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Subject: The Battle For Mecatol Rex rss

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Jesse Dean
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Rex: Final Days of An Empire, is a Corey Konieczka remake of the classic Dune board game released by Avalon Hill in 1979. Lacking the license for the Dune property, Fantasy Flight Games chose to produce the game using their own IP, setting the game in a period before their Twilight Imperium 3 game. In it each player represents one of six factions that are seeking to fight for control of the old capital of the dying Lazax Empire.



I have not played Dune, due to a combination of ignorant disinterest in a game that was released the same year I was born and an only mild interest in the theme. As such you will not see very many comparisons between the game play of Rex: Final Days of an Empire and the Dune board game in this review. Honestly, I would not own Rex either if it had not been available for a ding and dent sale at my FLGS. As such, I will be mostly examining the game as it stands, without comparing it to its famous predecessor.

Components
The components are largely what you can expect from a Fantasy Flight production, which means it is a bit gaudy and stylized, but I came away fairly satisfied with many of the component choices that were made for Rex, even if it is not quite perfect.

The map board is perhaps the biggest item that stands out as something that could have been improved. The background is great; with an excellent image of the gigantic city that the game is set in, but the style of the locations themselves look so similar to that used in Arkham Horror that is jarring, bringing me out of the game as a result. Functionally it works very well, but I can’t help but think that there is something they could have done to more organically indicate location and relative positions of said locations without make it look like these locations are traversed between by a series of beige tubes.

 


The player components work well. FFG chose to go with illustrated cardboard tokens instead of miniatures for player pieces, and I think overall it was a wise choice, as with the sheer quantity of pieces a player can have on the board at a time it would be very easy to accidentally knock miniatures over or lose track of how many units are in a particular location. With the tokens, counting is a breeze and it is really easy to keep track of board presence. The colors are also very good, and even where they are indistinct the artwork is sufficient to ensure that it should be very easy to tell individual player pieces apart even for those with color deficiencies.

The cards are all of the same stock that you see in most Fantasy Flight games, with regular sized cards for the text-laden strategy cards and influence deck and smaller cards for the traitor cards. There is also a small-sized deck that has numbers ranging from 1 to 6 to identify how far the Sol fleet moves across the city, which I found rather silly at first. Why use a deck of cards when you could just roll a die? However one of the factions, the Federation of Sol, is allowed to know how far the fleet is going to move which would be impossible with a die, so having a deck actually does make sense for that reason.

Player aids are plentiful and effective. There are some additional details about the faction’s abilities in the rulebook, but what is essential to know is presented on the faction cards. There is also a card that displays the game phases and a list of each faction’s leaders.

The one miniature included is used to represent the previously mentioned Sol fleet as it travels across the board. I am generally indifferent to the use of plastic miniatures in board games, but this one has a big enough positive impact on game play that I thought it was a good choice. By including a big miniature to represent the fleet it is fairly easy to monitor where the fleet’s effects are on the table, and since it is the only miniature in the game it stands out even more; it is truly a giant in the land of pygmies.



The combat resolution board is another example of effective component design. Two are present in the game, and each one has an adjustable wheel to indicate how many troops are being brought into battle as well as different slots where a combination of selected leader and usage of cards is indicated. This is very clever, as it allows for a player to simultaneously and secretly select what they are using without having to fiddle with player screens and counters. The fact that the player aid has a list of leaders also adds to this, as it allows for players to keep their decisions secret without having to make use of hidden, trackable information. It is component innovations like this that make it worthwhile to purchase games from larger publishers like FFG. While I certainly have a large number of small publishers whose work I appreciate, it is tough to find ones that has the financial resources to provide component innovations of this type.

Thematic Issues
Rex: Final Days of the Empire takes place at a pivotal moment in Twilight Imperium history, as the old Lazax Empire is at the moment of collapse and other powerful factions fight for control of the old imperial capitol. Generally this works well, and the theme is well implemented, but there are a few aspects to it that I found to be illogical or jarring.

The first of these is the whole premise behind the entire game, that you are seeking to control key sites Mecatol City, and if you successfully do so you “win.” With a Solar fleet bombarding the planet and dropping a seemingly limitless number of ground troops into the city, I can’t help but wonder how any faction but the Solar Federation is really going to win. They control the airspace and are slowly destroying the city, and if any other faction kindly asks the Sol Federation to kindly go home because they now have the planet I have difficulty seeing how the Sol Federation is going to do anything but laugh and continue bombing them to oblivion.

The second major area where I have issues with the theme as it stands is the use of “influence” points as a currency. They are described as an abstraction of influence that the individual factions are building with citizens on the ground, but that falls apart when you look at what the influence is actually use for. I can kind of understand that influence can be used to gain the benefits represented by strategy cards, as pretty much all of those items are ones you could get through connections with the locals, but it does not make sense how that is used to pay for transportation of troops into the city from the Hacan Emirates or to allow you to more effectively recover troops and leaders that have been destroyed. It is not a big deal, and honestly I am not sure how they could have made it better with theme and scenario they are using, but this is one area where the shift from the original theme of Dune with its Spice result in a degradation of the game’s overall strength of theme.

Beyond those two relatively major areas, I found the theme to be internally consistent and enjoyable. However I am not someone who is extremely familiar with either the Dune or Twilight Imperium universes, so it is possible that those with more familiarity with either one of those will find other things that are jarring or particularly sublime.

Conflict and Dynamism
Rex is played over eight rounds, with a number of tie breakers used to determine who the winner is if the game goes to the end. Each round has turns that go clockwise around the table, and where you are in the table, particularly in comparison to your allies can be a significant determining factor in how effective your actions are going to be during a turn. Going last is particularly useful in that there is very little other people can do to react to your actions, and thus makes it so you have the best chance to sneak in a win if you are going last in a given round.

Much of the game is focused on the acquisition and use of influence. It is the primary currency of the game, and is used to acquire strategy cards, which provide weapons, armor, and special one-shot powers, in order to recover troops and leaders lost in battles, and to deploy troops on to the board. All three of these items are very important, and the need to get influence drives all of the factions, particularly those that do not have a steady source of income on their own. So sites where influence is distributed over the course of the game end up being fairly hotly contested, both in order to provide additional sources of influence income and to reduce the ability of other players from being able to get income of their own.

The other major point of contention is the five fortresses whose control is generally required to win the game. Rex scales the number of required fortresses based on the number of players, but a few of the factions have special victory conditions that require control of a smaller number of fortresses, but only win if the game gets to a particular triggering point. Even these factions will end up fighting over the fortresses, however, so the game ends up being essentially about translating influence into a combination of board presence and special powers that are used to take control of, and retain, fortresses.

Of course pursuing these goals is complicated by the extensive amount of secret information that is interwoven into Rex. When you bid for a strategy card, you do not know what you are bidding for, beyond the opportunity to get a special power, resulting in quite a bit of tension and a bit of luck. You will probably get something useful but there is also a chance that you will either get a duplicate of an item you already have or get something that would be far more useful in someone else’s hands. Combat is similarly resolved in a secret manner, using the battle boards. Players use them to determine how many units they are going to commit to the battle, which leader they will use, and how many attack and defense cards will be assigned without knowing what choices their opponents will make. Of course this lack of knowledge would be inconsequential without appropriate stakes, and luckily Rex provides them. If you win, you lose all of the troops you committed to the battle, and if you lose your troops, equipment, and maybe your leader are all lost making battles bloody and frequently painful. They also drive a lot of the influence hunger in the game, as it can be expensive to recover from a battle, as you have to pay both to recruit your lost troops as well as to bring them back on to the board. Having a back-up of influence can make losing battles more bearable, but it is even better to win and to do so with the least possible cost. Each player also starts the game with at least one traitor card, which essentially provides a one-shot instant win opportunity. This helps to discourage players from just using their highest numerically valued leader all the time, as there is a risk that they will not only lose the battle but also have to spend a lot of influence if they want to get a big leader back. Spreading out the leader usage reduces this risk.


If the battles over influence and fortresses did not make the board dynamic enough, the constant threat of destruction from the circling Sol battleships. Certain locations are protected from them, but otherwise they serve as a constant, if somewhat predictable, threat moving across the board and destroying almost everything in its path. These force players to either put their forces in the way of the ships in order to achieve a goal, usually getting influence, and risk getting destroyed when the ships move or spend their single move in a turn to reposition their forces. Even players who are in a protected location have the risk of getting pinned down if the fleet ends its move there.


The Factions
There are six factions available in Rex, each with distinct special powers and, in some cases, victory conditions. As is to be expected in a game with variable player powers, most of the factions have abilities that allow them to either break the limitations of the rules or to get special capabilities beyond the base ones defined in the game. These abilities are combined into fairly thematic packages that correspond reasonably well with the factions used in the game.|

Federation of Sol: The Federation of Sol is mostly focused on getting as many troops on the board as possible and recovering from losses. They are limited in where they can deploy, but when they deploy there they do it for free. They are also able to identify how far the Sol Fleet is going to move. At the end of the game if they control two specific strongholds they win.

Xxcha Kingdom: The Xxcha Kingdom is focused on manipulating combat. They are able to prevent their opponents from using one particular defense, which makes leader killing particularly easy for them, and can choose to have some of their units not participate in a battle, making them able to minimize the impact of losses. They are allowed to predict who they think will win and when and if that occurs then they win instead of the predicted player.

Hacan Emirates: Are paid the influence whenever someone deploys troops to the board. Additionally, they can skip deployment to move across the board or can deploy for half cost. If nobody else wins by the end of the game they are the winner.

Letnev Barony: They get four traitor cards instead of the other factions’ one, and they can hold eight strategy cards instead of four. When they win a strategy card in the auction they are able to draw an additional one from the deck.

Lazax Empire: Whenever someone else wins an influence bid they get paid instead of the bank. Five of their troops are double strength.

Jol-Nar: During the movement phase they are able to look at the top card of the influence deck, during the bidding phase they can look at the cards that is being bid on, and during the combat phase they are able to look at one of the parts of their opponent’s combat tableau.

I currently remain unconvinced that the individual factions are balanced with each other, and the Sol Federation in particular appears to be pretty week and the advantages of the influence gathering factions seem to be strong, but perhaps not overwhelmingly so. I may end up being wrong about this, as it is very easy to misjudge the relative power level of variable player powers, but I admit I am a bit concerned.

Diplomacy
The influence deck’s primary role is to define where on the board influence tokens can appear. Additionally, half of the deck is made up of two events, one of which serves to make players wary of immediately going after influence on the board and the other of which serves as a constraint on when players may make alliances.

Only when the Temporary Ceasefire card is drawn are players allowed to make and break alliances or exchange influence with each other. I think this is a very smart decision, as more free-form alliances would slow down play a lot, and perhaps even break the game as any two players who controlled two fortresses each would be able to instantly break their alliances and make new ones, ensuring that they would be able to win.

The variable timing of when these cards show up means that potential betrayals must be kept in mind at all times. You will frequently want to work as hard as possible to make sure your alliance is successful, but it always makes sure to keep yourself even more successful in the alliance as that way if an opportunity comes up to switch sides in a way that you can effectively take it.

This combination of variability and limitation on the timing of alliances is probably the best implementation of alliance-based diplomacy that I have seen. Even if I am not fully convinced about other parts of the game, that alone will probably help to keep this one in my collection.

Since Rex is a diplomatic game, and a very interactive one at that, it is very reliant on individual players playing well with a focus on winning in order to work. If someone in the group has an alternative goal or plays poorly then it can very easily break down. This can be easily solved by only playing Rex with the correct people, but if you do not have the correct people to play it with, then this game might not work very well for you.

Conclusion
I like Rex, but the thematic disconnect, potential faction balance issues, and its fragility hold me back from absolutely loving it. I am inclined to keep the game, because many aspects of the game are very effective, but since it is best with six, I suspect its ultimate fate in my collection will come down to how well my overall group likes it. If it fails to resonate with them, it will almost certainly pass from my collection.
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Matt Shinners
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doubtofbuddha wrote:

The second major area where I have issues with the theme as it stands is the use of “influence” points as a currency. They are described as an abstraction of influence that the individual factions are building with citizens on the ground, but that falls apart when you look at what the influence is actually use for. I can kind of understand that influence can be used to gain the benefits represented by strategy cards, as pretty much all of those items are ones you could get through connections with the locals, but it does not make sense how that is used to pay for transportation of troops into the city from the Hacan Emirates or to allow you to more effectively recover troops and leaders that have been destroyed. It is not a big deal, and honestly I am not sure how they could have made it better with theme and scenario they are using, but this is one area where the shift from the original theme of Dune with its Spice result in a degradation of the game’s overall strength of theme.

I'm a huge theme guy, so I appreciate you breaking down the areas where it is lacking (along with the rest of a fantastic review). I agree that the first area is problematic; though this one, to me, is a non-issue.

As far as the Hacan go, I can see you 'trading favors' with them by having the locals over whom you have influence to do something they want so that the Hacan give you transport. Also, getting your troops/leaders back can represent the locals over whom you have influence being recruited to your cause, or saving and hiding your leaders right before they're killed in urban warfare.

Not trying to belittle your point - just hopefully helping you see a thematic reason for that action so you enjoy the game a little more! Again, great review.
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Paul Sinkovits
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Discussion of the art/layout of the board aside, I have to give credit for the way it folds. At first it seemd awkward to me, but I really like how it folds complete with the backsides of the board exposed on each of the faces. Not all games do this, and I am often worried about the exposed face becoming scuffed or marred over time.
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Andrew Martin
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I'm also bugged by the theme a bit but understand why FFG didn't have a choice. But frankly I think a generic theme (Guild becomes a simple 'Merchants Guild' rather than lion people etc) would lessen the learning curve a bit for those who have never played Twilight Imperium.

I just don't attach 'ease of transport' to the word 'Hacan' and I doubt many people will take time to read the background fluff (not to say it's worthless to folks that like that sort of thing) in an attempt to build associations. Of course you could say the same about the original theme...not everyone is familar with Dune.

I can see why FFG defaults to their in house source material to theme games but I just think they tend to be a bit lame unfortunately. Self contained generic themes would an improvement IMO as odd as that might sound.
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Also to comment on the balance of the different races, most of what is here is drawn from the decades old Dune boardgame, so there's been plenty of opportunity to review balance

If you've not played the game yet, you may be surprised at how beneficial it is for Sol players to be able to drop troops without having to pay influence for it.
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Jesse Dean
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With Dune, the Fremen had twice the movement capability of the other factions, in Rex it is only 1.5. Also the Fremen are designed to win a battle of attrition, which makes them more potent if you have a 15 round game like Dune then an 8 round game like Rex. Little things like this are likely to change the power levels of all the factions. It is quite possible they are still pretty balanced, but I admit I am skeptical at this point of time.
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Evan
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doubtofbuddha wrote:
The first of these is the whole premise behind the entire game, that you are seeking to control key sites Mecatol City, and if you successfully do so you “win.” With a Solar fleet bombarding the planet and dropping a seemingly limitless number of ground troops into the city, I can’t help but wonder how any faction but the Solar Federation is really going to win. They control the airspace and are slowly destroying the city, and if any other faction kindly asks the Sol Federation to kindly go home because they now have the planet I have difficulty seeing how the Sol Federation is going to do anything but laugh and continue bombing them to oblivion.

The last 50 some-odd years of major U.S. military engagements seem to suggest otherwise...
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Stephen Williams
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doubtofbuddha wrote:
They control the airspace and are slowly destroying the city, and if any other faction kindly asks the Sol Federation to kindly go home because they now have the planet I have difficulty seeing how the Sol Federation is going to do anything but laugh and continue bombing them to oblivion.

Well, according to the fluff, it would seem that the Sol invasion force has only been so successful in attacking the planet thanks in large part to the help of the Hacan. The Hacan are participating in this little rebellion because they got fed up with the Lazax constantly using trade embargoes to punish everyone in the galaxy, because every individual punishment to some other race added up to a cumulative penalty against the Hacan, even though they never did anything wrong.

The Hacan also apparently have control over the high orbit situation since everyone needs to pay them to drop troops (except Sol, whose troops are already on the ground - hence why they can only come in from one side of the map.) So Sol may have a degree of control over the "air"space, but Hacan seems to control the "space"space, if you see what I'm saying.

The Hacan are very explicitly in this for the money. They are also obviously not above helping anyone who can pay, including the very Lazax empire they are rebelling against. If any one faction can show that they dominate the planet's remaining infrastructure (the parts that are shielded and thus not bombed into oblivion), it seems plausible that the Hacan will throw in with that faction in order to establish lucrative trade agreements in the new regime. Hence the battle is "won."

It's also worth remembering that since this game is a prequel, we already know what officially happens in the game universe, regardless of how this game turns out. No matter who "wins" in Rex, the galaxy is still plunged into centuries of civil war that ultimately results in EVERY faction retreating to their home regions of space for the next 3000 (or so) years. Nobody is walking away from this planet with a crown on their heads. The victory attained here is ultimately fleeting and hollow.


Great review, by the way. I'm not trying to contradict anything you said in your post, just trying to help you with the thematic qualms you seem to have. =)
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Jack Wraith
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Nice review. Just FYI, FFG "chose" to use their own IP largely as a result of the Herbert estate denying them a license for Dune. Had the estate been more cooperative, this likely would have been a straight reprint/update of Avalon Hill's Dune. Given those strictures, I agree that the theme is a bit more problematic than Dune's use of the essential spice, but I think it gets by and the Twilight Imperium material is far more interesting than "generic galactic empire setting" would have been.
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Mark Czerwinski
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Great review Jesse!

This brought back memories of our session! Following that session, I was on the fence trying to decide if I liked the game or not. This game keeps popping up in my head and I find myself thinking about it a lot, so I'm anxious to play it again. I would be inclined to agree with your suspicion that the two factions that gain influence points more easily are probably at an advantage, although it is hard to say for sure with only one play

Because I had the misfortune of playing as the Letnev Barony and having drawn 3 out of the 4 traitor cards for my own leaders, I didn't have an opportunity to best utilize those cards, and I couldn't get new ones via discards. Although that kept my leaders from being taken out of play, it also left opposing leaders safe, making combat more risky than I would prefer. I also ran out of influence points rather quickly, but I may not have been aggressive enough going after them.

My favorite aspect of this game were the two combat resolution boards. I would love to see similar ideas used more often in new games.

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airmarkus wrote:
Great review Jesse!

This brought back memories of our session! Following that session, I was on the fence trying to decide if I liked the game or not. This game keeps popping up in my head and I find myself thinking about it a lot, so I'm anxious to play it again. I would be inclined to agree with your suspicion that the two factions that gain influence points more easily are probably at an advantage, although it is hard to say for sure with only one play

Because I had the misfortune of playing as the Letnev Barony and having drawn 3 out of the 4 traitor cards for my own leaders, I didn't have an opportunity to best utilize those cards, and I couldn't get new ones via discards. Although that kept my leaders from being taken out of play, it also left opposing leaders safe, making combat more risky than I would prefer. I also ran out of influence points rather quickly, but I may not have been aggressive enough going after them.

My favorite aspect of this game were the two combat resolution boards. I would love to see similar ideas used more often in new games.


The interesting thing about REX for me so far has been how my opinion of it has changed since my first play and along the way as I have played it more often.

For example in our first game we where very confused about the benefits of certain actions in the scope of the game. For example, as you mentioned drawing your own traitor cards seemed completetly useless and if you where unlucky with the Letnev to draw 3 or 4 of your own you lost the benefit of one of your key abilities. Other things like the logic behind commiting fewer troops than you had available also eluded us in the first game, why send fewer troops to an important battle than you have available? I also agree our intial opinion was that certain races just had overwhelmingly better abilities than others, in particular those that got a lot of influence.

Along the road however as we gained experiance with the game we came to three very important realizations. First, all the racial abilities have an in game counter that is unbelievabily effective. Second, racial abilities can be used in a variety of political and diplomatic ways outside of their mechanic purpose and this is vital to take advantage of. Finally third, politics and diplomacy are a must for the game to shine, if there is no table talk and your just playing the mechanics the game is not as fun or as interesting.

One example with the Lazax simply having the entire table decide to pass in particular when the Lazax player had already passed (say when he is on the button acting as first player). Often the Lazax would rely so heavily on their aquisition of Influence through strategy card purchases that they could be rendered completetly useless for an entire round as a result. Just one example.

On the Letnev we found that actually drawing your own traitor cards was a FAR superior advantage than drawing someone elses as it ment that you could be 100% sure of those leaders being safe from betrayels, in the big scheme of things in REX the biggest upsets usually came in the form of betrayels.

Other things we noted to was that things like the Jol-Nar ability of knowing what strategy cards where being bid on could be horribly abused, for example when the Jol-Nar player didn't like what you where doing on the table on in politics, when you purchased a strategy card he would simply call out what you just bought to the whole table! Very effective way to screw someone as people would often know what those players where holding in their hand and could plan accordingly.

I guess what I'm saying is. In order to understand REX is absolutly manditory that you play it 4 or 5 times. Its not a game you will have a good grasp of after one play.
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Nick Hawkins
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doubtofbuddha wrote:

The map board is perhaps the biggest item that stands out as something that could have been improved. The background is great; with an excellent image of the gigantic city that the game is set in, but the style of the locations themselves look so similar to that used in Arkham Horror that is jarring, bringing me out of the game as a result. Functionally it works very well, but I can’t help but think that there is something they could have done to more organically indicate location and relative positions of said locations without make it look like these locations are traversed between by a series of beige tubes.

 

I hadn't thought of this before reading your excellent review but I have to agree that the overall look of the board is more reminiscent of a fantasy setting (Cadwallon: City of Thieves?) rather than a SCiFi one.

Perhaps something more like the Android board would have been better?
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