Apr 27 2012

Wargame Review: Dust Warfare

Dust Warfare

Dust Warfare Preview @ Gencon 2011 (Image sourced from http://www.figouz.net/dust/)

As I mentioned in this article, Fantasy Flight Games has recently released the core rulebook for Dust Warfare, their new wargame expansion based on the Dust Tactics boardgame.

Well my order from FFG’s online store came in this week and now that I’ve had a chance to read the rulebook at some length I figured I should share my first impressions with you.

More after the jump…

Dust Warfare: This sure as hell isn’t the WW2 you learned about in history class….

The Setting

Dust Warfare is set in alternative universe WW2 era where the course of history is altered by the Axis powers discovery of alien technology in Antarctica which they are eventually able to sufficiently reverse engineer to develop an understanding of how to exploit a new mineral known only as “VK” as an unprecedented power source allowing the development of a wide range of new technologies for application to the battlefield.

As the Allies and the Soviet Union suffer many losses facing the new walkers and other technologies the Axis powers have gained from exploiting this new power source, they eventually come to understand it themselves and apply it to their own militaries. This sets the stage for an ongoing world-wide war where the Axis have assassinated Hitler and purged the Nazis from within their ranks; the Axis now only cares for power, control of VK resources, and their goal of unifying the world under their rule. In turn, the Soviet Union, having suffered losses far beyond those they already experienced in our history’s WW2, come to feel betrayed by the Allies when they actually entertain the Axis’ attempts to convince them to abandon the Soviet Union. They react by joining with communist China to form the Sino-Soviet Union (SSU) and gain footholds in South America and Africa where communist revolutions in many nations lead them to join the SSU.

This is a world where fully 90% of Earth’s nations have ultimately come to be unified under one of the three major powers and where as of 1947 the global conflagration that began with Germany’s invasion of Poland still rages on.

My Thoughts: I really enjoyed the background section. The quality of writing is clearly a cut above the usual hackneyed prose you often find in the fluff sections of many a wargame’s rulebook. Mind you, to that end the game developers have a bit of an easier world to work with given the much more real-world nature of the universe for this game than many others, but still, it was pretty well written and had my attention captured long enough to read it all the way through and not just skip to the rules.

Unit Stats and Basic Mechanics

I’m really glad they carried over the unit stats mechanic used in Dust Tactics with minimal modifications here as it is one of the most elegant designs for working out a unit’s abilities that I’ve seen in any wargame. Units are mostly defined by 4 stats: Their move rating tells you how far they can move (in inches), their damage capacity tells you how many points of damage they can take (each for soldier units) and their type/armour rating determines how hard they are to damage with various weapons as well as their armour save.

The fourth stat(s) are the special rules that unit has, which are all listed clearly in a special section in the rulebook. These range from abilities that allow you to re-roll missed attacks, to special movement rules, rules that make units more resilient to damage, and rules that allow  units to shrug off the effects of morale (one in particular that amuses me is simply called “Badass”).

In addition to these basic stats, each unit has stats for each of its weapons which clearly show how many of each weapon the unit has, what it’s range is, and how many to-hit dice it gets against targets of each armour type, and how many points of damage each weapon does for hit. Of course, there are also special weapon types which have additional rules (i.e. artillery, burst weapons, laser weapons, etc.) and these are also clearly explained.

Both Dust Tactics and Dust Warfare use special dice marked with “hit” symbols, but as both G and myself have mentioned previously, we don’t really like these dice and just use regular d6’s instead. Oddly, the Dust Warfare rulebook suggests using 5 and 6 for hits on d6 but as the hit symbols on the custom dice are on opposite sides, we prefer to use 1 and 6 as hits to be consistent with that.

Line of Sight in Dust Warfare is treated slightly differently for blocked LOS and obscured LOS. Blocked LOS is determined model by model using true line of sight principles (so the an attacking unit can only attack with models that has LOS to at least one model in the enemy unit, and only enemy models in that unit at least partially visible can be removed as casualties). Obscured status, used for the cover mechanic, instead are traced from the attacking units leader to the models in the target unit. Here slightly more abstract area terrain rules are used that are detailed in the rulebook.

One last thing of note in Dust Warfare’s general game mechanics is that the rulebook explicitly notes that pre-measuring is allowed. This is something I always like in a wargame because I feel it places the emphasis more on tactics in terms of what you are trying to achieve with your units rather than your ability to eye-ball distances more effectively than your opponent.

Game Turn Mechanics

Each game turn begins with the Initiative Phase where both players rolling a number of dice equal to the number of units they have on the table. In a very interesting wrinkle to the usual way this happens, here it is the player who rolls the lowest number of hits that becomes the first to act in each phase, however, as you gain the ability to issue a number of orders to units in the Command Phase equal to the number of hits rolled, the player who acts second will be able to issue more orders to compensate.

Next comes the Command Phase where the “Initiating Player” (IP) (as the rulebook calls the player who acts first in each phase) can issue a number of orders equal to the hits rolled in the Initiative Phase (plus any additional allowed by special rules) such as taking a single action (which I’ll cover shortly), regrouping (which removes negative effects on units from morale effects) and special orders that different types of lists for each faction can issue (each list-style or Platoon Type in Dust’s parlance gets a unique order that it can use). Actions in Dust Warfare mean a unit can move up to it’s maximum move distance or attack with all of its weapons as a single action. Thus, units given a “take action” order in the command phase can either make a single movement or attack once with all of their weapons.

The purpose of allowing units to be ordered to take action in the command phase is to be found in Dust Warfare’s unique reaction rules, where units may react to actions performed within 12″ of them by enemy units during the Unit Phase, thus there is some needed tactical flexibility to be gained from being able to take an action in the Command Phase where enemy units cannot react. After the Initiating Player has issued all the orders he can/wants to, the “Responding Player” does likewise with his orders.

In the Unit Phase, the IP activates each of their units once, performing up to two actions with them in any order (i.e. you can move then shoot, or shoot then move). You can also perform a double move action which gains the ability to ignore difficult (but not dangerous) terrain, or a double shoot action where you still attack only once with all of your weapons but gain a re-roll on the to-hit dice. Once the IP has activated all of their units, the RP then activates all of their units.

The exception to this is reactions. Any time a unit moves within 12″ of an enemy unit or declares an attack against an enemy unit within 12″, that unit can elect to react (as long as it isn’t suffering any negative morale effects). This reaction can either be a single move action or attack action. A move reaction can put the target unit out of line of sight meaning they cannot be shot at by the unit that provoked the reaction. Attack reactions happen simultaneously with the attack that triggered them, however, so an attacking unit will always get to use all of its weapons before it can suffer casualties from reaction attacks. Also worth noting here is that a unit may only make a single reaction per turn and gains a Reaction Token once it has done so, meaning it will have its number of actions in the controlling players Unit Phase reduced by one. This also applies to units issued orders in the Command Phase, so a unit that receives an order in the command phase both cannot react in the opponents Unit Phase but will also have one less action in the controlling players Unit Phase.

While using move actions with infantry units, they can rotate freely during their move and their facing is irrelevant at all times as they have 360 degree LOS and can fire in any direction. It’s different with tanks. Tanks have a 90 degree firing arc, measured from the center of the base (or model) and can only move into their forward arc (or reverse up to 3″). Additionally, tanks can only rotate up to 90 degrees and only either before or after they move. This makes vehicles require a little more forethought for positioning than is necessary for soldiers.

When using an attack action in the Unit Phase, a unit can split its fire however you like with all of its ranged weapons. You then compare each weapons profile with the armour rating of the target unit and roll the number of dice corresponding to what the chart tells you. For each hit you inflict the amount of damage specified by the weapon. Next your opponent gets comes cover saves, which are handled in a very unique way in Dust Warfare. Rather than rolling a d6 for each squad member and passing or failing based on what you roll, cover simply reduces the number of hits inflicted based on the cover type. Soft cover reduces the incoming hits by one, hard cover by two. This makes hard cover (i.e. trenches, low walls, etc.) drastically less effective protection than it is in Dust Tactics, though that is partially offset by units getting armour saves in Dust Warfare.

Armour saves are rolled with a number of dice equal to the armour rating of the unit, for the unit as a whole. Let me emphasize this, because I’ve seen some confusion about it online: The armour saves are rolled for the unit as a whole not each model in the unit. Thus an armour 2 soldier unit would get two dice in total for armour saves for the whole unit. Between this and cover saves it sounds like a pitifully small chance to save your units from incoming attacks but you have to remember firstly that most attacking units only hit with 2/6 of their attacks, and secondly that most attacking units don’t put out that large a volume of fire. Conversely this makes walkers much more survivable against incoming fire than they are in Dust Tactics as an Armour 4 Walker will now get 4 armour save dice as opposed to the zero it would get in Dust Tactics (walkers also will have an easier time getting cover in Dust Warfare because they can gain cover from being in or completely behind most area terrain).

For each unsaved point of damage remaining after cover and armour saves, the targeted unit suffers one point of damage. As most infantry have a damage rating of one point, this means they will lose a model for each unsaved point of damage. In Dust Warfare the player who’s unit suffered casualties can elect to distribute them however they like, subject the restrictions that the models removed as casualties must be in LOS of the attacking unit, and models not obscured must be removed before obscured ones.

Any unit that suffers any hits from an attack by an enemy unit (or is fired at by certain weapons don’t have to hit to inflict this) gains a suppression token. Suppression tokens are basis of the morale system in Dust Warfare. A unit that has any suppression tokens on it has its actions reduced by one in the unit phase (stacking with reaction tokens) and if it has a number of suppression tokens that exceeds the number of models in the unit, it will retreat (basically be forced to move directly towards the closest board edge to the platoon’s command unit up to and including running off the table and becoming casualties). At the beginning of a unit’s activation it can roll 1d6 for each suppression token it has and it removes one per hit. Unit’s also automatically lose one suppression token at the end of each game turn. Finally, the regroup order I mentioned above can immediately remove all suppression and reaction tokens from a unit given the order allowing them to act normally in their next Unit Phase.

Game Set-Up

Another area where Dust Warfare is quite unique from the wargames I’ve seen is in its game set-up design. The first thing is that the rulebook specifies what the table size should be based on the points values of the armies being used quite explicitly. For example, sub-200 Army Point games should be played on a 5′ x 4′ table, while 201AP-400AP games are for 6′ x 4′.

Once the size of the game (and table) has been determined, can choose the scenario for the game in one of two ways. First they can simply choose one of the pre-defined scenarios given in the book’s campaign section, or they can use the tournament scenario mechanic Dust Warfare includes (where games are fixed in length at 5 turns).

In the tournament scenario system, each player starts with 2 scenario points. Both players roll 5 dice and the player with the fewest hits must spend their first point, then it alternates until all 4 points are spent. These points can be spent to influence the objective type, deployment type, and special conditions for the game. Each point spent in these three categories (from 0 to 3) results in a different outcome. For example, the deployment matrix at 0 points results in deployment zones 9″ deep from both long table edges, while if 1 spent on it by a player, the deployment then becomes 24″ from diagonally opposite corners of the board. This is set up so that players can use each of their two points trying to manipulate the game type to their advantage, with a total of 64 combinations possible.

Some scenarios also include the ability for both sides to spend a limited number of points on additional fortifications they can place to their own advantage (such as foxholes or minefields).

Victory conditions depend on the specific objectives of each scenario, from number of enemy units killed to objectives claimed or units able to reach the enemies deployment zone and assassination of important units (all from the tournament scenario builder) to a variety of mission specific objectives for the campaign missions. Ties are broken for tournament scenarios using number of enemy army points killed.

The Axis and The Allies

The Dust Warfare Core Rulebook also includes complete guides for building lists from either the Axis or Allies factions (with the SSU covered in an upcoming expansion book). Lists are built using a platoon organization that is very similar to the list-building principles used in AT-43.

Each faction has three platoon types in can use: Combat platoons are generalist platoons that can take a variety of units, elite platoons focus on elite units of heavily armoured infantry, while assault platoons can feature fast units, and in the Axis case, more bizzarre units (lol zombies). A Platoon must have a command section (or hero) and one mandatory additional section then can add sections (which units can act as 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th sections are listed for each type of platoon) and support units (one per 2 platoon sections which can include sniper teams, walkers, etc.).

This list-building framework compels players to build slightly more well-rounded forces as you cannot just take a hero and a bunch of walkers, or just tons of units of the exact same type. On the other hand, the variety of units you can take in each section (as well as support units you can take) do allow a great deal of list-building flexibility.

My Thoughts on the Game System

From what I’ve seen so far, I’m really impressed with Dust Warfare. The rules are very clearly written and explained, with little or no head-scratching necessary (though a double take was required to understand the armour save rules because of how unique they are). The game system as a whole looks very promising and I am very interested to see how the reaction mechanic interacts with the comparatively short range of most infantry weapons (usually up to 16″ tops). I am also really impressed with the elegance of the rule-set as a whole, the mechanics are fairly straightforward but are clearly designed to allow a great deal of tactical depth. As a competitive gamer I am also thrilled that the rules were designed with tournament play in mind from the get go, rather than the disdain with which competitive gamers are often treated some other wargame makers *cough* GW *cough.*

On the other hand, I am less sold on the lack of alternating unit activations. This is something I’ve gotten so used to in games outside of GW that I’m not sure how much I’m going to take to going back to using all of my units at once. I’ve tended to feel that the alternating activation mechanic allows for some really interesting interlocking tactics to develop over the course of a turn as the situation develops based on already activated units on both sides. Mind you, I can also see there being some appeal to the manoeuvre tactics that open up to you when you can move all of your units into position together.

I also really like the idea of the orders and reaction mechanics for adding another layer of tactical depth in this game. Between these two mechanics all sorts of feints and other types of skull-duggery will be possible.

I was already a big fan of the fluff and the units in Dust Tactics and Dust Warfare has just added to that in spades. Heavy infantry are badass as hell, and the new light and heavy walkers (the Luther, Pounder, etc. of Dust Tactics are Medium Walkers) are really neat models, and with the upcoming introduction of the SSU there will be the introduction of aircraft to the battlefield.

Finally, the rulebook itself is beautifully designed and put together hardcover with great design, lots of wonderful pictures, and writing that didn’t make me roll my eyes once (ok, well, until I got to the zombies in the Axis units…). That the rulebook is only 140 pages long in total, and that includes the full army “books” for the Axis and Allies is a testament to the tightness of the rule-set.

While I can’t give a definitive opinion until I’ve had a chance to play-test this game, what I’ve seen so far looks very promising. If you’re interested in wargames at all then I would highly recommend checking out the Dust Warfare core rulebook at your favorite local games store (LGS) or of course online from Fantasy Flight Games.


About the author


Lorenzo tends to utterly emphatic opinions on the things that interest him: Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Video Games, Anime, Tabletop Games, Technology and Internet Spaceships.


  1. Anonymous

    Since you claim to be a competitive gamer, can you please comment on the army list issues that are pretty apparent like broken unit combos and min maxed rock, paper, scissors lists. All I see on the Internet are glowing reviews of this game but no mention of how vulnerable it is to power gamer abuse. Or have you not figured it out by now…

  2. BlackDog E

    @ Anonymous: WTF are you talking about? I’ve been playing this game for a while now and experimenting with army lists, and I have not been able to come up with any broken lists.

    Now, in Dust TACTICS you can make some really broken lists, but Dust Warfare has lots of guidelines which dictate what you can and cannot take in in army. You can, if you wish, take a platoon of 4 units of zombies led by the Totenmeister. but that platoon will not get any support units (such as walkers/snipers) or upgrades, such as artillery strikes.

Comments have been disabled.