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He Who Controls the Spice (A Review of Rex)

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REX! Starring: Lions

The final days of the Lazax began in the seventy-third year of the war. 

These words can be found buried in the introductory chapters of Fantasy Flight Games’ flagship title Twilight Imperium.  The words continue: Without warning, an alliance of Sol, N’oor, and Hacan attacked Mecatol Rex itself.  Of all the planets in the galaxy, no planet was more war-torn than Mecatol Rex.  Over the course of only a few years, the planet’s ecology was ravaged by bombardments, its population decimated, and its green fields blasted into a toxic wasteland.

It is in this scenario which players find themselves during the course of Rex: Fall of an Empire, the prequel game to Twilight Imperium. Storyline-wise, TI takes place after a long period of galactic disarray and a vacancy in the seat of power; Rex occurs thousands of years before this, during the fall of the Lazax, the once-great empire that ruled the galaxy for untold ages. But does it capture the feeling of chaos and destruction described in the paragraph above? And more importantly, is the game fun to play?

How It Plays

The game of Rex is divided into rounds, and each round has a series of phases. Every phase, each player performs the appropriate actions in turn before the next phase begins. Players must use these phases to gain influence, control sections of the city, battle other players, negotiate alliances, and attempt to achieve victory by conquering three of the five strongholds. In addition, each player plays as one of six alien races, each with its own unique and very powerful abilities.

Allow me to provide you with a galactic sense of scale here

Over the course of a round, influence tokens will be added to certain locations on the board.  Players will bid on strategy cards using the influence they already have, then recruit units and leaders from their reinforcements pool to their reserves by paying influence.  They will move units on the board, and then pay influence to deploy more units.  Players sharing a location will battle; the leftover units will collect influence from their locations (if there is any), and finally the Sol Bombardment Fleet will move a random number of steps along a pre-determined path, destroying everything in its’ wake.

There are a few twists to these steps.  In the bidding phase, players bid influence on Strategy cards, which can be used for various bonuses or actions during certain parts of the game.  Bidding works fairly standard way – you can raise or pass, until only one player is left.  The catch is, the cards being bid on are facedown – you have to bid blindly if you want to get anything at all.

The Battle phase also has a twist.  Instead of rolling dice or set attack numbers winning, players use special “battle dials” to resolve combat.   Players secretly choose a number on the battle dial – from 0 to however many units they have involved in the combat – as well as a leader, which can range to a battle value between 1 to 7, depending on the race and choice of leader.  Then the dials are revealed at the same time, and whoever has the highest total wins.  However, the winner must destroy the number of their own units they chose on the battle dial!  Yes, you heard me right.  You have to kill your own units in order to win a battle.  (What did you expect?  This is war.)  In addition, those strategy cards you bid on earlier can be committed, which can kill leaders or add additional points to your attack total, or protect against the other player’s attack cards.

Traitors. They ruin everything.

In addition, each player has access to a [very limited]number of Traitor cards.  If one player possesses the Traitor card corresponding to the leader the opposing player committed to battle, that traitor card can be revealed to cause the opposing side to lose automatically, regardless of totals – and the winning side doesn’t have to lose any Units at all, regardless of what they committed on their battle dial.

The game ends when one player controls 3 of the 5 strongholds (alliances require more strongholds between the players – 4 strongholds for a 2-player alliance, all 5 strongholds for a 3-player alliance), or after 8 rounds.  The actual winner is usually the player (or alliance) that controls enough strongholds; but certain alien powers, as well as optional Betrayal cards, can be used to claim or steal a victory.

Will This War Ever End?

As it turns out, Rex is a phenomenal game, the sort whose whole is greater than the sum of its mechanisms, but it just so happens that the mechanisms involved are fine pieces of work.

A quick disclaimer: I have never played the original Dune game, of which Rex is a remake. I have heard about many of the differences in theory, but you’ll have to excuse me if I make any comparisons that seem inaccurate.

He who controls the spice… er, influence…

Lets start at the top. The components of this game are stellar. FFG is no stranger to beautiful miniatures, art, and design work inside their boxes, but this game may be one of the best. And it doesn’t even feature an over-abundance of miniatures! The board features the dust-filled, ransacked Mecatol City, evoking a strong sense of war and chaos.  But the actual game-relevant locations on the board are clearly distinguished and easy to see.  The board also has a few extra zones to keep tokens and cards organized.  The iconography is strong, with shielded areas, strongholds, and spaceports marked clearly on the board.

The overall feel of the art and design does an excellent job of communicating a vibe that is both technologically advanced, yet also from an age in the distant past.  This makes perfect sense thematically; it takes place in a technologically advanced future, yet thousands of years prior to Twilight Imperium.

The components are good too; the units are cardboard tokens, distinguished by racial icons and color.  The reason they are tokens instead of miniatures is that you will be squeezing plenty of them (we’ve had 15+) into a single space, and the flat tokens stack quite easily.  The only plastic miniature represents a fleet of ships.  The model is completely unnecessary; but it is an awesome token and it certainly adds to the thematic feel of the game to have these majestic ships sweeping across the landscape, bombing everything in their path.  The only real issue is that it doesn’t fit very well back in the box; I have to disassemble it (yes it requires some minor assembly.  It’s 5 ships on a clear plastic stand).  Hopefully this won’t wear down the stands for the ships over time.  Although, to be fair, I could remove the box insert and fit everything in just fine.

this guy: totally unnecessary, totally awesome

The cards are an excellent stock with a nice finish, some of the best cards I’ve ever handled.  And, perhaps surprisingly, these cards are generally not burdened with an over-abundance of text.  Race sheets have backstory on the back, but other than that, cards feature only the important mechanical information.  The theme really comes through with the art and design, which is great.  I’m personally not opposed to flavor text, but it generally wears thin after a few plays and we just start to ignore it; some people hate the clutter that flavor text adds.

The last major component – the battle dials – are also made of the excellent cardboard.  They’re easy to look at and read quickly.  The leader tokens do frequently get inserted and removed from slots in the dial, and I’m not sure how that will wear on the tokens over time.  However, in the time I have had it I have seen no noticeable decrease in quality or shape, and I expect that even with some wear the tokens will still hold in place just fine.

So with great components, you’re off to a great start.  But this is also a great game system.  It incorporates classic mechanisms with great twists; and I’ve never seen anything like the Battle Dial combat mechanism before.  For a 30 year old game system, that’s not bad.  Unless, of course, the mechanism itself is bad… fortunately, in this case it isn’t.

The key to success in this game is resource management.  Influence isn’t exactly abundant; you start with a small amount, and the main way to get more is to control locations with Influence.  Unfortunately all of the locations where Influence might appear are unshielded; which means going after it that way could easily get you killed by the constant bombardment.  It also means that areas with influence are going to be contested, which means fighting battles, which means expending units, and so you really have to decide whether or not it’s worth it to go after influence.  Since you need to spend that influence to recruit troops and then again to deploy them, sending too many units to their death to nab the influence on the board may actually cost you.  There’s a lot of give and take, and it makes all of your choices important.

The blind bidding phase is pretty exciting.  Every card is valuable, although some may be more valuable to others at any given time. The blind bidding means you have to decide how much you want *a* card.  It keeps the costs of the cards low–who is really going to spend 5+ on an unknown card?–but it forces you to make strategic risks rather than go all out on the specific card you might need.  An added bonus of bidding blindly is that your opponents don’t know the card you won either, which comes in handy when choosing cards to play in battle.

These very useful cards can be yours, for the right price

Ah yes, battle.  The battle dial system, one of the most unique ways of resolving combat I’ve ever seen, is just brilliant. It prevents long, extended dice-fests that some dice-based combat games get into; players simply commit their units, leaders, and cards, and one player comes out on top. However, it also creates a much stronger sense of tension and risk than more simplistic methods of combat resolution. In, say, Small World, combat is resolved instantly–the attacker wins as long as they bring enough troops. It’s very fast, but the combat itself isn’t particularly exciting. In Rex, since you lose any units you commit, you have to choose very carefully your numbers.  Even if you greatly outnumber your enemy, it’s not always wise to commit the maximum number of units you need to guarantee a win–if you do, that will significantly weaken your position for the next round. It wastes a lot of resources if you’re constantly sending troops to their death and re-recruiting and deploying them. The addition of the Leader tokens–an unknown value for each side–means a weaker force has a decent chance of upending a stronger force, or at the very least knocking them down a few pegs so they can be taken out later. And it makes every battle exciting as players decide just how much they’re willing to sacrifice to win, hoping their cards will succeed and send the enemy packing. The traitor cards at yet another element of excitement, as you never know when the other player might just have the leader you chose in their pocket–or vice versa.

Try not to end up in the Warp… er, the Recruitment pool

All this, and combat lasts 1 round, so other players don’t have to wait too long for their turn.  It’s great. And fortunately, even if you are completely wiped off the board, some savvy playing allows the possibility of a comeback, however difficult it may be.

The [rather extremely]asymmetrical powers are well implemented, and pretty balanced as far as I can tell.  Each race has an amazing advantage that the other players don’t have and it’s very fun to use.  When players use their powers, I’ve often heard cries of “Wait, you can do What?” but it happens to each player in turn, and no one is left out.  From the Barony of Letnev who gets twice as many cards as anyone else (and 4 times as many Traitor cards at the start), to the Jol-Nar who get to look at the cards everyone else has to bid blindly on, to the Sol with their ease of producing new troops and fore-knowledge of the Sol Bombardment Fleet movement, every race is fun to play.  There are no duds.  Every race has an unfair advantage and it’s awesome.  And in the games I’ve played a different race has won each time.

6 very, very unique races

The alliance mechanisms are a nice touch.  Alliances can only be formed or broken at certain times, depending on a card draw at the beginning of each round.  This means that it is theoretically possible that Alliances might be re-negotiated at the start of every other round; or that there will never be time to form alliances at all.

When alliances are formed, powers are shared between players; not the full set of a race’s powers, but a rather useful bonus.  This makes Alliances very desirable, and the victory conditions don’t increase proportionally.  However, it is still possible for a savvy player on his or her own to beat out a 3-way alliance, with good planning, good timing, and a good use of cards.  This is because units cannot enter the same locations as their allies, so they can’t help defend a location together, or create a massive offensive on a single location in the same round.  Of course, you might also find yourself stuck with a lackluster or unlucky ally, unable to break free and forced to conquer all the strongholds yourself.  I’ve been in games where I had enough strongholds to win by myself, but since I was in an alliance I could not claim the victory.  It’s a bit of give-and-take there as well.  And, of course, the [optional]betrayal cards mean your ally could backstab you after the game ends and claim a solo victory, usurping all your efforts.  You gotta be careful.

When you play with Betrayal cards, alliances are much more fragile

I will say that a 3-player alliance does have an advantage against a 2-player alliance or a single player.  They have more resources to go around, and can sustain an onslaught over multiple rounds even though they can’t overpower a single location all at once.  For this reason, this game is ideally played with 6 players, allowing either 2 sets of 3, or 3 sets of 2, or maybe 1 player going off on their own hoping to take advantage of the chaos between the other groups of allies.  Some of the races have alternate conditions for winning; Sol wins if the game goes 8 rounds and they control certain locations, while Hacan wins after 8 rounds if no one else has claimed victory by strongholds (or that Sol victory).  This allows the players of these races to simply attempt to prevent other players from achieving victory, making it much more possible to win against a large alliance.  The Xxcha, who can steal a victory by predicting the victory of a race in a certain round number, also has the ability to win by attempting to manipulate the situation on the board to make their prediction come true, which is both difficult and quite a blast to try.

Every game I have played lasts about 3 hours.  This isn’t too bad for an epic game like this, and each time I’ve played we’ve had at least one new player.  The battle-dial system takes a bit of getting used to (and understanding when and how to “commit” troops, leaders, and cards) which slows the game down, and so I think the 2-3hr estimate on the game box is pretty accurate for experienced players.  And a glorious 2-3 hours it is.  For those keeping track at home, the original Dune game was estimated to last anywhere between 3 and 8 hours, but improvements made to the original system (cutting the max number of rounds from 16 to 8, giving players 2 influence automatically each turn) helps speed everything up and keep it within a more predictable timeframe.  Yes, that’s right, FFG actually made a game shorter.

Because if it sounds Latin, it must be important

It’s a shame FFG was unable to get the Dune license.  I really enjoy the Dune novel and the Sci-fi miniseries (shame about that movie though), and having that theme layered onto the game would be grand.  As it is, though, the Twilight Imperium universe is steeped in enough wonderful backstory, and the battle of Mecatol City fits very appropriately.  And there are still a few leftover flavors from the Dune universe – like that Energy Shield that explodes when hit with a laser weapon.  The race powers included, while re-themed to the appropriate Twilight Imperium races, correspond pretty closely to their Dune counterparts from what I understand, so if you’re familiar with Dune you can fill in the details on your own.

Overall, Rex is simply a fun game to play.  It’s filled with risks and rewards; with diplomacy, treachery, and betrayal.  The combat dial mechanism is brilliant and exciting.  The race powers are wild and fun to use.  The presentation and components is beyond excellent.  You may not be into this style or level of complexity, but if you are or if you’re thinking about trying it, this is a no-brainer.  Rex is phenomenal, and one of the best games I’ve played this year–if not all time.

Summary

  • Rating 9.5
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 10
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Summary

Pros

  • Brilliant and speedy Combat Dial mechanism
  • Dripping with exciting theme
  • Exciting risks, awesome rewards
  • Betrayals, diplomacy, negotiation, bribery
  • Ridiculously powerful and fun Race powers
  • Awesome production value
  • Cohesive overall experience

Cons:

  • 3-way alliances are slightly overpowered in 5-player games
  • Doesn't fit back into the box easily
  • Missing the Dune theme
9.5 Excellent

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

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