I've bought a few sets of Dungeon Tiles over the years and for a while I picked-up every new set â€“ or two sets if I felt they were important. I have a small collection, enough for my needs but not enough to recreate Undermountain on my dining room table.
Thoughts on Tiles
It took me a while to really appreciate the tiles. While I tend to default to my wet-erase Chessex mats, whenever I needed to quickly pack for a game, but didn't care about details and just needed a shapeable grid, I would grab a stack of tiles.
Storing them proved problematic. Initially I used several zip-lock baggies, but that proved unwieldy. Now I use a set of plastic drawers (although they're getting a tad full). I just take what I need for a game, and have separated my tiles based on type (dungeon, cave, wilderness, etc).
The BIG problem with Dungeon Tiles is having them slide all over the place. Nothing is worse than your hard-crafted dungeon being scattered by an errant hand or a bumped table. That was before someone showed-me the magic of shelf liner, found in most hardware or generic box stores. Lay it down and the tiles stay put. I've heard blu-tacÂ works as well, but I always worry about ripping the top layer off my tiles.
They've made a few improvements over the years, such as having the flip-side of tiles being variants, such as open and closed doors. A very handy idea.
Some of the sets seem more useful than others. I've found the cave sets to be annoying, as matching the black of walls is frustrating. I enjoy the basic assumption of the standard sets that negative space is "wall".
I've been disappointed by the more recent sets, which are much less generic. It has been remarked that Sinister WoodsÂ should have been named Some Ruins in the Woods. I found that set frustrating as it lent itself to only one or two easy set-ups. Not nearly the open-ended design of the original sets. Streets of ShadowÂ was also uneven, being a sewer set AND a street set. Instead of being a really good street set it tried to be two things and failed.
This is the flaw with most of the recent Dungeon Tile releases. They try to give variety at the expense of comprehensiveness, so for a real option in design you need two sets. They've moved from multiple sample dungeons to a single set-up on the back of Sinister Woods and Harrowing Halls and the sample dungeon on the back if Arcane Towers required two sets to complete. It's a good idea from a sales perspective: if you need two sets you'll buy two sets and WotC gets more profit. This is probably also a response to the initially high sales of Tiles as people bought lots to fill their collection and then bought significantly fewer. It'd probably be simpler just to make the sets bigger and charge more, possibly with doubled tiles.
To really rate the quality and effectiveness of Dungeon Tiles as a product there needs to be a comparative product to compare it to.
Enter Paizo and their Map Packs. The two products are about the same price, only the paizo set features more cardstock cards and all its tiles are the same size with fewer small, fiddly tile pieces that get lost or slide all over the map. The Paizo tiles are similar (almost identically really) to the cardstock terrain that used to come free with the D&D minis starter sets. They also have the strong advantage of being almost continually in print, so you never have to trawl eBay looking for that missed set that now compliments a planned adventure perfectly.
Dungeon Tiles are sturdier though, lying flatter and not shifting as easily. And the tiles are double sided increasing the number of potential tiles in a set. The Paizo ones feel much more fragile and flimsy and require a little more care in transportation. For modular dungeon and environment construction, I much prefer using Dungeon Tiles. I'll be much happier though when the MastersetsÂ come out and WotC drops the needless "collectible" aspect of Dungeon Tiles.
I should mention the Paizo FlipmatsÂ as another option. Single-piece maps, they fold-up nicely for easy travel and are wet-erasable making them potentially more useable than either product. I like the woodland one personal for generic forests fights, ala the reused encounter zones in Dragon Age.
The new shiny for Dungeon Tiles is the 3D tiles. A neat idea as it adds some depth to encounters. Fights are much more dynamic of there is some height or PCs have to move to other locations. But the 3D tiles really eat-up the tiles in a set. A third of the tiles end-up being 3D tiles.
But they're neat. I bought a couple sets of Harrowing HallsÂ and now have a nice supply of tiles. It took some doing to figure-out what went where, and sadly there were some left-over pieces. That seemed silly.
Again though, the set is trying to do two things. Harrowing Halls was the much needed "interiors" set, filling the niche of inns and manors and lavish castles. But we lose a substantial amount of "inn" space to the 3D tiles. The 3D tiles are also designed to be reversible, flipped over to reveal worked stone or wood designs. The latter make sense for that set, but the worked stone seems to have been added solely to make-up for the lack of 3D in earlier sets. It is possible to flip and reverse and adjust your tiles depending on your need, but the cardboard â€“ while thick and sturdy â€“ doesn't handle that much fidgeting well. Even putting mine together I came close to rending the top layer and can imagine the edges being pulped from repeated assembly. They also seem designed solely for light plastic minis. I wouldn't want to break-out large metal minis for a fight using the 3D tiles.
While a great gimmick and neat addition to the line, the 3D tiles feel like they were forced into an already planned product. Both would have been better served had Harrowing Halls focused on interiors and a separate 100% 3D set had been released. That way people wouldn't end-up with many superfluous manor-tiles to get their 3D tiles for their stone dungeon and people needing inns wouldn't end-up with unneeded 3D tiles.
Desert of Disappointment
The new set is out, Deserts of AthasÂ and it also contains 3D tiles. There's some interesting additions that I look forward to seeing, such as carts. I do enjoy the idea of 3D carts and could have probably used them for an early combat encounter. I'll be picking-up a couple sets because my campaign will likely shift to a desert locale in a few more sessions.
Now, the first thing people often say when they see the tiles is "man, there's a lot of water on Athas!" There's no less than three forum topics that bring this up.
The argument for the water goes that the designers didn't want to limit the tiles to a single campaign setting: Dark Sun. Which is total B.S. because every campaign setting has some desert. A pure desert set would be just as useful for Dragonlance or the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk. If some variety was needed they could have done some desert variants, such as dried and cracked wastelands, or lava fields, or stony plains. (Heck, barren stony terrain would also be useful for mountain encounters.) Instead, they added water.
A full set of blank featureless desert is boring. Very boring. You just need a blank grid for that. The same could be said for plains, and yet the first wilderness set had its share of grassland. But no combat should ever, ever take place on a featureless map, and you only ever need dungeon tiles for encounters, so that point is moot. The trick is, you need some open sand and then some other tiles to add detail and terrain, such as a steep dune ridge or rocky outcroppings, or a small set of ruins, or a well-travelled road. Then there are the desert staples such as sun-bleached, small oasis, or a shallow gorge.
Returning to an earlier point, the problem with this set's design is that it tries to do two things at once and thus fails at both. We needed a good desert set and we needed a good water set. And now we kinda have both but really have neither.
And we did not just need open water tiles, which could also be detailed with a blank featureless map. We needed a water set with open water AND water terrain: flotsam, Sargasso seaweed, ruined ships, reef, submerged rocks, whirlpool, etc. But we don't see any of that in the desert set, just open water.
Because I know I'll need desert tiles and water tiles I'll buy a set, likely two to get remotely close to the tiles I'll need. But I would have preferred two separate sets for a real variety of terrain.
In the meantime, I'll probably have to supplement my Dungeon Tiles with the competitor's desert set.
The whole "water set" issue has an element of insult to its injury, because the desert set is the first set to have a small boat tile. Repeating, the desert set introduces boats.
Now, this wasn't the only place D&D players could have found boat tiles, as the RPG gave out two sheets of boats as a DM reward a couple years back. And they're fantastic! Multiple sizes of ship and a deck that can be flipped-over to reveal the interior. Great stuff.
But good luck finding a set, as they were running at $50 on eBay last year, and are now likely even harder to find.
(WotC seems to be intent on giving money to their competitor.)
If a sea set is ever done they'll probably be tempted not to reprint the ships, to keep the reward special. But there's no reason they couldn't do a set of slightly different ships. And they should because every D&D adventure needs to go on the sea at some point. And the ships work just as well as spelljamming vessels or astral skiffs.
Every DM needs a set of boat tiles; even if it doesn't fit your current campaign you fill find a way to use them. You always find a way to make-use of products you have.