Don't you know it’s gonna be alright?
The 1917 Russian revolutions and the civil war they sparked were complex and bloody, and their eventual outcome would go on to change the world forever. Dual Powers distils the events, figures and conflict of the momentous year into a head-to-head struggle for power between the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet that’s beautiful to look at and impressively streamlined to play, but lacks the rich thematic depth to make it a true classic.
The tussle between the state power formed in the wake of Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication and the rising socialist movement led by a worker council is symbolised by a Twilight Struggle-like tug-of-war points tracker along the bottom of the board, which swings back and forth as the two sides claim regions in Petrograd. Each player has four actions each round to recruit new units, move them around the board or recover their strength before up to three of the regions are scored, handing points to the dominant force.
Despite the complexity of the real-life politics involved, the core of Dual Powers remains this trim area-control conflict throughout, powered along by the smartly designed deck of command cards that can be used for one of two available actions or played as an secret objective.
These secret objectives are one of the elements that make Dual Powers more than a run-of-the-mill battle for territory. Each player plays a card facedown at the beginning of a round, secretly selecting one of the regions that will be scored and how many points the controlling side will earn. A third region is dictated by an area of ‘unrest’, which is known by both players. The combination of hidden and shared knowledge cleverly introduces an element of bluffing and deduction into the movement of units around the map, as you try to deduce where your opponent might score that round while misleading attempts to counter your own points grab. It works brilliantly, enriching the straightforward strategic cardplay on the board with the potential for psychological jousting.
While Dual Powers wears its historical dressing loosely, the setting allows for the comfortable addition of some fantastic asymmetrical gameplay. The government and socialists each have three leaders who can be called upon, deploying to the board as unique units and allowing for special actions, such as revealing your opponent’s secret objective or blocking a movement route between regions.
Each played card has a cost in time which advances a calendar through the year of 1917, granting bonus actions for landing on certain dates and later triggering the return of Trotsky from exile, who can lend his strength to either side to begin with before allying permanently with the Bolsheviks in the summer. The calendar also serves as a timer for the surprisingly brisk game, handing victory to the dominant side if neither player manages to swing public support far enough in their favour. Neutral units who lend their strength to whichever side has the ‘Will of the People’ – which can be claimed once by each player by using Kerensky or Lenin – present another interesting way of keeping the board-based competition consistently dynamic.
Along with its exceptional visual presentation, these sprinkles of Dual Powers’ historical theme stand out as the highlights of a game that is otherwise solid and satisfying, but still lacks flavour – despite the chance to dive into a period with a wealth of potential. The tight, tense cardplay, layers of hidden information and asymmetric area-control strategy make for an enjoyable abstracted two-player experience, but it’s hard not to feel that there was a missed opportunity here to make something both as mechanically robust and steeped in its setting as Twilight Struggle.
Had Dual Powers managed to find the middle ground of its own tug-of-war between theme and gameplay, it could’ve been something extraordinary. Instead, it’s remarkable – but not revolutionary.
PLAY IT? – PROBABLY
Dual Powers is a well-designed and fun two-player game with a fantastic look and a promising theme. It’s just a shame that the theme doesn’t go deeper, resulting in something that doesn’t live all the way up to its potential.
Designer: Brett Myers
Artist: Luis Francisco, Kwanchai Moriya
Time: 45 minutes
This review originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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