Publisher: Cyanide Studio
Developer: Cyanide Studio
Platforms: Windows PC
Status: Open Beta/Early Access
Model: Online Multiplayer, Free To Play
Dogs of War Online is a turn-based tactics wargame based on the largely forgotten Confrontation fantasy miniatures wargame by Rackham. Incidentally, the Confrontation miniatures game was adapted into a tactical RPG in 2012 by Cyanide Studios with the same going for Aarklash: Legacy in 2013. It seems that Cyanide bought the license and by god they are going to get their money’s worth with yearly releases of shovelware.
Dogs Of War Online follows this trend by directly recycling art and audio assets from Aarklash: Legacy, which in turn recycled its assets from Confrontation (2012); including whole parts of levels copied and adapted for hex-based play, as well as unit models and UI elements.
Unsurprisingly, Dogs Of War Online’s technical (and business) side is, bluntly put, a complete disaster, starting with the fact that the game is not marked as Beta or Early Access on the Steam store page with no indication that the game is in fact not released but a very early beta build (version 0.12.7).
As of the time of writing, according to Steam there are ~400 concurrent players in Dogs Of War Online which seemingly forced the mighty Cyanide servers to its knees for two days. This is evidenced by ~100 threads on the steam forum complaining about connection issues, dropped games, bugged logins, disappeared progress and not received activation emails. Other players report frequent crashes, horribly bad performance on high-end machines and a plethora of other errors and annoyances like disappearing UI elements.
It certainly seems Cyanide’s first strike was more of a self-inflicted injury rather than a clear cut victory, let’s hope they have enough Healing Cards (TM) to lick their wounds and return to the fight.
Technical and service problems aside, as you will see below the game itself and its gameplay has “potential” in the broadest sense of the term. However, I have thought the same many times before just to be disappointed with the end product, so forgive me for being cynical.
As previously mentioned, Dogs Of War Online is a tactical hex-based wargame. A closer inspection of its elements, however, shows a curious combination of traditional pen and paper rulesets, modern wargaming tropes, and even Go (the board game).
The game starts the player in a controlled three-stage single-player tutorial that describes the game’s basic functions after which they can chose one of three available factions: Light, Darkness, and Destiny and with them the three armies Lion, Ram, and Wolfen. The player then chooses his prefered “deck” of units he would want to play. Available is at least one starter deck with a simple combination of basic units and two advanced/specialty decks, usually with a champion and support units.
Building an army is simple: the player purchases units from the in-game store with either in-game currency earned in matches or real money, and then builds their prefered composition. Each unit in the game has an Army Point (AP) cost and the game is tiered between 200, 300, 400 and 800 points for armies. The more powerful or higher level a unit, the higher its cost in AP. The second statistic for the player is Renown, simply an experience metric to indicate the Level of the player and a gating mechanic for purchasing higher level units.
This is used for matchmaking and measuring the power of an army, unfortunately, this is also where the game shows its first flaws. The AP costs for champion units are currently woefully inadequate in comparison to their equivalent in points of basic units.
A Predator Of Blood (109 AP), for example, exceeds the power of two Fang Warriors (50 AP) by a far wider margin than the 9 AP would indicate. This is all tied into the RPG stat system for units and their inherent base statistics like accuracy, dodge and parry. It is a similar situation that can be found in the Dungeon’s And Dragons Minis miniature game; some units are just so powerful in their statistics (Armor Class in the case of DnD) that cheaper basic units are simply unable to hit or inflict damage to them before they are themselves easily destroyed, even if you would send whole armies at them.
As the game calculates matchmaking solely by use of AP, this leads to the problem that low tier matches (200AP) are dominated by champion units, as basic units are often simply incapable of overcoming the inherent statistics by tactical play (only by lucky hits/crits). Games where one or two expensive unit are played by a high level player are exceedingly common as it is an easy no-risk currency reward for the high level player farming lower levels. Perhaps the final version will also account for unit or player levels to create a more inviting environment.
Combat in Dogs Of War Online is heavily reliant on positioning, unit strength and turn-order with a unique mechanic called Encirclement replacing the more traditional Flanking in which units encircling another unit gain progressively higher bonuses against it the more they form a closed circle around it (hence the mention of Go). The battlefield in a melee becomes about breaking Encirclement tactics and controlling territory as much as it is about smartly using abilities.
The second most important rule of combat is to pair units with equal strength against each other as the RPG elements will decide between hit and damage. A simple Swordsman is generally outclassed when faced with a Skrûll Warrior as his parry and dodge statistics as well as fear aura would make him hard to hit even in a full Encirclement with five other buddies.
Every unit has a movement phase and an attack phase with the ability to forego an attack to take a double-move; a very traditional setup for turn-based miniature wargaming and RPGs, however the system is spiced up with a few twists. For one, every unit will counter-attack when engaged in melee combat, and secondly after eliminating an enemy you get one more movement and attack in what is called a Pursuit Movement. With this the choice of of attack- and turn-orders becomes very important when planning your strategies.
With the addition of globally limited Orders that can be given to any given unit, a host of special abilities and passives, there certainly is a great deal of depth to the mechanics, no matter how poorly they are balanced currently.
Victory conditions are varied, but unlocked by Renown. New players will only have the ability to engage in Deathmatch games until they reach level 4 where Elimination Mode is unlocked and later King Of The Hill with a prerequisite of level 8. I am not entirely sure if this is such a good decision for the longevity of the game as playing one mode can easily get repetitive and boring without variation.
The game also sports a curious 10 turn limit and turns are time-limited themselves, supposedly to keep the game flowing. Unfortunately, when hitting the 10 turn limit the game just decides to give both players a draw irrelevant of how the battle went. This means that often players will engage in running away from a lost fight to run out the timer and not take a loss. For melee focused armies this becomes a nightmare as they can rarely keep up with a unit that does double movements since it negates the attack-turn. It would be better if the game calculated the AP-loss per side and then decided who won the engagement depending on who inflicted the most damage to the opposing army.
Of course the question on everybody’s mind becomes if the game is Free-To-Play or Pay-To-Win, and the answer lies decidedly on the latter rather than the former. While it is true that most functions besides the last 4 unit slots and an additional army slot are purchasable with in-game currency earned through matches, the game features exorbitant prices for the little a player gains during a match. Advanced units can cost upwards of 33.000 currency and for the really epic 800 AP battle multipliers need to be purchased. Not to mention that a player potentially would want to uphold large or multiple armies to participate in specific missions that require them to sacrifice a unit for a period of time for a reward.
Additionally, the Wound mechanic needs to be mentioned as it is intimately tied to the monetization of the game. Every time a unit is knocked out in battle they have a chance to receive a permanent wound that will reduce their statistics in some way. Furthermore, these wounds can stack until the unit becomes “comatose” and can not be further used in battles. The only way to remove those wounds are Healing Cards which are sold in the store for 100 ingame currency (or 1 RM currency). An average match nets the player around 100-400.
On one side, I applaud this system as it introduces at least a modicum of army-management outside of battles and makes not losing units (combat performance) more important. On the other hand, making the healing of such wounds dependent on currency earned from playing the game is a predatory solution. Playing the game with wounded characters becomes either extremely challenging or near impossible, creating a situation where a player could potentially perform worse and worse, running out of currency to heal and be forced to either delete his army (as it is now useless), or pay real money to get healing cards.
I can’t shake the feeling that the game is holding my units, and therefore my gameplay, hostage.
As mentioned, Dogs Of War Online certainly is mechanically an interesting tactics game, but it is marred with technical issues, poor balancing and the largest deterring factor: being Free-To-Play. Lacking are also some basic tools to play with or against friends, it is impossible for example to chose an AP bracket or army to compete in after a game invitation. A game like this is played best with people you know, similarly to the board-game it is based on. Doubles matches certainly would help to spice up the gameplay and expand the depth of the game with army synergies.
Of course, I might be wrong and the game will elevate itself beyond what is on display now. Maybe it will fix all its bugs, connection issues, expand gameplay options, and properly balance its mechanics, but I am not optimistic seeing as the developers are extremely reluctant to communicate with the playerbase and display a lack of interest in their feedback and issues.
Currently, I can not recommend Dogs Of War Online to anyone beyond the most hardcore of beta-testers that can put up with a constant flood of annoyances and what is essentially a game so fragile it might shatter at any moment.