The Duke is a modern take on a chess-like abstract game. It's been around for 5 years now and is out of print. There will be a new version of it coming out before long, however. So I have wanted to get my hands on a copy of The Duke for use in my after school strategy gaming club for a while, but it sells at exorbitant prices due to its current out of print status. I was finally able to grab a used copy from someone through the virtual flee market at Dice Tower Con for a low cost, however. So, now that I finally have my hands on it, how does it compare with its progenitor, Chess? Let's see.
The game takes place on a 6 by 6 grid. Each player has an army of double-sided tiles which are placed into a draw bag, except for the Duke tile and two footman tiles. The Duke tile is the equivalent of the King in Chess. If your Duke is captured then your game is lost. Just like in Chess, if you are one turn away from capturing the other player's Duke you must warn them (by saying "Guard" in this case). Then they must save their Duke if possible. Unlike chess, where all of a player's forced are on the board at the start of the game, in the Duke a player starts with only his Duke and 2 footman (which are like pawns). Then during the game, a player can draw one tile out of the bag blindly and place it on the board next to her Duke, instead of moving a piece already on the board. The main difference from chess, however, is that the units have a different movement-attack pattern on each side of their tile. Every time a unit is moved, its tile is then flipped and the alternate movement-attack pattern is revealed to be used the next time it is activated. Just like in chess, any time a unit lands on an opponent's unit it eliminates the opponent's unit. In the base game there are 6 symbols that may be on a tile's to show how it can act:
Move: The unit can move to a square with this symbol on it if no other piece is in the way.
Jump: The unit can jump over units to get to the square marked on its pattern (like a knight in chess).
Slide: The unit can move to a square that is marked, but it stops to attack an opponent's unit if that unit is along the path to the destination square (similar to a rook, bishop, or queen).
Jump Slide: The unit can hop over one unit while it is sliding in order to attack a further unit.
Strike: The unit stays in place and then does a range attack against an opponent's unit that is on a specific square.
Command: Instead of moving itself, the unit can command another friendly unit on a given square to do an action.
In the picture you can see the little grid patterns on the tiles and the symbols on them. This feature allows the units to move and attack in many different ways without the player having to memorize an inordinate amount of actions for each unit.
Finally, there are a couple of extra tiles that can be added in to the game to shake things up. There is a dragon tile that moves around and attacks an unit that comes within range, There is a mountain tile that simple blocks players from going through that space. There are flag tiles to play a form of capture the flag. Finally there is a blank tile for each player and stickers to create an original pattern of actions for each player.
The tiles are chunky wooden squares that are attractive and solid. The board is sturdy cardboard that is functional if bland in appearance. The cloth bags appear to be made of a type of canvas in terms of texture and thickness.
I enjoy the game a great deal, I think it is much more interesting to play than chess and my children agree. It adds an element of randomness with its blind draw of tiles that chess doesn't have. I personally enjoy a small amount of randomness in games as I believe they more accurately reflect reality that way. With that small amount of randomness comes a loss of perfect knowledge of game state on the part of the players. This helps to add a little extra excitement to the game. I also like the little send-ups to chess that are evident in the game. The Duke moves similarly to the King in chess. The Knight in this game also has a move that mimics one of the moves of the Knight in Chess. I also enjoy some of the thematic influences on how certain pieces act. For instance, the two different types of archers can only shoot every other turn. One assumes this is because it takes time to reload their bow with another arrow. The duchess cannot move forward, but she can command other units to move (one would assume forward most of the time). This is very different from the Queen in Chess, who can move around the board better than any other piece. Once again, though, the game tells a small thematic story in this way, with a Duchess who commands others to fight for her.
One of the enhanced abilities with certain tiles is that 3 tiles can be drawn from the bag and then one tile picked out of those to be placed on the board. Personally, I think this should just be the standard rule of the game so as to mitigate the extreme luck of blindly drawing just one tile. So we house rule that. Honestly when we first played the game I automatically did it that way without registering that the rules were saying that you were only supposed to draw one. It just made more intuitive sense to pull three and pick one.
Teacher/ Parent Recommendations
This is a great game for school and home. Any child that can play Chess can play this. And I predict that most children will like this game more. Around 8 years old is when most children gain the mental faculties to play games at this level of complexity. Advanced children can handle it earlier. Children that young will probably not be able to beat an adult at this game, but they should enjoy playing it against other children at their level. The addition of a small amount of randomness does produce the possibility that children might beat someone who is slightly better than them. That should keep young weaker players a little more interested in continuing to play the game and getting better.