The Meeple’s Court Reviews The Duke

(Trying a different review style today. Hope you enjoy it.)

ORDER IN THE COURT! The Meeple’s Court is now in session with the Honorable Judge Jesse presiding. The case before us is a wrongful termination suit. The plaintiff, Chess, argues that the defendant, The Duke, is attempting to replace it with an inferior product. The Duke claims that Chess has outlived its usefulness and needs to move on. All will be decided today in The Meeple’s Court. All rise for Judge Jesse.

JUDGE JESSE: Be seated! I have reviewed the case, but I’m eager to hear arguments from both sides. We will begin with the plaintiff.

PLAINTIFF (CHESS): Thank you, Your Honor. Chess is a game that has been around for centuries. That’s over five hundred years of being the pinnacle of abstract play. It’s a universal game – nearly everyone knows how to play, and you can find chess sets in homes and office around the world. The game is deep and complex, and you won’t find its equal. And then this upstart comes along and tries to take its place. The Duke only came out last year, and tried to become “the next evolution of Chess.” It’s not going to happen. Five hundred years from now, which one do YOU think people will be playing?

JJ: OK, thank you. Let’s hear now from the defendant.

DEFENDANT (THE DUKE): Your Honor, it was never our intention to replace Chess. It is a great game with a lot of history. However, Chess has become set in its ways and refuses to change with the times. True, The Duke has not been around nearly as long as Chess, and if it IS still around in 500 years, I’m sure Chess will be too. But it’s time to take a different look at the Chess system and try to move it forward.

JJ: Thank you. Bailiff, could you tell our audience how each game is played?

Certainly. Chess is a two-player abstract game where each player controls an army of 16 pieces – one King, one Queen, two Bishops, two Knights, two Rooks (or Castles), and eight Pawns. Players take turns moving pieces until one player cannot move without their King getting captured. The other player then wins. Each piece has its own unique movement. The King can move ones space in any direction, while the Queen can move as far as she wants in any direction (though not over other pieces). The Bishops can move only on a diagonal line, and the Rooks can only move on a horizontal or vertical line. The Knights can move two steps in one direction followed by one step at a 90 degree angle on either side. Pawns can only move forward a step at a time, but can only capture diagonally.

The Duke is very similar in concept – two-player abstract with the goal of capturing your opponent’s Duke while commanding an army of pieces that have unique moves. However, The Duke uses a draw method to get pieces on the board – rather than have all pieces on the board from the beginning, players draw randomly from their bag and place on the board. Additionally, each piece has two moves associated with them – once moved, the pieces flip to their other side with a new type of move.

JJ: Thank you. I’d like some time now to look at the physical evidence. Bailiff, bring out exhibit A.

image by BGG user Kaizen Zanshin
image by BGG user Kaizen Zanshin

JJ: OK, I see an 8×8 grid with each army lined up at either side. The front row of each army are all the same – those are the Pawns, I take it?

PLAINTIFF: Yes, Your Honor.

JJ: Then the back row is made up of eight pieces, and I see…five different types. What are those?

PLAINTIFF: In the corners, you have the Rooks, which look like castles. Next to the Rooks are the Knights, the horses. The next ones in are the Bishops, with the hats. In the Center, you have the Queen and King.

JJ: I see. OK, let’s look at Exhibit B.

image by BGG user obveret
image by BGG user obveret03

JJ: Hmm. OK, this looks like a smaller grid, 6×6. And the pieces are not 3D as in Chess, but are rather flat pieces of wood with writing an symbols. There also don’t appear to be as many pieces on the board to start out with.

DEFENDANT: That’s correct, Your Honor. Each player start with a Duke and two Footmen on the board and they can arrange them however they want, within certain constraints.

JJ: OK. Can you tell me what those symbols mean?

DEFENDANT: Sure. The grid indicates your position on the bord, and the symbols tell you how you can use the piece. The black dots mean that you can move to that spot. The arrows mean that you can slide as far as you want in the indicated direction. These are just the setup pieces, though – may I enter a picture of the rest?

JJ: You may. Bailff, make it Exhibit C.

image by BGG user unic
image by BGG user unic

DEFENDANT: You can see here that there are also empty circles, indicting that you can jump over pieces to get here. Also, there are empty arrows, indicating you can jump over an adjacent piece, then slide. You also get these stars, which indicate you can strike a piece in that position without even moving. These small arrows indicate that you can move one of your pieces in that location to another space with those arrows.  Then, all pieces change when you flip them over to the other side.

image by BGG user unic
image by BGG user unic

JJ: I see. Does the Plaintiff have anything to say about components?

PLAINTIFF: This is ridiculous. This case should be ruled on right now. Chess pieces are works of art, those are flat pieces of wood. And all those symbols – are you TRYING to confuse people? The board is too small…how are you going to get anything exciting going?

DEFENDANT: We find that the board is the perfect size. It makes things more tense. And we would argue that, while are pieces aren’t as flashy as those of Chess, we have emphasized function over form. It is easy to look at a piece and know exactly what it does.

PLAINTIFF: As long as you have a degree in hieroglyphics.

DEFENDANT: There are only six symbols to know in the base game (more if you use expansions). It’s not that tough to figure out what each one does. Whereas Chess has no reference at all – you either know it or you don’t. Then, there are all these exceptions – Pawns can move two spaces on their first move, you can possibly switch the King and a Rook, and so on. I’d much rather have a reference right there in front of me.

JJ: I’m inclined to agree. I do like flashy components, but those from The Duke look like they’ll make the game easier to pick up. Plus, I like the design.

DEFENDANT: Thank you, Your Honor.

PLAINTIFF: You’ve got to be kidding me.

JJ: Let’s talk about theme. I can’t really see a difference here. So let’s move on…

PLAINTIFF: NO! This is one of my big points.

JJ: Oh. OK, you may proceed.

PLAINTIFF: Your Honor, it is true that Chess and The Duke share similar themes.  In fact, you might even say that The Duke blatantly plagiarized the abstract war theme…

DEFENDANT: You do NOT have a copyright on that.

PLAINTIFF: …but, as you say, Chess does not have a copyright.  Just 500 years of history.  No matter.  The great thing about the Chess theme is that it is flexible.  You can change the theme to whatever you want.  I’d like to enter this image as Exhibit D…

JJ: Forget it.

PLAINTIFF: I’m…excuse me?

JJ: I’m just messing with you.  Bailiff, enter the image as evidence.

image by BGG user Phil81
image by BGG user Phil81

PLAINTIFF: Here you see a chess set with characters based on the popular Simpsons TV show.  The pawns are Bart, the King and Queen are Homer and Marge, the Bishops are Lisa, the Knights are Maggie, and the Rooks are Grandpa.  Not only does this serve to make the game more familiar, it also helps you remember who is who.  The Duke can’t do this.  How can you retheme flat pieces of wood?

DEFENDANT: First of all, this theme makes no sense.  Eight Barts?  And they’re pawns, the weakest piece in the game?  I’d switch him and Maggie.  And maybe have Flanders as the Bishop with Lisa as the Rook.  Secondly, The Duke has the ability to change up the theme with expansions.  So far, there’s Robin Hood, King Arthur, the Musketeers, Conan the Barbarian, siege engines, and a pack of blank tiles you can customize for yourself.

PLAINTIFF: So you’re saying you can only change the theme if people spend more money?

DEFENDANT: Oh yeah, like the Simpsons chess set is free.  At least we’re not asking people to buy multiple copies of the same game.

JJ: Order!  You both have different approaches to changing the theme.  Let’s get this moving, I haven’t got all day.  Would the defendant please tell me why the mechanics of The Duke make Chess obsolete?

PLAINTIFF: Objection, Your Honor.

JJ: Put a sock in it.  You’ll get your chance.

DEFENDANT: The Duke features a random draw, which increases the variability of the game.  It introduces an element of randomness that is absent from Chess.  Each piece also has two different ways it can move, and these change every time you move a piece.  Plus, there are some special powers that can be used instead of a normal move.  The design of each tile allows one to see exactly what you can do with a piece by giving you an easy visual reference.  Turns are not complicated – either use a tile on the board, or draw one from the bag.  And ultimately, you want to try to lay the trap so that you can capture your opponent’s King.  Chess was a great starting point, but modern games have moved on.  Chess has no luck, and therefore can be studied to death.  And it has been.  There are books upon books of Chess strategies.  The Duke adds some randomness into the system while preserving the strategy, and even adding new layers.  Chess is stuck where it is.  It refuses to move on.  It is time for it to go.

JJ: Thank you.  And now, Chess, tell me why The Duke is an obnoxious young upstart that will go the way of the dodo long before you do.

PLAINTIFF: Well said!

JJ: Thought you’d like that.

PLAINTIFF: The defendant gave all of my arguments already.  Chess has zero luck.  It is the height of elegance.  There is no randomness, there is nothing in play except skill versus skill.  Each piece only does one thing, and that remains constant throughout.  It has survived for hundreds of years because it is a perfect game, and cannot be replaced.  And others have indeed tried, and failed.  Such will be the fate of The Duke.

Chess can be played by anyone, from the youngest children to the oldest seniors.  It’s a game anyone can pick up and enjoy.

DEFENDANT: The problem, however, is that Chess has a major learning curve.  New players are intimidated by Chess because an experienced player will beat them every single time.  With The Duke, new players have a chance based on when the pieces come out.

PLAINTIFF: Is that a feature of The Duke?  I know if I’ve been studying a game my entire life, I want there to be a chance that some punk who got his first used set at a thrift store yesterday will win.

DEFENDANT: It’s that chance that keeps things interesting.  If there’s no chance, there’s no point.

PLAINTIFF: You play to get better!

DEFENDANT: Agreed.  But no one want to feel like they’re out of it.

JJ: OK, enough.  I’ve heard all I need to hear.  Allow me to deliberate for a moment as we hear a word from our sponsors.  Bailiff?


JJ: Thank you.  After considering all the evidence, I find in favor of the defendant.


JJ: Chess was great in its day, but should have retired a long time ago.  The Duke is a worthy successor, and one that I think everyone should try.  It’s less intimidating than Chess, has good reference points, and introduces just enough randomness and variability to keep it fresh.  I hereby sentence The Duke to a lifetime in my game collection.

DEFENDANT: But we won!  Why are you sentencing us?

JJ: Court is adjourned!

Let’s get a few words from the litigants.  Here’s the plaintiff.

PLAINTIFF: We will be appealing this.  I hear Judge Judy is very fair.

And the defendant?

DEFENDANT: We’re pleased with the result.  I’m sure Chess will be just fine after this.

Thank you for joining us for The Meeple’s Court.  Have a wonderful day…and thanks for reading!



  1. This really is a very clever spin for a review, and I can see why its your favourite….I’d be very proud of this too if I’d written it.

    I also happen to think the Duke is an amazing game. I never tire of introducing people to it…especially seeing the look on their faces when you show them that piece of magic that really sets this game apart from it’s abstract contemporaries, and that’s flipping the tile to show them a whole new series of options….and these differ for each piece!….amazing.

    Congratulations on getting to year 7. Ive been reading your blog for the last 4 years and I really enjoy your style and approach..

    Well done, I hope you’re deservedly proud of yourself.

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