Of all the board games I’ve played, and there have been literally hundreds, Avalon Hill’s Dune is still the one that captures my imagination more than any other. This article over at Ars Technica feels like something I would write about the game that nearly cost me a college degree, but, arguably, taught me more than I learned over the 140+ credits I amassed before graduating with a B.S. in Chemistry and a minor in English. I highly recommend it for a run-down of Dune’s history.
Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait.
Dune is the Anti-Eurogame
Dune is everything modern board games are ascribing not to be: opaque turn structure, unforgiving combat system, intensely political and devoid of higher-order mathematics that give a huge advantage to human calculators.
The best way to describe game of Dune is an endless series of Prisoner’s Dilemmas you force onto your opponents through bluffing, paying for information and shifting alliances. And, in doing so, creates a very high learning curve for new players.
This is why most people who don’t truly understand Dune think it can only be played well with five or six people. Untrue. The reason for this is most gamers have no idea how to manage board state in such a way as to not unbalance things and throw the game to someone else.
That’s the learning curve for Dune. It’s not the rules. Those are relatively simple.
In fact, most of my experience with the game is actually three or four player between my now wife, roommate and whoever was crashing on our couch that week. Everyone once in a while we’d get a five or six player game together, but it was as rare as actually getting my copy of Republic of Rome to the table.
Most games look great during their first few plays and seriously prey on your sub-conscious asking you to master them. But, once you do, once you see the code behind the Matrix, they become far less interesting. Most ‘euro-style’ games are like this. Even the best ones suffer from this.
But Dune never gets old. And the reason for this is that a game that is this intensely political, though the setup is exactly the same each time, is because of those you play with. The people make the game. Change a player in the group and the dynamic shifts entirely.
New strategies, bluffs, counter-bluffs, and the like all rise to the surface just by teaching some newbie how to play the Fremen. This was the game that taught me more about politics than any headline or college course ever could.
Nearly all euro-games are all, in a sense, like chess. The moves are in the open or, at best, the hidden information is easy to figure out. This sets you on the path of optimal play that becomes stale very quickly. I’m told that doesn’t happen with Agricola, but I haven’t played it enough to find out.
For example, in Lords of Waterdeep the private Lord mechanic is superfluous. It shouldn’t be hard to figure out who has what Lord after they buy their first or second Quest card.
I have a friend who plays that game with his Lord face up now just to prove his point while he goes on to win, because, he is, of course, one of those human computers I spoke about earlier. And knows how to shave points to his advantage like few people I’ve met. He’s a formidable opponent and I love hanging out with him for this reason.
He is someone I want to play Dune with (or at least Rex: The Last Days of Dying Empire, Fantasy Flight’s reskin from a few years back, since my copy of Dune got lost to time) to hone his ability to read people and manipulate them to his will.
The Spice Must Flow
In my mind Dune as an IP is dead, having been mismanaged by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, to death. Fantasy Flight Games owns the rights to Dune’s game mechanics, which they got from the game’s designers to create Rex. And for that I am truly grateful to them.
But, Rex was developed before FFG acquired the license for Star Wars. And to me, Star Wars fits Dune’s structure so much better than Twilight Imperium, which is the theme for Rex.
Setting a Star Wars game on Coruscant after the fall of Palpatine would create a great opportunity to rebuild Dune properly on an insanely popular IP. That would justify the development cost simply because, Star Wars.
It could bring back most of the mysticism stripped out of Rex, through the Force, and reintroduce the best mechanics lost in translation to Rex — worthless cards, cheap heroes/heroines, Karama — and put back in place restrictions on leader revival that nearly destroyed the Harkonnens (Barony of Letnev).
I agree with the writer at Ars Technica, FFG tried too hard to make Dune into a more modern game. In doing so it lost some of the important balance points and, frankly, flavor of the original game. It’s a game I carry with me every time I go to my FLGS in the hope I can get two or three to sit down for a ‘learning game.’ But it rarely happens.
And it’s a shame that with us living in what is absolutely the Golden Age of Board Gaming, this generation of gamers cannot experience one of the progenitors of the hobby in all its glory thanks to Brian Herbert’s ego and FFG’s mishandling to date.
FFG did a great job re-imagining Cosmic Encounter as The Iron Throne for the Game of Thrones IP. It created a structure that fit the theme while removing some of CE’s catastrophically bad interactions. It made CE a better game. I highly recommend it as a game that gets deeper with more familiarity and a set group of players.
Setting Dune’s mechanics in Star Wars would create a new generation of players who will see that same potential. This is a game so loved that people spend hundreds of dollars printing out their own private versions of it. More work has been done by the players to keep this game alive than the industry that owes its current life to it.
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