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Rex: The Final Days of an Empire Review

Rex: The Final Days of an Empire from Fantasy Flight Games, a re-design of the famous Dune game from Eon

Over 30 years ago, the famous Eon board game design team released Dune, a game based on Frank Herbert’s famous science fiction novel of the same name, and so far ahead of its time that gamers in the early 80’s weren’t quite sure what to make of it. After a reasonable print run, it vanished, never to return again thanks to the legal complexities surrounding the licensing of Herbert’s intellectual properties. And in the meantime its reputation, fueled no doubt by its unavailability, grew, and grew, and grew, as did the price of second hand copies.

After heroic wrangling with the parties involved, Fantasy Flight Games managed to get hold of permission to reuse the mechanics, but not to place them in the Dune universe. So they instead opted to shift the action to their own Twilight Imperium setting and the result, after years of waiting, is Rex. The publisher sent me a review copy so I could find out for myself whether it was worth the wait.

Since this is effectively a reprint of the earlier game, I cannot reasonably review it without reference to its predecessor. The exalted reputation of Dune rested on two things. First, the astonishing manner in which it tied theme to gameplay with a minimum of fuss: the six asymmetric factions in the game worked and acted as you’d expect from the book and each play of the game felt like a grand re-telling of the nefarious political and military machinations of the book, but without ever seeming like it scripted the players into certain paths and with no more than a few pages of rules. The second was its extraordinary mechanics in which very little was random and nothing was hidden from all the players: everyone was allowed access to something that other people didn’t know. It that way it was very much in the vein of the carefully balanced, non-random, tight designs of modern European games, except this was the US of 20 years ago, and in a vicious conquest game that took 3-5 hours to play.

Personally, I had mixed feelings about Dune. Admired from a distance it was a hugely impressive design. At the coalface, though, I found that the game seemed fiendishly calculated to induce galloping paranoia in the players. The piecemeal nature of information sharing left you continually wondering who knew what. The bidding round, which saw everyone participating in an auction for face-down cards that might be useless or game-winners or anything inbetween, and only one player knew what each one was. The combat mechanic, where the belligerents secretly dialled the losses they were willing to take, added hidden attack and defence cards and hidden leaders, with winner wiping out the opposition. I found the glimmers of half-reliable information added up to a situation where I was almost paralysed by indecision, and the anxiety induced by the game went from beyond pleasantly tense to borderline unbearable.

The combat dial in Rex, source of much angst and paranoia here as it was in Dune

There’s also an unfortunate side effect to inserting economic and material aspects to a game that rests on Diplomacy-like negotiation between players. Namely, that the resulting alliance discussions can become lengthy and their implementation revolve around complex contractual arrangements. Different groups ended up with differing levels of details for these arrangements, but it always seemed to be an issue to some degree. I found these quickly became tedious and annoying, as I would rather have a game based more heavily around clever strategies than contractual small print.

But while it wasn’t entirely to my taste, there’s no denying that the wheeler-dealing and paranoid nature of Dune play was a near-perfect realisation of the machiavellian politics of the original books. And here, finally, we get to talk about Rex. Because of the theme shift, a generation of gamers who get to play this, and not Dune, are going to miss out on possibly one of the very best intermarriages of theme and mechanics in the entire history of board gaming. Everything has changed in Rex: factions have different names, slightly different powers, the board is fairly seriously different. The designers have struggled valiantly to manage the transition from Dune to the Twilight Imperium universe, but aspects of it grate badly. Why does collection of the games’ intangible currency of “influence”, for example, depend on the physical number of troops you have in an area? Makes sense with the original currency of spice, but with influence, not so much. Aficionados of Herbert’s universe are going to be disappointed with Rex, but that was always going to be the case. More unfortunate is that the partly-pasted theme detracts slightly from the pleasure and immersion of play generally.

However, the decoupling from the Dune universe also meant that the designers had more leeway to tinker with the mechanics of the game. Much has been made of the major changes, such as players now moving troops before paying to land more soldiers on the board whereas in Dune you landed before moving. That makes a difference to strategy, sure, but it’s actually a knock on requirement from some other smaller changes in the game. And it’s buried within those smaller changes that, for me, the most important alterations lie, alterations that might not have made sense if there was still an overwhelming need to include a theme of political plotting and double-dealing. Like the fact that all the useless cards got removed so that while there’s still a significant power variable in what’s on offer, your money is never wasted. Or that secret dealing or writing stuff down is no longer allowed. It’s a curious one, that, because seeing it spelled out in that fashion is very unusual, and therefore one might think that it was critical to the play, and yet gamers everywhere seem to be ignoring it and allowing the game to run like Dune.

This great sculpt of orbital battleships takes the place of Dune's storm marker in Rex

That is, in my opinion, a serious mistake. This isn’t Dune, but out of necessity a different game based on similar mechanics. It’s Rex. And without useless cards in the deck, the horrible anxiety of the bidding is lessened. Without the secret deals, and the ability to write out contractual details, the problem of overly-complex alliance terms falls away and with it some of that unbearable paranoia. And alongside that, the game plays much faster and more smoothly. Indeed, judging from other changes, I think that play speed a key difference between the two and an important design goal for Rex. There’s more currency in Rex, and stuff costs less, so people get more troops on the board, quicker. The board is smaller and troops move faster, so battles come earlier in the game and are more frequent. There are less rounds, so players feel forced to try and make decisive moves in a timely manner. This, with experience and played by the rules as written, is a 2-3 hour game rather than a 3-5 hour one. And that makes a big difference.

Simply put, Fantasy Flight have effectively Eurofied Dune. It’s shorter, tighter, more accessible than the original and the focus is more on leveraging its cool mechanics than on the details of inter-player negotiation. It’s not a Euro, of course, as there’s still a lot of diplomacy, a lot of backstabbing and lots and lots of violent confrontation, but it’s recast the old game firmly in the mold of modern design paradigms. They’ve even marginally improved the ability to play with less than six, a notorious problem with the original, although six are still required to get the most out of the game. And for my money, in modernising it, the mechanical play of the game has actually been improved. It’s just a shame that the wonderful theme had to be sacrificed along the way to get there.

Ultimately it’s a trade off. What Rex loses in terms of thematic integration and charm, it gains in playability. How much that’s going to bother you, and whether it’s sufficient to make you want to put in the money and time required to buy or make a copy of the original is a choice for the individual gamer. Personally, I still find the intensely neurotic quality and predictive aspects of play a little too much, although it’s better in Rex than in the original. But what’s undeniable is that the core mechanics remain utterly, compellingly unique in the genre of dudes on a map gaming, and you owe it to yourself to try them, even if you don’t buy them, in whatever form you feel best suits.

Nexus Ops Review

Nexus Ops review - Fantasy Flight Games edition box cover

When Wizards of the Coast resurrected the Avalon Hill brand and used it to push out a variety of fast-playing, relatively simple dramatic, narrative-packed games that would have undoubtedly made the staffers at the original Avalon Hill very proud, there was considerable surprise. But what’s perhaps more surprising is that the title which was widely considered the best of those games, Nexus Ops, was allowed to go out of print and never got re-released. Trust Fantasy Flight Games to pick up the slack and make sure gamers got to have another bite at this particular cherry, and they were good enough to send me a copy so I could see for myself what they’ve done with the license.

At first glance there’s little that’s particularly ground-breaking about Nexus Ops. It’s a science fiction game where players use the income from mines they control to buy a variety of human and alien troops with different stats and abilities which then issue forth across a random geomorphic map to do battle and hopefully gain control of some more mines so that there’ll be more money for more troops on future turns. Its design lineage is thus vast and ancient, although it has a very clear relationship with venerable World War 2 dinosaur Axis & Allies in the form of sharing a combat system. But leaving it there would be doing Nexus Ops a vast disservice.

For starters games of this ilk have traditionally been long and complex affairs, frequently governed by an overarching diplomatic meta-game of unstable alliances and unconvincing pleas to attack other players which was as important, if not more so, than mastery of the mechanical strategies of the game. Nexus Ops is neither long nor complex: it takes ten minutes to teach and about thirty minutes per player to complete. And whilst you can certainly do a bit of negotiation to enrich the experience if you so desire, it’s certainly not allowed to dominate the strategy of the game. As a result the game also scales very well across two, three and four players, as it’s hard to meaningfully gang up against a single unfortunate player.

Nexus Ops review - Fantasy Flight games edition miniatures and tiles

The secret to this startling transformation is actually very simple. Instead of the fixed territorial or economic win conditions of most games of this ilk, Nexus Ops works on a victory point model driven by a very large and diverse stack of mission cards for the players to complete. Winning any old combat will net you a point, but depending on what cards you’re holding you might get bonus points depending on where the battle was fought, what units were involved, which special abilities they deployed and how many died in the course of the fight, sometimes even if you lose. This means that a clever player can continue to eke out occasional points from a relatively weak position, and the result is that traditional tactics like ganging up on the leader are still effective without significantly slowing the pace of victory points coming into the game, so keeping it to a manageable length and preventing diplomacy and alliances from dominating the play. In another clever move, players collect these mission cards in secret meaning that a canny gamer who has set up the board to his advantage can quite suddenly cash in a number of cards and come from nowhere to lead or even win the game. This system rewards smart play, aggression and careful planning whilst remaining deliciously exciting and tense. It’s an absolute gem, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been more widely copied elsewhere.

To add to the variety players also get a hand of power-ups called Energise Cards, which have a wide range of different, well-designed effects and which often require skill and foresight to use to maximum effect. In a nice simple mechanism to help keep weaker players from sinking completely, winning a battle nets you victory points but losing one nets you an energise card. But the easiest way to get these cards is simply to control the central space on the board, known as the Monolith, which gives you two each turn. This is a fantastic way of encouraging the players to fight rather than hang back and build up but rather awkwardly, two cards per turn seems to be a bit too powerful while one seems insufficient reward for the effort of defending this important space.

Aside from this slight imbalance, the only other black mark against the game is a certain feeling deja-vu and repetition that creeps in after a few plays, the sense that you’ve seen this before, done it in the past. And this is where the Fantasy Flight reprint comes into its own. It looks like they’ve tweaked a couple of cards here and there but the major difference between this and the previous version is an appendix in the rules containing a quite staggering number of variants for you to try in order to help keep things fresh. Two try to solve the Monolith balance problem, one by awarding a choice of victory points or cards, other by turning the Monolith into a chaotic vortex that sucks units up and spits them out elsewhere, which will be pleasing for those who want more randomness. This is completed by another which posits face-up missions that anyone can fulfil, and will be pleasing for those who want less randomness. There are variant board set-ups, unit powers and exploration rules and more besides. They are, for the most part, well-designed and hugely welcome.

Nexus Ops review - Avalon Hill edition under UV light

The other thing that Fantasy Flight did to Nexus Ops was to give it a fairly major visual overhaul. The original game had the peculiar innovation of featuring miniatures sculpted out of a transparent plastic that reeked of solvents and glowed under ultraviolet light. I’ve always wondered where on earth the people at Avalon Hill got that idea from, whether they think all board gamers are basement-dwelling troglodytes who would naturally have several UV lamps hanging around in order to enjoy this spectacular effect. In real life I don’t own a UV light, and I’ve never met another game who has ever seen the glow in action, although photographs exist that demonstrate how cool it is. But however pointless the addition might be, its mere presence endeared it to a lot of gamers, who complained that the Fantasy Flight reprint is muddy and ugly. And whilst this observation is entirely correct it seems to miss the fact that unless you play regularly under UV, the original is horribly garish and just as ugly. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I see no earthly reason to prefer the original over this reprint with its gameplay additions and (probably remote) possibility of expansions.

Nexus Ops is a wonderful game, which offers a rare and pleasing balance of strategic choice and escalating skill against randomness, variety and vibrant player interaction all wrapped up in a highly manageable package. It also represents, I think, a watershed moment in game design when suddenly a very large number of much longer, much more complex and much less interesting older games became obsolete because we suddenly saw how easily all the chaff could be stripped away, leaving us focussed on the core joys of planning extreme violence and rolling dice. One thing that length and complexity do bring to the table though is an epic, grandstanding feel and that’s the one thing that Nexus Ops lacks which its predecessors had. Otherwise, you’d be hard pressed to find a better way of fitting a nice slice of science fiction combat into your games evenings than this.

Wiz-War Review

If there is genuinely a board game version of development hell, as distinct from the normal travails designers have to go through trying to get a publisher to notice their games, then Wiz-War deserves the award for the longest time spent therein. Originally published in 1985 and much beloved of the early Dungeons & Dragons crowd it went through seven editions before ending up, rather oddly, with dice manufacturer Chessex who promptly sat on the license for 15 years before handing it over to Fantasy Flight Games to release an 8th edition of the game. Shockingly, as someone who was playing board games back in the late 80’s, I never played the original but thankfully Fantasy Flight sent me a review copy so I could finally get the chance to experience this seminal title.

The concept is simple. Each player is a wizard, pitted against one another in some sort of labyrinth where they must gain ascendancy by killing other wizards or stealing their magical treasures or some combination thereof. Wizards have a hand of spell cards which consist not just of out and out attack spells but a very wide variety of magical effects covering such things as altering aspects of the labyrinth, summoning things, buffing, protecting and transforming the wizard and more besides. The range of effects is pretty spectacular and it’s from the unpredictable nature of combining and stacking these effects that the game gets much of its charm. If this reminds you a bit of Magic: the Gathering this is because the designer of that game was heavily inspired by Wiz-War.

Wiz-War has a long history, and a tendency to divide gamers into love it and hate it camps. Those who hate it cite an overwhelming level of randomness from the card draw and an almost complete lack of strategy. The player relationships are free form: you can pick on, ally with, backstab, gang up on and generally interact with whoever you want however you want whenever you want. The victory conditions are easy to achieve and the maze is claustrophobic and restricts interaction in unpredictable ways. The result is that many games are won or lost extremely suddenly thanks simply to being in the right place at the right time with the right card.

The hate it camp is completely right. It is also entirely wrong.

Wiz-War Eighth Edition by Fantasy Flight Games game in progress with wizard figures

I recently played a four-player game (the maximum it permits) of Wiz-War that lasted 37 minutes including setup and rules explanation time. I’ve never had a game run over an hour and in spite of the heavy card text and occasional need to pause and check the rules to figure out precisely how two card effects interact the game is quick-playing and downtime is minimal. It’s a fast, exciting, thrilling game, fast enough that it would almost qualify as filler material. The fact that the game can deliver a scintillating, ever-shifting and unpredictable landscape of allegiances, grudges and desperate last minute attempts to foil someone on the home straight in this short a time is positively a bonus, not a problem. Yes, by all means whine and complain about 3 hour plus games that reproduce this effect and I’ll gladly join in. But this is a sixty-minute game and it’s the perfect place to experience and enjoy the wide gamut of interaction allowed by free-form negotiation that often becomes incredibly tedious in a longer game. You might prefer challenging, logical games with perfect mathematical solutions but for the sake of variety, for the sake of your humanity, you owe it to yourself once in a while to let your hair down and actually interact with your opponents. Wiz-War is the perfect place to do it, cramming virtually every possibility into the smallest possible package.

And whilst it’s entirely true to say that ultimately there is very little strategy to the game, trying to claim it has no meaningful decisions is entirely false. Every turn the seven or so cards you have in your hand combined with your three squares of movement stack up to a mind-boggling array of creative possibilities. Simply waltzing round a corner and power-thrusting a startled wizard is a sign of the terminally unimaginative. In games I have found myself boxed into a corner through a truly fiendish combination of create wall and stone block spells. I have crowed with delight as I have forced another wizard to repeatedly walk in and out of yet another wizards’ thorn bush. I have watched in amazement as a wizard projected themselves across a corridor and bounced a lightning bolt back and forth between the two walls, electrocuting the poor unfortunate in the middle. I have bathed in acid, turned into a pile of goo, eaten walls, reversed gravity, punched people to death with my bare hands and many other things that would make even Gandalf and Harry Potter stand agog.

The endless card combinations together with Fantasy Flights’ innovation of combining spells with the energy needed to power them into dual-use cards where you choose one effect or the other mean the game is packed with creative tactical choices making every round a fun, fascinating puzzle to explore. No, in the end all your creativity and skill might not matter one jot in determining who wins, but it will keep you in the running for a bit longer and it will be tremendously entertaining. I once pointed out that I’d delight in Twilight Struggle even if the game were horribly unbalanced and largely random (Twilight Struggle is neither of those things) because trying to work through all the possible card effects was so engaging. It’s the same here, on a smaller scale. Who cares who wins when it’s just so much fun to try? This is the magic behind how it works 2-player in a straight fight to the death. It’s not as much fun as 3 or 4, but it’s plenty fun enough.

Wiz-War 8th edition by Fantasy Flight Games cards
Aside from combining spells and energy on the same cards, Fantasy Flight offer a variety of other innovations to old fans of the game. The most notable is the division of the spell deck into schools of magic, allowing you to pick school (and thus card) combinations you like and ignore ones you don’t. It also has the effect of focusing card types together, ensuring for example that if there are Create Wall spells in the deck, there will also be Destroy Wall spells and a higher chance you’ll get the latter to respond to the former with thanks to the thinner deck. But pretty much all the changes that Fantasy Flight made – and they’re mostly improvements in my opinion – can be reversed by old-school players thanks to an optional rules set that can configure the game back to its original state.

The publishers have also taken the opportunity to tighten and clarify the rules leading to less confusion over the plethora of possible interlocking spell effects. There’s still some, sure, but they’re minor and can usually be decided in a “sensible” way with the agreement of all the players. Of course this reprint also has the legendary Fantasy Flight production quality with cool plastic sculpts and fine art – I particularly like the fact that the wizards in most of the illustrations on the cards actually look like the wizard miniatures, a nice attention to detail. I originally turned my nose up a bit at the space-age boards but they look fantastic in the flesh, mystical chambers crackling with fluorescent magical energies. It’s great quality stuff for the relatively reasonable asking price.

I love Wiz-War. It’s an unbelievable, outrageous distillation of everything that’s great about multi-player conflict games, take-that card games and fantasy adventure titles into an incredibly heady brew. If I have one black mark against the game its simply that they left out some old fan favourite spells such as Buddy and Amplify and my own personal favourite group of spells that allows you to summon minions, lord it over them and send them to attack your enemies. It’s simply less of a game that you don’t get the chance to be a gloating necromancer. But it’s clear from the rules and spell descriptions that many of the missing effects have been planned for, so hopefully an expansion pack is in the works to rectify this. And in the meantime I’m still going to be trash-talking and smacking down my would-be competitor mages over and over again. I mentioned earlier this is short enough for filler and so it is: but the fact of the matter is that so far it’s never been used as filler because one game to start a session has inevitably lead to it dominating the table for the whole time. Too much, it seems, is never enough.