Cardboard Children: The Duke

By Robert Florence on October 29th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

Hey yo youse.

I’m going to hold off on Krosmaster for yet another week, so that I can get my photo game tight. In the meantime, I’d like to tell you about a fantastic little game that will be staying in my collection for keeps. It’s an abstract strategy game with the potential to keep a gamer entertained for life. I’m hugely impressed by it. It’s called The Duke, and it’s made of wood. Come along, kid. Come along, come along.

THE DUKE

The Duke, from Catalyst Games, is like chess. No, it’s nothing like chess. It’s played on a board with a 6×6 grid. Each player has an army, and each type of unit in that army has its own movement rules. You move your units around the board in an attempt to corner, and ultimately capture, the enemy’s Duke.

It’s a bit like chess, in the sense that you think “Oh, it’s a bit like chess”. But it’s actually not like chess at all.

Each player starts the game with a Duke and two Footmen. These are placed at your edge of the board, and then the game begins. In a turn, a player can move a piece, or draw a new piece from a drawstring bag. Any new piece you draw must be placed onto the board beside The Duke – and remember, this is a blind draw, so you’re never exactly sure which unit will be coming out of the bag.

The movement rules are what this game is all about. Take a look at these pieces from the game –

Let me explain what you’re seeing here. Every tile shows the grid on its face. And in the centre of the grid is a little pawn. That represents the tile itself. Look at the Footman – here we can see that the Footman can move to the square in front, or behind, or to the left or the right. Those black dots clearly illustrate that. On the Duke tile, we see symbols that represent “slide” moves. So the Duke can slide as far to the left or the right as the player wishes. Cool, right? No “how does this piece move again?” confusion. It’s all clearly displayed on the tile.

But wait until you hear what happens every time you move a piece. This is the COOL BIT.

Every single time you move a piece, you have to flip it. And when you flip it? Well – take a look at the same tiles, flipped.

As you can see, the reverse of each tile has a different movement. The Duke now slides forward and back, and the Footman can advance two spaces forward or move out to the diagonals. Grasping the flow of each tile’s movement is key to success in this game. If you’re planning to capture another piece, and trying to think four or five turns ahead, you need to be considering all of the movement variations introduced by the flipping of tiles.

Each player has a wide assortment of units in their drawstring bags, so the shape of the game will shift with each new unit that gets introduced. It’s a game where the player has to plan ahead and think on their feet when a new problem gets flung into the mix.

Take a look at this Wizard.

The reverse of the Wizard tile is nightmarish. Those hollow circles are “jump” symbols. This means that the Wizard can pretty much teleport all over the fucking place. If you’re closing in on the enemy’s Duke, and a Wizard gets flung into your path, the whole nature of your approach changes. The game can be highly aggressive at one moment, and patient and defensive at the next.

It’s a simple game – capture the enemy’s leader. Get that Duke into “guard”, send him into a panic, corner the fucker and then eat him. But the game is shifting under your fingers the whole time. It might seem to you, reading this, that the whole “pull a new piece from the bag to see if it saves me” thing brings too much luck into the equation, but while luck is always a factor, the game is all about how you react to these little swings in battle. Also – any new units need to be placed beside the Duke. If you lock that Duke down in a defensive position, it can be hard for your opponent to get any reinforcements into play.

Here’s another cool thing – if your play starts to go a bit… well, let’s say you’re having a bad game. Your Duke is fleeing across the board, and you’ve relinquished much of your starting area. You’re starting to wing it, and your plans have fallen to shit. You decide to pull out a new unit – with it having to come into play beside your Duke, it’s possible to bring in a unit in a stunted position, or even in a position where it cannot move at all. Imagine your enemy’s attacks have sent your Duke fleeing to the opposite end of the board – you are in DEEP TROUBLE. Your reinforcements, with no room to advance, will likely be left having to crawl backwards or be screaming “SIRE, THE PLACES I CAN GO TO DO NOT EXIST!”

Position is hugely important. When you’re needing a bit of luck, those draws from the bag can only go so far. You need to make your luck in this game.

Oh, there’s a lot in the box. The basic game is enough, but when playing with special units, such as the Oracle or the Duchess, there are special powers that can be activated in the player’s turn too. That’s even more stuff to think about – OH GREAT THANKS. There are also variant games to play. Capture the Flag games? Yes. How cool is that? There’s an impassable Mountain tile you can place on the board to tighten up the game area even further. Oh, and there’s a Dragon.

Yes, a Dragon. Those star symbols? That’s where the Dragon can breathe his fire.

Amazing.

So, that’s the Duke. A game that is easy to learn. A game with the rules pretty much written on the game pieces themselves. And yet, a game that offers so much. I really, really want to get good at this game. I want to commit all the tile movement possibilities to memory, create some strategies of my own, and then maybe go off the fucking rails like Bobby Fischer did. I will wrap my head in tin foil and damn The Duke to hell for ruining my life.

So that’s a recommendation then. To the HIGHEST.

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18 Comments »

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  1. dahools says:

    How do you capture the duke then? Is it like putting him in check or checkmate? ThIs looks quite interesting the grid seems a little small concidering a dragons area of effect fire. Does it work well on 6 by 6 grid or could you do with bigger?

    Please tell me more. . .

  2. Spacewalk says:

    The best thing about this is that I had it mostly worked out just from the photographs.

    • SillyWizard says:

      Yes, absolutely the best thing about this game is the opportunity for Spacewalk to tell us how clever he is.

      • mrbeman says:

        This is unnecessarily snarky. A game whose rules can be intuited from a couple pictures is a game with quite possibly elegant design.

      • mrbeman says:

        Stated differently, a more charitable (and frankly reasonable) interpretation is “Spacewalk is saying the game design looks special,” rather than “Spacewalk is saying Spacewalk is special.)

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        Dare_Wreck says:

        Came here to say the same thing as mrbeman. SillyWizard – it’s not nice to be an asshat.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        I would just like to point out that this comment thread contains the most calm chiding I have ever seen on the internet. “That was not nice” has without a doubt never ever been said on the internet. Well done, RPS’ readership elevates itself above all the muck slinging.

        EDIT: Just realised this is a necro. It seems we have been on the path of mildness for some months.

  3. IncredibleMosesLeroy says:

    As soon as the penny dropped about the pieces being different on each side I stopped reading and went and ordered a copy. Looks horse-some

  4. Swanny says:

    Ordering this week. I must say, this looks like a game I could play forever.

  5. Kitsunin says:

    Huh, I had pretty much already designed this same game myself, minus the excellent design of the pieces.

    Well, to the person who actually follows through go the spoils.

  6. Hammurabi says:

    See, now this just isn’t fair. I was quite keen on picking up a copy of this — and then I saw that there is a Robert E. Howard expansion. Now I need it. Tis unfair to tempt us poor gamey types so.

  7. Method says:

    Now how about a PC version?

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    Harlander says:

    Is this just for two players? It looks fun on a bun, but I don’t get great opportunity to play stuff that’s just two-player these days.

  9. LASture says:

    A friend that works at a gameshop introduced this to me. After playing a few games, I bought the set right away. You can’t put the other person in “check”, like you have to in chess. If he makes a mistake and leaves his Duke open for the kill, you can win the game without warning. It’s fast-paced because introducing new units to the board makes long-term goals completely change on the fly.

    It is seriously enjoyable, and while it is only a 2-person game, I’m sure that with a new board and some modifications you could end up with a massive multi-person battlefield game.

  10. Kefren says:

    I played my first three games last night. Loved it. But my girlfriend lost all three games and got grumpy, especially when I won my second game in two moves (I didn’t realise it was possible, but we had dukes flanked by footmen and drew reinforcements. Mine was a longbowman. He moved forward, flipped, and threatened the enemy duke, who couldn’t move out of the way because he was hemmed in by his own troops. Awesome victory!)

    One thing I really liked is that the rules are simple (I had been worried by the manual, but it turns out that half the stuff in there is for expansions or more advanced rulesets), yet you find yourself wracking your brain to identify safe and unsafe squares now and in future turns, so you get a great mental workout.