09th Nov2023

‘Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Skirmish games between exactly two players make for some of the most exciting encounters in board gaming. Whether you’re playing as the heroes and villains of the Marvel universe in Marvel: Crisis Protocol, or recreating iconic dogfights from the Star Wars universe in X-Wing 2.0, this is a genre that offers both strategic depth and boundless opportunity for tactical play. In the majority of games that fit this genre, team-building and preparation are a big feature, but for some, this can be daunting – and that’s before you get to building and painting miniatures. In Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught, the teams are already set, and the models are already painted – all you need to do is choose a side and jump in.

As neither a builder of models or a painter of miniatures, Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught is aimed directly at me. The fact we have three kids and lead very busy lives also means that whilst I have found time for the rich, expansive team-building of games like Marvel: Crisis Protocol, I really can’t do them justice – again, another tick in the box for Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught‘s pick up and play approach. The core box includes two factions, each comprising of six miniatures, and each of the multitude of scenarios in the base game will use between three and five on each side. Currently, there are two additional factions available, as well as a new scenario pack which adds six extra missions (albeit with the need for extra monster miniatures.)

On the subject of monsters, Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught delivers a battle between two player teams, but there are “neutral” monsters involved in almost every scenario, and whilst defeating opposing characters scores victory points, so too does whatever the focus of the scenario is. In some cases, VP might be linked to defeating certain monsters, in others it might be connected to holding specific locations and in one particularly interesting scenario, VP is scored for “controlling” an unfortunate captive who holds critical information for both parties. Whilst the combat in Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught is exciting and compelling, it’s the setting that really brings the game to life.

And this may come as a surprise actually, because whilst every character in Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught is named on a character card that comes laced with three, four or even five unique abilities, there is a surprising lack of lore or story anywhere in the game. The Dungeons and Dragons universe is broad and very well developed, and the factions that feature in Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught are well-known – the Harpers and the Zhentarim being those in the core box. With Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught being clearly aimed at a mainstream audience, I don’t think a bit more flavour text about the factions and each scenario would have hurt.

That said, what really matters is the gameplay – and you can always make up your own backstory. Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught comes with a double-sided board that features two broadly symmetrical layouts, and there are clear gridlines printed on both sides. There are a few impassable areas on each board and these features have no gridlines to make that clear, however there are also a few raised areas that are only described as such in the scenario book. These raised areas affect things like movement (costing extra movement to climb a level) and line of sight (which is based largely on common sense.)

Actual gameplay in Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught is very straightforward, however it is then modified by a large number of minor rules that are generally associated with monsters, characters or the current scenario. In general, a character can do one standard action, one movement action and one bonus action per turn (as well as any free actions.) A player may forgo their characters standard action to perform a second move, and any action can be skipped to undertake a bonus action instead, so common turns involve two movements and a bonus action, a movement and a standard action, or very rarely something like a movement followed by two bonus actions. Free actions are things like picking up loot from the ground, or sometimes scenario specific activities like pulling a lever.

Turn order is decided by initiative cards dealt at the beginning of each round. There is always an initiative one card that denotes the active (or first) player, and this passes between the players each round. After that, a set number of cards are dealt to ensure that each character will have one assigned to them – between one and whatever the total number of characters is. Assignment is done in secret, and characters then activate from the number one through to whatever the final card is (let’s say six in a three vs three game.) In-between player turns, there may be monsters that activate on half-numbers – for example four point five – and these will behave in accordance with a set of relatively simple rules.

To activate a character, we look at its card – perhaps the most unique physical component in Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught. Every character card is unique to the character in question and features their name and then a set of specific abilities – a standard attack, maybe a ranged attack, and then perhaps one or two class-specific abilities. The really unique bit comes in the form of dials. One dial for health, armour class and movement speed, one for experience, then usually at least two for abilities that use a cooldown timer when activated.

I really like this approach, since it massively reduces fiddly management of trackers, dice or other countdown mechanisms, and I also like how when a character is “bloodied” their characteristics change – they may get faster, harder to kill, or otherwise receive some change to their statistics. One barbarian character, for example, can go into a rage only once in a game, but that rage skill is restored (and can be used again) when the barbarian is bloodied. This comes in addition to a reduction in armour class (making them easier to hurt) and an increase in movement speed – all of which tells the thematic story of a barbarian increasing in bloodlust as their own wounds mount up.

Even though there are many abilities and choices to process, turns are simple. I’ve already mentioned the available actions and how they can differ based on their type, but they do generally boil down to some combination of moving and attacking. Characters in combat will need to play to their strengths – ranged characters simply feel weaker in melee combat because they are, and wizards in Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught do tend to feel like glass cannons. Melee fighters on the other hand are equally varied, with our barbarian I mentioned above being good at dealing damage but quite easy to kill. On the Harper team there is a paladin and a fighter, and these guys are much tougher, but take a more measured approach to actually dealing damage.

I’ve already mentioned the lack of written story in Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught, but one of the reasons why this doesn’t bother me is because of the stories that the game tells through its mechanics – most of which are clever and fun to manipulate. Gaining five XP allows a character to level up, adding yet another skill to that character. Loot cards add strength to weapons or armour, or maybe even add a new ability or attack of their own. For those who like campaign games, the scenarios in Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught are intended to be linked, meaning that if you can get the same two players together repeatedly, you can develop real character among your, erm, characters – turn your rogue into a deadly ranged threat if you wish, or add even more armour to your fighter and make them an unstoppable tank.

Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught – Many Arrows Faction Pack

As I mentioned before, the Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught core game includes two factions – the Harpers and the Zhentarim. I have no doubt that many more expansions will follow, but at least for now, we have two to take a look at. The first of these is the Many Arrows faction, which includes six new miniatures that are led by an orc barbarian and which comes across as a sort of “chaotic good” collection of demi-humans. There are several orcs here including the leader and a female paladin, and there are also two kobolds and a bugbear. This rather unusual collection of characters is really fun to play with and offers a fairly balanced experience, with a decent amount of toughness across the bigger characters and some big damage and powerful abilities coming from the “squishier” members of the team.

Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught – Red Wizards Faction Pack

Contrasting nicely with the Many Arrows is the Red Wizards faction, made up of largely magic users who have several ways to summon skeletons and spirit wolves, whilst being fairly easy to kill in their own right. This makes them a faction that I would suggest only experienced players consider, although they are super, super fun to play with. They are also classically a fairly “evil” group, and this comes across in the look of the miniatures and the overtly sadistic nature of some of their abilities.

Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught has a few minor flaws. The lack of story or flavour text seems odd, but can be overlooked, whilst the two boards are a bit generic and could benefit from clear signposting of terrain without the need to review an external document. These flaws are minor however, when you realise the amount of fun you’ll be having when the game begins. Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught has loads of monsters to fight and discover (including one huge dragon, a large troll and a two-headed cyclops), not to mention your own opponent, all of which keeps the game feeling quite fresh.

I really enjoy the pick-up-and-play nature of the game – with teams already pre-painted and configured, ready to play. Yes, you’ll need to choose which character(s) to leave out in most scenarios, but there are no points to weigh up, attachment cards to factor in etc. You just grab your models and get them onto the board, then add monsters, any environmental features and get cracking. The focus is always on what the most efficient turn is – with lots of choices on offer for movement, attacking and support moves such as healing or buffing. Characters feel exactly as they should be based on their class, and the way this is brought out through mechanics is very well done indeed.

**** 4/5

A copy of Dungeons and Dragons Onslaught was supplied for review by Asmodee

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