[Bear with me as I try to figure out a format I'm comfortable with for this and all of my posts. Until I find something better, this will be largely unstructured.]
So much for posting every week. Oops. Anyway, last week a friend of mine made an impromptu purchase of Rex: Final Days of an Empire. Since this game was already on my radar, I of course agreed to get in on the first game. This is part session report and part review after that one game. (Technically two. I'll explain.) I won't be explaining the rules in detail so some familiarity with Rex may help. When I mention locations on the map, I'll also list it's sector number so you can follow along on the map you see below.
I feel I should note here that while this same friend actually owns a copy of Dune, none of us had played it before. I was familiar with it before Rex but never got as far as reading rules.
Just from reading the rules, I immediately saw similarities with two other games from the same designers, Borderlands (BL) and Cosmic Encounter (CE), both of which I've played. (I had a copy of Borderlands custom made and I've played the Fantasy Flight version of Cosmic Encounter). Surprisingly, the rules seemed closer to CE in many ways than BL.
The battles in both Rex and CE are one of the more surprising similarities. To simplify a bit, they are both determined by the number of units, which is public, added to a bit of hidden information. In CE, that's a battle card and in Rex it's a leader. The leaders have far less variance, roughly 1-6, than the CE battle cards, roughly 0-40, so you'd think battles would be a little more predictable but you'd only be partially right. Rex also adds in traitor cards that can instantly win you a battle if your opponent plays the exact leader you happen to have the card of. There are also strategy cards that will kill the opposing leader.
Racial abilities are also a bit reminiscent of CE in that everyone gets some game-breaking ability and some have alternate win conditions. The biggest difference of course being that the powers in Rex are fixed from game-to-game. In an interesting twist, when you ally with another player in Rex, you get access to small part of their powers.
Moving on to the session. We had four players and all of us learned the game that night together. Our first game barely counted as Brian (yes, another Brian, rest assured I don't refer to myself in the third person), as Jol-Nar, did a bit of a sucker-punch on us. He rushed three strongholds for the win in the second round while the rest of us apparently overvalued the spice (err...influence) that had appeared and fought over that.
After a quick reset, we started again slightly wiser. Those of us who started with strongholds made a bit more effort to hold on to them this time. The first 4 rounds or so were fairly unremarkable as we were all settling in and scoping each other out. As the Sol player, I had an extra win condition if the game timed-out after 8 rounds and I held the Imperial Palace (16), so I encouraged this. There were some decisive battles but no one gained any momentum to carry them towards closure. On round 4 or 5 however, we drew a temporary cease-fire which allows for alliances to be made or broken.
A quick side-note at this point: While I appreciate limiting alliance creation to prevent immediate or flimsy alliances, we all thought it a bit limiting that we only drew one of these cards the entire game. It's hard to get the backstabbing we expected when you're prohibited from doing so. Maybe the optional betrayal cards would give us that but, from the rules, they seems rather dryly implemented.
During the cease-fire, Lee (Barony of Letnev) and Adam (Universities of Jol-Nar) decided to form an alliance. Brian (Lazax Empire) and I (Federation of Sol) were initially wary of an alliance however since we just fought a rather bitter battle over a massive stack of 16(!) spice. (Deal with it. It's what we kept calling it. It's much easier to say than 'influence.') We decided that standing alone may just make us weaker against the other two however so we did team up.
Here is where the game really got interesting. From the windfall of 16 spice and a couple other lucky breaks, combined with Sol'd little need for money from free deployments, I was sitting on quite a bankroll of expendable spice. Lee, as the Letnev, got double the strategy cards whenever he bought one so during the next bidding phase, Brian and I quickly put a plan into action to deny Lee and Adam any cards at all. This process went a bit like this:
Brian would calculate how much money he would need this next turn to recruit and deploy all his troops.
I would bid on the first card whatever amount Brian needed. His race meant my bid would go to him.
Brian would bid on the second card and his money would go to the bank.
I would bid on the third card, refilling Brian's money to the needed amount.
The last card, I would get for free using the Lazax ally advantage which allowed Brian once per round to give me any amount of money to use on bidding which would of course go directly back to him.
Another side note: The bidding is done on face-down cards so you never know what you're buying (other than the Jol-Nar of course). This is necessary so your opponents don't know what cards you have but it makes countering certain weapons nearly impossible. If someone wins a battle, they may keep their cards and use the same weapon over and over. Ideally, the counter card would pop up at some point and people would fiercely vie for it but it can't happen the way the game works. This was another oddity we didn't quite agree with.
Using this strategy, Lee and Adam got only a single card for three or four rounds. I had the perfect amount to outbid him on that last card but Lee desperately bid all 10 of his remaining spice on the last turn so I let him have it. That move then meant that, while Lee received two cards, he had no money left to deploy troops. Largely due to card denial, we were able to dominate the board. They had quite a few military victories over me in particular but whatever momentum they had fell apart in the face of our economic power. There were two battles that, had they gone differently, could have forced a stalemate but Brian and I pulled them out by a hair with some careful planning.
A major turning point also occurred around phase 5 or 6. As the Sol player, I could see where the bombardment fleet would move to next round. Each zone on the map generally had two locations, one where spice would flow and one that was shielded from bombardment. Each stronghold falls on the shielded locations. Adam had just built a rather large force, around 12 units, in the Imperial Navy Base (18) which also gave him increased unit movement. The Sol fleet was one space behind this providing a convenient blockade towards my Imperial Palace(16). I peek at the bombardment deck and, to my delight, see a 1. I'm immediately disappointed however remembering the shield over the Navy Base. Adam would lose a couple units stationed in the IAF HQ (18) but nothing more. During the bidding phase, one of the 3 cards I happened to win was to sabotage shields in any location I had at least one unit before the battle phase. A plan quickly formed in my head and I switched on my best poker face. I moved the 2 units I had sitting in the Galactic Council into the Navy Base. Up against the 12 units there, Adam wasn't worried except for possibly losing a leader to a weapon. Upon revealing my sabotage card however, my poker face cracked and he immediately knew the next fleet movement would be a 1. To add insult to injury (and to add some incredible thematic flair) I also played a tactical retreat which sent my units and leader back to my reserve instead of to their certain death. This was by far my favorite moment of the game, having sent in a commando squad behind enemy lines to take down a shield generator and then tactically retreating just before the bombardment begins. That's a story I'll remember for a while.
If you hadn't guessed by this point, Team Brian had a decisive victory in this game. We ended round 8 with all four strongholds and Lee and Adam having zero board presence. (To be fair, I barely had one since I went 'all-in' in all my battles.)
Conclusion: Overall, I greatly enjoyed the game but I'm not too sure how excited I am for repeated plays. The biggest thing to entice me back is to try out other races but there are elements none of us were crazy about. Besides the two things I mentioned in notes above (limited alliances and blind purchases), we also didn't like how difficult it was to really control any area on the board due to being allowed to move through enemies. It's necessary due to only allowing one move and one deployment each turn but it made the area control feel weak. I'm also not a huge fan of the flowchart design of the board itself. You can find some fan designed boards in the gallery that shows it's not terribly far-fetched to have done it differently. On a similar note, the bombardment fleet looks awesome but it's a bit silly and overkill for something that could have been a large token. Turn order was also more important than I'd like. With four players and eight rounds, it kinda balances out but certain tricks or moves we pulled off depended on the specific turn order that round. Having gotten burned on this in a recent game of Eclipse, it's not something I like to see repeated. Finally, some of the thematic elements seemed a bit odd (why do I gain influence for assassinating an enemy leader but not normally killing him?) and everyone agreed that Dune was probably a better setting than the TI universe despite there being a huge TI buff in the game.
On the other hand, the game had several elements I'd love to see more often, especially the battle dials. I love that you need to decide how many forces to commit to a battle and have those taken out. Do you go all-in to ensure a victory but also ensure you lose all your units? Or do you commit just enough to beat what you anticipate your opponent doing? If you guess wrong, you'll lose and end up destroying all your units, and leader, regardless! I also liked, just like CE, that each player breaks the game in some way but is still seemingly balanced.
In the end, I'd love to see a game that split the difference between Rex and Borderlands. Borderlands is heavy and computationally exacting but has excellent area control and fluid alliances complete with terrible backstabbing. If you could fuse that with Rex's battle dial tension, looser economics and player powers, I'd be on board in a heartbeat. Does such a game already exist? Let me know in the comments.