For decades, fans of James Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel Dune could only get their tabletop kicks from one game, also called Dune. But it was some game: released in 1979 it was years ahead of its time and encouraged players to recreate the Machiavellian scheming of the novel. However, it needed six players to shine and had a wildly variable play time.
Now there’s a new pretender to the throne in Dune: Imperium. It’s a very different beast, eschewing the classic territorial conquest setup of the old game for a mishmash of modern strategic design ideas. But with the Dune name on the box and an acclaimed new film adaptation in the cinemas, it’s well poised for success.
What’s in the Box
For all that the novels have inspired some great art down the years, Dune: Imperium opts for function over form. The board and box are awash with muted desert tones, as you might expect. Beneath, there are a lot of cards with a lot of serviceable art to illustrate them. The best bits are the portraits on the leader cards players use to indicate their allegiance.
There are wooden bits too, cubes that are both used on score tracks and to represent troops, and humanoid shapes for agents. It’s all pretty standard fare, although the player colors are bold and striking.
Rules and How to Play
At the core of Dune: Imperium is the concept of deck building. In these games, players start with a small deck of cards, often all players have the same deck as is the case here. As the game goes on they can buy new, more powerful cards for their deck and, with luck, remove some of the weak original ones. This game adds a novel twist to this popular formula, called “reveal turns.”
Each card has two possible effects. The first is for when you use it to add an agent piece to the board, which also gives you the effects of the space it’s played into. This draws in another well-worn gaming mechanic, worker placement. But you only have a limited pool of agents, normally two. After that, you “reveal” your remaining cards, gaining the second effect.
Most deck building games revolve around building hands that let you draw and play more cards, giving you a more powerful turn and cycling your deck faster. Reveal turns frees Dune: Imperium from the need to follow this pattern, leaving it able to do far more interesting things with its card effects and strategic options.
Players take on the role of noble houses in Dune’s setting, including the Atreides and Harkonnen from the first novel. They each have a choice of two leader cards with flavorful special powers. The other major players, the Emperor, planetary natives the Fremen and others, are represented by board spaces. Committing agents here advances your influence within these factions, a major source of victory points. The other spaces are geographical abstracts of places on the planet Dune.
Cards are keyed to one or more of these board areas and can only be played there. Many spaces also require that you spend one of the game’s three resources – water, spice, and solari – to send an agent there. Others reward you with some of those resources or troops.
In essence, then, what this does is hitch deck building to the typical resource pyramid dilemma so beloved of modern strategy games. To get resources you need resources, and the only solution to this chicken and egg problem is making better use of the cards in your hand than your opponents do. Deck-building is a brilliant adjunct to this setup, giving you another strategic lever to work with and ensuring there’s no “best” way to solve the central puzzle.
Of course, for all the scheming in the book, it’s also a story about martial prowess and Dune: Imperium hasn’t forgotten that aspect. There’s a very abstract “conflict” mechanic whereby each turn has a different reward drawn for winning a military victory. Agents played into geographic spaces allow you to push troops from your reserves into this generic conflict. When everyone’s had their reveal turns, players tot up the troops committed, with bonuses from reveal effects, and divide up the rewards according to their ranking.
Despite the awkward abstraction, this is a crucial element of the design. Like most worker-placement games, agents sent to a space block it from other players for that turn. But Dune: Imperium has a lot more spaces than most games of its ilk, meaning that blocking is often a minor inconvenience. That reduces it as a source of tension and interaction, which the conflict more than makes up for. The dribble of soldiers into the fight each turn is a slow burn battle of one-upmanship, with the result uncertain until the reveals are laid down.
Between resources, cards and the conflict players are left with a lot of plates to spin and only two measly actions to do it with. And that’s reckoning without the victory points you’ll need to win, which come from various sources. As well as faction influence they can be won in the conflict or gained from cards. The game ends when someone cracks ten victory points or ten turns pass, whichever comes first. The leading player does not always win, as a final flurry of card play can sometimes secure a bonus point or two.
In focusing on giving players a rich soup of tactical decisions, however, Dune: Imperium distances itself from its source material. A Crysknife might be a sacred weapon to the Fremen, but here it’s just pushing a cube up an influence track. The bones of a narrative are in place: the Fremen want water, spaces on Dune give you spice and the Spacing Guild will help you land a ton of troops on the planet. But it’s a weak simulacrum, an unconvincing ghola, with little of the devious plotting central to the novels.
It also really needs three or four players to shine. The solo game offers a solid challenge, pitting you against two AI players which are simple to play but harder to beat as you increase their difficulty level. With two you still have to add one AI player, making for an annoying distraction the players have to administer between their own turns.