Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A planet by any other name

In 2012, Fantasy Flight Games decided they wanted to reprint the classic Dune board game originally published by Avalon Hill in 1979, based on Frank Herbert's novel. They were able to arrange for the rights to the game system, but, for whatever reason, were unable to get permission to use material from the novel. Rather than let the project die, they opted to re-skin the game, setting it in the universe of their Twilight Imperium game and re-naming it Rex: Final Days of an Empire.

Twilight Imperium takes place in a far future populated by numerous spacefaring civilizations, making it a reasonable substitute for the interplanetary intrigue of Dune. The planet Arrakis is replaced by the city of Rex, a hub of galactic politics and culture that is currently under bombardment by an invading army, with a fleet of attacking ships replacing the original game's board-clearing sand storm. The Twilight Imperium factions stand in nicely for Dune's political families, with one particularly interesting substitution being that Dune's native Fremen are replaced by the invading forces from Sol, with no change to their practical abilities in the game.

Like Dune, Rex is a game about different factions with unique game abilities vying for control of the board. Control is achieved via the placement of army units in strategic spaces on the board, but the real meat of the game is in alliances that can be made and broken between players. The real strategy is in looking at the situation on the board, deciding which other player has an ability you can take advantage of, and convincing that player to ally with you. The catch is that alliances can only be made and broken at certain points during the game, determined randomly by a shuffled stack of cards.

Apart from the necessary change in theme, the changes made to the game serve as an interesting illustration of the differences in tactical board gaming over the past 30 years. Dune includes a small amount of note-taking, where Rex keeps track of everything with cards and tokens. The army tokens in Rex are much larger than those in Dune, and feature printed artwork and faction symbols rather than being merely color-coded. The artwork in Rex is much more lush and colorful, almost to the point of feeling overproduced. Most telling is the reduction in the time it takes to play the game. Dune arbitrarily ends after 16 rounds, and Rex reduces this to 8, cutting Dune's play time of 4-5 hours down to a much more manageable two or three.

Which game is better? Opinion is divided on the subject. Personally, I prefer Rex's streamlined game play and nicer components, but at the same time, I'm much more familiar with Dune's story and characters, and I like the way the story plays out over the course of the game. It's a pity they weren't able to come to an agreement about the licensing.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) Without comparing it to Dune, Rex: Final Days of an Empire is a solid game that combines some of the more interesting features of Risk and Diplomacy.

Date played: July 14, 2014

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