The Evolution of Dune to Rex
Frank Herbert's Dune released in 1979. Based on the novel of the same name, the game was, and still is, considered to be one of the best games of all time. On BoardGameGeek the game is currently ranked 109 overall, 21 for thematic games, and 75 for strategy games. This is an incredible legacy for a game that is now about 35 years old if my math serves me correctly.
In 2012, Fantasy Flight Games released Rex: Final Days of an Empire. They licensed the mechanics, developed them, but were unfortunately unable to attain the license, hence their use of their wholly owned Twilight Imperium universe.
Before I go further, I want to provide context. Dune is one of my favorite books of all time, easily top 3. I've read it multiple times and am currently in the middle of re-reading the series. I love this universe. One of my side projects for the past few weeks has been to chase down an original copy of the board game, almost purely due to my love of the franchise, cost be damned. As luck would have it, my friend Josh had a spare copy (what?) and I had some games in which he was interested. The trade hath commenced.
This past Sunday I played Rex for the first time and just loved it. I should have played it years ago, but I must admit I was turned off by its reputation. I expected a 35 year old game to be a clunky mess, and, paired with FFG's reputation for very complex games, I think that's fair. But, the game was anything but. It was actually simple, incredibly thematic, and very deep. Yes, I'm a very experienced board gamer now, so simple is a relative mark.
The thematic intuitiveness of the actions and characters was so strong I could identify Dune's fingerprints throughout without having read about the original game. I could practically taste the spice. I didn't see Rex's characters, but those of Dune. I just loved the game and found myself on BGG reading the rules for Dune the following morning to see the differences.
I began taking notes to email my friends about the differences between the two versions and it was a very fascinating exercise. It provided a glimpse as to Fantasy Flight's thinking as they developed the 1979 game for 2012. It seemed like an interesting, though admittedly niche post, to analyze these things.
This post will be more interesting if you've played either Dune or Rex, or have at least read either of their rule books. Familiarity with the fiction will also help.
- Ilya's Dune Rules: This is a super cool BGG community effort to revise the original rules for clarity. They also combine the advanced modes, variants, and commentary.
- FFG's Rex Rules
Final Note: This is NOT meant as a gameplay or strategy analysis. Absolutely not after a single play of one of the games. Also, I might get a few notes wrong. If this is the case, please leave a comment and I'll correct it!
A quick overview to Dune and Rex. This is meant to give you a general idea to how the games play. It is meant as a summary for the purpose of this article, not a conclusive run down.
The board is divided into territories, some of which are strongholds. The game is won if a player controls a certain number of strongholds. Players may ally and they win together if they control a number of strongholds together, which is in excess of those needed for a solo victory. Alliances can be broken and changed at specific times in the game.
Every player has a unique, asymmetric ability that outright breaks the game. This is from the team that brought you Cosmic Encounters. It made me giggle even before playing the game.
Every round follows these steps (orders vary between versions):
- Influence Phase. Determine where currency is located on the board. This is the best way to get income and forces players to move around the board. It's a balance between claiming income and taking over strongholds. One player gets to see where it'll be placed the previous round, which gives her a way to plan ahead.
- Bidding Phase. Players bid openly on very powerful cards that nobody can see. The cards are all face down. Oh wait. One of the players has a power that she examines them! And one player receives all the income that's paid to buy them, essentially making them the bank and the richest player in the game.
- Recruitment Phase. Players have a limited reserve of Units. When they die, they go to the recruitment space on the board. In this phase, players pay to remove them from this space and add them back to their reserves to be deployed back to the board. This can be a huge drain on your economy. Players may recruit some units for free based on their faction. This lets some players play fast and loose with their casualties.
- Maneuver Phase. Players add units to the board and move units.
- Battle Phase. If multiple players occupy a space, they fight. This is a brilliant design. Players simultaneously and secretly choose how many units they are willing to lose. They will lose these regardless and may spend up to the number in the space. They then must select a leader, who has a value (1-6, typically). They may also play 1 defense and 1 attack special card (the ones bid upon earlier). They then reveal. Players compare their Leader's Value + Sacrificed Units value + card modifiers. Highest number wins. Loser loses all units. There is a twist in that players start with 1 traitor card (one player gets more). This matches a specific leader. For example, I may have the Traitor for your 3 value Leader. I can play it in the battle after you reveal your leader. This kills your leader and immediately cots you the battle.
- Collection Phase. Remember the currency placed earlier? For every unit you have in a space with currency, you gain 2 of the currency.
- Bombardment Phase. This is a fleet of ships in Rex and the storm in Dune. Every round it moves 1-6 spaces in order around the board. All currency and units it passes over or stops on are removed, except in specific cases. This is brilliant in that it forces you to move, prevents passive, overly defensive play, and can create opportunities on the board. Oh, one player knows about the storm's movement.
The game is a fairly straightforward game of managing your income and units to hold territory on the board and maximizing your character advantages. It is, however, full of deception, unexpected moments when people cash in their secrets, and treachery.
A List of Changes from Rex to Dune.
- The storm phase is at the beginning of the round in Dune, not the end. I'm curious why they would change this. Perhaps it's easier for the player to think "end of round equals destruction" instead of beginning of the next, which can be overlooked?
- The storm and first player rotates counter-clockwise in Dune. This is one of those counter-intuitive things that doesn't seem to have a good reason. Generally, clockwise is the correct decision unless you have a very good reason.
- Players arrange their pawns around the board, almost like positions on the clock. The first player for the round is the player whose pawn will be next passed by the storm. This is a slightly more complicated way than just passing a first player token, as in Rex. However, this mechanic DOES mean that first player might not shift every round, which is interesting. Complexity and variance versus simplicity and more predictable rounds?
- Dune ends after 15 rounds (if nobody has met the victory condition), instead of 8. However, an official variant recommends 10 rounds for a more reasonable length game. I felt 8 for Rex was a smidge short in terms of need to progress the game, though with 4 new players, 8 rounds took us 2.5 hours.
- In Rex, verbal deals are non-binding, but you cannot exchange Influence (currency) at any time . In Dune, verbal agreements are binding. Furthermore, you can exchange Spice (the currency), but it can only be claimed at the end of the round. Here, I prefer Dune's way of doing things. I'm curious why the change was made. My power was that I could give my ally money during the bidding phase. This is even more powerful if money passed in deals can only be claimed at the beginning. I, however, can give it to my friend when he needs it -- now.
- In Rex, everyone gets 2 free influence from the bank in addition to any they claim. In Dune, you only get 2 spice only if you have nothing. Pay attention here as this is one piece of the core differences -- the economy.
- In Dune, currency is only added to a single territory each round. In Rex, it's added to two territories.
- In Rex, once you pass in a bid for a single card, you cannot obtain that card. In Dune, if you pass, but the bid increases past what you passed on, you can re-enter the bidding. I think this is a subtle element that is probably fine to smooth out, though it does allow for a hint more in the way of bidding tactics.
- In Rex, you may recruit up to 5 killed Units each round. In Dune, it's only 3.
- Dune has a fairly complex rule that states if a Leader is killed and revived, if they are killed again, they cannot be revived until all other killed leaders are revived and killed again. I think. I found this rule very confusing. I believe the intent here is to prevent you from just spamming your best leader repeatedly with abandon. It makes the Traitor mechanic more potent, in my estimation. I'm not sure the rule is worth the complexity though.
- In Rex, you must move units first, then you may add new units. In Dune, you add units first, then you move them. This is a curious change. The cost to add units to enemy-occupied territory is more expensive, so I assume this forces you to move Units into the territory first, then add additional reserves at the higher price. Rex is generally looser with money than Dune, so I can see the reasoning for the change. With Rex, you have more money, so they need to put in new costs, which this change seems to supply.
- In Dune, adding Units to a stronghold costs 1 per, or 2 per anywhere else. In Rex, it's 1 per to an empty or friendly space, or 2 per to an enemy occupied space. This puts a greater emphasis on the strongholds in Dune and slows the game down slightly. It puts greater emphasis on managing your supply lines and planning ahead it seems.
- Dune's board (see above) is divided into slivers, like a clock, which are called territories. During movement, players can move between sectors in adjacent slivers, but their units are always in one sector. Sectors may span multiple slivers. A battle is triggered if multiple enemies exist in a territory (the sliver), even if they are in multiple sectors. They can, however, be blocked by a storm in the middle as the storm moves between the sectors. Rex's board (see below) just creates numbered sectors. I'm very curious how the balance changed, if at all, but I can say with absolute frankness that Rex seems to have streamlined this very appropriately. Of all the sections in Dune's rules, the territory versus sector confused me the most. Typically, players see sectors as a control point and a path for movement. Dune abstracts that strangely and I feel, without playing Dune, FFG made the right call.
- In Rex, you simultaneously select your Units to spend and your leader. However, after revealing these, you may choose which cards to play (though you pre-determine whether you will play cards, and you must use them if you chose to do so). In Dune, you submit everything at once. I think I prefer the tension and simplicity of Dune's method.
- In Dune, the winner of a battle gains Spice (currency) equal to the strength of all leaders killed in the battle. This bounty is a great boost in income that I find very compelling. In Rex, only certain cards do such things.
- In Dune, once you use a Traitor cards, it's shuffled back into the deck. In Dune, you regain the Traitor card. I find this fascinating. Once a traitor, always a traitor, eh? It also means you have a permanent, but now know disadvantage against certain enemies. The first step in avoiding a trap is knowing it exists, right? By the way, this bullet is full of sweet Dune references.
- Players in control of certain spaces in Dune gain the Spice Harvester card, which grants them additional spice. It's purely a flat rate in Rex, typically.
In addition to the main game, Avalon Hill released an advanced set of rules to develop the game further. Some elements of it are considered essential to the experience, whereas others are quite controversial. I'll only discuss the ones that pertain to Rex.
- Originally, Dune's economy was considered overly strict. The new edition added Carryall and Smuggler bonuses, which were granted for controlling specific sectors and granted additional income. Rex handles this by giving everyone a flat 2 Influence every round. I actually like both methods. Rex's mechanic is simpler, but Dune's carries some nice nuance.
- Advanced added the concept of supporting Units in battle. You could support each Unit in the battle at the cost of 1 spice. Supported Units gave their full value, whereas unsupported units provided half. Therefore, it would take 2 unsupported units to equal 1 supported unit. This is a bit complex and added a layer of math. It seems to be generally disliked by the community. I agree with this group.
- In the Advanced Dune, they modified the amount of spice added each round from 1 to 2 territories, which is precisely what Rex employs. This added quite a bit more to the economy, which is potentially why they introduced the notion of supporting units. FFG inflated the economy, but removed some of its costs, as well.
- Finally, the addition of the supported rule put the Fremen faction at a strong disadvantage. To address this, Fremen were considered supported (for free) when fighting outside of strongholds. In Rex, the faction I believe to be a Fremen faction is able to add units for free to certain zones and gains Units in the recruitment phase at a higher rate. Essentially, they have an economic advantage when bringing forces to bear in certain situations.
My Analysis. It seems very clear that Dune, overall, is a slower game, based primarily on its economic tuning. Units cost more to add to the board, they take longer to bring back from the dead, there is less money in circulation, no default income except when you are broke, and leaders are more difficult to revive.
The game, in this sense, is probably played with greater attention towards long term planning. Units are sent to battle more cautiously. It also gives a very big incentive for gaining the treachery cards (battle modifiers) and killing leaders via traitors. In our game of Rex, the cost of the Treachery cards was generally relatively low, primarily to hinder the player gaining the income for their purchase. I think if Treachery cards hold more weight, this bidding phase will be more lively and compelling.
For my personal tastes, and I think modern tastes in general, cutting the game in half (from 15 to 8 rounds), making sure everyone has income, and increasing the rate of bringing back troops seems to have the advantage of speeding up the game with fewer negative consequences.
However, I believe the best version of the game is a bit of the advanced Dune with some notes from Rex. 10 Rounds, with the Carryalls and Smugglers, 2 Spice blows, and binding negotiation throughout seems to be a really strong way to play. Regaining Traitors and having a bounty for killed leaders looks fantastic and really puts a proper edge on conflict. Also, with the troop limitations, but a little more income, I think it leaves a little currency for bribery and increasing the bids on the treachery cards, which then increase in value.
But, economics aside, it's difficult to ignore some of FFG's improvements. The new board is far simpler and in the best way. Having a guaranteed first player rotation might remove a layer, but it's not one I think most people would miss. Shifting counter-clockwise to clockwise is just an obvious choice.
Some of the tactical decision are, I think, streamlined in the right way. Instead of stronghold versus non-stronghold, FFG put the increased deployment tax on enemy-held regions, which means you can move into open spaces freely. This makes them quite valuable, but you can't just hot-drop into an enemy space without paying. They also swapped the order of movement and deployment. Therefore, while speeding up the game's flow, they still preserved some difficult decisions on where and when to allocate troops.
I can't wait to receive my copy of Dune. I fully plan to play it with a hand-picked assortment of rules to find the right balance of theme and mechanics. What a great game!
Conclusion. If you were to bring a classic into the modern era, what would you change? What would be your game of choice? Would you prioritize pacing and overall game length, reduce complexity, or seek to improve balance?
This also forces one to ask what must be preserved for the fans of the original. What considerations must be paid to new players? In fact, when you're revising a classic, do you give consideration to the existing fans as customers at all, or do you plan to sell to a new generation? Money dictates planning and this is a great case where that'll come into play.
Fantasy Flight have quite a bit of experience with this, with the list including Rex/Dune, Nexus Ops, Fortress America, Horus Heresy, and surely others.
I hope you enjoyed this lengthy piece. It's a little different than my standard fare. My hope is that it has provided context to you for thinking about not just classics to revise, which is unlikely to be something you deal with, but revising your current designs to be more appealing to the current market. The ability to develop, revise, and iterate upon your design never really goes away. You really just have to choose a direction and stick to it.
What's your direction, young Atreides?