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    Review: The Duke

    April 25, 2015

    The Duke is a fine example of a brilliant new twist on the old concept of two-player abstract strategy gaming. Taking deep inspiration from the classic chess-like model, The Duke comfortably maintains its own identity with a fascinating blend of customizable fantasy, stackable rules, and nearly limitless levels of modularity.

    Players take the guises of powerful dukes, as expected, who are vying for supremacy on a gridded playing field. Like chess, each duke attempts to outmaneuver his opponent using a diverse array of underlings (represented by wooden tiles), thereby securing control of the board. Also like chess, the capture of the opposing duke is the object of the game, and this can be a tricky feat to achieve depending on the resourcefulness of one’s opponent – and that of your own!

    In essence, the key to victory in The Duke is foresight: knowing how to move and use your tiles so they will be well-positioned to act in future turns. These Troop tiles represent formidable servants like Longbowmen, Pikemen, Champions, Wizards, and many more. Each tile is printed with a mini-grid that shows its movement capabilities, as well as any special actions it may take on a turn (remember the History Channel’s Anachronism card game?). With an army of these servants in play on only a 6×6 grid, bagging the rival duke might sound like an easy task. But there’s a catch: all tiles flip to their opposite sides after activation, changing the way they will be able to be used in the following turn. Memorizing both movements of a tile can be tricky, but this can also be used to your advantage when attempting to lay clever and sometimes intricate traps for your opponent.

    Though each player starts with a Duke and only a couple of Footmen on the board, they may chose to bring a new piece into the game for support instead of making a move with something already present. This is a random draw from a player’s bag of Troop tiles, so there is risk involved in adding more characters to the field. Players must also be careful to avoid filling up the board and making it impossible for friendly pieces to move. Subtlety and tactical precision are therefore highly desirable.

    Troop tiles may move according to what is printed directly upon them, and at the end of activation, they flip to show a different movement allowance. If a tile lands on an enemy, that enemy is captured and removed from the game. There are numerous types of movement and an array of special abilities for each character, which can change a piece’s effectiveness in certain situations. These are all represented by icons on Troop tile’s movement grid and are described in detail on a handy reference card provided with the game. For example, an open dot means that tile may jump over other pieces to land in the space shown. A solid triangle allows that tile to slide any number of squares in the direction shown, barring the intervention of other pieces on that path. A star indicates a tile may make a ranged attack against the marked square, which means it can capture an enemy Troop without moving. There are even abilities for controlling other friendly tiles and the Dread ability, which freezes enemies in place!

    In order to be successful in The Duke, players must always keep in mind how the board might look in upcoming turns, as well as what’s on the opposite sides of their opponent’s pieces. Planning moves involves a lot of strategy and forethought, but the game never gets overly confusing because each piece has everything it can do clearly printed on it. You must also balance how many additional Troop tiles are brought in. A well-timed reinforcement can win you the game, but bring in too many and you become gridlocked.

    The Duke is a fantastic game of strategy, presented in an easily-accessible manner. The rules are entirely clear and all the reference material you will need (which isn’t much) is easy to find, even in the heat of battle. One of the best aspects of this game is that It has amazing replay value due to a number of brilliantly-considered factors. In addition to a basic set of rules, The Duke comes with additional features for expanded (and somewhat more advanced) play. These include Enhanced abilities for certain Troop tiles, like Summon and Divination, and offer the inclusion of Terrain tiles (like Mountains), special characters (the terrifying Dragon tile), and a load of Alternate Objectives and scenarios to keep things lively. The game also comes with blank tiles and sheets of stickers for creating custom units.

    There are also a bunch of mini-expansions that bring in themed sets of Troop tiles and additional rules to change up play. The Arthurian Legends expansion adds characters from Arthurian myth like Merlin and Lancelot as well as a new Terrain tile: the Fort. The Siege Engines expansion adds Trebuchets, Catapults, and more. There are also themed expansions for Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, and even the creations of Robert E. Howard (Conan!). These expansions can create a surprising amount of variation from how the game normally plays, while still fitting in with the core style of the game. The Duke already has great replayability, but with an expansion or two the game has truly impressive replay value.

    Finally, The Duke has a beautifully-minimal artistic style, and handsome wooden tiles which are pleasing to play with. The game comes with two cloth bags for each player’s tiles, and the act of placing, moving, and flipping the tiles on the board is an enjoyable aspect of the game. It is easy to become immersed in The Duke due to its high production value and the obvious care put in by the designers.

    -Connor

    If you like: Hive, Anachronism, Chess
    You’d definitely enjoy: The Duke
    MRP: $39.95
    Designer: Jeremy Holcomb & Stephen McLaughlin
    Produced by: Catalyst Game Labs