You know when you’ve met someone for the first time and they ask you the terrifying question about the stuff that you enjoy doing? Then you bring up the subject of board games and they inevitably go “Oh, like Monopoly?” or they wander off down a mental alleyway to when they used to play in the Chess Club at school? That happens to me pretty regularly. Not that it’s a bad thing – I think I have my little speech down pat now about the kinds of things I like to play, and most of the time people will happily listen, then nod and walk off. Of course, those are the ones who mentioned Monopoly; they simply can’t be saved. The folks who talk about Chess though…? Perhaps they can be brought back from the edge and into the fold…
The Duke, from Catalyst Game Labs, was a roaring Kickstarter success last summer and is now available in your local store. If any of those former Chess players express even the vaguest interest in seeing what games have to offer these days, I’d grab a copy and put it down in front of them immediately. Many strategy games will claim to be the greatest thing since Chess, but the vast majority fall very short of the mark – thankfully, The Duke manages to combine many familiar elements with some new ideas that make it quite a compelling game that will be a worthy part of your collection, especially if you’re looking for a quality two-player effort.
Played out on a six by six grid of squares, each player begins with three tiles; two Footmen and the ubiquitous Duke. The tiles are double sided, showing the name and a grid of moves that a piece can do – most of the time it’ll be shifting one space or jumping, but there are also plenty that can slide the length of the board, assuming there’s nothing in the way. Once a piece has been moved, it is flipped over so the reverse side is shown, revealing an entirely different set of potential moves. Manage to land on an opponent’s tile and that piece is taken. Capture the enemy Duke and the game is done.
Of course, this would be a pretty weak game if you were just armed with those three starting tiles. Mercifully, each player is also given a bag filled with more troops that will expand your army further, all of whom have different abilities – and not just simple movements. Whether it’s the Champion who can attack adjacent tiles as well as leap over them or the General who commands other tiles to switch positions, you’re allowed to bring a new tile onto the board if you choose not to move another that is already in play – the only thing is that the new tile must be placed adjacent to your Duke. Of course, the more tiles you bring out, the more limited the areas you can move into, and on a board that only contains thirty-six spaces… well, you can work it out quite quickly that playing this game requires a delicate touch. Balance is key if you are to win in The Duke.
A good head for planning ahead is also something of a requirement, but adaptability is also necessary. Every time you pull a new tile out of your bag, you’re never sure what it will be – after all, there are sixteen different troop tiles in there – so you’ll have to be able to work with whatever happens to appear. Where it’s rare that a game of Chess ever goes ‘off the book’ – in other words, something brand new happens that has never been seen before – I think that such an occurrence would be a rarity in The Duke simply because of the randomness you’ll get from the combination of board position and drawn tiles. That’s a very long way of saying that no two games will be alike, which adds to the replay value of this fine little game.
Also padding out the package are bonus tiles to be used to alter the terrain, a ridiculously powerful Dragon tile, a couple of flags (seriously, Capture The Flag in an abstract board game!) and even a couple of blank tiles and sticker sets that you can use to customise your own pieces. Dive into the rulebook and you’ll discover different ways to play the game and challenge even the most experienced of gamers. There’s even a couple of mini expansions available that represent characters such as Conan the Barbarian, the Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, and even some Arthurian Legends… Some curious choices, sure, but it’ll be interesting to see how they’ll interact with the already available set.
As a package, The Duke is rather nicely presented. The tiles are hardwood and feel solid in the hand, and though I had a slight issue with some of the darker set being slightly different shades, it’s far from a gamebreaker. All images on the tiles are clearly screen-printed and though I believe the original plan was to laser cut them (which would’ve added to their longevity) they seem pretty durable – certainly clattering about in their respective bags doesn’t seem to have caused any damage. The bags themselves are the only things I plan to switch out as they’re made from a very flimsy fabric that doesn’t seem to lend itself to the high quality of the rest of the game.
All told, I can’t recommend The Duke highly enough. Yes, there are limitations – it’s strictly for two players, some people may disregard it due to its highly abstract nature, and it’s quite a pricey little package – but if there’s a gap in your collection for a quick-playing strategy title, this one should be on your list to investigate. Long live The Duke!
The Duke was published by Catalyst Game Labs in 2013. Designed by Jeremy Holcomb and Steven McLaughlin for two players only, games will take you around fifteen to thirty minutes. Should you desire a copy – and who wouldn’t? - you can get one from Gameslore for £23.