Q1: The Landscape at Release
Special thanks to Joshua Buergel for his assistance in this article.
Dune (the game) was released in 1979 by Avalon Hill and from the designers Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olatka. This is the same team that created Cosmic Encounter two years before. Furthermore, they created Hoax, a clear predecessor to Coup, and Borderlands. They focused on social interaction, unique player powers, and their designs are clearly valued by Fantasy Flight Games, who have redeveloped and republished almost their entire body of work.
A quick search of Board Game Geek for games released from 1970 to 1980 reveals an interesting crop of well known games. One thing that immediately stands out is that Dune is the highest ranked game in the search. Before we dive in, it’s key to note the importance of Risk and Diplomacy, which at this point existed for a few decades.
In the 1970s, the hobby side of the industry was incredibly war game focused. If you don’t believe me, do the search yourself. You’ll also see an amusing number of movie-tie in games, much like today, which shows that things don’t often change.
What am I missing? Oh, right. Dungeons and Dragons released in 1974. This knocked in the door for all types of games beyond wargames (wargames wargames wargames) and greatly expanded the hobby. It shouldn’t surprise you that five years later we saw the release of Magic Realm (1979), which in many ways is a batty RPG tucked into a board game. If you haven’t seen Magic Realm, go read the rules. It’s so complicated they broke the rules into four stages so you could learn them. The first stage? Walking.
But, Dungeons and Dragons made alternative themes like fantasy and science fiction far more viable. Diversification leads to growth. All in all, this was an excellent time to be creating games and it’s not a big surprise that you see such inventive titles like Dune emerge. Plus, this is all before the home computer revolution, which really helped the board game hobby grow.
But, before we look past the war games, we should note that some war games were enormous. PanzerBlitz and Squad leader were both massive successes. James Dunnigan (Designer) has said that PanzerBlitz sold more than 300,000 units, which is enormous for the hobby market today. In the 1970s? Astronomical.
One more thing: The inaugural Spiel des Jahres was awarded to Hare & Tortoise in 1979.
Steve Jackson Games released Ogre in 1977, which is a heavily asymmetric game that pits swarms of tiny units against an overwhelming juggernaut tank...the Ogre. Cosmic Encounter was also released in 1977, and more than anything, its influence on Dune cannot be understated. In fact, in the future I have an interview with Peter Olatka discussing this very topic!
Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign, 1815 was released in 1974. This is a game I own, thanks to Joshua Buergel, and what stands out to me is its incredibly clever battle system. You place your units on different flanks, shift them around, and fight over them. This is after moving the blocks around an operational focused map. I'm curious what impact this battle system had on the Command and Colors system...
Civilization is released in 1980 and with it came the tech tree and some amount of influence for the PC game of the same name. Surely. This game is hugely influential and no doubt helped inspire some of my favorites, such as Clash of Cultures, or a popular game I like less, but cannot deny is important, Through the Ages.
Dune is a highly social game of alliances and leveraging a position of strength to get what you want. So is Cosmic Encounter. Therefore, Junta (1978) must be mentioned as well. In Junta, someone is voted in as the president. The president no doubt made promises they are sure to uphold. They then hand out jobs to the various players, which grants them authority and power. Naturally, things come down to money...and how much the president is gaining. Then it's coups, coups, coups! You get a coup! And YOU get a coup!
Finally, I want to mention Titan (1980). This game has a fascinating movement mechanism in which you’re moving along a semi-deterministic path and trying to match sets of units on particular terrains to create even bigger units. It has a nifty dice based combat mechanism. Furthermore, as you fight, your Titan grows in power. This is key as you win by killing all the other Titans on the board.
With the late 70s examined, its time to briefly examine the landscape in 2011-2012, which is when Rex was released. This Quagmire series is ultimately about Rex, but again, Rex is Dune, so we must always keep our feet in both time streams.
Rex: Final Days of an Empire released in 2012 by Fantasy Flight Games. The Herbert estate would not allow them to use the Dune license, so you effectively have a game whose mechanisms are the embodiment of Dune, wrapped in Fantasy Flight’s rather generic science fiction universe.
The landscape in 2012 is full of highly diverse themes, mechanisms, and styles from a broad range of AAA publishers and designers. It isn’t war game central, and the atom bomb that is Dungeons and Dragons is now 30 years old! Looking back at 2012, I was surprised at how many of my favorite games were released that year.
By 2012, Cosmic Encounter was a household name for many gamers. You have the release of Android: Netrunner, which is an asymmetric masterpiece. Coup lands, as well as The Resistance: Avalon, both of which explode and bring even more focus into the social landscape.
Kemet is released, with its card driven combat mechanism. It is a close cousin to Dune’s combat system.
Archipelago released with its strange mix of semi-cooperative, but not, gameplay. You also see the advent of one of my favorite games, Libertalia, with its beautiful mixture of second guessing and simultaneous resolution, not unlike the Dune, err, Rex, combat mechanism.
Space Cadets makes us laugh with its zany mix of asymmetric mini games and Last Will has you choosing how to waste your fortune.
I look back upon 2011 and 2012 very fondly. I didn’t realize so many games I deeply love were released in this narrow time frame, and it’s no surprise that folks might have overlooked Rex. After all, it’s based on a very old game and a very old book you may not have heard of or read. Its theme is...the Twilight Imperium one.
Luckily for you, I didn’t overlook it. What games from either the late 70s or early 2011/2012 should I have mentioned? Discuss them below in the comments. Next up in this Quagmire, I’ll teach you how to play Rex.