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Subject: The Duke in Comparison to Other Abstract Games rss

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Picture courtesy of W. Eric Martin.


This is not a regular review of The Duke, so you will for instance not find much information about how to play it; I recommend you to read the other reviews if you are after such information. Instead, this is a comparative review which tries to answer the question how well The Duke fares in comparison to other abstract games.

Components

There’s not much to say about the board in The Duke: cardboard with a printed grid. It’s not of bad quality, but it’s definitely vulnerable to staining; you’d better keep beverages at a safe distance. Contrary to the board, the pieces are very unconventional. In fact, I haven’t seen anything like them in any abstract or other game: comparatively large, square, wooden tiles with information printed on both sides, more precisely miniatures of the board with symbols which show how the piece in question moves. I’d say they are of good quality, and I don’t think the printing will wear off. There are also two bags, one for each player, from which the tiles are drawn; they are of reasonable quality, but I very much doubt they’ll last a lifetime.

Aesthetics

The Duke’s aesthetics differs from most other abstract games I know of in two ways. First, the board and pieces have a deliberately pre-industrial look. At first glance, they almost look as if they have been crafted by hand, like something you could find on a table in a medieval tavern, which I think ties in superbly with the topic of the game. It’s not unusual that abstract games with ancient origins look like this, but The Duke is the first abstract game designed in modern times which I’ve seen with this distinct look.

Second, I’ve never seen an abstract game where the components carry so much information. The board is very Spartan in this respect, but as mentioned above, there’s nothing Spartan about the pieces; they are crammed on both sides with iconography. They look a bit cluttered compared to the kind of minimalistic pieces you find in games like Go and Gipf, but I’m not saying that it’s aesthetically unpleasing, because it’s done in a consistent and harmonious way.



Picture courtesy of W. Eric Martin.


Time

According to the box, The Duke game takes around 30 minutes, and I’d say that it’s a reasonable figure. However, it should be pointed out that this just is an average. On the one hand, the game can end considerably faster than that, as the design invites to sudden and surprising attacks, and as it, contrary to Chess, is difficult, if not impossible, to build solid defences. On the other hand, the various movement patterns of the pieces and the many possibilities this entails demand the same kind of intense thinking as in Chess and may definitely cause analysis paralysis. However, you are not likely to have to sit through hours-long sessions that are common when playing Chess and Go.

Anyway, a playing time of 30 minutes is quite average for modern abstract games. A few examples:

• Blokus: 20 min
• GIPF: 30 min
• Hive: 20 min
• Ingenious: 45 min
• Khet: The Laser Game: 20 min
• Pentago: 5 min
• Ponte del Diavolo: 25 min
• Pueblo: 60 min
• Quoridor: 15 min
• Trax: 10 min
• Twixt: 30 min
• Volcano: 30 min

Price

How expensive you might think that The Duke is depends on what kind of abstract games you play. Compared to fancy Chess and Go sets, The Duke is rather cheap. Compared to modern abstract games, it’s slightly expensive. I’d say that you get your money’s worth of components if you buy The Duke, but I wouldn’t call it a bargain.

Below are some prices for comparison. However, you’ll have to take these prices with a grain salt, because my selection is very crude. I’ve simply looked at the lowest prices for new copies of the games in the BGG marketplace; out of laziness and convenience, I’ve just looked at European prices. These prices may be very temporary and non-representative, and don’t include shipping costs, which can be substantial; such purchases always involve risks as well. It’s not really a fair comparison either, as The Duke is a new game and the price it commands now is likely to decrease over time. Anyway, if you buy The Duke in the BGG marketplace, you can find it for €31, and here are some prices for other modern abstract games:

• Blokus: €30
• GIPF: €20
• Hive: €20
• Ingenious: €25
• Khet: The Laser Game: €41
• Pentago: €15
• Ponte del Diavolo: €17
• Pueblo: €45
• Quoridor: €27
• Trax: €29 (“Like New”)
• Twixt: €36
• Volcano: €40 (five stashes, my estimate)

Rules

When it comes to the rules, The Duke is an atypical abstract game. Of all the abstract games I’ve played, The Duke has the longest rules, by far. It’s also the game with the largest number of special rules and exceptions I’ve played. Actually, I think it resembles a non-abstract game in this respect; the rules set is, give or take, of the same length as the rules set for an old-school Eurogame.

However, the rules are satisfactorily well written and structured, and shouldn’t present any serious problems for seasoned gamers. There are many rules to remember, but there’s a very helpful player aid included. The many rules make it a very questionable choice as a so-called gateway game, though. I’d say that The Duke can be just as threatening and discouraging as Chess for inexperienced players.

Depth

With the risk of being a tad provocative, I think that the The Duke’s complexity is somewhat contrived. Much of the complexity boils down to the large number of pieces and their different rules for movement, as well as the special rules and exceptions that this entails, rather than the gameplay as such. Compare this to games like Go and Volcano which have comparatively simple rules and a minimum of different pieces, but still offer incredible depths. In other words, I think the complexity in The Duke is a matter of quantity rather than quality.



Picture courtesy of Ola Mikael Hansson.


However, there’s no denying that The Duke has depth. I’d say that it’s impossible to master this game quickly; it probably takes dozens, if not hundreds of games. Just like in Chess, you have start with learning, not to say memorising the specific characteristics of the different pieces; to make things even harder, there are more pieces and more complicated movement patterns than in Chess. Just like in Chess, you have to learn or at least think through which openings are the best; due to small number of pieces on the board at the beginning of the game and the random drawing of tiles, it’s not possible to compile extensive opening theories, but the opening moves are still important in The Duke and can’t be ignored. Just like in the majority of advanced, abstract games, there’s also a strong heuristic aspect, i.e. you have to learn a number of rules of thumb to become really good at it.

I’d say that The Duke is quite demanding compared to other modern abstract games, and I don’t believe it’s a suitable, so-called gateway game. I don’t know if the elusive BGG concept of “average game weight” can be used as an indicator of depth, but The Duke has an average game weight of 2.7, which is rather high for modern abstract games. Here are some statistics for comparison:

• Blokus: 1.8
• GIPF: 2.8
• Hive: 2.4
• Ingenious: 2.0
• Khet: The Laser Game: 2.6
• Pentago: 2.0
• Ponte del Diavolo: 2.4
• Pueblo: 2.3
• Quoridor: 1.9
• Trax: 2.2
• Twixt: 2.4
• Volcano: 2.4

Luck

The Duke uses a mechanism which is rather unusual in abstract games, namely tile drawing. There are some popular abstract games which also have an element of luck that may have an impact on the game, such as Ingenious, Qwirkle, Fealty, and, if you categorise it as a proper abstract game despite being topical, Tigris & Euphrates. However, I haven’t played any other abstract game where luck may have such a dramatic impact. You may be at a clear advantage if you happen to draw a powerful piece at the right moment, and at a clear disadvantage if you happen to draw a mediocre piece at the wrong moment. To take an extreme example: In one game where my opponent clearly played better than me and was beating the living hell out of me, I managed to draw exactly the right tile at exactly the right time and won instantly.



Picture courtesy of Nathan Dennis.


This element of luck doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, though. It makes the game very dynamic and full of surprises, so you are not likely to get bored while playing it. Furthermore, it can also serve as a kind of handicap, as an inexperienced player may be lucky and still have a chance against an experienced player. It also makes it very difficult to write theory articles and books about The Duke, which no doubt makes the game less intimidating and more accessible than more demanding games like Chess and Go. However, this will most probably prevent it from getting the cadres of die-hard fans the abstract classics have.

Originality

There are many similarities between The Duke and Chess. The board has 6x6 squares, the pieces have different movement patterns, some pieces are more valuable than others, and the Duke must be trapped, not just taken. Sounds familiar? There are some similarities to ZoxSo too, i.e. the pieces have different movement patterns depending on which side is turned face-up, and the game can end surprisingly fast. The Duke also makes me think of a sadly forgotten game, Fealty, because of its large number of pieces and their various abilities, as well as its feudal topic.

However, I wouldn’t dismiss The Duke as a simple derivative. On the contrary, the mix of mechanisms is probably unique and it’s without a doubt a game in its own right. You are not likely to have played anything like it before, so it may be a refreshing experience for you.

Fun

It’s always hazardous to compare the fun factor of different games, as this obviously is highly subjective. However, I can say this much: The Duke is a very dynamic game, certainly more so than Go and arguably more so than Chess as well. Because of the random drawing of tiles, the tides can turn extremely fast, and the highly varied movement patterns of the pieces invite to lightning attacks. Contrary to Chess, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to build solid defences, and you are more or less forced to use the Duke as an active piece because of its superior mobility, so you are not likely to experience the kind of trench wars and standstills that are common in Chess.

The Duke is also a very intense game, as you really can’t afford to make mistakes; it’s basically as unforgiving a game as Chess. Something that contributes to the intensity is that the game may end very quickly; it reminds me vaguely of Trax in this respect. The drawing of tiles, be it yours or your opponent’s, can also be quite thrilling, as the drawn tile can have a decisive effect on the outcome of the game. You may love it or hate it, but you won’t be indifferent to it while playing the game.

An aspect that probably is better described as stimulating than fun is the challenge the game constitutes. Like many other popular abstract games, such as Chess, Go, and the Project GIFP games, The Duke requires repeated plays to really appreciate the game and become good at it. When you begin to crack the code of the game, it can feel quite rewarding, and you get the sense of skill and accomplishment that you only can get from abstract games.

Replayability

As mentioned above, the code of the game is not easily cracked; it takes repeated plays, probably dozens, to get decently skilled. I think this alone guarantees the kind of excellent replay value that only a good abstract game can offer.

Interestingly enough, there are unusually many variants included in the game. One such variant is the use of static pieces, i.e. a mountain piece and a fortress piece, which add special finesses to the game. Another variant is the use of flag pieces, which can be captured. Something which is almost unique is that the game comes with blank pieces and small stickers, which allows you to create your own customised pieces. Finally, two expansions have already been released and I assume that these expansions won’t be the last. Taking all this into account, I think that the potential replay value of The Duke is extraordinarily good.



Picture courtesy of Ola Mikael Hansson.


What will Chess fans think of The Duke?

If you are a serious and dedicated Chess player, I’d say that you probably won’t like The Duke, or, at best, see it as an entertaining trifle or distraction. You will probably find the game rather chaotic because of the element of luck which can be decisive, and rather frustrating because it’s almost impossible to make long-term strategies or build even marginally solid defences. In many ways, The Duke is Chess for gamers who don’t like Chess, so to speak. Don’t take my word for it, though; maybe you’ll like it anyway.

What will Go fans think of The Duke?

If you are a fan of Go, chances are that you won’t like The Duke, or at least not find it very interesting. The reason I think so is that The Duke is the very opposite of Go in many respects. It lacks the simplicity and purity of Go, especially when it comes to rules and aesthetics, and it doesn’t have the elegant balance between tactics and strategy that you find in Go; I’d say there’s more focus on tactics than strategy and combinations than area control in The Duke. Again, don’t take my word for it, though; maybe you’ll like it anyway.

Personal thoughts

I think The Duke is an original, entertaining, and stimulating game; if you like abstract games, it’s certainly well worth considering. However, it will never become a favourite of mine, simply because it resembles Chess too much. I played Chess for many years, for periods even in our national Chess league; for reference, my highest ELO rating was merely 1642, if I remember correctly. Unfortunately, I’ve grown very tired of Chess, as I’ve really played it ad nauseam. I still don’t mind a casual blitz game, but that’s a rare occurrence.

Nowadays, I much prefer playing abstract games which are minimalistic, yet brain-burning, but don’t require that you memorise several rules and rules of thumb, like Go, Trax, Volcano, and Kamisado. I won’t turn down a game of The Duke, but there are several other abstract games I like better. I don’t regret buying The Duke, but I wonder how often I’ll play it. That’s just me, though. To each their own.
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G. Gambill
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Nice, comparative write up! Thanks! I just got this for my son who likes chess, but he's not a student of it, so this may work very well for him. I love the flip the tile after the move mechanism. So different and challenging. I'm sure it leads to great surprises!
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Chris G
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Good comparison. I would only lightly disagree on one point.

"To take an extreme example: In one game where my opponent clearly played better than me and was beating the living hell out of me, I managed to draw exactly the right tile at exactly the right time and won instantly. "

As this has both happened for and against me. I'd counter with saying that if you are vulnerable to a draw then you have left yourself open. Yes it was fortuitous that your opponent got the right piece at the right time, kudos for them. However it wasn't luck that lost the game it was you leaving an opening.

It is the luck element in The Duke that allows this to happen. However it's not a loss based on luck.
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Aditya C
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Great review. One interesting note is that the tile-flipping is a mechanism from Kyoto Shogi. As for new gamers, this game is a lot more accessible while still giving them the opportunity to think hard about each move. Those reference cards are amazing.

I did find it more tactical than strategic because of the tile drawing but players that account for all the threats and possible draws tend to do better.

As a chess amateur I was really happy with the change of pace that the Duke offers.
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Adam Kazimierczak
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Anyone who seriously invested brain cells over years or decades into the heuristics and theory of Chess will be very put out by having to domesticate a new beast. But for those of us with more free RAM left in our cerebrum it's probably worth the plunge.
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Life is a lamp-flame before a wind.
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kaziam wrote:
Anyone who seriously invested brain cells over years or decades into the heuristics and theory of Chess will be very put out by having to domesticate a new beast. But for those of us with more free RAM left in our cerebrum it's probably worth the plunge.


Very well put, sir! If I hadn't overloaded my hard drive with Chess theory already, The Duke could very well have been my favourite game.
 
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Aditya C
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A lot of the chess theory applies here as well, like controlling the center, pinning pieces, etc. So, not all is lost for a chess player.
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