Dropzone 2.1.1? I’m An OldZoner, Forever

I’m a late convert to Dropzone Commander. I bought the 1.1. game in 2017 and expansions for a bargain price, inspired by 2014-2015 reviews that praised the game and the fantastic models. I recently studied the newer 2.1.1 rules and started to compare the different earlier editions. I think I will remain an OldZoner. The game has slowly developed in a wrong direction and the post-Hawk-Wargames corrections haven’t corrected the errors. Here’s my analysis. Dropzone: a case study of power creep.

The Original Game

Original 2012 Dropzone was designed as a helicopter (SF) game (as designer David Lewis said in podcasts interviews). In retrospect, it’s easy to identify the successful ingredients of the game:

  • The models were stunning: Lewis is an excellent designer who had worked for Spartan Games
  • The models were in the same style as the then popular Halo Wars RTS game
  • The rules were familiar, very 40K, Epic and Necromunda
  • The models were 10mm, not 6mm (which is too tiny for many wargamers)
  • Dropzone offered cheap (but goodlooking) cardboard terrain. Much bang for the buck.
  • The game was very complete, rules, fluff, and scenarios. Excellent pictures and layout.

What I like – in the original game – is the Rock-Paper-Scissors concept and the quickplay 6-turn grab victory points-scenarios.

Dropships were needed to position the squads and bring the treasured intel from the board. Dropships could only be hit by AA, which were not in position in the first turn, and a few weak interceptors in reserve. In other words, no substantial risk until turn 4-5. Destroying a dropship could cripple an army, because units were attached to their transport. Dropships could only pick up their own battlegroup. Thus, the focus was on maneuvering, hiding behind skycrapers, positioning, and vulnerable helicopters that rescue a squad or are shot down in the last turns of the game.

The popularity peak enabled Lewis to expand his company. In the wargames business, in particular the competitive Warhammer-inspired wargames, rules are a marketing tool to sell more WYSIWYG-miniatures. New rules introduce new models that make older models obsolete. I researched stats and see the same direction in DropZone Commander.

The Reconquest Expansions: Speed Creep

In which direction moved the game with the post-2014 Reconquest RCQ1 & 2 expansions, besides introducing gorgeous new models?

  • Listbuilding. Larger armies. The new units reinforced each other and earlier units. No problem with that. More possibilities for minmax gaming, though.
  • Higher speed. The faster you grab a victory point, the bigger your chance to win. RCQ introduced faster units, in particular The Resistance. I would call this ‘speed creep’. Although the Resistance was not stronger, the faction was faster. Frontline blog wrote, about the Resistance Hovercraft for example:

Hovercraft are going to be a game changer. They move on full speed on the turn they come in (10″ in many cases), they have relatively high armour (7 or 8) and high damage points. They can’t jump over buildings, but units in them can fire if they don’t use their second embark/disembark move (ie they can disembark then fire, or fire then disembark).

  • RCQ introduced also quick insertion and faster dropships for other factions, so that infantry could quicker capture a victory point, earlier than before. The RCQ Scourge Intruder for example moves 30 inch and has a small landing zone, meaning that every building within 30 inch in the 2nd turn could be captured.

Power Creep

Hawk Wargames introduced new units, and as always these RCQ-units became stronger and heavier than 1st edition units. Some commanders appeared to be ‘deathstars’. I made simple statistical calculations and ratios for 30 different units, based on unit defense and attack power divided by the unit value. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it“, Hamlet once told Lord Polonius.

I will spare you the exact boring Excel Sheet and outcomes, but all of my calculations indicate power creep. For example, I multiplied the Armor Class with Defense Points (Hit Points) and (if applicable) Saving Throw and compared old and new units.

  • The new UCM Phoenix Commander for example had 25 % more effective defense than the earlier UCM Kodiak Commander.
  • The new Scourge Oppressor had 38% more defense than the Scourge Desolator.
  • The new Shaltari Ramses was 27% tougher than the Coyote.
  • On the whole, heavy tanks, support and commanders were beefed up.
  • Some PHR-units benefited from the new Evasion rules, that negatively affected the to-hit-roll of opponents.

I also noticed that many new units had stronger weapons – logical, to counter the tougher defense. The UCM Phoenix, the Scourge Oppressor, the PHR Hades, the Nemesis and the Shaltari Cayman, to name a few, had E12 weapons. As Dropzone blog Orbital Bombardment indeed wrote in 2016:

Energy 11 weapons were a premium to begin with, but as the Arms Race began to rise E11 weapons have become easier to access and are more common place. As for durability, the power creep has again caused issues here, but more than that there are cheaper units which just soak damage better than these hulking goliaths of old

Airforce Power Creep #1: Dropship Hunters

But, in retrospect, the final blow to the original ‘position your helicopter’ game was the airforce power creep, that influenced the game balance more than the general power increase. In the first edition, dropship hunters were weak. Nerfplanes. Bombers were categorized as ‘aircraft’ that had only a 15% chance to be activated in the first turn. Dropship interceptors were even worse and had only 10% chance to be activated in the first turn. If activated, those interceptor jets had a relatively low chance to gun a dropship down, either because the to hit chance was low (UCM jets vs 3HP Scourge dropships, cumulative to hit chance only 11%) or because the dropships were sturdy (Scourge jets have a 27% hit chance but must strike 5 HP UCM dropships).

This means that in 1.1. often the airforce served to deal a final critical blow to a fleeing dropship picking up units with an objective in the second half of the game. Last minute tension. If hit, the vehicles inside often survived (5 out of 6) but lost their fast transport.

That all changed with the new expansions.

  • First, big dropship hunters were introduced. Take for example the UCM Ferrum that changed the balance. The Ferrum is an aircraft carrier with a drone swarm that can hunt dropships.
Beast of War demo

The Hawk crew member Simon above explains in Beasts of War how fast and deadly the Ferrum is, and how effective against dropships. Dropzone expert Egge wrote:

“So I kind of having given up on the Ferrum spam. If I face it, I’m dead. Turn 1 unload. Turn 2 everything vital is dead. I really don’t see how a unit with both AA, AT and fast speed (faster than Fast movers, actually in game terms as the drones are 100% active from turn 1) is a balanced unit in DZC “

(…) Fast AA is incredibly powerful in this game. Stupidly so. The only units capable of doing that are the Fast flyers and they pay very much points for the possibility to, with low probability, take out enemy flyers. And if they roll a “one” they don’t do squat. The Ferrum’s drones are therefor faster and more reliable than any fast flyer that costs the same amount. Did I say that the drones are the game´s best AT and AA weapons as well? 

The same happened with other factions. The Scourge arsenal was upgraded with the Scourge Vampires, dropship hunters as well. The Shaltari received the Panther, a long distance AA gun, infinite range and reaction fire, which means instant fire to every dropship in infinite Line of Sight. Orbital Bombardment wrote:

In a game which is mostly about air-to-ground deployment, infinite range AA from the first turn is far, far too dangerous, and removes a level of tactics from the owner of the Panther. That real thorn, nay, spike in my side is the reaction fire and the number of shots it produces. Reduce the range, or get rid of reaction fire

A Hawk Forum described the Shaltari Firedrake as “the most no brainer unit in the game right now. Let’s recap: an air unit a 48″ template weapon that in practice rarely misses at any range, powerful secondary abilities (…) Even if you play very badly and let enemy AA get a shot at it, you are well protected with 5+ shield and 5 DP. This unit simply has no risk vs reward.”

Airforce Power Creep #2: Better Bombers

Second, bomber power was increased in RCQ1.

  • RCQ1 made airstrikes more efficient with a forward air observer rule that allowed bomber runs automatically if a designated squad had line of sight on any opponent. In fact blogger Egge advised to take the Ferrum out asap with Reaver gunships.
  • New gunships were not categorized as ‘aircraft’ that had to be activated first, but were categorized as part of ‘Support’, without activation trouble.

Of course: if a supplement introduces new tougher units that enter early in the game, you need other units that can counter the threat – neutralize the new powerful commander, for example. But because the key element of the game, the dropships, remained weak, DropZone evolved towards a kill & destroy wargame. And with every added extra strong commander the game focus moved more from fast and smart positioning towards commander duelling.

DZC 2.0 Fixes: Dropships As Sideshow

The second edition brought changes that reinforced the speed & power creep direction but further weakened the ‘helicopter positioning concept’.

1. ‘Fixed transports’ were abandoned. Previously squads were only able to be carried by transports from their own corps. This led to squads unable to be redeployed if their transport was shot down. Transports now operate flexibly and are able to activate and carry squads in a different battlegroup from their previous activation, provided they have not already activated and have the capacity to carry that squad.

This rule made slower factions faster and more mobile – speed creep – and ‘solved’ the problem that dropships had become more vulnerable since RCQ. They were replacable now.

2. Units could disembark from a transport and shoot in the same turn. Earlier, disembarking took a full turn.

Again, this speeded up the game and shifted the focus to the first turns. It also simplified faster frontal assaults and close combat. And a shot down transport was now replacable.

3. Infantry now could disembark and search a building even if enemy units were also present in the building. Before, they had to occupy the building and defeat the opposing units first.

That’s ‘treasure grab speed creep’. In NecroMunda style games, gamers must grab treasures. Dropzone was in a higher gear so objective grabbing was made faster as well. But what was the effect? Hawk Forum commenters wrote:

It got changed up significantly to be a lot faster. Infantry can now start searching the same turn they enter a building and no longer have to allocate squads to fight off attackers (which means you can’t reliably lock them down). (…) Success chances being linked to the turn number instead of the amount of time they spent in the building just makes this worse, since it encourages showing up late to snatch an objective from an occupied building before fucking off next turn with nothing but an easy fortitude test to stop you (and potentially with no way for the opponent to react if you double activate). It’s the sort of thing where I’d encourage either making a homebrew fix or simply never playing those scenarios, it’s literally game ruining in a way none of the other 2.0 problems are.

Apparently there’s also an exploit with medium dropships and ground transports that makes them able to drop infantry into a building halfway across the board turn 1 and iirc extract them almost as quickly, which I haven’t experienced myself but sounds fucking nightmarish.

In other words, claiming objects became the side show and quick evolving combat between heavier units the main goal of the game. IMHO, Dropzone became a 40K-10mm clone. The game lost popularity, the company lost money and/or the new Dropfleet Commander was a logistical nightmare, I read several rumours, anyway David Lewis sold the range to TT Combat (but that’s another story)

DZC 2.1.1. Enter the Behemoths!

As I blogged earlier I had the gut feeling that DZC 2.0 is becoming a poor man’s Adepticus Titanicus, smallscale 40k with big behemoths surrounded by weak ground troops. Dave Lewis, now paid by TT Combat after the demise of his own Hawk Wargames company, explained that Behemoths will be 500-600 point models. For comparison, the first commanders cost about 50-75 points, the 2nd edition commanders often 150-200. So this is a new phase of power creep.

Dave speaking

Lewis enthusiastically explains: ‘who doesn’t want to smashing tower blocks with giant walking robots?” He says that “Dropzone will be Dropzone, we’re not turning it into a kind of monster board” but they “will make an impact”.

Here’s a recent example

I think I know such a game with towering blocks already. It’s made by GW.

Or was it the Gundam miniatures game?

And in a certain way history repeats itself. Wikipedia writes about 40K Epic first edition, that consisted of a set of Titans and Titan rules and a set of smaller Space Marine miniatures & rules:

The Adeptus Titanicus (1988) rules and miniatures set, which dealt with battles between opposing Imperial Titans, was published first. Rules for infantry and vehicles (the troops and vehicles of the Heresy era Space Marines) followed in White Dwarf 109. At the time of its release Adeptus Titanicus was GW’s way to counter the increasing popularity of FASA‘s Battletech, a tabletop game based around mecha warfare (which eventually expanded to infantry and vehicular combat, and even to an aerospace fighters supplement). GW was able to benefit from its savviness in the miniatures business, and integrating “Titanicus” in the popular WH40K universe proved a winning move.

Space Marine, another miniatures and rules set (for two opposing Space Marine armies), followed after (in 1989). The two could be played as individual games or as a combined game.

Where Adeptus Titanicus included six plastic Titan models with swappable weapons and styrofoam buildings, Space Marine included folded card buildings with styrene roofs alongside its sprues of infantry and vehicles.

So, mr Oldzoner – did Lewis or TT Combat commit a crime?

By changing rules and power creeping? Nope.

Really?

Really. Some neckbeards are hippies. The 9th-age nerds were angry when GW ”destroyed’ their favorite WHFB game. Other rule groupies routinely blame companies like GW or Battlefront for ‘capitalist strategies’. I’m neither a neckbeard nor a hippie. Hawk Wargames struggled hard to make profit in a difficult niche market. I understand their approach. TT combat inherited the rules and tries to make the best of it. I’m glad that Lewis’ excellent miniatures range has survived the downfall of Hawk Wargames as a company. Maybe the Gundamned direction is commercially the best direction after all.

It’s not the road I will follow. I have three options:

  • I can nerf the stats of the shiny RCQ-models that I bought and stick to the original Dropzone 1.1 helicopter game.
  • I can experiment with the Dark Horizons miniature game
  • or with Future War Commander, a combined arms SF wargame.

A ruleset is not a religion, a game designer not a saint, and changing rules not a sin. Wargaming is just toys, and the art of making fun.

April 2021 postscript

TT combat just announced a rebalancing of the game. 127 pages of new stats. First impression is good. Some big beasts have been downgraded. It’s too soon to say that the balance is back, the Behemoths are still a plan. We’ll see what will happen.

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