Arrakis. Dune. Desert Planet. Since Frank Herbert penned these classic words in the original Dune (the best-selling science fiction novel of all time) his vision has spawned numerous follow-on novels, two movies, a CCG, an RPG, and four boardgames. Three of those boardgames were published years ago by Avalon Hill, but have been off the market for years (the fourth, by Parker Bros., it is outside the scope of this review). That the games (DUNE, THE DUEL, and SPICE HARVEST) have retained their popularity is evidenced by the prices they sell for on eBay: DUNE itself, which AH published in 1979, regularly fetches between $35-$50, with mint unpunched copies going for as much as $75. The add-on modules The DUEL and SPICE HARVEST, which towards the end of their existence AH was practically giving away, command fairly high prices, too. Now, thanks to the folks at Eurogames/Jeux Descartes, you can get all three of these games boxed in one edition at a price far less than you'd pay for used copies on eBay. Why do the ludorati pay such steep prices for this old game, and does this French remake improve on the originals? Read on.
Dune was designed by an outfit called Future Pastimes; you may be familiar with another of their designs that remains in print to this day: COSMIC ENCOUNTERS. Like COSMIC, DUNE features marvelous faction asymmetry, but adds the theme of the novel to what many consider to be the finest power politics game ever invented. The DUEL module adds the ability for players to carry on a "kanly" - a duel to the death - during play of the regular game, while the SPICE HARVEST module allows players to play a prequel to the game and thereby alter the basic game's starting setup of troops and Spice.
DUNE is a multiplayer game that is best played with a full complement of six players, though it can easily be played by four, and with a special scenario even three (about which, more later). The regular game itself is relatively simple; the basic rules run to just four pages. DUNE is played on a map which portrays the mountains, deserts, sietches (called "Strongholds"), and the polar sink of Herbert's magnificent creation. Each player controls one of the factions so vividly described in the novel: House Harkonnen, House Atreides, the Emperor, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the Fremen, and the Spacing Guild. The object of the game is to control three of the Strongholds, four if you are in alliance with another player. To accomplish this your faction receives a certain amount of Spice, in the game as in the novel the unit of currency, and hence, power. You also get a predetermined amount of troops, a number of Leader discs of varying strength representing the major characters of a faction (e.g., the Fremen have the Shadout Mapes, a '3', and Stilgar, a '7'). During setup of the game all of the Leaders are placed in a cup and each player draws four of the discs at random, choosing one to be a Traitor (the Harkonnen player gets to choose all four as Traitors).
To these elements are added two decks of cards, the Treachery and Spice decks, along with a sandstorm marker. The Spice deck's top card is turned over each turn; either a Spice Blow will happen and a variable number of Spice chits will be placed somewhere on the board, or Shai Halud (a giant sandworm) will appear. The former you want to fund your ability to pay the Guild to transport your troops down to Arrakis for both Spice harvesting as well as combat. The latter has both positive and negative effects: alliances with other players can be made or broken only when a sandworm appears, and any spice and troops in an area where Spice were found last turn are immediately removed from the game due to a grisly end. Spice acquisition also funds your ability to bid on Treachery deck cards; these provide offensive and defensive modifiers in combat, nasty events of varying degrees to play on your opponents, and some completely useless cards. The sandstorm marker is moved on the board as a variable in controlled areas each turn; if your men are unfortunate enough to be caught up in one its curtains for them.
Combat is enjoined in areas where two factions have troops, and is simplicity itself. Each player picks up a "Battle Wheel" that allows the player to choose a number of his troops present in the area, up to the entire number, as well as to hide a Leader counter and up to two Treachery cards representing a Weapon (offensive card) and a Shield (defensive card). These "Battle Plans" are revealed simultaneously, with the player having the higher total, after determining Leader casualties, if any, winning the battle. Leaders are killed if the enemy plays a Weapon for which they don't have an appropriate Shield. In cases of ties the first player (called the "Aggressor") wins. The winner loses the number of troops he dialed in for combat; the loser loses all of his troops regardless of the number he dialed. If your opponent had the misfortune to use a Leader that you had marked as a Traitor, he immediately loses the battle and you lose nothing.
What elevates this out of the ordinary is the asymmetry I mentioned earlier: each faction has special characteristics and powers that modifies one or more of the above conventions. For example, the Atreides player, reflecting Paul Muad'dib's prescience, can during the bidding round for Treachery cards examine each card before it goes up for bid by other players (who must bid on the card face-down). This power alone can be a game-breaker. If this were not enough, he can also look at the top card of the Spice deck before it is turned over, and in combat force his opponent to reveal one of the four elements of his Battle Plan. The Bene Gesserit witch ... er ... player, writes down at the beginning of the game the game turn he thinks the game will be won in (a normal game of Dune lasts up to 15 turns, though in practice most games are decided before turns 8 or 9) and the faction he thinks will win; if his prediction is true then he, and not the 'winner', wins the game. The BG player can also ship for free one troop chit, as a "religious advisor," when any other faction ships troops down to the planet surface. Unlike troops of any other faction, which must battle with opposing troops in the same area during the Battle Round of the game turn sequence of play, the BG troop token can "coexist" in the area peacefully, gradually building up power over a series of turns until he determines that it is time to stop coexisting and declare war. The BG player can also "Voice" his opponent into doing as he wishes with regard to one aspect of his battle plan. The Emperor player gets a cut on all financial deals, represented by the fact that when any other player pays Spice for a Treachery card, to revive dead troops out of the Tleilaxu Tanks (i.e. reinforcements), or to ship troops to Arrakis, the Spice tokens go into the Emperor's account, and not the bank's. The Emperor player also has elite Sardaukar troops, which count double in combat as opposed to any other players. When players ally with each other, many of these special powers can be made to intercede for your ally as well. Suffice it to say, each faction's special powers are appropriate to that faction, and represent potentially game-winning strategies. The special powers also ensure that no two games of Dune are ever the same, and that cunning, deceit, treachery, skill, and luck all will play a part in an unfolding game.
To show just how dramatic the interplay of all these elements can be I'll recap a recent game that my group, the GLG Gamers, played. We played a 4-player game with the Emperor, Fremen (yours truly), Bene Gesserit, and Harkonnen factions. We played with the following house rules: no alliances until turn 4 (to give all a chance to build up some strength), and alliances only last until the next Worm card appears, at which point new alliances can be made (but not with your old partner until yet another Worm appears).
The Harkonnen player managed to use his in-built treachery to come within a whisker's of a 3 territory win right off the bat, only to have everyone gang up on him and keep the game open. Meanwhile the Emperor culled in the cash (i.e. Spice) as everyone else bid like crazy to build up their hands of Treachery cards. The BG player was very coy, coexisting everywhere and basically only sending in his witches, er ... tokens, for free (so he had correspondingly few tokens on board). As the Fremen player I had significant luck in having the Spice Blows land near my troops, but didn't make much headway in terms of converting Sietches.
Turn 4 arrives and the negotiating came out fast and furious. The Fremen and Harkonnen allied; they only needed one more Stronghold for a knockout win. This forced the Emperor into the hands of the BG, which, as you will see, proved fateful in the end. Unfortunately for the Hark/Fremen alliance, the Emperor went first, and to forestall the auto win with four Strongholds he sent in massive troops into Carthag. Using his partner's Voice ability, he found out the offensive weakness of the Harkonnen player (no poison), and managed to defend himself and kill the Harkonnen leader. With that went Carthag, and the Hark/Fremen alliance blitz strategy went out the door. Still feeling our oats, however, and the superior ability of the Fremen to resupply out of the Tleilaxu Tanks, I sent in the bulk of my truppen into the Habbanya Ridge Sietch, while closely contending Teuk's Sietch, both of which were filled with the Emperor's troops. As the aggressor I chose the big battle first, hoping that the Emperor would choose his second best Leader (he had lost his first to the Harkonnen on turn 3), as I had that leader as a Traitor. Sure enough, he did ... battle over, and Habbanya Ridge was ours. Then on to Tuek's Sietch, which I also won, killing the Emperor's Leader. Now we were back to needing only one more Stronghold for a victory. To top things off, the Baron had the Family Atomics Treachery card, and blew the Shield Wall down, exposing the Emperor's troops in Carthag to the approaching storm.
So naturally then this wonderful game produced a catch just when it was needed (at least as far as the long-faces of the Emp/BG alliance were concerned), and a Worm appeared on the Spice Blow. Bingo: alliances over, and a new strategy needed to be worked out. The Baron decided to ally with the chief Witch, but by this time the Emperor was so poor, having funded the BG's need for spice to buy Treachery cards, and had so many troops in the Tanks that it made little sense for me to ally with him.
It was now turn 7, and the BG/Hark alliance had two Strongholds, the Fremen had two, and one (Tuek's Sietch) was open. The BG player landed in Sietch Tabr, which heretofore had gone uncontested (I had 5 troops in the Territory the entire game), while the Baron landed one single troop in Tuek's Sietch. The Emperor went next, and landed his one token in Tuek's Sietch as well. The Emperor wasn't allied with me, but he was going to give the BG/Hark alliance a run for their money anyway.
To make a long story short, the BG player used Voice once again to cancel out my Weapons card, and managed to pull off a tie with me ... but he won as he was the aggressor. So it all came down to the one-token battle in Tuek's Sietch. Finally the BG player Voiced (for his Harkonnen partner) the Emperor into not using his only weapon, and the Harkonnen player scored a win. Voila: the BG/Hark. alliance now had victory!
Or did it ...? Just as the Baron was congratulating himself on his dastardly deeds, the BG player announced a Harkonnen victory on turn 7 ... to win it all for himself!! Yikes! What a great game!
If for no other reason than simply getting this incredible game back on the market Jeux Descartes should be congratulated, but the game, in my opinion, represents outstanding value for the money. Even if you never play with the expansions, the decks included with those gamettes include extra Treachery cards that add, if you will pardon the pun, "spice" to the regular game's Treachery deck. The components that Descartes includes are typical for a Euro game as well: outstanding artwork and quality components. There is a minor error in the map (the sector line which bisects Arrakeen should not bisect that Stronghold), but that is easily referenced with the English rules that accompany the game which provide a copy of the original and correct AH map. The rules also have a minor piece of errata: the Atreides player gets a Free Revival of two troop tokens.
There is plenty of online support for this game, too. For a cornucopia of variant rules and scenarios check out Rick Heli's site, Colin's DUNE page, and, oh yes, that three-player variant. What more can I say? If you can only buy one game this year, buy this game!
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Page Last Updated: 4/10/03