Review: The Duke

pic16889032 players, 30 minutes

Chess is a funny thing. It’s a centuries-old game that people have dedicated their lives to playing, and yet hobby board gamers hardly ever talk about it one way or the other. At most, it’s appreciated from afar, as a game that people respect but don’t really want to play. It’s easy to see why—there’s little theme to the game, skilled players will almost invariably beat weaker players, and the learning curve between amateur and expert play can be a real grind.

It seems there’s a demand for a game that scratches the same strategy game itch as chess, but tweaks the formula to replace the parts that turn many game players off. One recent attempt to fill this demand is The Duke by Catalyst Games.

The Duke is an abstract strategy game, similar to chess or shogi (a game I dutifully Googled before writing this review). The game is played on a six by six grid, and troops are represented by wooden tiles featuring the piece’s name, symbol, and movement pattern. On their turn, a player can move one of their pieces according to that pattern. If it lands on an enemy tile, that enemy tile is captured and removed from the game. If a player can threaten to capture the opponent’s Duke from the board, and their opponent has no way of stopping it, that player wins the game.

Sounds fairly typical so far—nut there are three things that distinguish The Duke from games like chess or shogi.
First, taking a page out of miniature wargames, the players get to deploy their troops at the start of the game.
Second, the pieces have a reverse face that has a different movement pattern. In chess and shogi, a piece can be promoted if it advances far enough to your opponent; in The Duke, the pieces flip every time you use them.
Third, instead of moving one of your tiles, you can instead use your turn to draw a random tile from your bag and place it on the board adjacent to your Duke.

Let’s take a look at what these elements bring to the game.

Not pictured: two players who more or less just threw pieces on the board at random.
Not pictured: two players who more or less just threw pieces on the board at random.

The ability to pick the way you deploy your pieces is, well… immensely disappointing. The way you deploy your army in a wargame lays out your strategy for the early turns in the game, and gives the second player a chance to respond—but, here, it means approzimately nothing.

Your options are extremely limited—pick one of two squares for your Duke, and any two of three for your starting footmen. Youmay be thinking that subtle differences in positioning are key in games like these, and you’re right, but remember, the pieces added to the board as you play are selected at random. Any semblance of control you have in this step are completely washed away by that uncertainty.

It feels more like you get to make the decision because the game’s designers couldn’t be bothered.

In a rare show of theme in an abstract games, it appears the archer has to reload between firing arrows.
In a rare show of theme in an abstract games, it appears the archer has to reload between firing arrows.

Now that that’s out of the way, onto something more exciting: flipping tiles! (That sounded better in my head.) The pieces in The Duke move in some crazy ways; they can move, jump, slide, jump and slide, or even strike a tile without technically moving at all—and that’s not even considering certain special abilities. That alone would just make this game a forgettable chess and shogi derivative, but the mechanism of flipping a tile after using it makes it all come together. You not only have to consider where you want a piece to move, but how it will behave once it gets there. The pieces, in a way, interact with themselves, and you need to keep that in mind as you plan ahead. It’s a satisfying layer of puzzle thrown into the mix.

Moving onto the way you randomly pick tiles out of the bag… well, I’m torn.

On the one hand, random chance is anathema to these kinds of abstract strategy games, especially at this level. The tile drawn can make or break the game, and there’s typically nothing a player can do about it, beyond making the decision to draw a tile in the first place. That piece can make a huge change in the state of the game, and it means planning more than a turn or two ahead is all but impossible.

On the other, randomness can be a great thing. It adds variety, it demands adaptability, and it closes the skill gap between players. The better player is at less of an advantage, which makes for closer—and more interesting—games.

All in all, on this point, I think I lean towards a favorable opinion. Skill still matters—I’ve dabbled with chess in the past, and I had a distinct advantage over players who haven’t. I didn’t crush my opponents, but that wouldn’t have been fun anyway. This may not be a game that people study, but that’s okay. It’s a game that rewards skill, but still gives both players a fighting chance.

20141008_141224Before I come to my conclusion about this game, I have to say something about the components. The wooden tiles are great. Card board tokens would have sufficed, but these are so much more satisfying to play with. Part of the enjoyment people get out of board games comes from the tactility. It just feels nice holding a hand of card or rolling some dice, and you can’t do that with a video game. In this case, the wooden tiles just feel great to play with.

Unfortunately, the board is a bit disappointing by comparison. It works, it’s fine, and I get it, something nicer would drive up the cost of the game. Still, with a game that already raises comparisons to chess, I can’t help but feel like a wooden board would suit it much better.

One more minor note: the game comes with some extra bits and pieces for variants of the game, and even some blank tiles and stickers for designing your own tiles. It feels a bit like they’re telegraphing that the game is expandable—and, indeed, several expansions have been produced—but in any case, it’s a nice addition for players who want more variety. I suppose stickers are an imperfect tool, as someone could conceivably feel and distinguish that particular tile, but if your opponent would actively try to do that, your problem isn’t so much the game as it is your opponent being kind of a jerk.

Depending on your tastes, I expect The Duke will either sound like a lovely abstract game with interesting puzzles and a healthy amount of luck, or a game that’s equal parts boring and frustrating. Trust your instincts on this one. I fall in the prior group, and I’ve been having a lovely time.

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