Let’s talk REX and space kitties

RELEASE THE (space) KITTIES!

I wanted to wait until the official announcement of Rex by Fantasy Flight before I went on my tirade about it. I saw the box at gencon on display and knew exactly what it was: the inevitable FF Dune game.

Rex inherits the mechanics of one of the absolute jewels of my collection, one that got oodles of plays before the boardgame fanaticism that has stretched far and wide across the world in the last decade set in; and that would be DUNE.  Dune is essentially an area control game with armies fighting on the surface of the desert planet Arrakis for control of a life-lengthening psychotropic substance called the Spice. To win you have to control 3 city spaces at the end of the turn.  This ain’t easy as armies can drop from space, fly across the planet in Ornithopters or ride a worm into your town from all over.  While it incorporates economics and politics, Dune is unique in area control games as it utilizes a blind bid mechanic during battles using a cardboard dial with which a player selects the number of armies he wants to use in the battle (all used armies are destroyed) and selects a leader from those available to his faction.  Adding together the leader’s generalship rating and the number of units used gives a total that is compared to the opponent’s.  Highest wins.  Best about this is that it is very simple and very fast while ultimately capturing the soul of the conflicts in Dune.  The mechanic is a bit like Cosmic Encounter where you reveal attack cards but with the additional complexity of the leaders and treachery cards that can be played (also blind) to kill off that leader, discounting his generalship rating from the battle.  Since any unit you use in the battle is destroyed (the leaders can only be killed via treachery cards) you have to weigh sacrificing units to keep control of the area you are in or go for broke and us all your units (guaranteeing that you will lose control of the area even if you win the battle).   Dune is harsh: unlike Cosmic Encounter, there are no negotiate cards; yet alliances are a huge part of the game as you can win together, which happens most games as blocks of factions band together against the initial threats (usually the Harkonnen as they have to make a bid for the win early on).

Dune is a game I hold in the absolute highest esteem as an asymmetrical strategy game.  Each of the factions has glaring weaknesses and clearly defined strengths.  Those that have the best chance of winning alone also have the greatest chance of being wiped off the face of the planet (Atreides and Harkonnen) and some have a very difficult road to victory without allies but are tough to shake out of a chance for victory completely.  It captures the feel of the conflict from the first book brilliantly as well.  If you know the book, you know how to play the faction you’ve selected even without reading the rules.

Yet, I like Dune so much I am extremely hesitant to bring it out to play.  My set is getting old (I have the second printing with Sting on the front) and some of the components are showing some real serious wear.  Had we played this as much as I would like, a lot of the pieces would be scrap paper by now.  And that’s where Fantasy Flight comes in.  Since they have generally good taste in bringing old games back into the bright modern world, it was inevitable that they set their sights on Dune, especially after the success of Cosmic Encounter (‘absolute triumph’ is another phrase I would use in regards to FF’s version). So the ideal for a fan of the game is a shiny new Dune game with Fantasy Flight’s excellent components and tough-as-nails cards, etc.  Sadly this wasn’t to be since the Herbert estate have become knobshines, the Dune license was not granted to remake the game using the Baron and Soo Soo Sook, etc.  Unfortunate, but thems the breaks.  The mechanics, of course, could be used by anyone to make a game (and should be) but what should the theme be if not Dune?  My take, and this is where the disappointment comes in: any theme would work EXCEPT some other science fiction IP.  You see, Dune is near the top of sci-fi’s heap as a piece of literature (that still has some pulp appeal), you have warring space factions, space ships, alien-like things (though the only race in Dune are humans and it’s far more compelling to try to figure out the HOW around the changed humans than presenting some Kzin clone), energy shields, etc. but you also have socio-political ideologies from the period (50’s and 60’s) clashing and an overall (almost implied) mimetic with the conflicts in the middle east over control of oil.  Because Dune has such a strong narrative and definitive place in sci-fi’s role as a medium for political commentary, and it’s followers have such strong feelings around it ‘s canon (read some of the castigation heaped upon the hack, non-Frank Herbert novels that came later), any sci-fi put side by side with Dune, which Twilight Imperium has done via Rex, will inevitably be slapped up against, quite unfavorably, with the original theme.  Compared to Dune, the jokeshop backstory to Twilight Imperium with it’s space cats and turtles and entirely derivative plotlines borrowed from yet another game’s backstory (Master of Orion 2) is simply a cascade of space piss into your open mouth.  While this is acceptable for a massive space-Risk ameritrash game where players have no expectation of a quality backstory and trite tropes, like space kitties, left and right are not only expected, but absolutely warranted,  just doesn’t do justice to the original game on any level.

That said, this comparison would not be made so brutally if the choice for theme was something fantasy or historical.  No one would compare Rex to Dune on the same level if Rex’s theme was the 30-years war (Wallenstein, Gustavus Adolphus and all those guys), War of the Roses or even Game of Thrones (which is sort of the same thing).  Looking at other IP in FF’s stable, even DUST would have been better, especially since the game’s backstory at least has a desert in it.  Apparently, the original game using the Dune mechanics was a Roman one titled Tribune: who could complain about that.  Oh, people would lament a bit, but they would be enamored with Scipio Africanus or Sulla a hell of a lot quicker than a space turtle or a cat with an eye patch.

All the complaining aside, I am glad this system is getting back into print and may be augmented by FF’s and the original design team.  There may be mechanical updates that can be pulled back into the Dune system, either to streamline it or make it better.  Again, since Dune is one of the best games of it ilk out there, Rex, by default, will be too.  If you have no access to Dune, or like me, you want to save it from too many plays, it will warrant a purchase.

Bottom line is, if you actually enjoy, for some reason known only to yourself, the Twilight Imperium back story you will be well pleased with Rex as it will be the first time since Twilight Imperium 2nd edition that the TI universe has had a GOOD gaming system to play in.  If you are a fan of the Dune board game, this is a tough pill to swallow, especially with the added slap in the face that SPACE KITTIES are the main identifier for the Twilight Imperium brand (rather than some of the less-cheesecurd aliens like the Sardak Nor, etc.).  Maybe there will be enough space-race choices to leave the kitties in their space litter box.

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