Dune by any other name: Twilight Imperium Rex

Twilight-Imperium-RexPretty cover art?  Check.

Fantasy Flight is good at making fun games, and their rehashing of the original Dune boardgame is no exception.  Though they were unable to nab the necessary IP, they’ve cleverly injected the mechanics and flavor of the original Dune into the universe created for Twilight Imperium.  But simply recreating an old game was not enough; they then streamlined and shaped it into something that you can pick up through one round of experimental play.  The end result is a highly entertaining game with excellent group dynamics, one that introduces just enough complexity to give you lots of material to work with without overwhelming you with its intricacies.

I really liked Frank Herbert’s Dune when I read it years ago, and I’d probably be willing to give nearly anything with that brand a try.  I’d heard the original boardgame spoken of in hushed and reverent tones as a game that had managed to capture the flavor of the setting, complete with delightful political backstabbing and the constant struggle for power, and which had wrapped it all up in a deliciously appealing package.  When I learned that I had the chance to play a Fantasy Flight remake of it, I was torn: I knew that I had to try the game, but I was worried that Fantasy Flight would have turned the game into something like Twilight Imperium.

To be perfectly clear, I think Twilight Imperium is pretty awesome.  But I also think that I will rarely ever play it, and when I do play it I will have to find a very specific group of players and set aside a huge amount of time.  Because that game requires a truly enormous time commitment and does not mix well with those who react poorly to disappointment or sudden shifts of fortune.  So I opened the box of Twilight Imperium Rex ready to be stuck for hours in a potentially aggravating unwinnable game.  I needn’t have been so worried.  In fact, I was blown away.

It is clear, as you begin to play the game, that Fantasy Flight has learned from their experience with Twilight Imperium.  Though this game uses the same IP, and the turn order looks moderately complex, the game is simplicity itself by comparison.  Even the turn order ends up being pretty simple, especially after you’ve played through your first round.  The most difficult part of interacting with turn order comes when you have special abilities that trigger at specific times.  For example, playing as the House Atreides replacement, the Universities of Jol’Nar, I had a number of precognizant abilities which allowed me to look at cards before others could see them, as well as learn details of my enemies’ battle plans before we fought.  It took me a few turns before I reliably remembered to look at Influence cards one turn early, before I moved, but that was probably the most complicated aspect of turn order and was faction-specific.

Each faction fights to hold onto a collection of victory point locations, while simultaneously trying to collect randomly appearing Influence (spice!) that pops up on various locations around the board.  They must also avoid the sandworm analogues, a roaming fleet of battleships which circle the board and destroy everything in their path that isn’t within the protection of the shielded zones.  This mix of objectives, as you might imagine, results in some considerable chaos.

The battles are particularly interesting, and are probably the most complex part of the game: as the first step, each combatant chooses which of their leaders they will use and how many of their local forces will be used.  At the same time that they choose their leader, they also choose whether they will use any Strategy cards (they can use none, one attack card, one defense card, or one attack and one defense card).  Each side reveals their choices to the other, and then each side chooses which of their cards they will use, if any.  If you chose to use a card, you must then play one; you can’t say that you’ll use a card just to keep your options open and then renege.

To determine who wins, you resolve your Strategy cards, and then simply add up the strength of your leader and the strength of your involved forces and see who has the greater total.  Ties go to the defender.  Some Strategy cards will pull you out of a tight spot and allow you to retreat, some will assassinate your enemy’s leaders, some will protect you from assassination, some will grant you additional combat strength… you get the idea.

But there’s one more additional complication: at the beginning of the game, you are dealt a selection of leader cards and are allowed to pick one.  This leader is securely in your employ; if they are your own leader, then you know that they will not betray you.  If they belong to someone else, then when you fight against that leader you may choose to reveal that they are actually a traitor and automatically win the battle, regardless of what the numbers say.  The Harkonnen analogues get four traitors in their employ instead of just one.

Once you know who won, all forces involved in battle are then removed from the board and put in the casualties area, and any remaining local forces on the loser’s side are removed as well.  If you play it right, you can win a battle without committing any forces at all, but the game does its best to drive home the fact that war is expensive in both blood and treasure.  Careful political and geographical maneuvering is crucial to acquiring an advantage over your foes.

While it is possible to win on turn one with a particularly lucky or unthinking group of players, games will probably take the listed time of 2 hours.  As with most complex strategy games, that time will drop as your players gain more experience and increase as you introduce new people to the game (or play with people who are just slow about making choices).  While I only got to play a three player game, without the game’s built-in alliance mechanics, I’m already certain that I want to play it again.  I expect that it will continue to be a lot of fun, and I know that there’s a great deal more material there for me to experience and enjoy.

I wholeheartedly endorse finding and trying this game.  I suspect that those of you who like strategy games with good politicking will want to make room in your gaming budget for Twilight Imperium Rex, because by the time that you try it Rex will have already stolen a little space for itself in your heart.

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