Mantic Games have recently released Ancient Grudge, an expansion for their Dwarf King’s Hold line of games. As my copy arrived this morning (two days from order to delivery – nice service from Mantic) I thought that this would be as good a time as any to take a look at the whole line.
Lets get one thing out of the way – I like Dwarf King’s Hold (DKH from this point on), as you may have guessed from the fact that I just bought the expansion. I can also see why other people don’t. Bare with me here, because this is going to be a long post.
Just about every game which features miniatures and dungeons will at some point be compared to the two GW classics: Advanced Heroquest and Warhammer Quest. I’m fairly certain for instance that I purchased AHQ in the York Games Workshop on the Bank Holiday Monday following release day (and that was almost 23 years ago – stupid useless memory). I’m also fairly certain that I can’t remember how either game plays out, other than the impression that you explore pre-made or random dungeons killing, looting and levelling as you go. DKH is nothing like this.
Dwarf King’s Hold: Dead Rising/Green Menace
DKH is a small scale tactical combat game, which happens to take place in a dungeon. The basic idea is this: You pick a scenario from the six in the back of the book, set up the board according to the plan, pick out the pre-defined force of Dwarves/Undead or Elves/Orcs and then do battle, usually until one side is wiped out or the victory conditions are met.
Each starter set comes with dice, rulebook, a few pre-punched sheets of cardboard containing the dungeon tiles and counters, and a big pile of plastic sprues. Before you start playing, you’re going to need to sit down with clippers, knife and plastic glue and assemble the 28-ish figures. It’s worth noting that there are no bases provided – the figures do have a small built-in circular base which will keep them upright, but not always steady. The Orcs in particular are a little top heavy.
The rulebook is slight and in black & white, but that’s no bad thing. The rules are simple and to the point, laid out in a sensible fashion and illustrated with clear examples where necessary.
The core mechanic is the action token system – each turn you draw a certain number of tokens (set by the scenario), and can spend these to activate as many models as the number on the token. When activated, a model can move and/or make an attack. Models can only be activated once per turn, unless you have a Follow On action token to use on them. Therefore, you’ll often find that you’re unable to activate all your models every turn – part of the strategy becomes knowing how and where to strike, whilst allowing for the turns when half your force stands around gazing into the middle distance.
Combat is a fairly simple affair – each player rolls a number of dice according to their attack or armour, with various weapons and abilities modifying the number of dice rolled. These are then lined up high to low next to each other (the starters come with two different colours of dice in order to make identification easier) and compared to see whether any damage has been done. You then cross reference the number of damage against the target on a table to see what happens – they may become injured, die, dodge away, etc. Whilst this may sound a little complicated, it quickly becomes second nature – there are only two main troop types for each side in the starter sets, so there isn’t much to remember.
Each model also has its own special rules, which help to distinguish them and give the various forces a unique feel. Scenarios may also have special rules in order to spice things up a little bit.
So… that’s the two Dwarf King’s Hold starter sets. You’ve got a decent selection of miniatures, nicely illustrated dungeon tiles and rules which manage to be tactically interesting with over complication. You can easily play a few games over the course of an evening, swapping sides to see how you tackle the various challenges, or its ideal as a filler game in between other things.
Dwarf King’s Hold: Ancient Grudge
Unlike the other two boxed sets, this is purely an expansion and won’t make much sense to you without at least one of the other games. Inside the box you’ll find the rulebook, two new larger room tiles, a couple of extra counters, two Elven Scouts, two Dwarves with missile weapons, three Zombies, four Ghouls (all in plastic) and a metal Dwarf Berserker Lord.
The rulebook provides stats for an extra 21 models, split across the four factions from the starters, along with new special rules to accompany them. Points costs are provided and there’s a table with suggested point values for all the scenarios from the two starter sets, which should allow you to replay them using your own choice of figures. There are also rules for multi-player games, along with two new scenarios for 3 or 4 players.
There’s not a lot here, but what there is makes all the difference to the game. Suddenly you can play the game the starter sets hinted at – a full skirmish wargame, rather than a fun but restrictive tactical battle game. The simple addition of being able to build your own warband and tackle the scenarios with different troops really does make a hell of a difference to the experience.
A couple of things – whilst points costs are included, no stats are provided for the figures from the starter sets. I realise that they’re trying to encourage you to buy one of each set, but given that this is an expansion (and there’s the reasonable expectation that you’ve already bought a starter) I do feel that everything should have been listed even if only to save you potentially looking through three books for information.
Players who already have some Mantic figures may like to note that whilst rules were included for things like the Dwarf Driller and Elven Palace Guard, they’ve missed out Dwarf Berserkers and Ironguard. All four figures have been out for a couple of years, so it seems like an odd oversight.
Tying in to that, why are there no more Orc figures in the box? If you’ve just got Green Menace, then the two included Elves aren’t much of an expansion. That means you’re looking at purchasing even more figures to make use of the expanded rules, and even another two man GreatAx sprue would have made all the difference. Once again, without the full rules for playing Undead and Dwarves then the miniatures in the box are just a bit of a tease unless you also own Dead Rising.
As I mentioned at the start – I like Dwarf King’s Hold. I think its a neat ruleset. I like Mantic’s miniatures. I just find it hard to recommend it as a purchase.
For instance – if, like me, you’d just bought Green Rising and then Ancient Grudge I wouldn’t be surprised if you ended up feeling quite disappointed. There’s just not much in the expansion which is of use to you, unless you go out and buy some more figures. The new rules are great, but I do feel that the Ancient Grudge rulebook should either have been sold separately or contained all the rules for figures from both starters. It effectively cost me £25 for 22 pages of rules, and even worse I’m still looking at another £35 to get the rules for Undead & Dwarves.
In my case, a key issue is that I already own a lot of Mantic’s figures. I’ve not bought Dead Rising, as I just can’t quite justify paying that much (in effect) for the tiles and rulebook when I’ve got more than enough of their Undead and Dwarves. I’d happily buy the rest of the components if they sold them at a reduced rate via their website. I almost didn’t buy Ancient Grudge, as once again barring the tiles and rulebook I own all the figures in the box – that’s a fair bit of cash for something I don’t really want or need. On top of that, not having a copy of Dead Rising I’m still left only able to play with Orcs and Elves – luckily I have plenty of both.
That ties in neatly with the cost in general, and there’s no getting around the fact that its expensive. Based on RRP, buying both starters and the expansion would set you back £95, and at that price much as I’d like to judge DKH on its own merits its hard not to compare it to other similar products. This feels like a game designed for people who are already engaged with Mantic, yet at the same time also seems to be pushing those same people away. It provides a much better deal for people new to Mantic, but at the same time doesn’t compare that favourably in content and chrome to other games around the same price range.
So, my advice to prospective buyers? Find someone with a copy, and give it a try – despite my misgivings about the way its packaged for sale I’ve got no qualms about recommending the system. If you’re going to buy it, then get Dead Rising and Ancient Grudge together as you’ll get so much more out of the game that way. Either that, or wait and hope that Mantic release one core set with a combined rulebook (or just stick the Ancient Grudge rules in each starter set).
I’d like to see a collated rulebook (and counter set) available for sale separately. With many people already having a fair collection of figures, and the enormous range of maps and tiles available in shops or online what’s missing is a well presented and promoted set of rules for grid-based skirmish games. Dwarf King’s Hold could easily fill that gap. Mantic are already selling separate Warbands designed for DKH, so it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to sell (or include) a PDF version of the DKH rulebook. Given their current commitment to providing free rules for their fantasy and sci-fi mass battle systems, I can’t help but feel that they’re missing a trick.
One last thing
Check out Quirkworthy, DKH designer Jake Thornton’s blog. I can’t recommend it enough for his insights into game design and the discussions which often result.