So Frankly...

So Frankly...

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Spice Must Flow... A Dune Review

I had one of the best gaming experiences of my life Sunday at our gaming group.  Many of the people in my gaming group are teachers, and a few are high school students like my son.  In deference to them, we avoid long games until the summer.  So, after five years of sitting on the shelf, I finally was able to get my copy of Dune to the table.

The 1979 Avalon Hill box cover
The game is based on my all-time favorite science fiction book of the same name, which should be required reading for everyone on the planet:
'Set in the far future amidst a feudal interstellar society in which noble houses, in control of individual planets, owe allegiance to the imperial House Corrino, Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides, the heir apparent to Duke Leto Atreides as his family accepts control of the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of the "spice" melange. Melange is the most important and valuable substance in the universe, increasing Arrakis's value as a fief. The story explores the multi-layered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, as the forces of the empire confront each other in a struggle for the control of Arrakis and its "spice".' [Wikipedia, "Dune (novel)"]
Knowing the book well isn't necessary, though a thorough familiarity with the story does increase your appreciation for what is happening in the game.  (I think I have read the book eight times through, so I was appreciating it after just reading the rules!)  Each of up to six players represent a different faction from the book, and use their troops and special abilities to gain control of the planet.

In our game, we had six players, so every faction was in the game.  Everyone took a different strategy, even as we were feeling our way around the rules and abilities.  The winner of the game is the person who controls three of five strongholds at the end of a turn.  However, The Spacing Guild, who transports things onto the planet from space, can win by making the game last 15 turns without anyone winning normally.  As a result, the Guild sat on a stronghold to wait out the game.  The noble houses of Atreides and Harkonnen started to head out into the sand to collect spice, which acts as the money in the game.  Eventually, so did the Fremen, the natives of the planet.  In the meantime, sandstorms were raging around the planet, killing troops caught out in the open sand and blowing away any spice where the storm passed.

There were some skirmishes over spice, but things didn't really start happening until the Emperor showed up on the planet.  He blew up the shield wall protecting the Atreides and Harkonnens from the storms, subsequently killing or stranding all of their troops.  With that, he formed an alliance with the Fremen and they swarmed over several of the strongholds.  With the alliance, they needed four strongholds to win the game, but the Harkonnens managed to take the home stronghold of the Fremen in retaliation. The game was saved for the moment, but the Emperor had two strongholds, the Fremen one, House Harkonnen one, with the last one empty.  With all his wealth, the Emperor could drop all of his remaining troops in the empty city, and the Fremen could strike over land.  The Atreides, Harkonnen and Guild players waited to see which hammer would fall.  Turn 9 was somewhat anti-climactic, with the Fremen moving first and taking Arrakeen, the capital city of the planet and last remaining stronghold.  The Fremen and Emperor reached across the table to shake hands.

Until I cleared my throat, reminding them of the my Bene Gesserit ability as master manipulators who have a very unique power in the game.  At the beginning of the game, the Bene Gesserit player chooses who they think will win on what turn.  For example, I might write down that the Fremen will win, say on turn 9...

That's when it became clear.  Of course I had been table talking along the way, encouraging the Harkonnen to save the game and avoid the loss on turn 8, and expressing my opinion on the best way for the alliance to win on turn 9!

I stole the win by predicting the winner and timing!

This is a great game, and I would feel that way even if I hadn't won.  What do I like best about this game?  A few things come immediately to mind:

The special abilities of the factions in the game are true to the book.  The Emperor is filthy rich, and can bide his time landing troops in one massive attack, just as in the book.  House Harkonnen has treachery as the basis for his strategy.  The Fremen understand the sandstorms and can use the giant sandworms for transportation.  The Bene Gesserit are manipulating all of the factions to their own ends.  Each player will find that a winning strategy is based on the unique abilities of their faction.

Alliances.  There are alliances in this game, but there is structure to them.  While someone could stab you in the back, they may never get a chance to actually do it.  You won't have the free-for-all that Diplomacy can be, but there is teaming and treachery.

Promotional image for the reimagined reprint
A unique combat system.  Combat is diceless; there isn't anything left to chance.  There is hidden information in what you will commit to the battle, so there are surprises.  The interesting part is that, even if you win, you are going to lose all the troops you committed (the loser takes total losses), so there is a critical decision point there.

The biggest problem with the game are that Dune is long and complex.  It certainly isn't going to appeal to everyone.  For that reason, I really can't recommend it for casual or family play.  However, this is probably going to make my top 10 after a few more plays.

Dune was originally published by Avalon Hill in 1979.  Rumors about a reprint circulated for years.  In the end, no one could get the literary license, but Fantasy Flight was able to get the rights to the game.  They rethemed the game to their Twilight Imperium 3 universe, calling it Rex: Final Days of an Empire.  It is currently available from Amazon or at your local gaming store.

Of course, if you want to play and your around Dayton, OH...

It's Your Move,


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