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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.

Cracked LCD- Empires of the Void in Review

Ryan Laukat’s Empires of the Void is a very solid, very smartly considered but derivative space conquest-themed 4x game that’s been recently Kickstartered and released into the wild. It’s a handsome production with charming, cartoon illustrations that are very welcome in a genre that tends to go for stiff and sterile or grit and grime. It’s big on the table with tons of counters but not a whole lot of rules bulk or complication, and although it doesn’t have the scads of plastic miniatures these kinds of games usually feature, there’s still multiple ship classes to play with and lots of dice to roll at them.

The problem with the game isn’t the game itself, which I would absolutely recommend to tabletoppers looking for a smoother-playing, lightweight game in the Twilight Imperium (or Master of Orion) mold. It’s that it’s coming so soon after Eclipse, one of the best games in its genre. Not to mention that Twilight Imperium is still widely played and considered by many to be the last word in building cardboard space empires. Then there’s games like Ascending Empires, Space Empires, and any number of other jumped-up Dudes on a Map games with tech trees and other 4x gameplay elements.

So this game has got to stake a claim and state its differentiators up front. When I first got my review copy, courtesy of Mr. Laukat, I was initially worried that it was going to miss this mark and suffer the same fate- mediocrity followed by obscurity- that Galactic Emperor did a few years back. That was the first game that made a play for the TI-lite crown. After a couple of games, I’m not ready to mothball Eclipse but I think there is definitely a case to be made for Empires of the Void.

These games are kind of like falafel joints. One might have the best hummus, but another has better Baba Ganoush and grape leaves. Then another has the best falafel. TI3 has the epic, sweeping scope and detail down pat. Eclipse has the economic and technology angles completely cornered. With its finger-flicking combat resolution, I’d have to give the combat edge to Ascending Empires. But Empires of the Void, so far, has the best Star Trek sense of diplomacy, negotiation, and politics.

The setup is standard. Everybody gets a race and a home planet from which they send ships out into the titular void for typical 4x goings-on. There’s a bunch of races, more than the four players the game supports. Races each have advantages and different start-up material. The map is a modular, point-to-point thing with a couple of roadblocks in minefields, asteroids, and tentacle monsters (dubbed “ancient defenses” for reasons unknown). It looks more like Merchant of Venus than TI3, and the presence of specific and very different alien races on each of the planets on the map makes the game world feel more alive and vibrant than other games where the planets that are little more than resource numbers.

As players head out from their home planet with fleets of Diplomat-class ships or war vessels ready for battle, the idea is that you can lay claim to these populated planets either through diplomacy or violent conquest. Diplomacy requires you to spend some Culture actions to draw cards. Each race has a particular disposition- Militaristic, Capitalist, Scholarly, and so forth-and the more matching cards you have, the lower the die roll needed to sway them to fealty. Make friends, and you drop an Ally token on their card and they give you access to any resources (needed to build some technologies), income, influence in the victory point-generating Galactic Council, and a special ability. It’s a cool touch that some races do things like give you access to special ships that you otherwise can’t build.

But if you don’t want their junk, you can just blow them up by rolling a combat success against them, which makes them enemies and a subjugated people only willing to share their money and materials. I didn’t care for fishing for cards to get the matching sets at first, particularly since you only get three actions per turn and it felt like a waiting game. But thematically, it makes sense at an abstract level. You’re negotiating, finagling, maybe learning about their culture to influence them, and bartering. And there are technologies that give free Culture draws and increase hand limits. But you’ve always got the quicker nuclear option, which is not only viable but also advisable for certain races.

There’s also an interesting- and subtle- concept regarding the cards. Over the course of the game, as planets are claimed their utility actually changes. Every card has an effect, activated by turning in two or three sets of matching cards. So by the end, they almost serve a completely different function.

I don’t like that the tech tree is so short and shallow, with particular techs all but required to be competitive. Actions do feel somewhat restrictive, with the Move action initially only moving one ship at a time but there again, with those must-have technologies it ramps up over the course of the game. The combat is somewhat ho-hum, with the standard Axis and Allies-style order of battle. It definitely feels like the work of a first-time designer, and I do not necessarily mean that as a perjorative- there’s a great sense of heart and passion on display here that smooths over some derivative and sloppy design moments.

I love the event cards that send Space Pirates out to hassle the galaxy or start crises that happen on planets that areresolved and affect political positions. These narrative events occur without bogging the game down in tracking devices or “effect creep”. I like that there’s so many different aliens in the game and a sense that this setting has personality beyond spaceships and endless warfare. And I really like that there’s loose trading rules so that players can swap money and resources along with threats, bribes, and promises.

Overall, Empires of the Void’s biggest and most important differentiator is that it has sense of fun and simplicity that these other space 4x games do not have. It’s a spirited if not completely original design with some smart streamlining that cuts a little close to the quick at times (that tech tree), but manages to retain its scope and design goals admirably. It’s a fun game with minimal hassle, which is exactly what I like playing these days. It can still run a little long, but the four player cap seems to keep a two hour and change game from being a four hour and change game.

It is definitely a situation where those with limited gaming budgets (of time and/or money) may find themselves asking if Empires of the Void delivers anything unique or compelling in competition with similar titles. Those looking for the hardcore all-day-a-thon game may be better off sticking with TI3, those looking for a more serious, balanced, and intricate design would be better served by Eclipse. Empires of the Void is best positioned as an alternative, “indie” version of this kind of game.