Tabletop Game Review: Dystopian Legions

Dystopian Legions is an interesting case; it is a wargame at the platoon level. A game generally comprises one to three units of up to ten soldiers with some limited support in the form of light armour or special forces. As a result, it is hard to call it really a skirmish game (which generally implies a game comprising at most ten miniatures a side, with individual figure movement and no concept of a unit) and yet it is far smaller and more focused than an army-level wargame like Warhammer 40,000. The closest analogue is probably a game like Warmachine in that it is more about considering small units as single entities using the mechanics of a skirmish game.

It is this almost unique scale – and the way in which the rules are designed around it – that defines Legions. It is, first and foremost, a very fast game to play. Turns alternate on a per-unit basis and a game will generally last only three or four turns in total at low game sizes. While this kind of decisive game swing in only a few key moves can be a major criticism of games, especially something like Dust where one can lose units before they have even moved, in Legions the player has a lot more control over the situation and has a range of options to avoid rapid defeat. Central to this is the system of determining turn order which, rather than being based on a simple spur-of-the-moment decision, instead relies on the player outthinking his opponent before a single dice is rolled. Players have to assign a card to each of their units and put these down in order – which becomes their fixed order of movement for that turn. As a result, it becomes somewhat harder – and even more difficult as game size increases – to predict what will happen and react to it, so both players have to be confident enough in their plan to make one they have to stick with to the end. Alternate unit activations – and the capacity for a unit to be damaged before it acts – force players to think reactively not proactively and plan to lose key pieces of their plan, and as a result Legions becomes a very tactical and positioning-based game.

The starter force units drum this need for reactive strategy in; each side gets a squad of basic infantry and a more mobile support unit which on its own can deal heavy damage but usually with some drawback or need for specific circumstances. Trying to rely too heavily on these specialists will lead to defeat in almost all cases; not specifically because they are weak (for example the Japanese ninja squad is very resilient thanks to its smoke and concealment abilities) but because they are few in number and a plan which relies too heavily on them will be a predictable one. In this way, the game is defined by effective use of basic troops and special orders, with the specialists used to make up for a shortfall in them. The system of officers being able to assume command of squads and give special commands adds some utility to these units which will become more useful in larger battles. An additional layer of depth comes in the decks of cards each player has; the majority are common between factions but each unit and officer type adds its own to the deck, replacing the initial options with ones which suit the faction’s playing style. In this way, while each faction’s basic troops are mechanically very similar, they are differentiated by the choice of officers and special cards available.

From all this, it is apparent that at a fundamental level the appeal of Legions is in making strategic choices from a very similar footing; faction differences are small yet significant and mostly based on effective combat range. In this way, it is easy to understand the game state and form strategies, suiting its rapid pace and need for constant reaction to enemy action. The mechanics are further streamlined by a move away from area-of-effect attacks and a formation system replacing it; “Blast” weapons do more damage to ranked troops by virtue of hitting more easily, since attacks are not made on a model-to-model basis. Instead, units attack in formation and form a pool of dice of varying colours irrespective of specific weapons. These dice are rolled as a mass and the total number of hits added up, the resulting figure compared to a unit’s defence value to see how many die. As combat is thus reduced to one dice roll with a standardised conflict-resolution system based on the number of successes rather than specific weapon effects, it is much easier to understand a unit’s capabilities and resolve each encounter. What this also serves to do is make units act as cohesive blocks rather than collections of models; what matters is positioning the block in the correct formation to get a full complement of shots – the positioning issue is of moving the entire formation, not each model within it.

Melee combat is as elegant, using the same pooled dice mechanic. However, to keep the game moving quickly each round of combat gives the winner a token which can either be cashed in for additional attack dice or to disengage if needed. If a side ever gets two such tokens its oppoents are forced to disengage and miss a subsequent activation, effectively removing them from the fight for a significant time. This system allows for units to effectively represent hit-and-run attacks or to fight decisive single combats which are resolved very quickly rather than dragging on. Hand-to-hand combat is well-balanced in general, too; it is a useful way of preventing enemies from shooting, and units well-suited to it supported by the correct cards can deal significant damage and more importantly break enemy morale. Morale is not a particularly defining rule in small games, where enemy units are likely to collapse from casualties before being pinned or broken, but the mechanics look to scale well across game sizes.

It is hard to comment too fully on some rules in Dystopian Legions having only played small games of it and given that the vehicles are currently not available to buy; however, the rules as tested are efficient and create quick and dynamic games which require a different kind of strategic thought than many competitors. The game is built around a kind of standardisation that allows for faction variation while keeping a relatively even footing between sides – different advantages rather than crippling disadvantages. As more miniatures become available, each bringing new orders and special cards to the factions, it is likely that further differentiation will occur while keeping the core mechanics largely unchanged.

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