It’s earlier this past summer. I have a moment and something gets lodged in my skull. This is a common enough occurrence, but today we’re talking about a particular moment.
Yes, that game many still talk about from that group of designers who created one of the best games ever crafted – Cosmic Fucking Encounter. But we’re here to talk about Dune.
I’ve decided I’m going to track down a copy. It’s long out of print, but I don’t care because now I must own it. That’s just how it goes.
Immediately after committing to an Ebay purchase of a battered copy of this 1979 artifact, I reach out. It does not take long to find five other brave souls willing to commit. We’re going to play Dune. But first, we’re going to read Dune.
Dune: The Board Game: The Book Club is born.
Confession time: I’d never read it before. Three other group members commit to re-reading the novel, and three of us agree to read it fresh. The game is afoot.
“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.“
Who is this Muad’Dib and what is going on? Dune is dense, not in prose or in its hierarchy of prime movers, but in mysticism and weird. A culture spread to the stars and rejecting the use of computers? Utter nonsense. I don’t get this book.
Still, there’s something here. Paul resists the searing brand of the Gom Jabbar. His fist is aflame. My mind follows suit. There’s something here.
I’m the Bene Gesserit and the game has started but it hasn’t. I have an oblong player aid, torn from a pad manufactured in a year predating my existence. As a cult of mystical witches with de facto superpowers, I need to predict which faction will win and on what turn. Yes, that’s insane. And we haven’t even started playing yet.
I’m lost strategically and barely understand how I’m supposed to win with my faction. The default condition for victory is controlling three of the five strongholds on the board. I’m a group of old hags that may co-exist in spaces with other players. I’m relatively penniless and have some oddball abilities.
I scribble down “Harkonnen on turn 5” and shake my head. I don’t get this game, but I’m excited and the potential is immense. There’s something here.
Dune starts off slow. It begins on Caladan. I don’t care about Caladan. I want spice to flow, sandworms to rage, and massive betrayals. I want what’s been promised by thousands of fans gushing about a book that’s older than time.
“Hope clouds observation.”
Then it happens. Over a meal, it begins to shake out. Liet Kynes, a geologist with blue eyes, makes his presence known. I’ve never seen someone so engrossed in dirt express themselves so fiercely. Paul asserts himself and gains respect. His potential is brimming. He’s not worried about Tosh station or power converters.
It’s the early going. We have not seen war yet but it’s coming. You can feel it in the air like droplets of water collected in a Fremen windtrap.
And so it goes.
The Baron Harkonnen tosses a mound of spice clenched in his grubby fingers to the Guild. He collects a stack of trained warriors and slams them directly into Sietch Tabr – a stronghold held by the Fremen.
I accompany the gutless Harkonnen troops with one of my witch advisors, along for the invasion. The Reverand Mother gets to witness the sands turn crimson from the front row.
Battle is bananas in Dune. You rotate a wheel to essentially a bid, this is your strength. The catch is that it can’t be higher than the number of troops you have in the territory. You also lose all of those troops, that is, if you win.
The loser of the conflict must instead send all of their troops to the Tleilaxu tanks. Stakes are high as your dead soldiers only drip back to you over time and you must pay in coveted spice to ship them back to Arrakis.
You also choose a leader. One of five your faction begins with, each a notable character from the novel. This is where you see the movers and shakers, mentats and warriors, the most beloved of this newfound world.
Your leader is accompanied by cards. You may pick one weapon and one defense. Liet Kynes chooses the rare and coveted Lasegun. Baron Harkonnen is foolish and relies on shields.
The entire space explodes. A mass of souls is lost.
Things are moving now.
I’m swept up like a wave. The shields are lowered and I am inside those stained off-white pages. Baron Harkonnen slithers from the darkness, Duke Leto falls, and everything is torn asunder. This is the Dune I was promised.
The vile Baron is at it again. He licks his lips; Arrakeen it is. A battalion of seven units assaults the walls of the capital city.
Duke Leto, leader of the Atreides, sits uncomfortably.
After the shock subsides, I slowly push one of my witch advisors into the territory. I’ve not even fought a single battle but this game has me in its throes. Every single conflict is meaningful and the stakes are incredibly high as leaders are at risk and spice is difficult to come by. This bloodbath in particular would set the tone for much of play.
Paul and the Baron marshall their troops. They set their dials and select their weapons of war.
None of it matters.
Thufir Hawat, master of assassins, is a snake. He is in the Baron’s pay and a traitor. The battle is over before it has begun. The Atreides homestead is ash.
“There is no escape—we pay for the violence of our ancestors.”
We’re only an hour in and I know. I love this game.
Stilgar is dead. Paul has established himself as Usul, and they call him Maud’Dib.
Worms. Not only devouring machine and man, but serving as mounts for wiley blue-eyed demagogues. Why have I not read you earlier?
“Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.”
Order is established. Lines are drawn and the mood is set.
Baron Harkonnen and The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV are wed in spirit and fist. They control Arrakeen and Carthag. They have mobility, they have spice, and they wield treachery.
So we go to war.
The Fremen are scattered in the desert, the Guild quietly amasses stores of spice, Atreides seeks to recover, and I continue to quietly plot.
It’s turn five. Harkonnen need one more stronghold and their alliance will win. But they won’t, because I have predicted it so with the weirding way.
The Baron Harkonnen nudges his forces that have locked down Arrakeen. He contemplates a push to the west, beyond the shield wall. The stronghold in question is being held by the Guild, my co-conspirator and momentary brother.
I want my ally to burn and the future I saw to become the present I see.
But the Baron exercises some uncommon restraint. He doesn’t push out of Arrakeen. My gut burns.
“It is impossible to live in the past, difficult to live in the present and a waste to live in the future.”
Paul Maud’Dib is biding his time. Preparing for the final battle.
The words are coming swift and my head is dizzy. Every chapter bounds forward like a Maker cutting through sand.
Usul drinks the water of life. My entirety clenches.
We’re nearing the end. The second half of the game is fraught with suspense. Every single turn a massive push is made and the balance of Arrakis threatens to shift. It could end at any moment.
We make our move.
The Guild, having spoiled me with spice, launches their assault. I move into the Sietch Tabr. We are going to win.
My ally comes through. It’s all up to me.
“Fear is the mind killer.”
The Princess Irulan is dead by the hands of her father, my Bene Gesserit put to the knife.
The last hundred pages are but a moment. Paul Maud’Dib obliterates the shield wall. The Emperor cowers. Usul duels Feyd-Rautha. I’m shocked.
I expect a twist. Everything has been building towards this moment and the inevitable becomes the reality. I pause.
“Think on it, Chani: the princess will have the name, yet she’ll live as less than a concubine-never to know the moment of tenderness from the man to whom she’s bound. While we, Chani, we who carry the name of the concubine-history will call us wives.”
It takes awhile to sink in. I sit there, my thoughts raging and brain agog.
Eventually I see it; the undeniable beauty. The jihad is inevitable. How it occurs and what happens after the liberation of Arrakis is unknown. Paul sees infinite branching paths, but the jihad and the prophet are certainties.
There’s an extraordinary comfort in the multitude of the novel’s readers contemplating the events post-conclusion. Each of us forms a thought on what will occur, how Paul and his people will flourish and die, and what will happen in that godforsaken universe.
In a moment of genius the fourth wall is broken as we, the collective audience, form those branching paths of prescience with our own thoughts, dreams, and desires. We are at one with Dune and all is right.
The planet has shifted once again.
The Guild, in a stroke of genius, plays the “Family Atomics” card. The shield wall is annihilated. The door opens and the storm atop Carthag rages. The Emperor is gone.
The Baron Harkonnen and Edric unite. They are unable to seize four strongholds but it’s too late for the rest of us.
I find common ground with the Fremen and we attempt to expel the invaders from the sietches of the planet’s natives, but it does not occur. We are too weak and feeble and the future has already been decided.
The six of us sit in silent reverance. 40 year old cardboard is scattered across the table, empires shattered. Amid conversation and dramatic theatrics – the magic of the tabletop has occurred; a shared event that transcends the people, place, and time. I’m flabbergasted and would not sleep that night.
Dune, however, rests. The planet that is most dry is sodden with the blood of countless fallen. A wasteland turned into a wasteland. A domain without a ruler. Dune rests.
“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”
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Welcome to the Brotherhood… my parents saw me reading a comic version of Dune in 1979, so they bought me the game and the paperback.
“He who controls the spice controls the universe… or at least the Treachery Deck”
Ha, thanks John. Good to be here.
Awesome! This is one of the most thematic and deep games that exists. The asymmetry, potential for treachery, shifting alliances and so forth – make this a fascinating experience for me when i get to play 4 or 5 times a year.
All of this and they manage it without using a single die roll. Really a master class game. I wish it would go back into print. After all these years a gaming company has pried the rights to the IP off of the Herbert estate, so that may be (pun intended) … in the cards. We’ll have to wait and see.
I am glad you enjoyed it – wish I could have been in on that session.
Long Live The Fighters!
We will play this together some day Ian!
I’m going to try to go to that St. Louis con next time – just need to remember to get my badge before they sell out!
I’m reading far on into the Dune series – Hunters of Dune …. a quote from that book – no spoilers –
“idiot – now you’ve killed me twice” …. lol …
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Wow, what a game! And, of course, what a book. My father once gifted it to my mother – who, as she is entirely unintrigued by fantasy, sci-fi, and the like – never read it. (No idea what my father was thinking or if this was so early in the relationship he couldn’t know.) More than 20 years later, teenage Clio picked it up and was enthralled. Sometimes, fate just needs some time. The Bene Gesserit know that.
Great story, thanks! What a wonderful book indeed.
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I tried to read Dune years ago and found it as dry as the sands of its titular planet. Maybe I should give it another go.
It’s definitely something I wouldn’t have enjoyed when I was younger. It’s very focused on political loyalties, betrayal, and social issues. It’s kind of Game of Thrones before Game of Thrones.