It’s easy to lose the thread on this one. The problem is that we’ve breached the upper threshold of games based on Frank Herbert’s Dune and they’re all starting to blend together. This one is the latest from Gale Force Nine and is effectively a re-working of the 1982 Eon title Borderlands. Fantasy Flight Games first attempted to resurrect this design in 2013 under the name Gearworld: The Borderlands, and it didn’t quite find its footing. In fact, it bombed. It’s surprising then to see a third iteration from yet another publisher.
What’s intriguing about Borderlands, and subsequently Arrakis: Dawn of the Fremen, is that this title was the third release from the Eon design team that created breakout hits Cosmic Encounter and the original Avalon Hill Dune board game. Those two classics occupy permanent spots in the hall of fame, so of course I was eager to see what this group would fashion by revisiting their work and sprucing it up with some modernity.
Surprisingly, Arrakis is not terribly contemporary. I was actually stunned at how non-conformist and untamed this experience truly is, as I expected a fresh development cycle and substantial changes. It’s an area control affair where players are competing Fremen tribes in the early days of Arrakis. It’s a brutal thing, which fits the source material well.
The coarseness arrives at every turn. Whole phases of the game – such as producing resources – only occur if a die roll says so. Sometimes the group will need to vote on whether trading or shipping happens. Occasionally the first player simply decides.
Trading is a large part of the game as you will need specific resources to produce items such as crysknives and stillsuits, cherished items you will wield in battle. Ultimately, you’re trying to acquire more resource generating territory and store enough spice, food, and water to construct a sietch. Build three such strongholds and you win the game.
Combat is odd. Really much of this game is odd, but let’s deal with violence first. It’s completely deterministic. Everything is visible and out on the table. The only effective unknown is when a neutral third party is bordering the conflict and they decide to throw their strength behind one of the participants. Other than that, you win or lose based on different items you’ve constructed and how well you’ve positioned yourself on the map.
There are moments this works and it’s beautiful. Other times it’s utterly devoid of drama and has me pining for the Dune combat wheel.
Part of this is that the opportunity for support only occasionally sways a battle. Often board state will simply dictate the winner, particularly in games consisting of less than four players. When the opportunity does arise, there is some interesting discussion to be had as items, resources, and promises are bartered.
It’s a weird system though. Things start slow and are mostly telegraphed, only picking up in the mid-game as you start to envelop spaces and set yourself up for future success. There’s a thoughtful strategic element to how you expand, and it couples well with the negotiation.
Conflict is also interesting in that losing territory results in the gaining of water debt, effectively a catchup mechanism as you may trade in sets of these tokens for other resources or to block strength in conflict. Oddly, I’ve seen moments where a player hesitated to attack a non-integral territory, wanting to avoid the water debt which would propel the player forward elsewhere.
I enjoy much of the kooky stuff going on here. There’s a phase where players can enter formal alliances, or even agree to change whole rules of the game. It’s the only design I can think of that supports formalizing house rules through a political process. Even stranger, none of this flies unless every single person at the table agrees. The agreement must be unanimous.
I have to admit that I get a certain sense of perverse pleasure in watching modern board gamers react to this concept. Most will question why everyone would agree to allow two players to join forces. This ethos is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this design, giving it an esoteric feel and a sense of character.
It reminds me of the same philosophy in Myth. You know that dungeon crawler that was rightly chastened for its abomination of a rulebook and undeveloped framework. That design, while stuffed with legitimate issues, had a spark of creativity at the center. It allowed players to author the experience, deciding what they fought and encountered as they moved through the dungeon. People struggle with this avant-garde approach, as they expect fairness and competitive logic to trump imagination.
It’s incomprehensible to some that a group of three players may come to an agreement of allowing two to form an alliance and the third singleton to receive one spice every turn as a newly enacted rule of law. The idea of doing such a thing for experimentation is so foreign and crude when taken within the context of the post-Board Game Geek hobbyist crowd.
I hear these ideas and I think back to when I was 10, playing games like AD&D and Battlemasters and following the rules loosely while giving deference to inspiration. If you’re not aligned with that spirit, then the resulting system feels messy and not particularly well structured.
It also proves difficult to embrace this design due to how modest and unassuming it is on the table. I’ve found Gale Force Nine’s approach of simpler, more cost-efficient productions somewhat refreshing in the age of unrelenting deluxification. But it’s difficult to ignore that the impression of mechanistic disorder is reflected by how disheveled the board state appears in the latter half of play, with counters and tokens all over the place obfuscating perception. This is the rare case where a touch of plastic may have alleviated some of this pain.
There are also some rough spots that are more conspicuous than I’d prefer. You get two actions, for instance, but your first must be scavenge or attack and your second must be shipment or attack. You can’t scavenge second or ship first. This is for balance reasons, but it’s a small little niggle that trips people up and eats away at goodwill.
Similarly, there are formal rules for a single player conceding. You can leave the table and remove all of your units, allowing everyone else to keep playing. But I see no real benefit to wasting words in the rules manual on this. There is no attempt to rebalance the game around a participant skipping out, the spaces simply remain empty, perhaps favoring certain tribes depending on their position. The lack of expected logic occasionally helps, but often impedes the experience.
There is a mystery here that I find compelling, even if the bulk of gameplay is more confounding than revelatory. I’ve found there to be peculiar nuances in the design, little pathways of oddity that bear intellectual scrutiny. Things such as the setup rules which have players building the map with only partial information. Or the opaque strategic process of deployment.
Sometimes the details obscure the interesting bits, such as territory control markers appearing as Fremen troops and undercutting the understanding that they don’t actually ever move. But equipment and worm tokens do move, which narratively is at first difficult to grasp. Rarely is Arrakis: Dawn of the Fremen intuitive.
I’m struck by how this design fits alongside the Eon team’s previous two titles. It’s antithetical to those efforts. Instead of wild asymmetry, we have symmetric forces. Instead of dramatic and unpredictable conflict, we have very direct computed resolution. It feels almost like their take on a hex and counter wargame, attempting a strained fit within a pre-ordained box when those earlier designs defied categorization. It does contain the throughput of negotiation, pushing players into momentary alliances and brokering deals during the trade phase of the game, which is the single strongest dynamic at work.
For maybe the first time in my eight years of board games criticism, I find it impossible to come to a lucid conclusion. Arrakis defies such arrangement.
Thinking about this game births both discomfort and wonder. I wouldn’t recommend it to most modern hobbyists, but there is a subset of people that will find this strange and intriguing. It comes across almost as some type of memorabilia, a replica of a lost time and an ode to cardboard history.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.