Designed by Brett Myers (The Lord of the Rings Dice Building Game) and from publisher Thunderworks Games (Roll Player, Bullfrogs) comes Dual Powers: Revolution 1917, a 2-player game (plus solo mode) with a 30-60 minute play time that plants you in the tumultuous political landscape of Russia in the wake of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas. The game is currently on Kickstarter.
What Do I Get for $32?
The pledge for Dual Powers is $32 plus shipping, which will vary. It’s worth noting that all images and descriptions in this piece are from a prototype copy of Dual Powers which is entirely subject to changes from the publisher between now and delivery (estimated January 2019). That said, even having only played the prototype copy of the game, I can say that you definitely get your money’s worth in terms of content.
Currently (pending possible changes and/or stretch goals) the game comes with:
- 1 Large game board
- 6 Region tiles
- 48 Command cards
- 6 Leader cards
- 3 Red
- 3 White
- 2 Player aid cards
- 8 Leader tokens
- 10 Red unit tokens
- 10 White unit tokens
- 6 Neutral unit tokens
- 27 Opposing unit tokens (For solitaire variant only)
- 1 Scoring marker
- 1 Blockade marker
- 1 Will of the people marker
- 1 Day marker
- 1 Month marker
- 3 Objective scoring markers
- 3 Difficulty tokens (For solitaire variant only)
Starting with the art, Dual Powers is evocative and pleasing. Famed artist Kwanchai Moriya (Capital Lux, Catacombs) brings a vibrancy I wouldn’t normally associate with a game which, at first glance, would appear to be a historical war game (it isn’t, but more on that later). His mastery of light and dark inside his rich color palette make for a box that is going to pop off the shelf. As someone who often forms a first impression of a Kickstarter based on the campaign picture, Dual Powers gets off to a very good start.
The rest of the components follow suit, with strong art doing what it can to liven up a historical era that most players will likely know little about. Leader cards feature the historical figures of this drama (Lenin, Kerensky, etc.) while the deck of command cards features blocks of historical flavor text (political quotes, speech snippets, passages from texts) for those who wish to immerse themselves even further, though admittedly I barely registered those lines of tiny text as I played, focused instead on the bright, colorful iconography on the body of the card.
The graphic design of the action symbols is very minimalist, which I like, although some of the actions look extremely similar to others, slowing down the learning process of the game as you pause to figure out what certain symbols mean and how to differentiate them from each other.
I suspect, however, that most of the rough edges will be sanded and smoothed as the campaign goes along. Ultimately, they only impair the learning process and, after a few games, you hardly notice. So even if the graphic design stays the same from now to the production, it isn’t a deal-breaker.
How to Play Dual Powers
The first thing you should know about this game is that it isn’t what it looks like. From the outside, Dual Powers could easily be mistaken for any of the myriad sprawling, token-based historical games that litter the shelves of every game store I’ve ever been in. Sure, the art is much nicer, but otherwise this looks like a political game steeped in history that you either never studied or no longer remember. Don’t be fooled and don’t let that impression scare you away. The game itself is much simpler and more-streamlined than the austere exterior would lead you to believe.
In truth, Dual Powers is an area control game that uses some clever hand-management mechanisms. You are competing to have the most support in various contested territories, and must use the cards in your hand to either generate new supporters or to manage the ones you already have.
Preparation for your first game of Dual Powers is quick. One player will play as red and the other as white, and will begin the game by laying out all of their tokens (their standard units as well as their 3 leaders) on their side of the board. The scoring in this game is a back-and-forth tracker, with each end belonging to one player, so it’s easiest to make sure you’re sitting on the side of the board that corresponds to your color.
Each player will start the game with their 3 leader cards (which match their tokens) in their hand, as well as 5 command cards drawn from the command deck, for a total of 8 cards in hand to start the game.
The day and month tokens are placed on their starting locations on the calendar portion of the board, and the green and red Trotsky tokens are placed just above the calendar. The will of the people token is given to the red player to start, the scoring marker is placed in the center of the scoring track, and neutral tokens are randomly placed on the board with 1 in each of the 6 territories.
Lastly, you must determine where the struggle will begin. Your area tokens are shuffled into a stack, and two are revealed into the ‘Unrest’ and ‘Blockade’ sections on the board and, for the latter, the blockade token is placed on that territory’s entry point (some territories have more than one entry, but for some this makes it impassable).
Setup will only take 5-10 minutes at most, and you’ll be ready to begin.
Each round is broken into 5 phases, though the bulk of play happens in the third.
Since you already drew cards during setup, you will skip this phase on the first round of the game. Each subsequent round during this phase both players will draw five command cards from the deck and add them to their hand.
Here, players choose a command card from their hand to represent a secret objective. Each command card corresponds to a specific territory in the game. The territory on the card you choose will become your objective for that round, although your opponent won’t know what it is. Command cards provide differing levels of help during the game, and also offer differing levels of victory points if and when you win that objective. So, the better the card is that you select as your secret objective, the more points it will be worth to player who wins it.
Remember, you’ll be using your command cards in the next phase to maneuver and entrench yourself in the city, and you don’t always want to give up your most powerful card even though it is worth the most points. So this is the first true decision you have to make. You may also want to try to predict where you think your opponent may target as their secret objective, a prediction that will become easier as the game state develops.
You can also double-down on your strategy, which begins here. At the end of the round, points can be earned for controlling any of 3 territories: Your secret objective, your opponent’s secret objective, and the territory that is currently in ‘unrest’. If any of these overlap, you will score them multiple times, so you have the option to choose the same territory for your secret objective that is currently in unrest and then focus all your forces on it.
Considering how limited your choices are in this phase, it becomes very easy to let the weight of these choices cause you to freeze. The entire game is going to be a tight, hard-fought affair, and one badly-chosen objective can cost you the game.
This is where things kick into overdrive. Before we get into too much detail, it’s important to note 3 sections on your command cards.
In the top left corner is a calendar symbol that indicates how many days to advance the calendar when you play that card, and next to that is a symbol denoting which territory this card is associated with for recruitment purposed. Below that you will see the card’s recruitment value (1, 2, or 3 denoted by yellow bars). Finally, next to that section, you will see the action this card will allow you to take.
Alternating back-and-forth, each player will play 4 cards per round, starting with whichever player possesses the will of the people. When it’s your turn to play, you choose a card from your hand and then decide whether you want to use it to recruit or use it for its action.
Recruiting is pretty simple: the yellow bars indicate value, and there are corresponding bars found on all of your unit tokens (not including the leaders, who we’ll get to later). So, if I play a card with 3 bars in the recruit section and choose to use it for that purpose, I can take equal or lesser value units and place them into the territory of the card I played (this is important: you don’t get to choose where to place your units, they are simply placed into the territory of the card played). So, if I had 3 to spend, I could recruit a single 3-value unit, a 2-value plus a 1-value, or 3 1-value units.
Each unit you place is has two sides: Fresh and Exhausted. When units are recruited, they are automatically placed with their fresh side up. This is usually, but not always, the stronger of the two sides. Their strength (or, rather, support to your cause) is denoted by the larger number, while the smaller number beneath it lets you know what their strength will be when they are exhausted and flipped over.
Now, up until this point, things are fairly random. You either have the right territories to recruit troops into or you don’t. But it’s the actions that make things interesting. If you don’t like your recruitment options, or are simply satisfied with how many units you already have on the board, you can choose an action. There are 4 different actions that will appear on your command cards.
- Move 1: This allows you to move a single unit you control, via an unblocked path, to an adjacent territory.
- Move 2: This allows you to move a single unit you control twice, although this action can’t be split between units.
- Refresh: This allows you to flip any exhausted unit you control to its fresh side.
On top of these choices, you have your 3 leaders. You will never draw more of these or get them back, but each one provides a unique action when played, and they can be played instead of a command card. The three actions, a different one for each leader, are:
- Mobilize Protest: This lets you move the blockade token to anywhere on the board.
- Espionage: This lets you look at your opponent’s secret objective.
- Inspire the People: This lets you take the will of the people token.
When playing your leader, you also get to place their unit token into any territory of your choice. Since you only get 3 per game, you’ll want to use them sparingly, striking when the moment is right and using their strength and abilities to swing an objective (or maybe multiple objectives) in your favor.
Players take turns playing cards until both players have played 4. Then the action phase is over.
As covered before, three territories are contested each round: the unrest territory, and then each player’s secret objective.
Now that the action phase is over, the secret objectives are revealed and all three territories are scored one by one. The victor is, quite simply, the player with the most support in that territory. Neutral tokens belong to the player who possesses the will of the people, and that can often swing the tide in their favor.
Both secret objectives grant points based on the number shown on their card. The unrest territory, however, gives the victor a choice. They can score points–these points vary depending on how many months the game has progressed, and you will receive more points later in the game and the struggle for Russia tightens. Alternately, a bonus action can be taken of any one of the following: Recruit 1 strength worth of units into any territory, move 1, refresh a unit, or draw an extra card (increasing your hand size for the remainder of the game and giving you more options).
At first glance, points seem like the obvious way to go. Given the see-saw nature of scoring in this game, those points are at a premium and you will take them any way you can. However, the more you play the more you realize that a bonus action here and an extra card there can pay even bigger dividends down the road if, quite literally, you play your cards right.
It’s also important to note that units in any of the contested 3 territories are exhausted after each one is scored (and remember, sometimes the same territory will be scored more than once). So a fresh unit becomes exhausted and if you had exhausted units supporting you then they become completely removed (leaders are removed from the game and standard units return to your supply for redeployment).
Finally, before the round ends, there’s a little housekeeping. First, the territory of unrest is discarded and the blockaded territory is upgraded to unrest (being itself replaced with a new territory and the blockade moved accordingly). All used command cards (those you played and your secret objectives) are discarded, and you’re ready to start the whole thing over again.
End of Game
Dual Powers can end in one of two ways. If the month marker is in either of the last two months on the track at the end of the round, then the game ends and the player who has more support from the people wins the game (ties, as with everything, are broken by the will of the people token). It is also possible, during the game, to gain enough support to pull the scoring tracker all the way to your side of the board which, if it happens, is an instant win.
Why to Back Dual Powers
If I can impress one thing upon you, it’s that Dual Powers: Revolution 1917 is not at all what it appears. It isn’t a sprawling war game. It isn’t a dry historical game. It isn’t overly complicated, but nor is it overly simple.
At the end of the day, there are some classic concepts wrapped up in Dual Powers and dusted with some nice innovations. The slow reveal of the territory tiles adds a great tension and an even better decision: should I go for the territory that’s in unrest now, or do I cede that one to my opponent but fortify the one that will be in unrest next turn? And because the stack of territories is so small, you can plan beyond that, playing a long game that sees you losing early only to already be firmly entrenched in the territories that become valuable later.
Another wonderfully agonizing decision you have to make is how to use your hand. Do you launch units onto the board as fast as you can, or do you manage and direct the ones that are already there? Also, you often have to choose a secret objective that you won’t be able to recruit troops into because it’s the only card for that territory in your hand. So you will sit and stare and feel your pulse quicken and your palms start to sweat. Because these decisions, while seemingly simple, are excruciating.
My biggest negative takeaway from playing Dual Powers was that on top of this wonderful, elegant, simple game are bolted a handful of fiddly, unnecessary bits. Many of these I didn’t touch on in the ‘How to Play’ section because, even in playing the game, they feel strangely out of place.
For example, there are two unit tokens that represent Trotsky. The first is neutral and comes onto the board when you reach the second month square. The second Trotsky token belongs to the red faction, and if the neutral one is still on the board come the fourth month then you replace the neutral with the red. Now, this seems like a little mechanic, and it is, but it feels like an important piece of history shoehorned into a game where it doesn’t belong for accuracy’s sake.
There are also secondary and tertiary incentive systems in the game. First, if you get the day marker to land on certain days of the month then you get a bonus action (one of these days is in the middle and the other is at the end). To counterbalance this, whichever player causes the calendar to flip to a new month immediately gains control of the will of the people. And while the will of the people seems like an excellent thing to have at first glance, it can actually be disastrous because it forces you to play first, allowing your opponent to respond to each of your moves and have the final action in a round, which usually ensures his success for at least that round’s territories.
And, while all of these are interesting and give you more to think about, I like what’s underneath so much that I question whether these micro-systems give you anything better to think about. The underlying game is so fun, and sound, and tense that I mostly found myself annoyed every time I remembered that I should massage the calendar or make a grab for the will of the people.
But the good news is that the majority of the game is the first part of what I described: agonizing over very simple but extremely impactful decisions in a Muscovite version of rock, paper, scissors. While there are only six territories you will feel your hair starting to fall out as you stare at them and try to predict which one(s) your opponent is targeting.
No game is for everyone, but some are more polarizing than others, and Dual Powers feels like one of those games to me. Some people won’t like it. Others, however, are going to absolutely love it, and you won’t know which you are until you go check it out for yourself.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.