Dune is one of those ancient classics of the strategy board game world. It holds the distinction of being one of the first board games where the different players received vastly different advantages. And it has captured players imagination ever sine it came out decades ago. I received a copy of the reprinted and updated game last year for Christmas, where it has sat on my shelf for nearly a year.
I was finally able to get five people together for a game of Dune, and we played last week for something like eight hours, allowing the Atreides, Harkonens, Fremen, Bene Gesserit, and Spacing Guild to duke it out over who will posess the sandy jewel of the galaxy. It was a brilliant and interesting experience. When we wrapped up we ended up talking about the game for nearly an hour, which is usually a good sign, even if everything we said wasn’t a positive. Here are my thoughts and musings from that game.
1: Not having Victory Points is pretty cool.
A lot of board games in Dune’s genre, including my much beloved Twilight Imperium, utilize victory points as a means to determine the victor. In Twilight Imperium specifically you earn points by completing objectives that typically involve spending resources, conquering planets or defeating your fellow players in battle.
Not so in Dune! You win when you control three of the five strongholds on the map at the end of a round, or when you and your ally control four strongholds at the end of the round. All other things are in service to that goal. All the intrigue, fighting and negotiating is going towards that goal. Three factions also have special victory conditions that add a further layer to that basic game of competing for strongholds. Where some are simply trying to block you from winning, and one faction may be actively manipulating you into winning, so that they can snatch it from you instead.
This was refreshing to all of us, each of whom has something like ten games of Twilight Imperium under our belts. Most of us had fallen into that mindset of playing ‘on-curve’ trying to earn at least 1 victory point every round in order to keep with our opponents, and this could sometimes kill our excitement. Falling ‘behind curve’ could mean giving up on the game entirely. We did not feel this with Dune, despite one of our players being so completely destroyed he did not have a presence on the board the last few rounds. Some of this may be the shiny luster of a new game, but we all felt like this on-map objective focus was more interesting than just fighting for victory points.
2: The faction powers were nuts!
This was a real delight, each of the factions came with a suite of powerful and thematic abilities. As a fan of Dune I was really happy to see how each faction seemed well represented by their abilities, even if those abilities were incredibly powerful! The Bene Gesserit, an order of psychic witches, are able to use their ‘Voice’ to force players to change aspects of their battle plans. Money that is spent to ship units on to the planet is handed to the Spacing Guild player, who has a monopoly on all travel to and from Dune, but the Fremen, who are natives to Dune, don’t have to pay. The Harkonen player gets an absurd amount of traitors and treachery cards, making them incredibly dangerous to face. The Atreides player can see the future! We loved the powers and messing with them, I think myself (Fremen) and the Bene Gesserit player had the most fun with them, since our vast lists of powers led to very different playstyles from our three compatriots. And this is just a small selection of the various faction powers. I highly recommend taking a look at the online rulebook and seeing what these weird space-people can do.
Sadly not everyone left feeling great about their powers…
3: This game is a finely tuned machine. Which is not the same as being balanced.
We played with five players, instead of the recommended six players, and we disregarded the rulebooks advice to leave out the Bene Gesserit (The aforementioned psychic witches) and instead left out The Emperor, both of these things ended up being a mistake.
In fact, playing with only five players may have been something of a mistake. We all left the game convinced that the player of the Spacing Guild had been hobbled by having only five players, and that the Bene Gesserit and Harkonnen players had had their power increased, especially those damn Bene Gesserit.
Let me illustrate with an example. Recall that the Spacing Guild receives the money that players spend on shipping units onto the board. The Atreides and Harkonnen players must pay him to ship in any additional forces and the Emperor must pay to ship all of his forces onto the planet. However the Fremen get all their reinforcements for free (they walk onto the map from the other half of Dune) and the Bene Gesserit can get a good deal of their soldiers shipped in for free (by piggybacking off of other players shipments), which means they aren’t giving much money to the Spacing Guild. But the player should still be getting plenty of cash from the other three factions. See the problem? We didn’t have an Emperor in our game, which deprived the Spacing Guild player of perhaps his most lucrative source of income. Which led to him being relatively weaker compared than he might otherwise be.
The Emperors absence in of itself also removed a layer of strategy. At the start of every round players bid on random treachery card, with all that money going to the Emperor, but without an Emperor all that money we bid just went into the bank, and not into the pocket of another person who may want you dead. It also removed one of the most powerful military forces from the board.
The Bene Gesserit, conversely, benefitted from less players. Firstly, their ability to score a win via prediction becomes mathematically more likely to score them a win the less people there are. Secondly they can order people to change an aspect of their battle plans, which combined with their allied Atreides ability to look at battle plans to devastating effect. Thirdly, they get free money each turn with no strings attached, and finally they are the only faction that can keep an army in the same space as another faction. I suspect that without the strong hand of The Emperor in the mix, these already strong abilities were made even stronger. We of course don’t begrudge the Bene Gesserit player his victory, but even their player felt he was too strong!
There is other weirdness too, like how the Atreides power to see where spice will be placed on the map is weaker if you play in the advanced game, and how it seems like the Emperor can share his money freely with an ally, who then can use that money to buy a treachery card, essentially giving the card to his ally for free. We all wrapped up the game feeling like it would have been better if we had six players, and while I had been the tiniest bit skeptical of the people who proclaim you should only play Dune with six players, I now agree, or at the very least the Bene Gesserit should be left out in a five player game!
4: It got brutal near the end.
Something clicked in everyone’s head around the fifth or sixth turn, and we hunkered down for a final three rounds that felt like a brutal slog. Players looking closely at their cards, eyeing each other across the table, doing math on the back of a napkin about how many men you can afford to lose, how to best use your spice to most efficently ship units onto the planet that you know will end up dead in service of some greater plan. I often call this slogging phase of strategy games “A grim calculus”, that dour time when people stop having banter, stop smiling, and begin stressfully crunching numbers in their head in an effort to squeeze out a victory. And I think all of us who played would agree that we haven’t experienced a grimmer calculus than when we played Dune.
A lot of this is probably exacerbated by a lack of randomness in Dunes combat system, losing a battle in Dune means losing everything, and even worse, a loss is always your fault! It means you were out-played or out-maneuvered. And its almost impossible to avoid some sort of loss in a battle, meaning that unless you get lucky with a traitor card you’re gonna feel on the back foot after most battles.
The game also provides little avenue for a player who is soundly trounced to recover. Our Harkonnen player made a big play for a solo win around the fifth turn, which was repelled at great cost, and led to him having no board presence and no spice. Refusing to collect his piddly charitable allotment of two spice, the Harkonnens were never again a major threat.
This is by no means a full review, I would want to play Dune at least a few more times before rendering such an official verdict. But after this first game I feel confident saying that if you are a huge fan of Dune, an experienced strategy game, or interested in a bit of historical game design, then I would say Dune is worth picking up.