Dune has battles, but it’s not a game about combat. There’s treachery, and negotiation, but deals alone cannot secure victory. The highly asymmetrical factions give their leaders incredible power, but they are balanced in such a way that they are but a tool in the fight for the desert planet.
Forty years after its original publication date, its multi layered mechanics and superb theming have made Dune one of the best games I’ve ever played.
At a glance, the game is quite simple. The goal is to conquer three out of five fortresses on the map. Players spend spice, the game’s currency, to bring troops onto the board and fight. There’s treachery and alliances, not unlike Risk or Diplomacy, and a bit of card play, like in EON’s own Cosmic Encounter.
However, we soon start seeing twists. The main way to get spice is to harvest it from the board, meaning even the very act of gathering it requires the player to spend it. A storm moves circularly around the board, killing the armies it comes across. Worms prey on the same territories spice appears on. Resources are tight and the dangerous environment makes itself apparent.
THE COMBAT SYSTEM
But it’s not the planet that represents the most serious danger, it’s other players with the same goal as you are. Dune has the most tense and also the best combat system I’ve ever seen in a game of these characteristics. It works, not with dice rolls, but like an auction. When you attack another player, you dial a number secretly on a wheel. The number is your combat strength and whoever has the highest wins. But the number you choose is also how many you sacrifice. Bid too high and bask in a pyrrhic victory. Bid too low and be wiped out of the board.
It’s downright brutal. Troops cost spice, but collecting spice costs troops. You need to fight for it, yet fighting is quickest way to lose. Few games embrace lose-lose mechanics to such a degree and none of them succeed so beautifully. In the age of games that are kept artificially close to protect player’s feelings, the sheer impact of combat in Dune is refreshing.
And there’s more to it than bidding. To complement their troops, players must also send a leader, whose value is added to the total. And these leaders may be killed, through weapons or saved by the appropriate defense. Even worse, they might be traitors and turn on you at the most crucial moment. Danger is extreme, yet no luck is involved.
Weapons, defenses and all other cards are bought at an auction at the start of every turn. But they are bought face down, without knowing what you are bidding for. Only one faction, Atreides, can look at them. Their knowledge and bid patterns are the only indication of what’s a good card and what isn’t. Can you trust them in their play? Or are they trying to make you blow your spice on something useless?
Because some cards are useless. Literally useless. One is called “La La La”, another depicts a mandolin and another shows a donkey. They have no-in game effect and simply take space in your hand.
I love the bluntness of these cards. There’s something to be said about spending money trying to get an advantage, failing and then trying to turn that failure into an advantage. It creates emotional moments, like hiding your disappointment or tricking other people with them.
Because these cards aren’t truly useless. They do nothing, sure, but they are a card in your hand, a potential bluff, a bit of hidden information your opponents aren’t privy to. You know their worth, but for everyone else, it’s a potential weapon to account for.
The amount of depth, treachery and intrigue of this single mechanism is so high that it could be its very own game.
Dune is such a hallmark design that even its minor mechanics are outstanding. The alliance system, where alliances are binding and their length is out of player’s control, is brilliant, as is the detailed, heavily asymmetrical map. All the cards are well-designed and useful and the player powers are completely unique.
So unique, in fact, that one of them, the Bene Gesserit, has the player make a prophecy. At the beginning of the game they write down a faction and a turn, and if that faction would win the game on that very turn, they don’t and the Bene Gesserit win instead. It’s one of the coolest, most exciting mechanics in boardgaming and fits the setting like a glove.
There are, however, some practical issues with Dune. It’s best with six players, not worth playing with four and downright silly with less. It’s a punishing game, where you can knock yourself out of contention and not have the skills to recover. The rules are not complicated, but the strategy is and inexperience might be punished.
I don’t believe these issues are a design problem. But they might cause your copy to collect dust on the shelf. It’s nowhere as demanding as Twilight Imperium, The Republic of Rome or the 18XX series but it sits on that category of games that require effort to play. Is it worth it? Yes! But it needs work and your group may not be up for it.
Still, nothing has made playing Dune easier than the new edition by Gale Force Nine. The original print by Avalon Hill had been out of print for almost 30 years, forcing players to make their own copies if they wanted to play it.
Thankfully, the new edition is a very tasteful product. It has none of the overproduction or unnecessary miniatures that plague many modern designs, and they kept the beautiful art of the fan edition. There have been no major mechanical changes, unlike the ill-fated Rex, and small tweaks, like giving Emperor and Fremen new ally powers are very well made.
My main issue with the new edition is the grouping of the “Advanced rules” with the “Optional” set of player powers created by Avalon Hill. Many of the rules that make Dune such a thematic experience, like Bene Gesserit’ spiritual advisors, were part of the latter, while the former includes much more questionable changes. Similarly, there are some rules that are not explicit in the manual and can only be found in a FAQ. I would have also liked this edition to restrict deal-making a bit, for it’s a bit too easy to give other players spice and stall the board that way.
BETTER THAN THE NOVEL
I feel so strongly about the game that I would rank it over the novel itself as the best representation of treachery in the setting. The novel, while richly written, often spends more time discussing intrigue than actually engaging in it. Here, the machinations are real and the nuances of hidden information represent danger much better than a line in a novel ever could.
And as much as I might like Root or Chaos in the Old World, they don’t have its sheer brilliance. They are good games, but they exist entirely within the confines of conventional design. Dune is so much more. It’s groundbreaking, even 40 years after its release and feels bold and new where others feel merely well-designed. It might be longer, more complex and less elegant than newer games. But it’s more memorable and a far deeper experience.
Without doubt, Dune is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Can’t recommend it enough.
|GAME DESIGN||Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, Peter Olotka|
|ORIGINAL DUNE (1979, Avalon Hill) DEVELOPMENT
||Mark Uhl, Richard Hamblem|
|DEVELOPMENT (2019, GF9)
|NUMBER OF PLAYERS||5-6 (Best with 6)||LENGTH||180-210 Minutes|