Arrakis and Hobbes – A Review of Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy

This is a nearly impossible task. Take a 40 year old board game – one which is a stunning masterpiece – and trim off three of the four hours while retaining something meaningful. It takes a certain degree of fortitude, or hubris, to look back at such a classic and even attempt to modernize it. A tickle of wind and you fall off the razor into the abyss of Han Shooting first.

Gale Force Nine’s Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy is an introspective work, one strongly focused and more narrow than the 1979 Avalon Hill design. Succinctly, it reduces that original epic entirely to its brilliant combat wheel mechanism. I’m in utter shock that it succeeds so extraordinarily in this difficult pursuit.

Everything is contracted but sped up, hurtling participants forward like a slug through rifled bore.

The storm still circles Arrakis. Spice still blows, doubly so. You still ship in from off planet as troops ride the lightning to strike the sandblasted surface and assault strongholds.

The combat is still phenomenal. It’s almost identical to its predecessor as you select one of your leaders and a weapon as well as defense. Although here, it’s much more likely you actually have cards to play as everyone refills their hand earlier in the round. Yes, the entire auction is gutted and fed to Shai-Hulud. I found myself not missing that aged sequence in the slightest as the amount of time gained is tremendous.

Thankfully there are still traitors and reversals and huge upsets. It’s dramatic as can be and remains the strongest conflict system in cardboard.

If you’ve never played Dune you’re missing out. Both combatants secretly select a number on a wheel. However, you may not rotate the disc to a value higher than the amount of troops you have in the area, these warriors represented by miniscule tokens that feel more number than flesh. The cost, however, is great. Your selection is the number of troops you lose at the end of the battle. That’s assuming you win, of course. If you lose then everything is gone, banished to the Tleilaxu tanks.

It’s brutal as hell. You sit there, trying to crawl into your opponent’s mind and assay their psychopathy. If you bid too high you will be left with a shattered battalion in victory. Bid too low and you’re left with unmarked graves. How many bodies is this stronghold worth?

There’s more. Each side must add a leader disc to their bid, increasing their total army strength. These are asymmetric of course; Dune is the fuzzy yet sinister mascot of asymmetry. But those leaders are paired with weapon and defense cards forming a rock-paper-scissors relationship of opposition. And they can die. But they can also be traitorous bastards, selling their own side out for whispered promises and hollow glory. Those are the best moments of Dune.

Weave in the astonishing faction powers, such as the Imperium utilizing the Bene Gesserit’s “Voice” to force an opponent into playing a specific battle card or the Atreides “Prescience” which allows you a narrow peek at the enemy’s selection, and you have something marvelous.

This system is electric. It has the stage presence of Freddy Mercury. It’s deserving of its own game and we’ve finally gotten it.

It’s important to celebrate this release but it’s also valuable that we attempt to understand it.

You could reasonably argue that discussing this game forthrightly is falling into a trap. Declaring it a refined or modernized take on the earlier work is an obvious ontological claim, but at best that’s a half-truth. In many ways, this Dune Light or Movie Dune, is a different being entirely. In fact, solely by removing the alliance structure of the ’79 version it has reshaped the very core philosophy of the design.

At every phase in that previous title you are negotiating your way through contentious space. Every spice blow is a cautionary lure that could see you overcommitting troops more valuable than the resources they secure. This results in discussion, forming pacts with not only your mechanically bound ally but other parties at the table to back off from the melange bounty. If a nexus card is drawn then the social space becomes even more emphatic with alliances instantly collapsing and new allegiances sworn. It radically shapes the dynamics of the conflict and it can come out of seemingly nowhere.

Acquiring cards often results in conspiring with the Emperor – the player who receives all of the spice spent on the market – as well as bribing the Atreides faction to reveal information they have on the facedown available cards. Everything is uncertain but there are tools to navigate through the haze, they simply require leaning upon others.

Finally, battle itself is often a negotiation between separate alliances. If a pair of players is within inches of victory by controlling one too many strongholds, you may need to support another opponent and convince them to break the would-be-victors defenses to stave off defeat for the entire group.

Dune is constant discussion. It’s an array of social contracts overlapping and grinding against each other, forming an amalgam of a larger compact between all parties at the table.

I’m fond of that term social contract, originally coined by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. I think it not only accurately packages the identity of that previous Avalon Hill title, but I also like to utilize it in transition to describing this new Dune: A Game of Conquest and Betrayal. This game is not particularly fixated on establishing a social contract as an expression of game design. In fact, it provides a radically different experience by moving beyond those particular set of philosophical ideas.

Instead, Movie Dune is “the war of all against all.”

Hobbes argued this state of warring factions with no morality and no concerns beyond individual survival is the natural consequence of collapse of the social contract. It’s a nation without government, effectively reduced to the status of nature as opposed to civilization. Arrakis embodies this harsh environment and it’s clear to me this design stands as a completely different experience to the extended diplomatic conflict of the original release.

Without alliances, without market manipulation, and with a more simplified economy the game is a massive sprint. It’s fast, wrapping up in 40-70 minutes. Everyone can attack everyone each turn. You always refill your combat cards so that previous undulating tempo is simply not there. No longer is the default game state half the factions licking their wounds and stuck in recovery while the other half sit in tension, waiting for the best moment to strike. Movie Dune is like being stuck in a swell without intermission or pause. As soon as you thrust your Crysknife you’re pivoting on your heel and bracing for the blade at your back. This is the war of all against all as Hobbes so poignantly described and you can’t conversate your way to victory.

In this shorter, more direct format, the experience is very unpredictable. It’s easy to feel whiplash as strongholds change hands every single round. It can feel as though the fate of the entire game comes down to just a couple of significant battles with large upsets. These are dramatic, standup moments that escalate heart rate. But they also highlight how light the strategic layer is in this streamlined game. I’m perfectly amicable with this tradeoff for this specific hour long version of Dune.

While I’ve established that this is a very different game from its predecessor, I do want to highlight the unusual way in which the two games are conjoined. There are just enough callbacks and intact systems from the previous release that this embedded familiarity serves as a meta-setting for the new design to inhabit. By that, I mean the reference and effortless allusion to our previous epic experiences will sit atop the experience as the primary context.

I can hear your objections already. That’s a pretty ethereal statement that could apply to any major revision of virtually any game. But no, that’s not true. It’s actualized with A Game of Conquest and Betrayal because the original game is so full of rich narrative, steeped in the greater themes of the novel. The stories that emerged are very specific to the game, it’s setting, and that quirky map.

This streamlined version of that game is actually relatively stripped of theme. There is almost no reference to the disastrous effects of messianic religious belief, a motif that is given some weight in the ’79 edition. This is actualized with the integration of the Bene Gesserit as a full fledged faction able to orchestrate prophecy, as well as emphasizing the Kwisatz Haderach with a bespoke mechanism. This new design is also divorced from Herbert’s strong analogy of spice to oil, as it strips away the politics of the situation by dissolving alliances. So it’s left lighter thematically as well as mechanically.

This provides a crawlspace for those old war stories and narratives to subsist. Instead of being lost in thought contemplating how we’ve rewritten the sci-fi classic, my thematic intellectual chamber is occupied by the fiction of our previous plays. This is a heady concept but it would be like playing a stripped down version of Star Wars: Rebellion that so obviously references the previous game as to shift the thematic burden from Lucas to the players of yesterday who sat at that table and crafted something their own.

War stories

Let’s get this conversation back to something more palpable and grounded. There are a couple of quirks to keep in mind with this release. The first is that it’s disappointing to see the visual artistry of director Denis Villeneuve almost entirely absent from this game. Stills are used throughout, but there is no real attempt to capture the cinematography of the new film. This is a huge mistake as Villeneuve’s stunning visuals would make for a very strong backbone to the tabletop game.

In addition to relying on static character portraits, the overall product is austere. The components are small and modest, particularly troops and spice. While this makes for a disappointing first impression, the positive is that the game is remarkably affordable in the current environment. This isn’t a small point to be clear.

The other kink is that this game is presented as a 2-4 player experience. It indeed functions at all of those counts, but I must say that the two player game is not particularly compelling. Obvious care was taken to strengthen this mode of play as it could prove a rather unique selling point, but it’s often over far too quickly ending routinely in a whimper as one side can’t hope to stop another. The zero-sum nature of the back and forth aggression does not feel as dynamic or unpredictable as it should. Without a third party back-dooring an assault in the aftermath of a previous conflict, it feels more lifeless and expected.

Due to these shortcomings It simply can’t compete due to the sheer volume of stunning two player experiences on the tabletop. I don’t think I will ever reach for this game when presented with the opportunity of a single opponent.

On the sum, I am elated to see this game release. It captures the virtue of the original combat system perfectly while still retaining some of Dune’s wonderful quirks such as the strong faction asymmetry and the weirdly shaped map.

And I’m also pleased to find that it doesn’t replace that original game. Both can, and should, co-exist in the current culture of our hobby as starkly different experiences. Beyond the contrast of one focusing on negotiation and the other more narrowly on direct combat, the ’79 release also retains a very evocative specificity that new Dune can’t hope to claim. You will never see wonderful aspects like the use of “family atomics” to obliterate the shield wall, elite troops such as the Fedaykin felling Harkonnen, or the Bene Gesserit stealing a victory out from under the nose of another faction.

The original Dune board game is still relevant, impactful, and lasting. Every play is a memory with emotion serving as a bulwark to the demons of time. We often talk about and remember those experiences. Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy won’t carve out real estate in the hippocampus.

But that’s not its aim.

The intensely sharp focus is realized and it delivers a great deal of tension and dynamic play with little fuss and great speed. This is an outright achievement, even if it’s something altogether different.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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  5 comments for “Arrakis and Hobbes – A Review of Dune: A Game of Conquest and Diplomacy

  1. Jacob Lee
    October 31, 2021 at 1:17 pm

    Well, I’m definitely intrigued by this one now. Thank you for this review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve Owen
    November 24, 2021 at 8:21 am

    The timeline is actually 1976 Cosmic Encounter 1979 Dune (basic game) and 2021 Dune CAD all by the same designers and sharing some of the same DNA. A stripped down Rebellion amused me as this itself was a stripped down and sanitised version of Freedom in the Galaxy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 24, 2021 at 8:23 am

      I’ve never played Freedom in the Galaxy but Cosmic Encounter, like Dune, is of course one of my favorite games.

      Like

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