I must confess I need to hand in my geek-card. I've never read DUNE, or seen the film.
But playing the game was some of the most politicking, tactical fun I've had in a long time.
DUNE sees each player take on the roll of one of 6 factions, all vying for control over the desert planet that produces the Spice Melange, a highly sought-after and powerful drug which (if I've been correctly informed), allows for optimum space travel.
The latest edition of the game from Gale Force Nine is an updated version of the classic from the 1980's. While many elements remain the same, the game has been repolished with some quality of life improvements, as well as slight mechanical changes which make for a more rewarding and strategic experience.
I love playing games, so I was excited for DUNE, especially when I saw it favourably compared to other epic titles like A Game of Thrones and Twilight Imperium.
Given my admitted lack of knowledge of the source materiel, I made sure that my play group had at least one person who knew a little bit about Frank Herbert's sci-fi masterpiece.
I could think of nobody better than my friend Christian McCrea, lecturer at RMIT, and author of the recently released “Constellations: Studies in Science Fiction Film and TV – Dune.”
“The central gameplay system is really the huge difference in factional systems; they're each fundamentally resourced differently.” McCrea said after playing a few games of DUNE. “If you quadruple-flag this going in, you can have a really rich experience with lots of twists and turns. The combat works, the resourcing works, and you can have a classic tumble and turnabout. But make a single error early on and the system closes on you instantly.”
Just like the unforgiving desert planet itself, DUNE punishes mistakes and requires you to take the game seriously- it doesn't reward firing from the hip, nor is there any handicap for poor resource management.
The game is aware of this, and so provides each faction with a detailed strategy which I found to be very helpful (especially as I won two of the games we played). There also exists systems to ally with fellow players, which can feel natural and necissary when one player seems to be having a good run.
The natural politics that arise from playing DUNE are, in some ways, the most fun thing about the game- and that's regardless of whether you know anything about the source materiel.
“Knowledge of the mythos connects well to the faction conceits and will work to a player's advantage here and there,” McCrea said, “but Dune's setting has always been an acquired taste - the 1965 book, the 1984 film and the various games all presuppose a fascination and diligence that not everybody will share.
“I suspect that with a dedicated group putting in a couple of long sessions, the new reissue of Dune could elevate to a very regular, dynamic and knowing battle of wits.”
We found that by our second game, the mechanics of DUNE, while a little daunting at first, where in fact quite simple. There is nothing overly complicated about the game, there is just a lot of steps, and once you've played a few rounds, these steps become a second nature and you can instead focus on the strategy and tactics that the game so encourages.
“The task ahead in those early games is not just mastery,” McCrea went on, “but concentration and systemic role understanding, especially when it comes to resources.”
Every faction in DUNE is so different, that it changes your entire experience. The game rewards groups who like to play multiple times, as this gives your ample opportunity to a). play the same faction more than once to get a strong handle on the strategy, and b). try alternative factions so that you understand the breadth of the game.
Evidently, DUNE is not a 'lite' game. It's the kind of game for groups that meet often. It's a game that teaches the importance of decision making and resource management in a world where not everyone is created equal (as each faction as their own strengths and handicaps).
DUNE is the kind of game that I cannot wait to play again. While the systems remain the same, the asymmetrical nature of the factions make no two games alike.
Additionally, the game is especially rewarding the more players you have. There is always something to do in DUNE, and you're always invested in the decisions other players are making.
Unlike other, similar games, you're never sitting there with your tokens hidden, waiting for your turn while everyone else does whatever- you're constantly engaged, looking for an opening, sussing out there loyalties lie, and preparing for, what is sometimes an inevitable coup.
The combat portion of DUNE is the most intense part of the game. Not just because the core way to win is by conquering the key strongholds across the planet, but because like Scythe before it, there is a bluffing and calling aspect to combat that means you have to know your opponent well- especially as you risk your own resources every time you go to war.
Of course, holding onto a card that turns your opponent's leader into a traitor, to have them lose automatically regardless of what stock they'd put in the battle is always a supremely satisfying feeling.
“My favourite thing is the traitor system,” McCrea told me, “the reveal potential is great, based on numbers and luck with moderation for anybody who knows the mythos just wanting to be a smartarse.”
There is a lot to love about DUNE, whether you played in back in the day, are a fan of the books or film, or like me and just enjoy sci-fi politicking, you'll find something to hook your claws into and swallow down the spice (or whatever you do with the spice- someone please tell me).
What's more? DUNE comes with advanced rules. Once you've played the base game a few times, you can unlock the advanced game which add even more strategy and depth to each of the game's six factions, increasing the ongoing replayability.