapons. Nukes will beat the slower units, which beat light infantry, which beat nukes. As the game progresses you’re trying not to tip your hand at which you’re going to try to dive into, though that can be difficult as information is all public. More accurately, you’re trying to teeter on the edge of committing one way or another and hope your dice rolls give you a clear path forward.
The primary mechanism is dice worker placement, where you can allocate dice to the battlefield, towards research, or towards a number of rotating, publicly available special actions. There’s currency involved, which is how you buy your dice back after they’ve been killed on the battlefield, and special locations in the middle of the battlefield which, when held, give your side a passive bonus.
When dice get sent into the battlefield, the number displayed is both that unit’s HP and a classification. 1-3 are light infantry, who can move at double speed. 4-6 go slower. You can also create artillery units by stacking two dice of the same number. Artillery are a pain to kill but they’re slow and, perhaps most critically, use two dice that could be put to other uses.
Combat is abstracted down to smashing dice into each other in acts of mutual HP-destruction. More critically, the entire idea of winning the war is boiled down to one simple task: get four dice to the opponent’s “end zone”. The combat zone doesn’t resemble an actual battlefield as much as a children’s playground game of tag. More cynically it’s a meat grinder for you, the commander, to throw bodies at, hoping a few can slip through and achieve success. Dehumanization via abstraction is a powerful tool for the wargame designer.
Nuclear weapons loom in the background as the ultimate threat, each one immediately accomplishing half of the win condition; a cynical nod to Little Boy and Fat Man. Developing them takes time and resources, and both sides will want to keep the threat of nukes alive throughout the game.
So far nukes have been integral to all of the games I’ve played because creating military gridlock is too simple. Sometimes the dice don’t cooperate, but there’s enough risk mitigation to fairly easily maintain a stalled board state. At that point the game becomes a matter of maintaining that gridlock while developing your research as quickly as possible.
I wish the game allowed more dramatic swings and daring gambits rather than funnelling towards the same state each time. In theory the rotating special action cards could allow for more excitement, but to the extent they do it feels like blind luck. By having cards cycle out after one use the entire system falls to the rotation deckbuilder display problem where you don’t want to use decently helpful abilities in fear that a more powerful one will appear for your opponent.
Despite these hesitations I’ve enjoyed my time with Dice Command. I tend to gravitate towards down the middle, marginal strategies even in games that allow flamboyant combos, so its pace suits me just fine. I appreciate the more logistical approach to warfare, where honor and courage and duty can’t stand up to the cold, uncaring strength of numbers: of bodies and money and time. Ejected Planet’s production is attractive and efficient. For once I’ve got a game box that might actually be a touch too small for the components within. It’s an intelligent, perhaps overly-balanced debut from Cristall and Holman. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.