Sunday, December 9, 2012

Rex: Final Days of the Empire

Back in the day, I was a huge fan of Avalon Hill's Dune. I must have played it a hundred times in the late 80s to mid 90s, enough to even have played the lousy Spice Harvest, The Duel, Landsraad, and Tleilaxu variants several times (you have to be pretty desperate for some variety to do that). Whenever someone designs some kind of stupid multi-way free-for-all euroish wargame these days (Antike, Space Empires, Sid Meier's Civilization, RuneWars, Conan, etc., etc.) I always feel like screaming “Hey! Dune did this right in 1979! Why are you still doing it wrong?” A terrific combat system, interesting deal-making diplomacy without backstabbing or force-of-personality persuasion, well-paced, with players able to come back after being out of it, and of course a colorfully drawn and faithful interpretation of Herbert's book are amongst the game's great strengths.

But it fell off out of circulation for me in the mid 90s, largely for one reason: the potentially long and unpredictable playing time. The joke was that a game could last anywhere from 45 minutes to 8 hours. It wasn't really a joke. While most games would finish in a workable 4 hours, the outliers are a problem especially since the fluid game situation can't just be called early and scored – if you've put in the 6 hours, you want to see how it ends.

When Fantasy Flight announced their Dune remake, sans Dune, I was intrigued mainly because they offered a 3-4 hour playing time. Could Rex get Dune back on the table, and would my fondness for Dune hold up in a truncated version and without the Dune theme? Or would it turn out that It was all nostalgia and my affection for Dune itself, and not so much the game?

I tore into Fantasy Flight last year for a run of truly wretched game designs, so I approached Rex with some skepticism. They seem to have done the right thing though, and kept the Dune game systems largely intact. Players fight over 5 strongholds on the map. They commit their armies, in the form of tokens, to battle, then win or lose on a combination of card-play and risk: each player decides how many tokens they are willing to lose, what leader to commit, and what weapons and defenses their leader will use. The loser loses everything, the winner loses just what he or she committed. Everything is decided secretly and simultaneously, which is cool, because the game has a lot of hidden information but also a fair amount of "information leakage" – you're likely to have some idea what cards and capabilities your opponent has, but unlikely to have a full picture. Weapons and defenses, along with a variety of special actions, are available each turn in a blind auction, and by blind, I mean around-and-around but you don't actually know what you're bidding on. What really makes the game then is that each faction has a variety of strong player powers that hugely impact the core systems: the Jol-Nar can see cards before they are bid on, the Xxcha can force you to do things you'd prefer not to in battle, the Empire has elite shock troops and collects all the money bid for cards. The game engine itself is fairly straightforward, but all the interesting, thematic, and rule-breaking special powers (mainly through faction’s powers, but also via the cards) are what brings it to life.

I ended up enjoying Rex more than I expected to. It does however suffer from 3 major problems.

Firstly is the expected Fantasy Flight horrifically bad graphic design. Compare the Dune map to the Rex map. Can you even easily see where the 5 victory strongholds are on the Rex map? Game-centric information is lost in a sea of visual clutter. The point-to-point map makes visualization of where the Sol Fleet is going next and which territories are at risk of bombardment hard to see. Again, compare to how clearly the same information (the Storm) is presented on the Dune map. As many will surely point out, it's fine when you get used to it, but graphical missteps pervade the design and introduce a non-trivial risk of game-breaking errors. Case in point: the last game I played, the Jol-Nar player played the whole game thinking she had the Emperor top leader for her traitor because the card background colors are not suitability distinct and not a strong element of the visual design, the reference sheet is unhelpful (the Emperor and Letnev both have 6s for their top leader and the sheet doesn't give names), and leader names have been completely genericized. It's not a mistake you make twice, but lousy presentation design basically ruined the game for her. This mistake would have been completely impossible to make in Dune. While this is a particularly egregious example, there are plenty of ways in which the presentation makes it more likely errors will occur.

Chani vs. General
Secondly, the Twilight Imperium backstory is almost completely generic and unconvincing and fails to provide any color for the game in a way which actively impedes gameplay. I knew the Twilight Imperium universe was pretty soulless, but I thought perhaps Dune's wonderfully evocative game systems would help bring it to life. One of the truisms about games, as with stories and photography, is that it helps a lot when there are people involved and not just factions or armies. This was one of the great things about the original Dune. When your leaders are Stilgar, Chani, Ortheym, Shadout Mapes, and Jamis, that means something. Even if you haven't read the book, these named characters with distinctive headshots on their large, round pieces build up associations over time and play and can be easily identified. It's been 15 years since I played or read Dune, and I didn't have to look up any of those names. I've payed Rex 5 times in the last 6 months and I couldn't tell you the names of the equivalent leaders; turns out they are Admiral, General, Colonel, Captain, and Commander. I can remember Chani has a 6 battle rating and can get worked up about her being a traitor. Not so much General.

While on the topic of the Twilight Imperium universe and its many shortcomings, I also must point out the troubling fact that Rex has almost completely erased women from the game. One of the great things about Dune was all the interesting and colorful female characters (even if they didn't always quite manage to escape genre stereotypes), and the boardgame captured this with 1 female faction leader (out of 6), 8 out of a total 30 leaders, and half the leaders rated 5 or higher. Amongst the book's “good guys”, Lady Jessica is a 5 (tied for the best Atriedes leader) and Chani a 6 (second to Stilgar's 7 amongst the Fremen). All of this has been excised. As near as I can tell, there is one female leader, Sol's Captain, but she just looks like one of the guys and you can't tell from the tiny picture on her leader piece, you need to go to the traitor card. The faction from Dune that was entirely women, the Bene Gesserit, has been replaced by alien turtles – all of whom look male to me, but it's of course a little hard to tell. Out of context it just seems dumb and like needlessly throwing away one of the interesting features of the original. In the context of a hobby with serious gender issues, it's especially frustrating and troubling.

Lastly, and most seriously, is Fantasy Flight's persistent trouble with game balance. Rex has been admirably tightened up and shortened from the original, which is great. In the process, though, it has made it far too easy for Hacan to win. As with the Guild in the original, Hacan and their allies win if nobody else has when time runs out. With Rex's greater unit replacement rates, easier leader revival, somewhat greater difficulty in playing traitors, and much larger influence (cash) supply, stalling for time and holding off players and alliances pushing for a win has become noticeably easier. Couple that with playing only half as many turns, and Hacan has won all of the 6-player games I've played, and it hasn't really ever been close. The situation is better with 4 or 5 players; 4 in fact may be the sweet spot. Unfortunately, without the tectonic stresses of 5 or 6 factions competing for Rex, the game just isn't as interesting. It becomes more of a tactical game and less of a power struggle.

Where does that leave Rex for me at the end of the day? I enjoyed it for a little while, and have to give Fantasy Flight their due for bringing this classic back to the table. Unfortunately it just has too many significant issues, and I still own Dune. Mainly it inspired me to break out my old copy of that game, and discover that at WBC they now play only 10 turns instead of 15, which would make for a game of roughly the same length as Rex – and Rex is in no way superior to Dune.

What about everyone who doesn't have access of the original? Rex is still pretty good by the modern standards of this sort of game – unlike Conan or Sid Meier's Civilization or Space Empires or their ilk, there is an interesting and solid game here (although play Eclipse with the alien races instead if given the choice). Dune itself is a tremendous piece of raw game design, showing how a number of chronic problems with this genre can be solved. While Fantasy Flight has made a number of missteps in adapting it, it's still a strong game, albeit one that will need a house rule to rein in the Hacan. It could have been so much better with more rigorous development and a less boring and sexist backstory, but it's still a game worth playing.


  1. The space lions could be female.

  2. Your three 'cons' seem like kind of silly reasons to not enjoy the game. The female thing - who really cares? The board layout - get glasses . . . The TI3 backstory - no one is playing these games for their backstory.