Dune The Right Thing

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Dune Board Game

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There Will Be Games

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Introducing Jonathan Volk- our new writer with a killer take on one of the best games of all time.

Dune is an impossible book. I mean this with great admiration: the book is grandly operatic, densely philosophical, a thrill to read. It is also corny as hell, filled with clunky internal speech delivered in breathless italics, overly long like most mass-market paperback sci-fi, and impossible—the book has eluded all attempts to successfully adapt it for the screen, and will likely do the same for Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming adaptation (after the costly disappointment of Blade Runner 2049, you have to wonder how producers could look at Dune and anticipate a box office “rebound”).

Between Jodorowsky's ludicrous failure to adapt the film in the 1970s, Lynch's decision to film it instead of Return of the Jedi in the 1980s, and the SyFy (then SciFi) channel's slavishly faithful rendition, previous attempts at adapting Dune have ranged from melodramatic soap, to stupendously lavish, to laughably camp, to bizarrely cheap and to, well, not ever actually made.

Though Dune has eluded adaptation to the screen, it has been, since 1979, an impeccable strategy/war game with heavy negotiation and economic elements. Adapted by the EON design team and published Avalon Hill, Dune puts Arrakis on the game board as a slice of the southern hemisphere, seen from above the Polar Sink. The map is divided between desert and non-desert zones, cities and vague geographical regions (my favorite, “The Minor Erg”, has no “Major Erg” neighbor). The game accommodates 3 to 6 players (though it is best at 6), each choosing between factions that include the houses Atreides (reliably good), Harkonnen (reliably evil), and the Padishah Emperors (boring in the way of all entrenched power); the Spacing Guild, a satanic melange of Uber and Silicon Valley venture capitalism, who handle all transport to and from the planet; the Fremen, the planet’s indigenous people, because the novel is also a parable of Vietnam-era Capitalist-Imperialism; and the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, space zealots, also referred to as witches, whose motives are femininely unknowable, because the book was written by a man in the 1960s.

The goal of the game is territorial control: fill key areas of the map before your opponents. To that end, each faction comes with a set of powers that allow it to break core mechanics of the game. For example, the Bene Gesserit can “co-exist” rather than fight with other players in all zones of the map; the Fremen get to ditch the Spacing Guild’s monopolistic Ubers and book sandworms instead, demonstrating, in the process, how infrastructure, and access, is at the heart of most warfare.

Despite the success of the adaptation, Dune is an impossible game - out of print and impossible to buy, outside of re-sale markets like eBay. It is only truly excellent when played with 6 players, meaning you need to do the equally impossible and convince five others to devote half a day to playing a game with Ergs, ornithopters, and spice blows (“A spice blow means you’re doing it wrong,” said a friend who doesn’t know Dune-the-book, hates Dune-the-film, but ended up loving the Dune-the-game).

Dune is also impossibly good, better than any board game I’ve played, and I’ve played a lot of them. I think the key to Dune’s success is that it makes unfairness a seductive point of entry. Designers call what I’m calling unfairness “asymmetry”, a fancy word that fails to encompass the moral dimensions of great game design. The narrative space of Dune situates its players immediately in a set of moral crises—invasion, monopolistic overreach, religious conversion. And the game’s mechanics affirm these crises immediately: the Emperor player starts outrageously wealthy, able to finance an immediate and punishing invasion; the Spacing Guild player will come to amass outrageous wealth through her stranglehold on infrastructure; the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood don’t occupy space with the same weight as their more masculinely-coded enemies, opting instead for a ghostly co-existence, like a silenced wife (more on that below); the Fremen guerrilla units move quickly around the desert, but systemic poverty and their functional absence from the galactic market means they either need to win the game as early as possible, or draw play out to an unbearable 15 turns (the Fremen “win” if nobody else holds a winning condition).

So many games assure players that the table has an Arthurian circularity, that all seats are distanced equally from the table’s eye, and that no single player has a better seat. But no game is universally fair, because all players sit at the table with different levels of experience, capability, play-styles, goals, lusory attitudes. More recent war games, like Twilight Imperium, have heard of Dune but don’t seem to have listened to its lessons, failing to make their factions so wildly imbalanced, so teetering and wobbly, so morally compromised and enabling. Dune spits in fairness’s face. The beginning turns of the game are an outrage for the Fremen and Bene Gesserit players, the two factions widely agreed upon to be the most difficult to play. This is why teachers of Dune typically opt to play as the Bene Gesserit or the Fremen—how do you persuade a new player to play a game they are, by design, rigged to lose? In 5-player games, popular wisdom encourages erasing the Bene Gesserit entirely from the map, affirming what we already know—in space, nobody can hear a woman scream.

But these murky moral dimensions, reified by the unfair mechanics, are what make Dune a masterpiece. In an interview on the podcast Ludology, Peter Olotka, one of the three credited designers, scoffs at the pursuit of fairness in games. Olotka says, “Fair isn’t funny. When everything’s fair, where’s the outrage? Where’s the laugh? Where’s the ‘Wow, I overcame it?’ It was all fair, and I muddled my way to a victory over 17 hours, moving my piece one spot. For us, […] that’s the point. […] The idea of balance is […] a false god in game design. Balance is, you know, balance is for weenies.”

In addition to Dune, Olotka co-designed Cosmic Encounter, the grandfather of asymmetrical game design, and the way he describes fairness as an antidote to comedy seems right, since fairness is a softer grab for justice, and justice isn’t funny business. No, Dune, and certainly Cosmic Encounter, are unfair to a degree that you either laugh at with the blinking resignation of a habitual sufferer, or it disgusts you into never playing again.

I’m not certain every game of Dune I’ve played has been fun. That would be a damning statement for most games, especially those that require the commitment of Dune (4+ hours minimum). But no game lingers with me more than Dune. I haven’t even mentioned how, if the Bene Gesserit player correctly guesses the winning faction of the game and the round said faction will win, the Bene Gesserit win the game. This almost happened to me—once, as the Bene Gesserit, I predicted the winner but was off by a round. The likelihood of the Bene Gesserit player pulling off this victory condition is incredibly small, all the smaller because the Bene Gesserit can only do so much to shift the balance of power in the game toward their prediction. But the lesson is a 1979 parable for real-world moral crises, even in 2018: though it still happens too rarely, a woman’s voice can take down a rotten Emperor.

Like the novel, Dune the board game isn’t explicitly feminist by any means, though a fan-made DIY version of the game’s artwork, credited to the artist Ilya Baranovsky and available online, goes a long way to depicting both men and women with respect and dignity, and is absent the dehumanizing male gaze found in Twilight Imperium, the Fantasy Flight intellectual property that would eventually re-skin Dune as Rex: Final Days of an Empire. In Twilight Imperium, the one faction coded as exclusively female, the Nuala Collective, are depicted as sexy snakes with tits. In Rex, the Bene Gesserit have been translated into sexless turtles - a lateral move at best.

Like war films, war games are suspiciously deficient in the point of view of women, as if the second the first keel slides onto foreign shore, all women in theaters of combat blink out of existence. That Dune offers the Bene Gesserit player an exclusively female point of view can be read as a mild admission to the inequity of representation—mild, because the Bene Gesserit powers are still coded according to feminine stereotypes, whether through mind-control via the Voice or the strategic self-erasure of co-existence. Call this the creaky burden of faithful adaptation. As in the novel, any step forward through the desert is a dangerous business when you have giant, ancient phalluses in the form of sandworms salivating to devour you.

But I want to return to Olotka’s claims about fairness. Can a board game be moral in the way of a novel, a film, a play? That is to say, can a board game deliver a coherent moral message about our relationship to suffering (our own and others’) and still be fun to play? Games do a great job, I think, of presenting moral crises as the occasion for engagement, leaving players to figure out what the Right Thing To Do (RTTD) is. For most players, the RTTD is to win, damn whatever sins get you across the finish line. The RTTD in games is usually victory-oriented rather than morality-oriented (though these can overlap), which makes games fun but morally dubious. This must be part of their broad appeal: we get to try on amoral styles of being that otherwise repulse us.

Games, whether we're talking the likes of Dune or Undertale, have the ability to game-ify moral quandaries, and this quality can lead us to question our relationship with games, morality, and the larger culture around us. Games can be open systems, engaged with the culture that produces them, despite their closed rules and artificial conflicts.

Unlike the binary morality often present in, for example, many video games, Dune lets players perform in the drag of morality and amorality to a degree of complexity I find astonishing. Most other games feel fairer in comparison, and less interesting because of it. Board games like Dune can muddy their moral dimensions precisely because they have the advantage of being social. Human players don’t always do the rational, strategically best thing for themselves—the RTTD might, in the moment, blur between ethics and victory points. The Fremen player, in desperate need of money, might still align herself, ruinously but morally, with the Bene Gesserit, seeing in her witch-sisters a community of shared suffering. I’ve seen this happen, and I’ve done it myself—not to spite other players, or to throw the game, necessarily, but to chase after some ghostly feeling of the RTTD beneath the RTTD. If this all sounds suspiciously like my lusory attitude with gaming is more that of a role-player than a rational strategist, maybe that’s right. Though I love to win, winning, in the end, doesn’t always feel lovely. Depending on the outcomes, the methods used to reach those outcomes, the gameplay process, subject matter and other factors can make winning feel disappointing or sometimes even wrong.

In my experience, with my group, games of Dune are rarely even played to resolution so that there isn't even really a nominal winner. As I said, the game is impossible—it usually goes on too long, and at too great a psychic and physical cost. If you make it to round 10, most players’ combat units will be left floating in the embryonic purgatory of their respective Bene Tleilaxu Tanks (mobile space wombs). As the war for Arrakis sputters forward, the economic, moral, and bodily costs affect even those hegemonic factions afforded structural and economic power. The Emperor begins the game filthy rich with fearsome combat units but usually can’t bankroll an invasion by round 11; the Spacing Guild amasses great wealth by turn 11, but one disastrous attempt at invasion sets him back, and now all his clients can’t afford to call him up for an Uber. Learning from the Fremen, the other players will grab their damn thumpers and walk (without rhythm) instead.

The film director Francois Truffaut famously critiqued war films by saying that to “show something is to ennoble it”. Truffaut believed that most war films fail to capture the horrors of war because they are exciting, digestible, fun to watch. Dune comes the closest to an anti-war war game that I’ve played. It makes me want to play more games that bring in the outside world, that make me feel injustice in a palpable, teachable way. We play games for many reasons, obviously, but I’m most interested in play as a vessel for social critique and resistance. In their exhaustive book Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Katie Sales and Eric Zimmerman define play as resistance as follows:

“Play never merely resides in a system of rules, but through an ongoing process of friction, affects change in the system. The friction of water flowing against rock and earth over time will alter the more rigid structure of a riverbed. Similarly, when we frame a game as a system of resistance, the very play of the game is intrinsically transformative [italics are mine]. This transformation not only takes place on the level of rules but on cultural levels as well, as the resistance creates tensions between the magic circle and the contexts surrounding the game.”

Transformative game designs like Dunes dilate the Arthurian circularity of our gaming tables. They invite the world to take a seat. Play feels so impossibly real. If you backstab your friend and say, “Hey, it’s only a game,” she can say, “You really are a bad person.”

There Will Be Games Dune Board Game

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Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #290504 23 Jan 2019 07:23
This is my favorite author on TheWillBe.games.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #290505 23 Jan 2019 08:14
Andrew recommended Jonathan to us and his “audition” was a longer version of this article. He really went for broke on this one and I was duly impressed- this is the kind of writer I really like to promote because it elevates the whole of games writing.

He says he has more smarty pants articles for us...
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #290506 23 Jan 2019 08:24
This is an incredible feature, dense in the analysis and symbolism that eludes almost all games writing beyond a surface scrape.

But it actually goes deeper still, tying that analysis and symbolism directly into an almost-review of the game and making one neat, coherent and impossibly rich package.

Wow.

I don't think Dune - the game or the book - is "impossibly good" but I'm not going to rehearse that tired argument in the face of such eloquence. Rather, I'm fascinated by the view that the things I find tiresome and difficult - the mental exhaustion and stress that play engenders and the sexism inherent in what appears to be a male power-fantasy - can be cast as positives.

In Jonathan's argument, the grueling nature of the game is part of the message it offers the players. I have argued myself before that a "true" horror game is one that no-one would play because it would almost certainly entail deliberate spite. This analysis suggests that I am wrong and, indeed, that a niche of games that go out of their way to discomfit the players might actually prove to become valuable long-term cult titles.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #290508 23 Jan 2019 08:40
I noticed the pun when I first started the article and then forgot about it until I read the whole thing and went to reply here... well done.

Dune is one of those great games that I'm not sure I'll ever play. Unfortunately the people in one of my local clubs most likely to have it aren't the ones I usually play games with, even on one of the all-day affairs.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #290511 23 Jan 2019 08:56
Great article. Playing Dune is a singular experience because it is such a bold design that really brings the setting to life. Due to the moving storm and the space transport, the board state is very dynamic. The alliances can be powerful but so transient. The combat system is a brutal meat grinder.

I would play more often, but Dune is difficult to get on the table as a casual choice. The rules are brief, but novel and loaded with exceptions that make teaching it a challenge. So I try to schedule a game in advance, with invitations and scans of the rules, but it's tough to get a firm commitment from exactly six players. I think the game is still great with five, but six is the goal.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #290515 23 Jan 2019 09:26

MattDP wrote: This is an incredible feature, dense in the analysis and symbolism that eludes almost all games writing beyond a surface scrape.


Yeah, but where's the section on component quality?
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #290516 23 Jan 2019 09:29
Fantastic debut. It's always a good sign when you read something and wish you had written it. Look forward to more articles!
Deleted's Avatar
Deleted replied the topic: #290518 23 Jan 2019 09:46
That was a fantastic read, except for one thing...one thing so wrong-headed and utterly inaccurate that I hereby demand a retraction is issued: Blade Runner 2049 was good.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #290522 23 Jan 2019 10:07
I assume he meant that BR2049 was not a financial windfall. Because, Blade Runner was the best movie I saw in 2017.

I really enjoyed this article. I have never played Dune, nor have I read the book. I did see the movie. I'd love to try the game. I played Rex once, and really enjoyed it. I've seen that Rex is a pale imitator with broken factions, which is a shame since it's probably a lot easier to obtain a copy.
JonathanVolk's Avatar
JonathanVolk replied the topic: #290537 23 Jan 2019 12:05
That's what I meant--a "disappointment" financially. Don't mean to fire shots on my first article, but I like 2049 more than the Ridley Scott original, which I don't actually love. Blade Runner 2019 has always left me cold, outside of Hauer's performance, the music, and the production design. In any case, Denis Villeneuve has me excited all over again for Dune--casting the Reverend Mother Charlotte Rampling as the Reverend Mother Mohiam is cosmically right.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #290544 23 Jan 2019 13:34

JonathanVolk wrote: That's what I meant--a "disappointment" financially. Don't mean to fire shots on my first article, but I like 2049 more than the Ridley Scott original, which I don't actually love. Blade Runner 2019 has always left me cold, outside of Hauer's performance, the music, and the production design. In any case, Denis Villeneuve has me excited all over again for Dune--casting the Reverend Mother Charlotte Rampling as the Reverend Mother Mohiam is cosmically right.


Normally I think it's just a matter of individual preference and opinion when comparing two movies. But the first Blade Runner movie is clearly a flawed classic, given that there have been a total of seven different versions released. The second Blade Runner movie got it right on the first try. Sadly, both movies bombed at the box office, but I see that more as a failing of film-goers than an indictment of the movies.
Da Bid Dabid's Avatar
Da Bid Dabid replied the topic: #290546 23 Jan 2019 13:58
Very nice article about a great game. I'm very surprised the majority of games you played never finished, I don't think I've ever played a game of Dune and not finished it.

To me one of the most astonishing things about the game, that gets overlooked a lot (other than the battle system which is shockingly not implemented in many other games), is that the rules that really make it a home run in both themes true to the book and the great asymmetric style of play were not designed by the design team. I would love to hear in-depth who had the balls and the insight to take that rule set and say, "Now we are adding this." Without all that it'd still be good, but nowhere near where it is with them. If anyone knows more about how that went down I'm all ears.

Also, the expansions suck. I think that reinforces how extraordinary those bonus rules are because the other new rules bolted on resulted in a mess.
GorillaGrody's Avatar
GorillaGrody replied the topic: #290547 23 Jan 2019 14:42
Jonathan, you go ahead and write well or write poorly--just keep bringing Papa those blue-chip puns so he can get the evil juice he needs to float up to the ceiling, pulling everyone's blood-plugs out on the way up.
WadeMonnig's Avatar
WadeMonnig replied the topic: #290551 23 Jan 2019 15:34
I await the analysis of the Blade Runner game we all apparently wish existed.
SaMoKo's Avatar
SaMoKo replied the topic: #290560 23 Jan 2019 17:33
Cut to the point: should I play this or Rex? Use small words and pictures if possible, thanks! :)
GorillaGrody's Avatar
GorillaGrody replied the topic: #290562 23 Jan 2019 18:02

SaMoKo wrote: Cut to the point: should I play this or Rex? Use small words and pictures if possible, thanks! :)


Dune.
dscoBee's Avatar
dscoBee replied the topic: #290563 23 Jan 2019 18:56
Had to sign up an account just to say "wow". Remarkable piece of board games journalism, more of this sort of thing please.
Frohike's Avatar
Frohike replied the topic: #290564 23 Jan 2019 18:56
Beautifully written! Thank you, Jonathan.
Colorcrayons's Avatar
Colorcrayons replied the topic: #290573 24 Jan 2019 03:07
Wait a sec... There is a longer version of this article?

Christ, knowing it exists but not being able to read it is like knowing of a Jodorosky version of Dune that had Moebius, Giger and Dali, which will never be seen by me.

All because our corporate overlords deemed it to be so. Philistines.
stoic's Avatar
stoic replied the topic: #290583 24 Jan 2019 09:42
Great review! It breathes life into a venerable, but aging game that often gets overlooked in the contemporary stream of shiny bloated overproduced hyped leviathans. Let's hope that AH's Dune won't be forgotten when the new GF9 Dune game is released along with the upcoming new Dune Movie. I have no hope that the new Dune movie will respect the Dune legenda as Frank Herbert intended in his novels since the current trend in movies is to sacrifice art in order to placate contemporary trends.

DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #290614 24 Jan 2019 17:18
Ahh man, good words

I tried to Dune the right thing twice and I played the cheap knock off Rex twice too.

Other than finding 5 other people with the time, you ideally need 5 other people who are really up for it, understand that it is uneven and figure out the power relationships. Three of the games I played finished within 1-2hours, as the first big alliance just won. With repeat play this would iron out.

Dune was always the game I really wanted to be playing, i loved its game space, its cosmic with context but few like minded people exist so I sold my copy on here.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #290615 24 Jan 2019 17:24
^I think Here I Stand, Virgin Queen, and some other big wargames fit in here too. But I'm too stubborn to mail them away to someone.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #290619 24 Jan 2019 17:39

Gary Sax wrote: ^I think Here I Stand, Virgin Queen, and some other big wargames fit in here too. But I'm too stubborn to mail them away to someone.


This. I'm not as much of a fan of Dune as others, mostly because you do need a very committed group to really make it work, which just isn't the definition of a "classic" game to me or even one that's held in very high regard. I've always enjoyed it, but if given the choice between Dune and something like Here I Stand, I'd almost always opt for the latter.
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #290621 24 Jan 2019 17:54
Here i stand is a game I have not even considered attempting to play even though I am sure i would love it.
Ancient_of_MuMu's Avatar
Ancient_of_MuMu replied the topic: #290622 24 Jan 2019 18:30
There are two things that Dune does brilliantly that I don't recall seing elsewhere.

The first someone mentioned is the combat system. Deciding how much you are willing to sacrifice to win is so brilliant that it should have been used many times over. It is only Scythe that seems to reuse the combat, and even then the loss you take for combat is not as great as in Dune so that it doesn't feel to be as difficult a decision.

The second is the alliances. With Cosmic Encounter, the designers proved that they understand that one of the weaknesses in multi-player combat games with a single winner is the fragile nature of alliances. By making long running alliances completely binding in Dune and completely impossible in CE they twice managed to resolve one of the biggest problems in game design.