Be Amused by Dȗhr: The Lesser Houses

It’s become tradition to lead off a review of a Jim Felli design by mentioning how weird it is. The man’s become a P.T. Barnum of sorts, feeding his collection of misshapen performers their next cardboard meal and we can’t eat it up quick enough. It may then come as a surprise that this is Devious Weasel’s least odd oddity. It’s a reworking of the bizarre 40 minute social experience Bemused, but it’s more accessible and publicly discerning – at least on the surface.

Jim’s jettisoned the exotic subject matter of muses and virtuosos in favor of a more mundane Emilia Clark sans dragons. You can’t argue with the notion that the social maneuvering and backstabbing of fantastic HBO-style medieval politics fits the bill, perhaps even better than that previous quirky setting. Still, it’s hard to kick old habits and swap out colorful language like “insane” for “disfavored”.

Oh, crooked muse, how you play with my heart.

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This design takes what Bemused started and ups the ante. It’s grown slightly more complex in strategic options, but it’s managed to simplify and streamline the structure in a few key areas to facilitate smoother play.

Let’s hit the concept first as it’s likely you have no idea what this is. In all truth, that likely won’t change after your first play as things don’t really come into focus until you’ve become comfortable bedfellows with the design.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of play you’re a noble house in fine standing, your family members are looked upon with esteem, and not even the local high schoolers are gossiping about your misdeeds. That will change.

Turns consist of players tossing out suspicion cards on each other. You have a hand of these cardboard nuggets representing lies and dissent and you’re tasked with libel as well as spotlighting those true horrors. Cards list a specific house and may only be played on that player to drag them down.

As you place suspicion on each family their standing (victory points) falls. The idea is to harass and harm each other so that by game’s end you are hurt the least, venerated and ascending to the higher class. It’s dog eat dog to buy some playing time with the joneses, and you’re not going to let some dark haired bastard who knows nothing get in the way.

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This is a pretty simple game of attrition, at least until you actually start playing. Duhr is odd mostly in how it jettison’s normative board game concepts.

For instance, you can take a second action after the first if you’d like, but this has the implication of permanently reducing your hand size. You can trigger your asymmetrical house power but you must play your own faction’s suspicion card as an action, discarding it to the supply. Event cards pop up but they’re held in player’s hands and triggered when they’d like for maximum effect. Scandals are the third type of card and they inflict twice as much damage, but these are not drawn randomly and must be played with a special move called a Masterstroke. Oh, but you also start with a scandal and can play that one for free, as your action.

Scoring is one of the most difficult concepts to grapple with as it’s multi-faceted and nuanced. Players can exist in one of three states beginning favored and likely later dropping to disfavored or even villified. The latter two conditions are triggered when a house has the fifth card played upon them. You are disfavored in this instance unless you have three or more scandals in play, which instead means you’ve now morphed into Jafar or Scar.

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Oh ye terrible villain.

Your state can fluctuate as character abilities can move cards off of houses or flip them down to nullify their affect. This is pretty wild and breeds the game’s dynamic feel as your goals can shift on a dime. Each state will find themselves pushing for different tactical decisions, particularly if you’re playing the villain. In this instance, your score is turned on its head as you earn additional points for each player thus vilified. The sprint to the bottom becomes a nuclear arms race and tension is ratcheted up, that is until the a-hole sitting across from you removes one of your scandals and you’re brought back into the daylight.

Whomp whomp.

Many of these concepts were explored in Bemused but have been extended here. For instance, there was this sense that the previous iteration wanted you to negotiate and forge deals, but it had little teeth in that regard. Here you can explicitly trade cards and there is much larger incentive to perform your special abilities on each other as you can swap between states more liberally. It opens the game up in fantastic ways and really digs into the philosophy and goals of the design with renewed vigor.

Both titles also feature this interesting agenda system where you have a hidden goal mapped to a likewise hidden house. They’re an appreciated obfuscated scoring element and they do wonders to offer direction during play. Duhr throws everything into a grinder and shakes it up by boosting the number of agendas significantly. Included are a new suite of more complex goals requiring you manipulate the states of multiple houses. These can be extremely difficult to achieve but they reward double the bounty.

That feeling of attempting to wrestle with control of the game state to achieve your objectives is the hallmark of Duhr. The game feels like a constant struggle of conflict to batter the environment into submission, and it manages to do so while not feeling overly incremental or inconsequential within its individual maneuvers.

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The new event cards are tasty.

The loosening up of throats and more constant chatter gives way to dynamic and fleeting alliances. Social arrangements rise like mountains out of thin air and tumble just as quickly. Everything feels very deliberate while simultaneously rushed and the pace is incredibly compelling.

Be aware though that the complexity of the ruleset and awkwardness of internalizing the game’s concepts will get in the way at the outset. Jim designs games with the full intention of rewarding repeated play and continually revealing layers as your relationship with the design grows. This game is about fostering experiences but it demands you put in the effort and give it time. King’s Landing wasn’t burned in a day and Duhr is no better.

Deciding to iterate Bemused and release a second edition of sorts is odd, just as we’ve come to expect from Devious Weasel. I’ve arrived at the conclusion this was the right move as Duhr is the superior design with a more sophisticated strategy field and a much stronger rulebook. The simple truth of the matter is that in an industry of mostly mundane swill, we need these games just as much as they need us.

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