Review - Is Dune the Second Coming?

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Dune Gale Force Nine

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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.


Michael Barnes (He/Him)
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Sometime in the early 1980s, MichaelBarnes’ parents thought it would be a good idea to buy him a board game to keep him busy with some friends during one of those high-pressure, “free” timeshare vacations. It turned out to be a terrible idea, because the game was TSR’s Dungeon! - and the rest, as they say, is history. Michael has been involved with writing professionally about games since 2002, when he busked for store credit writing for Boulder Games’ newsletter. He has written for a number of international hobby gaming periodicals and popular Web sites. From 2004-2008, he was the co-owner of Atlanta Game Factory, a brick-and-mortar retail store. He is currently the co-founder of FortressAT.com and Nohighscores.com as well as the Editor-in-Chief of Miniature Market’s Review Corner feature. He is married with two childen and when he’s not playing some kind of game he enjoys stockpiling trivial information about music, comics and film.

Articles by Michael

Michael Barnes
Senior Board Game Reviews Editor

Articles by Michael

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Quite possibly the best board game ever published.
MB
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Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #301391 05 Sep 2019 08:43
I'm rereading the novel (actually listening, the audio version is a deluxe production by the way) for the first time since 1985, and one of the things that's struck me is how much I am remembering that first read as I proceed. The source material is as immersive as the game, something that sticks with you, apparently for three decades in my case. My first play of Dune followed just a few months later, and boy, I sure do remember that too. I can tell you who was sitting where at the table. It left quite an impression.

I think you've hit a couple of critical points that other reviewers have left out in your article -- the game is an event, not something that you pull down off the shelf when no one knows what they want to play. It's a game where you need to announce your intentions to have a session days in advance so that people can claim seats and come prepared for the session. Not a whole lot of games where I've seen that done -- Struggle of Empires, Maria, Britannia, that's all I can think of. Good company.

And I think understanding the level of entanglement the source material has with the game is a valuable observation as well, both in terms off the thematic elements but also in its spirit. The game is notoriously unforgiving, but the novel has all the factions on knife-edges as well, fully aware of the huge stakes involved in making a mistake in their machinations. You read the novel with a level of worry, knowing that the people you're watching are in the center of one great big rat-trap of a planet. The book isn't named Atreides, it's named Dune because that's the center of all, the location of the huge political battle that's playing out. The game gets that, and its traitor mechanics and alliance mechanics make for a game where you may have plans, but you sure don't have confidence in them.

I started a thread a few weeks back asking the question of how the game will be received. At the moment it's the central point of conversation in the hobby, something that doesn't happen anymore now that five titles are announced per day. But six months from now the re-release will have either changed how people think about their gaming (and please help me, let this replace Scythe as the play over and over again game in my group) or will simply fade back into the background with a few new fans that are happier with the prettier print.

Time will tell.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #301395 05 Sep 2019 09:09
I don’t reread novels in general. I’ve read Dune three times.

That’s a great point Sag- Arrakis is as much a character as any of the factions are. It has its own agenda and personality, which fits in with the ecological themes. And lo, these are in the board game to, as is the notion that the planet itself is a character.

I love that it feels -dangerous- to send your people out across the sand to gather spice. And you leave them right where the Wormsign appears...
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #301396 05 Sep 2019 09:11
There will be a few game groups that become Dune groups off the back of this reprint, I think. It demands replays, switching seats, complete knowledge of the cards and their capabilities, etc. and some folks will definitely put the time in. But most won't. The length, brutality, and wildness of it is going to make it nothing but a pretty piece of wall art for the modern market. No one aside from like-minded folks here would give a game like this the time of day if it was brand new and unknown.

Barnes' Root comparison is an interesting one. They obviously share some DNA, but I think they fill different niches. Root's COIN-esque play, flowchart turns, and relatively short play time are more restrained than anything Eon has ever touched. They seem distinct enough to warrant having both if you enjoy strong asymmetric designs.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #301398 05 Sep 2019 09:50
WBC (World Boardgame Championships) still holds a Dune tournament. I wonder if this release will attract new participants, and how they will address the rule changes if it does.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #301399 05 Sep 2019 10:19
This is one of the best things you've written in awhile Michael. Really enjoyed the read.
JoelCFC25's Avatar
JoelCFC25 replied the topic: #301406 05 Sep 2019 11:05

ubarose wrote: I wonder if this release will attract new participants, and how they will address the rule changes if it does.


The biggest rule changes--or perhaps more accurately, rules ambiguities--that somehow crept into this edition that the hardcore WBC crowd sound most concerned about are bribery and the strange wording of the Emperor's alliance power.

Instead of the original game's infamously open-ended bribery rules, it's now the case that only allies can pay directly for each others treachery cards and shipments, but may not bribe each other! Meanwhile the sky's the limit for non-allies, so you can see that without clarity about exactly when spice is allowed to change hands, you can easily cook up faux-bribes to facilitate spice transfer for payments just as if you were allies.

It sounds like Olotka informed someone that a GF9 FAQ is in the offing, so hopefully a few rough edges will get sanded off.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #301412 05 Sep 2019 11:24

Vysetron wrote: Barnes' Root comparison is an interesting one. They obviously share some DNA, but I think they fill different niches. Root's COIN-esque play, flowchart turns, and relatively short play time are more restrained than anything Eon has ever touched. They seem distinct enough to warrant having both if you enjoy strong asymmetric designs.


Root is similar in its asymmetry, but far different in its play time. Makes it more realistic to actually reach that point of mastery with a single group.

That said, extremely asymetric long games riddle my shelf so I see the appeal. One area I think Barnes is selling a tad short is the connection to multiplayer CDG wargames, which have a lot of Dune in them but are crunchier ruleswise (I prefer that). Here I Stand, Napoleonic Wars, etc.
DarthJoJo's Avatar
DarthJoJo replied the topic: #301416 05 Sep 2019 11:48
Is this game really the purest distillation of Herbert’s themes though? Setting? Sure, all the main players are present and are encouraged to act like they should. There’s spice and sand worms.

But theme? You may as well say the Middle Earth Strategy Battle Game is the thematic pinnacle of Lord of the Rings games. Everyone is acting like Timothy Zahn wrote Dune, but war is really a secondary concern for Herbert. His real attention is saved for religion, messiahs, culture-shifting revolutions.

Great review, though.
quozl's Avatar
quozl replied the topic: #301418 05 Sep 2019 11:59
True, it's surface level but what boardgame goes deeper than that? And it's the diplomacy between players that can really bring out the deeper themes.
fightcitymayor's Avatar
fightcitymayor replied the topic: #301426 05 Sep 2019 13:06

Vysetron wrote: The length, brutality, and wildness of it is going to make it nothing but a pretty piece of wall art for the modern market. No one aside from like-minded folks here would give a game like this the time of day if it was brand new and unknown.

Precisely. As I've opined here previously: For every over-the-hill gamer who achieves erection with this Dune, there will be 1000 younger flaccid wangs longing for the next CMON box of plastic.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #301428 05 Sep 2019 13:20
The credit to Hamblen is what elevates him to "greatest designer ever for me". This along with Gunslinger, Merchant of Venus, and Magic Realm are four of my favorite games --and they are all so different.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #301433 05 Sep 2019 13:51
I watched demos of the game at GenCon whenever I got the chance. There were more newcomers to it than vets and it was definitely going over well. I even heard a few folks say they took in multiple demos, just to get another taste. It’s not all gloom and doom, folks, the game is a classic for good reason.

I got my copy of the new edition last Friday. It’s gorgeous. I would love nothing more than to actually play it.
DarthJoJo's Avatar
DarthJoJo replied the topic: #301435 05 Sep 2019 14:15

quozl wrote: True, it's surface level but what boardgame goes deeper than that? And it's the diplomacy between players that can really bring out the deeper themes.


Knizia’s cooperative Lord of the Rings is the go-to example for blending literary theme and mechanics. Battlestar Galactica is pretty good on that front as well, though it also misses out on the series’ religious elements. Homeland, though I’ve neither played the game nor watched the show.

To be sure, I’m not saying this as a criticism of the game. They’re different media after all and excel and struggle in different things. Board games, not surprisingly, are very good at bringing out themes of conflict.

But it wouldn’t be the worst if designers and publishers pushed themselves to look past the fighting and battles when building games. I mean the cover of the 1980 War and Peace game is a battle, and it is a war game. That’s only half the title! Unless your actions changed nothing about the outcome of any given scenario. Then all would be forgiven.
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #301443 05 Sep 2019 15:27
Some MB hyperbole is easier to digest than others.

But I'll agree, this was a fun read. And I'm biased. I love Dune.

I hope the best for this reprint.*

*I saw the GF9 exclusive markers for the game at Gencon, and they are unfortunately rubbish. Thankfully, they're also completely unnecessary.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #301449 05 Sep 2019 16:02
I got those plastic markers. Yes, they are really bad. So bad that I may not even use them.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #301453 05 Sep 2019 17:18
The hilarious thing about them is that most of them represent stuff that's instantaneous (worm/nexus, atomics) and doesn't last. Sure, you can put the mushroom cloud marker on the board for two seconds... but then take it off, because it's in the way and the battle is over.

The only one I thought was vaguely useful was the phase marker for introducing new players to the progression of the turn.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #301454 05 Sep 2019 17:24
I almost feel like those minis are GF9/EON straight up trolling...they are pure garbage. Pretty much useless. It’s almost like they just threw them out there as a Kickstarter-like FOMO joke.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #301455 05 Sep 2019 17:31
war is really a secondary concern for Herbert. His real attention is saved for religion, messiahs, culture-shifting revolutions.

But part of the genius of Dune is that it makes room for all of that. You get the rise of a Messiah. You get religious factions meddling in political affairs. You get the critique of colonial, imperial mercantilism. You have all of the ecological themes embodied in the reactions of the planet itself. It’s not really as much of a wargame as it seems, definitely not as much as many other DoaMs. It’s an economic game focused on opportunity, investment costs, and capitalization. It’s a highly diplomatic game of course, and in the alliances you can see some of the broader themes emerge. There’s a lot going on beyond the combat.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #301456 05 Sep 2019 17:33

Michael Barnes wrote: I almost feel like those minis are GF9/EON straight up trolling...they are pure garbage. Pretty much useless. It’s almost like they just threw them out there as a Kickstarter-like FOMO joke.


The starbase plastic minis for ascendancy are flat out complete garbage too so there's precedent.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #301458 05 Sep 2019 17:54
These are WORSE. By like, a lot.
The Captain's Avatar
The Captain replied the topic: #301460 05 Sep 2019 18:42
Gale Force 9? So, another game that doesn't include a decent playmat? Been there. Done that. Gale Force 9 won't fool me again.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #301469 05 Sep 2019 21:53

Gary Sax wrote: The starbase plastic minis for ascendancy are flat out complete garbage too so there's precedent.


Aren't those resin? Because they were an exception to the model design for the rest of the game, which is excellent. The best thing about the Borg expansion, in fact, are the models. I kept reading bad reports about the starbases, so I never bothered to pick them up. Plus, they're also all gray (i.e. not in the faction colors), which means that it would end up being confusing when looking at the table. Those are pretty much the only things that I don't have for ST:A (yes, I went in for the extra ships and even the dice for all the factions; I really love that game.) I wonder if they're going to have dice for the Vulcans and Andorians...?
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #301470 05 Sep 2019 21:59
Yeah, that sounds right, they're probably not plastic. The ships are nice.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #301471 05 Sep 2019 23:10
I've not had eyes on the new edition yet, but one of the big changes I hope they made is to sand away the distinction between "advanced rules" and "optional rules" that made the original release so confusing. All of the optional rules should be in the game full stop, though I've never played the advanced rules at all.

I think Joel makes mention of the new game needing a set time when spice can change hands. I've actually played this way before, where any spice given in deals is placed in front of a screen, and then it gets put behind the screen at the end of the turn. The idea was that it wanted to prevent the guild or the emperor from torpedoing the whole thing right in the middle of the turn. I'm not sure if that cuts into the designed openness of the experience or not, but I thought it played pretty well.

I know that WBC plays to 10 turns instead of 15, which is a bit more sane. But I do like the possibility of every spice-producing territory eventually getting a spice blow. I also think that a longer setup does allow someone (like the Harkkonen) to claw their way back into the game at a later point after they've been sitting out of the action for a while.

Still an amazing game. I've not played in years now, mostly because I've moved so much. But it's one of my favorites.
JoelCFC25's Avatar
JoelCFC25 replied the topic: #301489 06 Sep 2019 11:56

san il defanso wrote: I've not had eyes on the new edition yet, but one of the big changes I hope they made is to sand away the distinction between "advanced rules" and "optional rules" that made the original release so confusing. All of the optional rules should be in the game full stop, though I've never played the advanced rules at all.


In this edition you either play the Basic Game (which corresponds to the Basic Game of the original, barring the turn length change and other minor adjustments, or the Advanced Game (which corresponds to the Optional *plus* Advanced rules of the original).

Nothing would stop you from cherry-picking which parts you do and don't want to include, but going strictly by their book, if you want the faction-specific advantages that came from original Optional rules (XV. Additional Character Advantages) you will necessarily be playing the Advanced game, i.e. advanced combat with spice-supported troops.