Dune Board Game Review
The Black IPA of Board Games
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 1979 (2019 reprint)
Playing Time: 120 Minutes
The Premise of Dune, the Board Game
Based on the popular Dune IP, and attempting to be consistent with the lore of the book, Dune pits rival factions against one another for control over the planet upon which the galaxy’s most valuable resource – spice – is located.
Dune is a strategic game of combat, negotiation and alliances, and unique, thematic powers for each faction that each unbalance an aspect of the game in powerful ways.
Dune has been around for decades and has a mystique surrounding it. It’s a product of its age, but will still delight certain gamers.
I can only speak to the 2019 version. The board is pleasantly exotic; you can almost feel the old-school vibes coming off of the way the pie slices (for The Storm) interact with the territories you’ll be occupying with your forces. I can’t imagine something like this being put into existence today, but it’s kind of neat.
The chits that represent your units are small, but nothing else seems cheap. You won’t find anything too fancy here outside the board, but the components are very workmanlike and don’t detract from the experience.
The Feel of the Game, or A Comparison to Beer
My favorite style of beer is a Black IPA. It’s equal parts strong porter and strong IPA. In short, the best way I can describe it is that it’s a HUGE beer, with warring flavors that collectively dominate your tastebuds. It’s delicious, but absolutely not for everyone, not even for many regular beer drinkers.
So too with Dune. It has nearly as much strategy packed into it as any “dudes on a map” game. And enough opportunity for negotiation, backstabbing, bluffing and alliances to draw comparisons with Diplomacy and other titans of that genre. And then it smashes those things together into an objectively huge game.
For clarity, there are longer games. Hell, early-round victories are not only possible in Dune, but a lot of factions will frequently try to go for them. You could absolutely finish a session in under an hour. Conversely, you could finish in 3-4 hours, depending on how it plays out.
Also for clarity, there are more complicated games. The number of rules to learn in Dune, and how they interact, won’t be intimidating for regular gamers, at least with the base rules. There are also advanced rules. But even these aren’t overwhelming, imo. I was surprised at this, given the apparent scope of the game, but I never felt overwhelmed by rules while I was learning and playing. A few rules are weird compared to modern gaming standards, but everything is pretty cohesive and flows pretty smoothly.
What can be overwhelming, however, is the nuance inherent in a system that not only allows for but to an extent necessitates that you bargain and deal for every last resource or advantage. The imbalanced individual player powers are not a bug but a feature, and it’s up to players to utilize them in ways that self-balance the game. This can be a gigantic challenge for newer players.
Twilight Imperium (TI) seems the closest comparison in my gaming experience, and I don’t think it’s an unfair one. TI has more rules, card types and combat permutations, but the scope, high stakes, dramatic swings and sense of grandeur feels similar to me, as does the mix of the tactical and interpersonal elements. The major distinction I can see is length, where Dune’s longest games will tend to be the length of TI’s shortest. Otherwise, I see several conceptual similarities.
Pacing in Board Games
I mentioned Twilight Imperium, which, despite its length, has a certain cadence to it that will generally keep everyone involved for the duration of the game.
Dune has a lot of opportunities to stay engaged, but it’s also an occasionally clunky game in terms of pacing. Your own maneuverings will come in fits and starts, and some turns will be lackluster as a result. This is particularly true following a brutal battle or early in the game for some factions that need to build up their forces before acting boldly. Or when you’re unfortunate enough to, say, have the Storm covering your main forces for a turn.
This, to me, is where it shows its age. In some of our shorter sessions, despite the vast potential of the game, some players ended up doing very little overall, because circumstances didn’t give them much to work with. Stated differently, it can be an uneven experience.
The Unforgiving Desert of Arrakis
Games with combat, out of necessity, won’t be kind most of the time, but Dune goes out of its way to be brutal at several points. Resources will rarely, if ever, be plentiful enough that all or even most players can feel secure in their status. Moreover, there are a number of mechanics – primarily in combat but a couple outside of it – that will leave you reeling at some point as you watch the rug get pulled out from under your schemes, all because of, say, the draw of a Sand Worm card or reveal of a traitor in your ranks.
There are gamers who will revel in this. Others won’t. It’s not quite chaos, since you can almost always foresee the bad outcome. But it’s an unforgiving maelstrom of variables, and you’ll rarely be able to control all of them.
The Advanced Rules
The advanced rules are not necessary, but they can be fun. I don’t think they add an unnecessary amount of complexity. At some point you’ll have to check the rulebook for some fiddly new rule, but for the most part, it’s easy to absorb.
The major advanced rule that affects everyone is having to pay for troops in combat if you want them to be full strength. The game offsets this by having two “spice blows” each round instead of one and awarding spice for holding certain locations. Almost every other advanced rule is faction-specific, so you only have to worry about yours for the most part, and it’s on your cheat sheet.
What the advanced rules do is add more variables to that mix I mentioned earlier. Instead of racing for a single spice hoard every round, by about turn three or four, there’s likely to be spice just sitting on the board that players haven’t had a chance to get to, or that remains unclaimed after a brutal battle that left a faction unable to sweep it all up. Combat becomes slightly less predictable as well. In all, it’s more to consider and react to. Additionally, it’s probably a bit more unforgiving, because with new ways to gain advantages, the discrepancies between “haves” and “have nots” will become even wider.
I would greatly recommend using the basic rules for your first play or two, but I suspect many won’t want to go back to the basic rules after using the advanced ones. The extra spice blows make the board seem more alive. And everyone simply feels more powerful because of their extra faction abilities. Despite the fact that this also means your opponents are more powerful, the feeling is intoxicating when you can use your abilities to a great advantage.
Planning Vs. Reacting
Many games these days are considered “engine builders,” which necessitates long-term strategy. Other games are explicitly about reacting to the most recent dice roll, card draw, or accusation from another player. Dune exists somewhere in the middle of all this, where you can form long-term strategies and alliances, but often you’re having to form those plans based on what card you just won in a bid, where the Storm moved to, where the spice appeared, what traitor options you drew, and many others. You need to remain flexible at all times in order to thrive, and able to change strategies quickly. Once, I won a session by breaking an alliance I had made just a round earlier, because my ally’s position was weaker and I saw a path to me getting three strongholds, but not the two of us getting four of them. If I had kept the alliance, I wouldn’t have won that session, at least not at that point.
This is heightened with the advanced rules. More going on, so there’s more to react to. Long-term planning is still possible, but only in a general sense, and it’s usually folly to try to look beyond the immediate round. The game is an entity unto itself, and it will turn on players capriciously. If you forget that fact in your schemes, you’ll probably be on the receiving end of a particularly nasty beat.
Devotion to the Dune Lore & Roleplaying
Given how thematic and powerful faction powers can be, it almost invites you to inhabit the roles of the factions in sort of a tactical roleplaying sense. For fans of Dune, this will be a treat. The mechanics also go out of their way on occasion to cater to the lore, in ways that are hilarious but likely wouldn’t have made the cut if this game were under a different IP.
One thing I like is that despite the powers being, well, powerful, it doesn’t force you into one particular strategy with a faction. True, some factions will tend to be more warlike, or more rich (or spice-starved) etc. But in every game I’ve played, some faction has broken with the accepted wisdom of their assumed role, and they’ve had every bit the same chance to win.
Player Count Considerations
I’ve seen a lot of people say this game only really comes alive at six players. And sure, that’s when everything the game has to offer will interact simultaneously, which is a sight to see.
But here’s the thing: maybe you’re a veteran of this game who wants the purist, most epic experience, so only 6P will suffice. But maybe you’re anyone else, and you’re just learning this game. For you, and me, and many like us, I’d absolutely say that 4P is fine. I counted this game among my favorites before I’d ever played with more than four. Everything’s still there at 4P, just a bit less of it.
That said, yes, something is lost at lower player counts. The game seems designed for each of the six main factions to interact with one another to truly feel balanced, and removing any of them shifts the balance of power tangibly, albeit in ways that are often hard to predict.
4P games will also tend to be shorter, which means you can plan a three-hour game night and probably have time for a 30-60 minute light or midweight game to follow Dune. This is potentially a big deal for many groups. I have yet to experience the 4+ hour epics some players talk about. My 6P experiences have topped out around two and a half hours.
So if you’re worried about player count…don’t be? You should absolutely try this game at 5-6 players, but if four is your typical game night, you’re still in good shape.
Who Won’t Like This
Gamers who prefer to strategize more against the game’s systems than against the other players at the table. Also, those who don’t enjoy mean, brutal games that can punish the unlucky (or strategically sub-par) will also want to avoid this. Lastly, if you prefer your combat games to lean toward more elegant, long-term strategies, this will feel too chaotic.
The Experience, Not the Game
Ok, so I’m going to draw a distinction, and hopefully it’s clear what I mean:
Dune isn’t a great game, but it’s a great experience.
Hopefully that statement makes sense to you. It does to me. There are games that are frankly a bit of a mess, but they survive in the hobby because the experience they provide overshadows those flaws. This is one of them.
I’ll give you an example: combat in Dune already has a lot going on, but the advanced rules include a rule that requires you to support your troops with spice. If you don’t, they enter the battle at half strength. Look, there are already a number of variables bordering on “too many” in the combats. The spice support starts getting into “half-troop” math to resolve conflicts, and gives each player one too many things to think about.
I like how thematic combat is. But I dislike how fiddly it is. A handful of decisions like the spice support add rules overhead but without adding fun to the game, making it just feel overwrought.
And yet, battles manage to be uniformly tense, because the way they’re wrapped into the whole of the game means that each conflict has immense weight behind it. I just wish it was a touch more streamlined.
That example is at least somewhat indicative of the whole. Dune is a big ol’ mess. I doubt I could defend a lot of its design decisions in a vacuum. But together, it makes something that, at its best, could be considered transcendent.
Dune is great. It’s huge. It’s a gangly beast of a game that won’t soon be forgotten after you play it, for good or ill. I love the schemes, I love the deals, I love the tactics, and I love frequently seeing those things torn down terrifyingly fast.
The rather specific player count requirements, occasional pacing issues, the brutality of the mechanics and demand they place on players, means that many groups will not want to add this to their rotation. But if yours is the type of group that will enjoy clawing for the crown of Dune, it may end up among your favorite games.