The Influence Must Flow

box cover

Yellow boxes are the mind-killer.

We don’t come into a game with a clean slate. We have a series of expectations and hopes that we bring into any gaming experience, and of course that will color how we view the entire game one way or the other. A lot of people say you can’t go into a game like this, but it’s the human thing to do. And besides, it would be fundamentally dishonest to pretend that those expectations don’t exist. A game review devoid of contextual clues isn’t much good to anyone. But those same expectations that give a game context can make it very difficult to respond to a game.

I find myself in this kind of situation with Rex. Back in the summer of 2007, Fantasy Flight announced that they had received the rights to the classic Avalon Hill adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece, Dune. The problem was, the Herbert estate’s business plan of crapping out more novels didn’t include letting Fantasy Flight reprint what is arguably the best adaptation ever of the source material. So FFG was left with the rights to the mechanics of a game they couldn’t publish. Undaunted, they announced they would move the game into their own Twilight Imperium universe.

Despite the imminent change in setting, I was very excited for Rex. My excitement was amplified by the fact that we waited a full four years before we heard from Fantasy Flight about their Dune re-skin. So I came into Rex fully expecting a thrilling sci-fi experience, filled with betrayal and interaction. But many other people came into the game with entirely different baggage. Dune is widely considered to be one of the finest representations of a setting in a board game form. Without overwhelming the player, Dune recreated Herbert’s world so faithfully that for many people it would be impossible to separate the mechanics from their setting.

It’s not unheard of for a game to get a new setting. It’s particularly common in the Eurogame scene. The classic Euro-style wargame Wallenstein was transported from the Thirty-Years War to feudal Japan without too much loss, and Alan Moon’s train game Union Pacific recently resurfaced as Airlines Europe. There are changes made, but they’re the same basic game. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a game of such narrative ever being moved to a new setting. Therefore, Rex represents something of a grand experiment, and a test to see how closely setting, theme, and mechanics are tied. Fantasy Flight is betting that what’s under the hood is good enough to sit in any car, but this frankly flies in the face of what the Ameritrash movement has been saying from day one.

So as you can see, any reviewer of Rex has a difficult task in front of them. For my part, I’ve never played the original Dune, although I’ve wanted to for a long time. None of my regular gaming group owns a copy, and most don’t really care about the original book in the first place. As a result, my own experience with the game has thus far been quite positive. Rex is the sort of game that I wish I could play more often. I love asymmetrical player powers, and those are out in full-force here. I’d even venture to say that I’ve never played a game (with the possible exception of The Ares Project) that has such a sharp contrast between all the players. Everyone breaks the game in a different directions. This is an especially cool trick, because it keeps the overall rules burden very light. The basic rules are very simple because all of the little chrome rules that create the setting are placed on the player powers. The flip-side of that is that if you’re playing with less than a full compliment of six players, you’ll be missing some of those little rules and your experience will suffer. That’s too bad, because it just makes the game more difficult to get played. I wish that FFG could have done something with this, but I’m not really sure what that could be.

Playing Rex is a very unusual experience. The interaction of the different phases, cards, powers, and humans makes for a game that could be drastically different based on just the turn of a card. In this way, it reminds of a slightly less insane Cosmic Encounter. And like that game, a lot of what’s good here depends on the players paying attention and knowing the game. If you have a group that has a hard time focusing on what’s happening around the table, I would not recommend Rex at all. You need to keep track of who is playing what cards, the positions on the board, and most of all the little nonverbal cues that take a few games to read. I love this kind of interaction in a game, but it takes a measure of commitment to enjoy. In that sense, the design definitely shows its age. It doesn’t mind being long and deep, and that sticks out like a sore thumb among more current designs.

Naysayers will point out that everything that’s good about Rex was already present in Dune. They are absolutely right, actually. Though I’ve never played Dune, I’m pretty familiar with the rules. It looks like most of Fantasy Flight’s changes were made to just strip out some ambiguity and make the game a little more consistent in its playtime. The biggest changes are the removal of the secrecy around the table, and a completely redone board. I don’t really mind the new secrecy rules. Leaving the room to make deals works for Dune, but in the Twilight Imperium world it just feels like a way for the game to go long. I could probably be convinced the other way, but for the time being the game feels fine without it. As for the board, it is no longer a map of a planet but rather a point-to-point map of the city of Mecatol Rex. A lot of people think it looks super ugly, but I don’t think that’s really the case. My problem is that the map is simply counter-intuitive. There are a couple little mechanics that depend on finding certain locations on the map, and even after a few games it’s hard to do quickly. I don’t mind the change in format, but it makes the game much less usable.

In a more abstract way, the loss of the Dune setting can only be considered a negative. No one can convince me this game is better off this way. It’s pretty clear that Fantasy Flight agreed, because they made very little effort to disguise the old bones of the game. All player powers make perfect sense in the Duniverse, but they seem arbitrary here. For example, the only reason the Xxcha win for predicting who will win the game is because the Bene Gesserit could do it in the original game. And instead of spice, we have “influence,” which is far less evocative. As someone who enjoyed the original book, this kind of stuff sticks out like a sore thumb. I imagine that many fans of the old game will be driven insane by it. But for us it hasn’t proven to be an issue. As I said before, no one besides me seems to care, and it fits well enough to not be a practical problem. But if you already love the original game and book this may be a big red flag.

In the broader sense, I don’t like the precedent that is set by a game moving from its original setting. It was done here out of necessity, but the world of publishing rights is murky enough that I can see it happening again down the road. And this is not a trend that should become prevalent. Theme matters, plain and simple. It’s not something that can just be transplanted with no loss. My biggest hope is that someday the Herbert estate will lighten up and let someone, anyone, publish the game in its original form.

But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon. It may be true that Rex would be better as Dune, but it works pretty well as is. In that respect, Fantasy Flight’s experiment is a qualified success. It may just be the old game with fancy new components and Twilight Imperium instead of Dune, but FFG was pretty forthright about that fact all those years ago when they first announced the game. Rex represents Fantasy Flight’s best-case scenario, for whatever that’s worth, and I’m happy we have it.


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