Monday, January 27, 2014

The spice must flow

Avalon Hill's Dune board game, based on Frank Herbert's science fiction masterpiece and published in 1979, has achieved a kind of cult status among gamers. The game has been out of print since 1984, which adds considerably to its mystique, with copies selling online for $100 or more when they can be found at all. Fantasy Flight Games tried unsuccessfully to reprint the game in 2012: they were able to obtain the rights to the game from its original designers, but were unable to acquire a license for the Dune content from Frank Herbert's estate. They instead set it in their Twilight Imperium universe and published a revised version of the game as Rex: Final Days of an Empire.

The game play is relatively simple: each player controls one of six interplanetary factions from the novel, and attempts to take control of three or more of the five stronghold areas on the board, which represents a map of the planet Dune. Players control areas by shipping army units into play, and if two players have armies in the same area they fight it out.

The combat system is one of the many unique things about they game. When a battle breaks out, each player secretly bids a number of the units they have available in the contested area. The player who bid the most units wins the battle and wipes out all of the opposing units, but the winner still loses all the units he bid as well. So a player can't bid all of his units if he wants to stay in control of the area after the battle is over. Players on either side can use a leader to add to their total in the battle, as well as weapons to try to take out their opponent's leader and defenses to protect their own leader. Players also have access to treachery cards which can affect the results of battle, and at the start of the game each player randomly chooses one opposing leader as their traitor; if your opponent reveals your traitor as their leader, you automatically win the battle.

In addition to fighting over territory, players can collect spice from randomly determined areas of the board, which gives them the resources they need to pay for more troops. Even that isn't as easy as it sounds, as there is a roving sandstorm that moves around the board and wipes out everything in its path unless it's protected by rocky terrain or a stronghold.

At certain points during the game, the legendary sandworm appears, and players have the opportunity to form alliances. Players in an alliance share victory, although their victory conditions are a bit harder. More importantly, allied players can help each other out. They can't combine their armies, but they can pay for each other's army shipping, make use of each other's traitors, and they can use their faction's special ability to help all the other players in their alliance. For example, the Spacing Guild gets to ship armies to Dune for half price, the Atreides get to peek at Treachery cards as they are being distributed, and the Harkonnens start with four traitors rather than one.

Each time a new sandworm appears, players get the chance to withdraw from alliances and enter into new ones. For most of the game's hardcore enthusiasts, this wheeling and dealing is the real point of the game, and what sets it apart from other, similar empire building games.

Rating: 4 (out of 5) An intriguing and compelling game, but it really needs a full table of six players to get the most out of it.

  • Dune on

Date played: January 4, 2014

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