The sleeper has awakened.
Gale Force 9’s reprint of Dune is the most significant, most important release of a board game product since Fantasy Flight Games respectfully republished that other EON/Future Pastimes title, Cosmic Encounter. To call these two watershed designs “seminal” is a massive understatement, as the concepts and mechanisms explored in them are as foundational to hobby gaming as Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and Warhammer are. It is a timeless classic that remains among the best examples of interlacing gameplay with settings, characters, and themes. As a tabletop adaptation of a complex novel it is stunningly successful in capturing Herbert’s ideas as much as the Dune world. Despite its successes, this is a game that has been out of print and unavailable for far too long due to issues with the IP rights. And yes, I am completely disavowing the idiotic and ill-conceived Rex, which asked us to overlook some of Dune’s key strengths just to be able to play the game again in FFG’s Twilight Imperium setting.
Rex was a soulless Ghola of a game, to reference the metal-eyed clones produced by the Tleilaxu. Dune can only be Dune. It requires Herbert’s world, regardless of the fact that the game was originally drafted with a Roman political concept.
The rules elements on paper are surely brilliant. The alliance mechanism, which incentivizes collusion by offering faction-specific advantages to your allies, is amazing. The combat system, which combines the crucial decision to determine how much you are willing to lose in order win with hidden information keyed to the themes of treachery and betrayal, remains my all-time favorite resolution mechanism. The way that Shai-Hulud is attracted to areas of conflict (spice blows) simply captures a sense of escalated risk and tension. I love that there are worthless cards that you might wind up bidding too high for- Trip to Gaumont, a Baliset, “La La La”. Ornithopters are in the game if you control certain areas. The detail is handled with utmost elegance- this is not a game that requires an array of card decks, trackers, miniatures, and other clutter to tell its story. And that story, indelibly, is Dune.
The actors in this story are the six factions – the clashing dynasties of the Houses Atreides and Harkonnen, the mystic Bene Gesserit, the mercantile Spacing Guild, the indigenous Fremen, and the embroiled forces of the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. They are absolutely asymmetrical to the point where each is almost like playing a different class in a role-playing game. Each offers advantages, disadvantages, priorities, and valuations. All are roughly balanced with distinct nuances. None are overly complicated, but this is a volatile game where inexperience is a liability. New players will stumble, possibly leading to frustration, disinterest and an instable experience while playing with others of mixed familiarity. It’s not a game made for today’s play ‘em and leave ‘em market- it rewards your attention, your willingness to learn, and your fealty.
Despite its low rules density, completely reasonable (but wildly variable) play time and the modest table presence it remains a demanding game. It’s hard to get to the table with six. It’s a little fussy with lots of soft space between the written rules. It’s mean. It doesn’t suffer fools that throw away their armies or that haven’t bothered to read the rules of all the factions first. There’s the issue of setting – those who aren’t familiar with the book (or at least one of the films) may not engage as much, to their loss. It’s also not a game for the player who wants to keep his head down and quietly develop their player mat until somebody wins based on a calculation of efficient performance. But don’t be scared of it. If you can handle Root, you can handle Dune.
Reflecting on Root- indeed, one of the great games of its own time- I find that a lot of the reason that I love it is actually because I love Dune. It has a conceptual proximity to Dune that few games since 1979 have enjoyed, despite their best efforts. Yet, I think back to all of the games of Scythe, Blood Rage, Cthulhu Wars, Twilight Imperium, and so forth that I’ve played over the years and there probably wasn’t a single time when at some point I didn’t think about Dune or compare the game to Dune. Or wish that I was playing Dune instead, even if some of those games were great. This is because Dune is better than all of them, and will stand the test of time better than all of them.
By now, some readers might be wondering why I’m not enumerating the turn phase or writing about how you win, what I think at the end - the typical course of the trainspotter’s favored review format. Maybe you wanted a bullet-point list of the factions and what they do. I’m not doing any of that. You can find the rules online, and you can rest assured that this latest edition- which is the only reprint there has ever been other than a French version some years ago – is largely unadulterated, with only a few minor tweaks; some of which reflect popular house rules and assumed interpretations that have been in place among players for years. There’s a Quick Start Guide if you are new to the game- a welcome concession to modern accessibility.
So yes, the implied takeaway here is “play the damn game and see for yourself. I’m just not that interested in routinely cataloging what players do in Dune because playing it is as experiential an event as games can muster. Every play of this game feels monolithic, and even to this day when someone announces on social media or in a con report that they are going to play or have played Dune it feels like an event of great importance. People set aside time for it. They read the rules in advance. They get prepared. It’s a game that is, to my mind, beyond the usual critical grammar, it remains impactful and titanic even positioned against today’s rapacious, consumer-driven hobby.
Sure, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but this game really is as crucial as a game could possibly be. It’s an evolutionary nexus – a point at which elements of its predecessors (Diplomacy, Cosmic Encounter, Civilization, D&D) converged and something newcame out. It is especially significant in the modern game design milieu, where imitation has flattened virtually everything into an indistinguishable morass of mediocrity, to encounter such a singular game that created rather than reiterated. But let’s be blunt- the folks that will be most moved and impressed by this edition of Dune have already been playing it for years. The rest of you will probably play it once or twice to check it off your list and move on to lesser games that mask their inferiority to Dune by piling on rules, miniatures, pictures, and nomenclature to convince you that they are “dripping with theme”.
Olotka, Eberle, and Kitteredge (with a notable Hamblen developer credit) created one of gaming’s absolute masterpieces in Dune, and rest assured that this messianic-class reprint is the best edition of the game that there has ever been- they’ve wisely brought in the excellent art from a much-loved fan-made print and play edition so it looks beautiful and the aesthetic is appropriately Dune. The production is modest because it doesn’t need a bunch of junk to tell its story and to engage the player. The box is almost tiny in comparison to some of today’s top games. Yet the shadow it casts, like a sandworm in the Arrakeen sun, is massive and consumptive. The sleeper has awakened.