Dune: What are the best rules to play?
Dune has always had a shaky ruleset. Its split into several variants has been a source of controversy for forty years, leaving the community divided on the best way to play. The new edition, while great, hasn’t changed that fact. Which ones are best, advanced or basic? To me, neither. I would like to share the rules I use and why I recommend them.
Dune has three different rulesets. The original designers, the Avalon Hill developers and its playtesters had different ideas on what the game should look like. Additionally, Gale Force Nine (GF9) introduced a series of changes, some of which are not reflected in the rulebook but are necessary for the best experience.
The Basic Game is the closest to the original vision for Dune. Like the name implies, it’s also the simplest ruleset. However, it’s also the least popular. It’s missing some of the most interesting features added by Avalon Hill. While easy to learn, the other rulesets aren’t much more complex so they tend to go unused.
The Optional rules were added by the developers of Avalon Hill. They are responsible for much of the game’s thematic resonance and improve its balance. The vast majority of players use these rules in addition to the basic game, they are just not named as such in GF9’s release. These are the rules I use.
Advanced combat was added by Avalon Hill’s playtesters in an attempt to make the game more dynamic. However, it’s a controversial addition. Half of the community swears by them, the other half thinks they are broken.
Lastly, there are some important rules not covered in the manual of the GF9 edition. Most notably:
- Ornithopters can be used by deploying troops in Carthag and Arraken. You don’t need to control the city or be present at the beginning of the turn.
- Spice briberies aren’t paid directly. They are put in front of the player’s shield and taken during the next Mentat Pause.
- The Voice (Bene Gesserit) acts first, then Prescience (Atreides).
These rules as well as additional clarifications can be found in the FAQ.
The “Optional rules” are no longer labelled in the GF9 reprint. Still, they are present and include everything except the advanced combat and double-spice blow. Much of Dune‘s flavour, like Bene Gesserit’s role as spiritual advisors, come from these rules. They are universally accepted and the ones I use in my group.
These rules introduce three changes. The first are additional powers for all factions, from Harkonnen’s Kidnap ability to the Spacing Guild being able to take their turn as they see fit. These add an immense amount of value to the game, to the point I can’t imagine playing Dune without them. To me they should be the standard.
The second are some small economic boosts. The spice gain from holding certain strongholds make it less likely for players to get locked out, as does the extra spice of turn for the Bene Gesserit. Since they are shown on the board, they are trivial to implement and make for a more well-rounded experience.
The third are additional Karama powers. Each faction gets its own one-use ability that can be played through the use of a Karama card. They make it easier to win alone and help to make that one final push. Both are beneficial to the game and improve its depth.
However, Giving yet another set of powers to every faction significantly adds to the complexity of the game. I’ve found myself missing some details in my explanations so this addition comes at a real cost. Most importantly, the additional Karama powers are nor printed on the player aids. Make your own or consider skipping them in your first game.
The advanced combat rules include double spice blow and spice-supported combat. While intended to make the game less static, their inclusion is controversial. Combat in Dune was already a complex affair and I don’t believe the changes introduce enough depth to justify it. Most importantly, the richer economy has an unbalancing effect.
The main issue is that the game is not adjusted to compensate for double spice blows. There’s twice as much money, but the cost of shipping, troops and revivals remains the same. This benefits richer factions like the Emperor over the Fremen, whose natural advantages become irrelevant.
If you have heard that the Fremen are weak, this is the reason. After all, they are quite strong under the optional and basic rulesets. It’s only when their high revival rate and free troops can be easily replaced by spice that they become weak. What’s worse, double blows makes cards go for higher prices, worsening their weakness.
The manual gives the Fremen the power to bypass spice-supported combat entirely but it’s not enough. The Fremen remain weak even then. Tournament players suggest extending that power, not just to the Fremen, but to their allies as well. If you decide to play with advanced combat, I recommend using this rule.
Still, even fans of advanced combat don’t suggest it to new players. Dune is already a punishing game. Adding advanced combat into the mix makes it even more hostile. Finding six people to play it regularly is enough of a challenge on its own. Given the minimal gains and balance issues, I choose to forgo advanced combat.