Friday, February 22, 2013

Making A Wreck Out Of "Rex: Final Days Of The Empire"

Besides TSR, the other olde skool game company that I really miss is Avalon Hill. 

BTW, if anyone out there reads that and says "Hey, wait a minute!  Avalon Hill still exists!" I would kindly like to invite these very same people to chow down on a big, heaping bowlful of Penis™ brand cereal.  When Hasborg, er...Hasbro bought out Avalon Hill back in 1998 the venerable wargaming company became a shadow of their former selves, kinda like the equivalent of a pod person from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  

Avalon Hill was responsible for releasing some of the most historically-accurate, well-mounted and mind-bendingly complicated wargames ever produced.  For close to four decades, grognards happily immersed themselves in such "casual" fare as The Siege of Jerusalem, Wooden Ships and Iron Men, Empires in Arms, PanzerLeader, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, and Advanced Squad Leader.  Having said that, I don't want readers to go away thinking that the only people into wargaming during this Golden Age were all coke-bottle bespectabled, neck-bearded military history types.

By providing simpler fare such as We The People, Afrika Korps, D-Day, and Anzio a pretty broad cross-section of humanity got into the hobby.  Rumor has it that President Kennedy staged epic games of Diplomacy at the White House, presumably with Henry Kissinger playing as Germany.  At the height of the wargaming craze, it wasn't outside the realm of possibility for Avalon Hill to sell more then twenty-thousand copies of a single title.  Some folks even credit da Hill for uncovering and fostering a market for adult games which thrives to this very day.

But over time, wargames would be assailed by a veritable conveyor belt of shiny new diversions.  This included role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Traveler, collectible card games such as Magic: the Gathering, computer games like Panzer General, Eurogames like The Settlers of Catan and so-called "Ameritrash" titles in the vein of Axis & Allies.  This last game, for example, managed to boil the length and breadth of World War II down to what amounts to a grand strategic game of Yahtzee.  Realistic?  No.  Compulsively playable and relatively easy to round up players who don't have a month to spare in order to play Campaign for North Africa all the way to completion?  Definitely

In their bid for survival, Avalon Hill tried to lure in as many different gamers as possible.  They snapped up role-playing settings like RuneQuest and James Bond.  They produced movie tie-ins like Starship Troopers: Prepare for Battle!  They provided embryonic Euro-like options such as Acquire, Rail Baron and the Reiner Knizia-designed Colossal Arena (nee Titan: the Arena).  They printed up innocuous party games like Slang, Showbiz, Auction and Sex Quest (?).   They proffered sports games like Football Strategy and even a goofy card game called Wrasslin'.

Towards the end of its existence, Avalon Hill produced some forward-thinking wargames like Age of Renaissance, Brittania, History of the World and Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage.  All of these titles were less about Combat Results Tables and more about innovative mechanics.  They even took a genuine stab at Ameritrash with games like Merchant of Venus, Titan, Stellar Conquest and Princess Ryan's Star Marines.  Unfortunately all of these progressive efforts would be for naught.

I'm not going to go into what ultimately killed Avalon Hill, just suffice to say that their legal team probably deserves a swift boot in the arse.  Many, many years before its demise, Avalon Hill produced a title that, in my humble opinion, single-handedly foreshadowed the evolution of modern boardgames.  It was part area control, part auction.  It had leaders and treachery.  It had an almost Eurogamey method of conflict resolution.  Best of all, it was thematically rich and featured a host of cool variable powers that nicely simulated the different races featured in the classic novel of the same name.

The game I speak of is, of course, Dune

An immediate hit upon initial release, the game was re-packaged in 1984 as a tie-in for the floppish David Lynch film and features a bizarre Sting look-alike on the box cover.  Presumably because the cost of the Dune license became exorbitant, the game became cost prohibitive to produce and eventually went out of print.  Needless to say, it didn't take very long before Dune became one of the most valuable boardgaming "holy grails" with some copies selling for hundreds of dollars a pop on Ebay.     

Knowing damned well that the game was a bona fide classic and hordes of fans were waiting in the wings for a reprint like a pack of slavering dogs, Fantasy Flight acquired the rights to re-publish it back in 2007.  Unfortunately, they also failed to secure the Dune license.  Way to go, Herbert estate.  I mean, seriously?  Do you really think that Dune is so predominant in the zeitgeist of pop culture that you can pick and choose quality licensing opportunities like this?  I'm tellin' ya, if I ever, ever see a roll-n'-move Dune board game sittin' on the shelf at Calendar Club, I'm sending Brian and the rest of the Herbert clan a box of poo labeled "FEDERALLY INSPECTED 100% U.S.D.A. GRADE-A MELANGE".  

As a consolation prize, the good folks at Fantasy Flight took the game's hallowed mechanics and boiler-plated the Twilight Imperium universe onto it.  Although the game has lost some of its flavor in the transition, the spirit of the original title is still, by all accounts, largely intact.

So what's so durned special about this game?  Here's Fantasy Flight's opening argument:

"Rex: Final Days of an Empire, a reimagined version of Dune set in Fantasy Flight's Twilight Imperium universe, is a board game of negotiation, betrayal, and warfare in which 3-6 players take control of great interstellar civilizations, competing for dominance of the galaxy's crumbling imperial city. Set 3,000 years before the events of Twilight Imperium, Rex tells the story of the last days of the Lazax empire, while presenting players with compelling asymmetrical racial abilities and exciting opportunities for diplomacy, deception, and tactical mastery.

Rex: Final Days of an Empire, players vie for control of vital locations across a sprawling map of the continent-sized Mecatol City. Only by securing three key locations (or more, when allied with other factions) can a player assert dominance over the heart of a dying empire.

"Unfortunately, mustering troops in the face of an ongoing Sol blockade is difficult at best (unless, of course, you are the Federation of Sol or its faithless ally, the Hacan, who supply the blockading fleet). Savvy leaders must gather support from the local populace, uncover hidden weapon caches, and acquire control over key institutions. Mechanically, this means players must lay claim to areas that provide influence, which is then 'spent' to (among other things) smuggle military forces through the orbiting Sol blockade. Those forces will be needed to seize the key areas of the city required to win the game. From the moment the first shot is fired, players must aggressively seek the means by which to turn the conflict to their own advantage.

"While the great races struggle for supremacy in the power vacuum of a dead emperor, massive Sol warships execute their devastating bombardments of the city below. Moving systematically, the Federation of Sol's fleet of warships wreaks havoc on the planet's surface, targeting great swaths of the game board with their destructive capabilities. Only the Sol's own ground forces have forewarning of the fleet's wrath; all others must seek shelter in the few locations with working defensive shields...or be obliterated in the resulting firestorm.

"Although open diplomacy and back-door dealmaking can often mitigate the need for bloodshed, direct combat may prove inevitable. When two or more opposing forces occupy the same area, a battle results. Each player's military strength is based on the sum total of troops he is willing to expend, along with the strength rating of his chosen leader. A faction's leaders can therefore be vitally important in combat...but beware! One or more of your Leaders may secretly be in the employ of an enemy, and if your forces in combat are commanded by such a traitor, defeat is all but assured. So whether on the field of battle or the floor of the Galactic Council, be careful in whom you place your trust.

"All this, along with a host of optional rules and additional variants, means that no two games of Rex: Final Days of an Empire will play exactly alike. Contributing further to replayability is the game's asymmetrical faction abilities, each of which offer a unique play experience."

Seeking the omniscience of a Paul Atreid...uh, sorry...seeking the all-encompassing wisdom of the Jol-Nar?  Then enclickify the following link to read the full rules for Rex: Final Days Of The Empire.   

So, anyway, six of us got together back on the 13'th to give this game a whirl.  Unfortunately Dean's masturbation-aggravated carpel tunnel syndrome flared up and he was forced to take the role of spectator.  Which isn't all that bad 'cuz Dean really, really likes to watch.     


Andrew...Federation of Sol (Blue)
Chad...Xxcha Kingdom (Green)
Me...Emirates of Hacan (Yellow)
Mac...Universities of Jol-Nar (Purple)
Mike...Lazak Empire (Red)

Here's how the board looked upon initial set-up.  

As a relatively weak military power I had only five Units to start, all safely nestled under the shielded dome of Adminus Imperialis.  

Andrew's Federation of Sol were scattered all over the map: six in the Imperial Palace, three in the Sai Morgai Industrial Sector and one in the Thezin Commerce Region.  

Meanwhile, all ten of Mac's troops were stuck huddling under the Civilian Spaceport's Shields thanks to the unfortunate initial placement of the bombarding Dreadnought Fleet.  

Chad's Xxcha refused to turtle with five Units brazenly displayed right in open view of the Galactic Council.  

And for all of Mike's highly-vaunted military might he was forced to keep all fifteen of his regular Units (as well as his dreaded Mechanized forces) all in reserve.  


Mac was forced to hold his position as the Dreadnought Fleet passed overhead.  

I expanded my influence by Recruiting four new Units and then moving three troops into the equally-sheltered Sai Sallai Residential district.  

Mike lowered the properly values by dropping two scary-looking Mechanized Units into the Vel Hamech Financial District, which was my neck of the woods.

Fearing a high movement from the Dreadnought Fleet, Andrew pulled his lone Unit out of the Thezin Commerce Region.  After a rousing Recruitment Phase, Andrew went on to divert troops from the Imperial Palace to the Influence-rich Adminus Mecatol as well as the Hirzall Industrial Region.  

For a bunch of space turtles, Chad's Xxcha made some pretty quick moves.  He pulled four Units from reserve and then promptly swarmed the Influence-rich Hall of Records and the Imperial Navy Base.  This last acquisition was a particularly good coup since it counted as a victory-conditional Stronghold and as a long range attack-launchin' Spaceport!   


Mike's two Mechanized Units in the Vel Hamech Financial District got annihilated when the Dreadnought Fleet passed overhead, allowing me to breathe a bit easier.  This was in contrast to Chad's forces in the Galactic Council who were completely immune to the barrage.  Stung by the arbitrary loss, Mike rebounded by requisitioning three Mechanized Units and one regular troop in Mecatol Power South.  This instantly gave him a Stronghold to horde as well as a Shielded region to consolidate his forces under.

After the Fleet passed safely overhead, I was anxious to exploit the Hacan's ability to move Units anywhere on the game board.  Unfortunately this also prevented me from levying any new troops so I constantly felt as if I was leaving the Adminus Imperialis Stronghold undefended.  Even after doubling my presence in that sector I still felt paranoid about shifting half of my numbers to the far side of the game board.

With a four-point Influence Token luring him in like a Scooby Snack, Mac moved two of his Units to the Sector Incarcatorum.

Chad decided to play to it safe, consolidating his hold over the Imperial Navy Base by engaging in some rigorous Recruitment and then pulling in reserves from both the Galactic Council and the Hall of Records.

After draining Adminus Mecatol of all of its Influence, Andrew pulled those three Units back to re-enforce the Imperial Palace and the Hirzall Industrial region.  In a blatantly aggressive move, he also decided to park three divisions in Mecatol Power North, right next door to Mac's Civilian Space headquarters.      

Already in possession of three out of the five Strongholds, Andrew, Chad and Mike began to coalesce into an unholy alliance.  As if their combined military might wasn't daunting enough, they began to exploit a particularly nasty combination.  Fueled by the Lazak's Racial Trait to receive Influence for purchased Strategy Cards and Mike's ability to give Influence to Chad and Andrew via his Ally Advantage Card, this new arrangement threatened to outbid the rest of us in every single future auction. Disturbed by these nasty turn of events, Mac and I hastily formed a quick partnership to oppose this newly-minted Axis of Evil.


With allegiances formed and battle lines drawn, the fur really began to fly.  After annexing the Influence-rich Holonet Central with five troops, my paranoia was justified when Lazak troops attacked my forces stationed at the Adminus Imperialis.  I managed to successfully repel the sudden assault by killing Mike's leader with a Strategy Card.  In addition to the loss of his two-point commander, Mike saw five units hauled off to the dead pile, including several Mechanized Units.  With four of my own Units killed in action, victory certainly didn't come cheap.

This military action left Mike's garrison in Mecatol Power South temptingly reduced.  Mac and I tried in entreat Mike into joining us, but we really didn't have a lot to offer at the time.  Besides, Mike seemed perfectly content to play the part of economic engine for his alliance partners, who were all still playing  Strategy Card keep-away with Mac and I.  

Swayed by the promise of two free Influence Tokens, Mac diverted four division to the Thezin Commerce Region.  Unfortunately this left him spread pretty thin and susceptible to a nasty one-two punch from Chad and Andrew.

After a redeployment which saw the Hall of Records undefended, Chad launched a full-scale assault on   Mac's Civilian Spaceport.  This turned out to be a vicious battle of attrition which resulted in both sides getting totally wiped out, including Mac's five-point leader.  Although he'd failed to secure the Stronghold and had only lost three units in the exchange, Chad seemed pretty pleased by this result.  In fact, his only regret was using a Strategy Card to permanently destroy the Spaceport's Shields;  a decision that would go on to haunt him later in the game.

Having bled the Hirzall Industrial Region dry of its Influence, Andrew combined these forces with the garrison at Mecatol Power North to conduct a surprise offensive against Mac's Sector Incarcatorum.  With only two Units there to defend with, Mac's forces were annihilated.  Between both prongsof the attack, Mac ended up losing about five units.  He did manage to inflict a few casualties on Andrew, however.  Between this and an unexpectedly swift bombing run by the Dreadnought Fleet, nine of Andrew's Units were summarily disintegrated.   


At this stage in the game, Andrew, Chad and Mike's near-monopoly on the Strategy Card deck began to feel kind vaguely abusive.  We took a second look at the Lazax Ally Advantage Card and realized, to our horror, that Mike could only give influence to Chad and Andrew once per turn and it had to given up front and prior to the auction.   Up to this point in time he'd been giving his allies Influence  every single time the bidding came back around to them!


In spite of this colossal ballz-up we decided to forge on.

After taking great pains to guard Mecatol Power South with two Mech and one Regular unit, Mike decided to anchor a Mech and six standard divisions right off my port bow in the Vel Hamech Financial District again.  It's mainly because of this that I didn't launch a major offensive against Andrew's Imperial Palace on my turn.  

After snapping up the Cultural Sector with a single dude I began the painful process of rebuilding.  Thanks to the Emirate's clutch racial ability to earn Influence from the Deployment of other players, I was able to conscript eight fresh recruits for the Adminus Imperialis.  Unfortunately, Andrew responded by handing me my first military defeat at Holonet Central.  After forcing my four-point Leader to turn traitor, he sent five of my Units stationed there to the graveyard.  At least I managed to give him a bloody nose by destroying his four-chit invasion force, leaving Holonet Central devoid of life.

Meanwhile poor Mac just couldn't get any traction.  In addition to seeing his Thezin Commerce Region defenders get whittled down from four to one, he also indulged in a costly campaign to try and recapture the Civilian Spaceport.  Despite the demise of his four point Leader and the loss of another two Units, Mac just couldn't retake his spiritual capital.  At the end of the round it was left as vacant as a Jennifer Lopez concert.

And then the unthinkable happened.  With the value of the Mike's Ally Advantage card now significantly reduced, Andrew and Chad offered to drop him from their alliance and take me in his stead.  Unwilling to reward their duplicity and thinking (foolishly) that I still had a shot at achieving an individual or group victory, I refused their offer and promptly welcomed Mike into the fold.

Just moments after turfing him from the Alliance, Andrew attacked Mike's Stronghold in the Mecatol Power South region.  Even after he pulled the single unit from Sector Incarcatorum and two troops from the Sai Morgai Industrial Sector, Andrew could only manage to field four Units against Mike's GIANT MOUND 'O MECHS.  In a decision that still defies explanation to this day, Mike decided to commit only a tiny fraction of his army to the battle.  Despite being outnumbered almost three to one, Andrew managed to win the contest and capture this pivotal Stronghold.

Hoping to spring upon the still-undefended-but-susceptible-to-Bombardment Civilian Spaceport, Chad requisitioned a slew of new Units in the Galactic Council.

Still smarting from Andrew's ass-whippery from the previous turn, I spent this round embroiled in damage control, staving off potential intrusions and bolstering the Cultural Sector garrison by Deploying four divisions there.

Mike spent that particular turn trying to figure out what the fuck happened in his previous turn.

With his sights set firmly on Mecatol Power South, Mac made a last-minute surge by occupying Sector Incarcatorum and then drafting five Units to liberate the Trauma And Physiology Zone from Andrew.  Unfortunately Chad's next turn brought a swift end to Mac's valiant "Hail Mary" offensive.

Indeed, Chad timed his last move perfectly.  To ensure that there was no hope of us ever capturing the Imperial Navy Base Stronghold, he concentrated every single one of his units there.  Then, using this region as a highly effective launch pad, he sent a single division in to secure the Civilian Spaceport.   To insulate Chad's skeleton crew from bombardment, Andrew had already made a brilliant strategic card play which prevented the Dreadnought Fleet from moving that turn.

In the face of this flawless co-ordinated effort, Chad and Andrew collected the last Stronghold required for the joint win!  


Screwing up Mike's Ally Advantage Card might have been pivotal to our loss but I'd be a lot quicker to blame our own inexplicably poor collective showing.  Beyond his questionable fortune in combat, Mac's actions might have been a tad too hasty.  On the flip side, my own actions were far too timid.  As for Mike, I'm hoping that he was just really drunk at the time and has no memory of any of this.  

Under normal circumstances, Andrew and Chad are usually at each other's throats.  This is actually kind of a good thing since both of them seem to possess a preternatural ability to absorb rules and sniff out winning strategies.  Allied together they're an obnoxiously unstoppable force.  

Although Andrew was precicely agressive and Chad was constantly dialed into the game's myriad of win conditions, I can't help but wonder what might of happened if Mike had posted a better defense in that last fight.  Or any defense at all for that matter.

Oh well, that just gives me more incentive to try it again real soon!  


I quite liked Rex: Final Days of an Empire.  I can understand why people were so anxious to see it back in print.  For an area control game the momentum is actually pretty flexible.  Given the Hacan's far-flung movement abilities and the freedom that every player has to deploy new recruits anywhere in Mecatol City, the Strongholds would tend to change hands rather frequently.

Each race has its own flair and they feel distinctly different from one another.  I appreciate the fact that every race isn't perfectly balanced, forcing players to innovate and exploit whatever traits they've inherited to the best of their ability.  I also have to salute any game which offers such creatively cock-eyed victory conditions.

The Alliances are also well-realized.  I like how you gain a semblance of your Ally's special abilities for the duration of your agreement.  I also like how these treaties actually feel like a formal pact.  Although Alliances often come up for review in a turn or two, there's also a chance that you can get stuck together for the long haul.  As such, a wise player should plan accordingly.  

But Combat is the real revelation here.  The Battle Dial really simulates the high price of wanting to win at all costs.  If you try and bluff an opponent by committing fewer troops, then you'd damned well better have a competent Leader in the mix and a few choice Strategy Cards to play.  Since every Unit that you commit to battle is destined to die, you're constantly trying to low-ball the amount of resources needed to win.  This plethora of considerations makes combat in Rex one of the most elegant, luck-independent systems that I've ever encountered.      

As great as the mechanics are, I personally miss the absence of the original license.  I still think Dune is one of the greatest sci-fi novels ever written so it's tough for me to divorce the mechanics from such a rich theme.  In contrast I haven't read any of the Twilight Imperium racial backgrounds and I don't feel particularly compelled to so so, mainly because they seem so generic and blah in comparison.  It's kinda like my feelings about Fantasy Flight's "Terrinoth" setting.  If I could give Descent a Dungeons & Dragons makeover, I'd be ecstatic.

Make no mistake about it, Rex: Final Days of an Empire is truly a stellar game.  I just can't help but think that a healthy dollop of sandworms, dust storms and spice would have made it even better.

Tilt: up.  

Looking to improve the hideous percentage of board game alliances that end up in divorce?  Click on the image below to pick up a copy of Rex: Final Days of an Empire from and help support this blog!


1 comment:

  1. I can't claim drunkenness, but I can claim stupidity :)