Command School, Part 3: The Activation Game

Hello again, Commanders, and welcome back to our ongoing Command School series, touching on the finer points of Dropzone Commander gameplay. If this is the first time you’ve encountered the Command School articles, you might be interested in reading our previous installments:

This week’s entry was inspired by a question I got over in the Hawk Forums:

“Do you always keep squads in battle groups generally grouped together on the battle field? As in do you keep the squads in a battle group in the same area or spread them out? My thinking is that you want battle groups to support each other, so that after the first activation, you other battle group(s) can threaten the squads that are threatening the previously activated squads (who can no longer react), which to me means spreading out a little. Right, wrong or maybe both?”

Answering that question crystallized a few points I’ve wanted to make for a long time about the most important and dynamic part of DZC play – the alternating activation system. Like the theory of battlegroup construction, discussing the alternating activation system can become a bottomless pit of talking points – there are simply too many conditions at work in a battle for there to be an obviously “correct” countermove for any one move.

So, to avoid driving myself (and probably you) crazy, I’ve compartmentalized what I think are the 5 central considerations to make when playing the activation game:

  • Moves
  • Countermoves
  • Planning activations
  • When to be aggressive
  • When to hold back

The advantage of thinking along these lines is that they are in no way predicated upon what your opponent does during the game; rather, these are principles you can use as guideposts for making decisions based on the circumstances of the game. So let’s get to it!


When you break things down to the essentials, there are two fundamental types of activations you can make: moves and countermoves.

I define “Moves” as either the actions you must take during the game, or those you take without regard to the opponent’s expected actions. Actions to complete the game’s mission (like moving onto a Focal Point with a high-cost unit, sending infantry into a structure containing an objective, or racing units around the table to pick up possible objectives) are all Moves. Moves can also be any proactive actions you take to interrupt or put the opponent on their back foot, such as attacks on an enemy unit in the open; demolishing buildings; or entering CQB.

Looking back at the theories of battlegroups I espoused in the previous Command School article, specialist and proactive battlegroups are best used to make Moves. Specialists are mission-focused and have a clear purpose in the game (e.g. a group consisting of Exotics and a Flame unit are there to engage the enemy in CQB); proactive battlegroups are typically aggressive and can act without consideration of the enemy’s actions (e.g. an armor group in a heavy dropship is tough and well-armed enough to go for that focal point and take their lumps on the way).


Countermoves, as one might expect, are those actions predicated by the actions of your opponent or are intended to force an opponent to take an action to which you can react. Activating an AA squad to take down incoming dropships, fleeing with infantry before they get locked in CQB, or counterattacking to take out a powerful unit before it rolls your lines are all Countermoves. Likewise, “goading” activations like an ambush, a feint that places a juicy target in the open to provoke your opponent into attacking, or “stall” activations (in which you activate a battlegroup removed from the action to force your opponent into activating groups ahead of you) are types of Countermoves.


Unsurprisingly, reactive and generalist battlegroups tend to excel at Countermoves. Reactive battlegroups are fast enough to pounce on the enemy when an opening presents itself, and generalist groups’ lack of focus tends to make them better for spreading out and performing a wide variety of battlefield roles. As battlegroups take casualties, they start to become good Countermovers; as their ability to affect the battlefield is reduced, their activations are better used to harass opposing units (drawing fire from your stronger or more important battlegroups) or to stall for time and force your opponent to activate a battlegroup he or she would rather hold back for later.

Planning Activations

The order in which you activate your battlegroups is crucially important, particularly in the late game. Often, a game of DZC is decided during the last turn, sometimes in the last activation, so missteps in activations can completely undermine a game’s worth of play. But knowing which Move or Countermove to make is rarely cut and dry. Take this situation:

Example: Let’s say you have 2 battlegroups left to activate this turn: one is a Troops group which is holding an objective, and the other is an armor battlegroup. Your opponent has an unactivated group with some AA capable tanks interposing themselves between you and the board edge (poised for a Countermove).

Activating your armor group first gives you a chance to destroy the enemy AA, but if you fail, your opponent will surely go after your objective-carrying troops on her turn. If you activate the Troops battlegroup first, you will have to move past the unactivated AA in order to escape, but doing so forces them to fire with reaction fire, increasing their to-hit rolls by +2.

So what’s the better play? The right choice is determined by the abilities of both your forces and those of your opponent. If you have strong, accurate firepower in your armor group, it may be better to activate the armor first; if your opponent’s AA has low Accuracy, Shots, or Energy, it might be better to activate the troops and risk the reaction fire.

While the situation on the ground invariably… varies, there are a few core principles you should stick to when planning activations. The first is: as the game goes on, you should shift your activation planning to focus more and more on completing the mission. That means, for example, that after turn 4 in an objective-based mission, your priority should be to protect and extract objectives, and to deny your opponent from doing the same; by turn 6, your only important moves are to protect your objective carriers until they get off the board, and to swat down your opponent’s. In our example above, destroying the enemy AA is not the mission; getting the objective off the board is. As DZCasualty is fond of saying, “DZC is a game that makes you hate yourself” – and you will never hate yourself more than when you forget the mission and, in turn, cost yourself the game.

As the flip side of this point, avoid overplanning. There are simply too many variables in this game – your opponent’s action, their reactions to your reaction, the way the dice fall – to know exactly how things are going to roll out. Trying to guess your opponent’s mind often leads to option paralysis or, even worse, to start second-guessing your own plans. In the end, it’s best to plan for statistically average performance from your dice, and try to leave yourself a backup plan in case the dice don’t fall your way; in our example above, if the opponent’s AA is low shot/Acc, you’re probably better off forcing them to react-fire by moving the objective-carrying transport first, with a backup plan of using your armor battlegroup to recover the objective should you get shot down. This is precisely the reason I always recommend a decent mix of proactive and reactive battlegroups in your force, so you always have a “go to” move when you’re not exactly sure what your opponent is going to do.

When to Act Aggressively

DZC is a game that rewards proper use of aggressive and bold tactics; having the initiative is a huge advantage, and most shooting weapons are strong and accurate enough that, with good timing, you can cripple or wipe out an enemy squad before they have a chance to counter-attack. But as any Scourge player (this one included) will tell you, mindless or blind aggression is a quick way to send your models to the casualty pile and lose the game. So when is a good time to take the initiative and act aggressively on the battlefield?


Generally speaking, aggressive activations are Moves, where your objective is to put your opponent on guard and force them to deal with a new situation you create. Good aggressive actions should ideally be opportunistic, decisive, and in pursuit of the mission’s overall objective. Some prime examples of when to act aggressively include:

Killing mission-critical enemy units – Whether it’s infantry units in a objective or intel-based game, or durable armor in a focal point game, the enemy always has units that are more important than others for winning the mission. Eliminating those units can win you the game outright; after all, your opponent can’t pick up objectives if she’s got no infantry left to send into a building, right? Examine your opponent’s force throughout the game – what units are crucial to winning the mission, and where is their force the weakest? Those should be the primary targets for your aggression.

Double-tapping – The “double-tap” is a situation when you get the last activation of one round and win initiative on the next, which allows you to activate the same unit twice in a row. For instance, if you moved a squad of tanks into the open to fire as your last activation, then won initiative, you could fire those tanks a second time (double-tap), then move back to safety before the opponent can fire back. Done at the right time, this can provide a crucial advantage.

Finishing off a weakened foe – A weakened squad or unit is still a threat in DZC; even the cheapest infantry or vehicle with a single DP can score a full victory point from a Focal Point or carry an objective off the table. Taking an opportunity to use your numerical and/or firepower advantage to take out a squad (or even better, remove an entire activation from the opponent’s army) is very often worth aggressive activation.


Capturing and Extracting Objectives – This one is pretty obvious. When given the opportunity to take a discovered Objective, or to get off the board holding one, you should always, always take it. The prime example of this is fleeing off the board in a light dropship with an objective, but other permutations include: shooting down a vulnerable enemy transport carrying an objective that didn’t quite make it out of range; fleeing with an objective when your squads outnumber an enemy in CQB; snagging a Possible Objective marker lying in the open; and so on.

Making a Last Stand – This is the other side of the situation above. When you’ve got a weakened battlegroup that has a chance to do some damage before it is destroyed, it can often be worth going aggro with that unit to draw enemy attention away from your more mission-critical units. You’re going to lose the squad or battlegroup anyway (and thus the activation), so you might as well squeeze a few actions from it rather than simply lose the chance to act at all…

When to Hold Back

Conversely, there are a lot of times in a DZC game when it’s not a good idea to be aggressive. A game might start as a sprint, with both sides pouncing to grab objective buildings and attack crucial units, but often ends up more like a marathon – those who have the most viable force by game’s end are vastly more likely to win. So when are some (generally) good times to hang back and make Countermoves?

Generally, holding back is a good idea when your units are faster or more durable than the enemy’s, or when you have more activations than your opponent. Going last opens up the opportunity for multiple consecutive activations (either by having your opponent run out, or by getting last turn and then winning initiative in the next round). This is a huge advantage, particularly when they come after an opponent has completely committed to their plan for the turn, so it’s always worth considering when the opportunity arises. Just don’t forget: the mission always comes first!

Here are a few times I think you should always consider hanging back:

During Turn 6 (especially during Focal Point missions) – I can say with confidence that at least a third of the games I’ve played – and likely many more – have been decided in Turn 6, many times in the very last activation of the entire game! This is especially true of Focal Point missions, where you can score VPs just by having a single model within 6” – using a dropship to run up one or more squads from safety to grab a point during the final activation can completely turn the game on its head.


When you’re uncertain of the enemy’s strategy – When facing a cagey opponent, hanging back and forcing them to commit first can be an excellent move. While doing so may expose you to an alpha strike – which can be acceptable, assuming you’re not risking a mission-critical unit – the cost is often well worth the reward, as it forces your opponent to show a bit of their hand before you have to make a decision yourself.

When your opponent has many reactive battlegroups or high-speed squads – Similar to the case of uncertainty, activating after a quick opponent, or one whose army is built to counter-attack, is often a good idea. Each time they activate before you, it causes your opponent to sacrifice the advantage of their high speed (by moving into a position where you can go after them yourself) and reduces their ability to react to your own activations later in the round.

When your opponent has fewer activations than you do – Some armies with more expensive units (like Shaltari) or which favor “brick” squads (such as PHR or tank-heavy UCM) often field lists with less than the maximum number of battlegroups due to points limitations, and every army will suffer casualties throughout play which will eventually deplete battlegroups as well. When you have more activations than your foe, it’s often worth giving up the first turn to end up with 2 or more activations in a row. As a bonus, if you win initiative in the following turn, you’ll be able to stack your advantage even more!

When your units are tougher or are better at wars of attrition – Armies that start with less than maximum activations often do so for good reason; their units are often more expensive, and commensurately tougher! When you hold the advantages of numbers or capacity to endure damage, it’s worth considering holding back; you can take a punch, then hit back even harder and after your opponent has committed units to a fight (or just fled!). This also gives you a chance to counteract your foe’s chance to get multiple consecutive actions, which is always a plus.


When you have air superiority – As the owner of a very air-heavy Scourge army, this is my personal favorite strategy. The biggest advantages of aircraft are their speed, and the fact most vehicles and aircraft cannot shoot at them; with a little work, you can devastate your opponent’s AA units, and end up controlling the skies. When you control the air, you can pass the initiative to your opponent, knowing full well you’re safe from attack, and can act against enemy units with impunity.

Get Into Action!

I hope this breakdown helps you a bit when it comes to making tactical decisions about when and how to use DZC’s alternating activation system to your greatest advantage. While I can’t possibly get into the specifics of every meaningful scenario, these basic principles should provide a good starting point for approaching some common situations. Naturally, the only way to find which principles work is to put them into practice, so get out there, get some games in, and let us know on Facebook how they’re working out for you!

Catch you soon, Commanders!


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