Fight the Power – Rex: Final Days of an Empire review

I think it’s pretty safe to say that one of my favourite interviewees on The Little Metal Dog Show is Peter Olotka. Not only is he insanely entertaining to speak with, packed out with tales aplenty about gaming over the last forty years and more, he’s also been involved in the creation of some amazing games. Most gamers will be well aware of one of the titles – the incredible Cosmic Encounter – but few will have played the other: Dune.

There’s a simple reason for this. There’s just not that many copies of Dune floating about at the moment. Having originally been released way back in 1979, it didn’t sell so well – and when it was reissued in 1984 with a Sting lookalike on the cover to coincide with the release of the film… well, in Peter’s own words, it tanked. So few sales were made, copies were pulped to make room for newer, more popular games. And yet the reputation of Dune lived on, a reputation as a game filled with alliances made and broken, of innovative combat and plain, lowdown backstabbing meanness.

And yet, a reprint couldn’t happen thanks to the Frank Herbert’s estate. They didn’t want it to happen, and so it didn’t. However, there was a way around it. The Herbert Family may own the rights to Dune… but Peter’s company owned the engine that ran the game. Leap forward in time to 2012 and now – finally – we’re able to play the game again, albeit with a few changes. Dune is dead. Long live Rex.

Transplanted into the Fantasy Flight Games Twilight Imperium universe, Rex: Final Days of an Empire is set some three thousand years before the events of TI3. Rather than taking place on a spice planet with families vying for superiority, players now control one of six races taking part in the last days of the great city of Mecatol Rex. It’s a devious battle for control where victory can be won in several ways; generally though, you’ll be fighting to take over the five strongholds dotted around the board. Working alone you’ll need three but make alliances and you’ll have to maintain dominance over more… way easier said than done, especially if you have five other players with the same plans on their mind.

Six races, but only one victor. Who will win? (Well, in this case, it was the space turtles.)

Looking at the game you may initially think that everything in it is spectacularly unbalanced… and you know, you’re probably right. However, that doesn’t mean that one race will dominate every game – each player will quickly realise that they have a special something that no-one else does, be it a way to gain influence (the game’s currency), throw overpowered tanks into battle or steal victory from under the nose of your enemies.

Gameplay is alarmingly simple, despite the fact it may not appear to be when you first crack the box open. Played over eight rounds, each consisting of seven stages, it’s really just a matter of following a list… but Rex feels like so much more than checking things off one after the other. Move around the board, collect influence, deploy troops, spend influence on cards and new units, fight… there’s not much more than that, but it’s more than the sum of its’ parts. When you settle down to play it, you feel like you’re in a war – plans must be made, strategies devised and you have to realise that you’ll be sending an awful lot of your little cardboard units to their death. Battles are brutal in these final days.

Fighting is one of my favourite aspects of Rex. Lifted wholeheartedly from the original Dune then given a shot of extra meanness, it’s a deceptively simple way of resolving battles but makes you wonder why no-one else has done it since. Any time you’re in the same area as an enemy, it’s time to muster your forces and just go for it. Each player is given a battle wheel which they turn to select how many units they’re going to use – you don’t have to use everything available to you in that area. In fact, to do so would be mad because whether you win or lose they’ll ALL be taken off the board, losing you control of that area no matter what. Each player also has five leaders at their disposal, one of which is chosen and tucked into a tab on the mini board. The chosen position denotes whether you’re playing an attack card, a defence card, one of each or nothing at all, while the leader bolsters your attack strength – assuming they survive. The cards bestow bonuses but are tricky to come by as players must bid on them blind at the start of each round and are generally only allowed a maximum of four.

The maths is all sorted, cards are revealed and leaders are potentially be wiped out. Finally, whoever has the highest value is declared the winner, removing all the enemy’s units (and however many they committed themselves)… perhaps. Because here lies one of the many twists that Rex has to offer: traitors. Players are given cards at the start of the game that are kept secret until you want to reveal them in battle. It’s a one-off, but very much worth it; the opposing leader is revealed as working for you, wins you the battle immediately and is then removed from the game permanently, presumably executed for heinous crimes…

The casualties of war plus a bloody big fleet of dreadnoughts.

There are so many great things about Rex but the best are invariably those moments that you’ll talk about for weeks to come, where players find themselves pulled into the world and become part of the story. The aforementioned reveal of a traitor, or just about managing to evade the carpet bombing of the Sol Offensive dreadnaughts. There’s an insane joy from all players when the Xxcha (aka: Space Turtles) reveal that they predicted the winner before the game even began – apart from the person who has just had their victory squashed at the last moment, of course.

Rex: Final Days of an Empire is filled with the big moments that I love to find in a game – much needed considering you’ll be playing for a good three to four hours. Yes, it’s a long game, but you’ll find that you’re not stricken with too much downtime and will generally have a blast as you desperately strive for supremacy.

As usual, being an FFG production, it’s built to an almost ridiculous quality. It’s a very heavy box that’s packed with loads of stuff but I did notice a couple of issues developing even after only a few plays. The leader tokens and battlewheel boards are already showing signs of a bit of wear from being slotted into position and I don’t see a way of stopping that from getting worse. The rulebook also has a couple of errors in it – nothing that detracts from the game, but certainly stuff that I’d expect to be picked up through proofreading. Aside from those (admittedly niggly) points, it’s a well put together package. Art throughout is beautiful, though that board does give me a bit of an Arkham Horror vibe…

Of course, the game is what’s important, and I’m delighted that I’ve finally got to try out Peter and Co’s design, albeit in a different setting with a few tweaks from the original. It’s a truly great game, one that feels like you’re part of an experience when you’re playing, and I recommend it with only one caveat: you MUST play it with at least five players. If you can, the maximum six is even better, but if you’ve only got four or less people available? LEAVE IT ON THE SHELF. You’ll be missing out a whole chunk of game. Rex is all about the interaction between the people around the table and with fewer players it just doesn’t feel the same. Save it for when you’ve got a full set of people – you won’t regret it.

Rex: Final Days of an Empire is released through Fantasy Flight Games. Designed by Peter Olotka, Jack Kittredge and Bill Eberle with additional development by Corey Konieczka, John Goodenough and Christian Petersen. It handles between three and six players (but you’d better not play with less than five or I’ll be furious) and will take about three hours for a full game experience. The RRP is £49.99 but you’ll find it at Gameslore for a much more reasonable £40.99. And it’s well worth it.

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