If you want to make your head hurt, play chess against an expert opponent. If you want a chess player's head to hurt, sit them down in front of The Duke.
Abstract strategy games such as these don't get a whole lot of love in most gaming circles, where engrossing theme or deep mechanics rule the day. The Duke has neither, but Catalyst Game Labs is Kickstarting this abstract game for its deceivingly simple design that packs a few tricks up its sleeve.
The Duke, as seen at Origins Games Fair 2012. Photo: Randall Bills
The chess analogy wasn't a stretch of the truth. Players move tiles around a 6x6 grid in an effort to capture the opposing Duke, while protecting their own. While pretty similar core concepts, other differences between The Duke and chess quickly show up. For starters, players don't begin the game with all of their pieces on the board: just their Duke and two Footmen. From there, players will have to decide how to spend each turn, either moving a piece or adding a new piece at random from their bag. When they choose the latter, that's where things get interesting.
A quirky take on movement is the hook for The Duke. Each tile has very specific movement and attack abilities, but they are helpfully printed directly on the tiles for quick reference.
Yet the mental load is increased with one last twist. After every move, a tile must flip over, revealing a different set of movement and attack rules. It's probably best if you just had a look at the two sides of a tile for yourself:
"Each posture conveys different options for maneuver and attack. The full circle is a standard Move, the hollow circle the Jump, the arrow provides for the Slide, the star a special Strike ability and so on. Each turn a player may select any tile to maneuver, attempting to defend his own troops while positioning himself to capture his opponent's Duke." - The Duke Kickstarter project description
In speaking with Randall Bills, the Managing Editor for Catalyst Game Labs, he described the companies desire to publish The Duke after having it pitched to them by designer Jeremy Holcomb during Gen Con. Bills saw The Duke as "fast, yet with an almost endless variety of tactics." Fast is the key word here, as matches typically wrap up within 20 minutes, giving you enough time to play again and keep exploring those endless tactics.
There are more gaming projects on Kickstarter than any one gamer could ever hope to fund (or even have time to play), so I don't often go out of my way to promote these on the blog, but The Duke project has a few top-notch bonuses at higher pledge levels. As your pledge increases, Catalyst Game Labs will throw in a leather playing surface, an engraved wooden box, a drawstring leather tile pouch, and the grand daddy of all bonuses: a $500 pledge level for one of twenty laser-engraved, hand-stained tile sets from the carpentry pros at Geek Chic.
Another nice factor for this project is that Catalyst Game Labs is up front in their description that Kickstarter funding or not, The Duke will see store shelves. When asked about the strength of the abstract game sales relative to higher profile gaming products, Bills stated "all you have to do is look at say Blokus, and it's huge success, to realize there's a market for that type of game."
A funded project will simply mean getting it out in 2012 instead of 2013, and allowing backers to receive some of the above-mentioned bonuses with their support. As it stands, The Duke is just a few pledges away from hitting its $15,000 goal, so head on over to Kickstarter and check it out.