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Dune Session: The Many Faces of the Desert Planet

February 27, 2007

I had the opportunity to play the board game Dune three times over the past month with different groups of people and was struck by how remarkably different all three games were. Each game of something like Tigris & Euphrates, El Grande, or Age of Steam is different (otherwise I wouldnít keep playing them), but they tend to follow the same general flow and pattern as the previous game, with a clear beginning build-up, middle expansion, and end-game final push. Dune, on the other hand, did not conform to any of my board game expectations, even entering my third game after having played twice. This is a very good thing for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Dune holds a unique position in my collection, not only because itís the only great game for six players that Iíve discovered, but also because itís so different from anything else I own. Second, Dune isnít just different from the other games I own, but also different from itself, with each game only vaguely resembling the previous games. This is great for the obvious reason of increasing the gameís replayability over the years, as long as I can continue to find five other people with four hours to spare. So what set each of my three games apart from each other so distinctly, letís take a closer look at the individual games themselves since generalities about Dune give a very incomplete picture at best.

Game 1: He Who Controls the Spice Controls the Universe

Baron Vladimir Harkonnenís memorable quote concerning the vital importance of mťlange for controlling the universe applied with surprising accuracy to my first game of Dune. The Spacing Guild and the Imperial House Corrino, infamous for controlling the spice, dominated the game and won decisively on the fourth turn of the game. The Spacing Guild receives all of the spice that is spent by the other players (except the Fremen) for landing troops on the board, and the Emperor receives all of the spice that is spent bidding on Treachery cards during the game. The winning factions combined forces to buy more cards and land more troops than the other four, and were unstoppable. The relatively quick game was due to a variety of factors. Most importantly, this was the first time playing Dune for all six players participating, so everyone had only a vague understanding of the rules, and even more vague understanding of the intricacies of the player powers and how they fit together. Certainly the most striking thing about this board game is how different the six different player powers are from one another. While the mechanic of variable player powers is nothing new or terribly surprising, the extent of the differences in this case make the game unique among my gaming experiences. Games like Diplomacy and Game of Thrones give players immensely different starting positions, but even these donít alter the way that each player fundamentally approaches the game. While Turkeyís strategy must differ significantly from Englandís, the rules apply in the same manner to both, just as they apply equally to House Stark and House Lannister. Games like Twilight Imperium gives players different abilities, modifying the rules slightly so that one player hits with a certain type of spaceship on a 6 instead of a 7 or something of that nature. In stark contrast, the factions in Dune are so different from each other that the rules applicable to each are not the same and consequently the way in which each must play the game is significantly different. While the rules of the game itself are not complicated or difficult to learn, figuring out how all of the player powers work together is neither an easy task nor one that can be accomplished through anything less than playing the game a number of times.

With the being said, the other players surely contributed to the dominance of the Guild and Emperor alliance. On the first turn of the game, the Harkonnen sent all 10 troops from Carthag to invade the 10 Atreides troops sitting in Arrakeen. Almost all 20 soldiers died in battle, and a power vacuum in the two strongholds resulted. In addition, the Fremen player deployed all 20 of his troops onto the board on the first turn of the game. The Fremen lost a battle to the Atreides in the Pasty Mesa and a battle to the Guild on the False Wall South. In addition, the first three spice blows were all on the far East of the map, around the Red Chasm and the Sihaya Ridge, and the Fremen failed to use the Polar Sink to quickly traverse the map, so the Fremen were left with no spice during the game and were able to acquire almost no cards during the Treachery card auctions.

When the great Shai Hulud surfaced for the first time resulting in the crucial first Nexus, the Harkonnen player with his vast hand of eight Treachery cards unleashed a Cone of Silence. While the Baron had planned to use his power to thwart the Imperial House Corrino, the wily Emperor was able to convince the Baron instead to join forces with him, and use the card to blockade the Fremen, Atreides, and Bene Gesserit. Consequently, the Spacing Guild, Emperor, and Baron Vladimir formed a three-way alliance, leaving the others on their own, and blocking the others from acquiring any Treachery cards for the turn. The three-way alliance fell just short of victory, but fortunately for the Emperor and Guild, Shai Hulud saw fit to show his face once again at the next spice blow, and having served his purpose and used up his crucial Cone of Silence, the Emperor and Guild saw fit to discard the Baron from their alliance, allowing them to win that turn with only four, rather than all five, strongholds. The Bene Tleilaxu tanks were full to the brim with Fremen, Harkonnen, and Atreides troops, leaving too few to defend the planetís strongholds from the Sardaukar invasion (at half price no less due to the Guildís benevolence).

Game 2: One Witch Shy

The second game of Dune was played a few weeks later by four of the same people from the first game and two new players who had never played before. The new players controlled the Bene Gesserit and the Atreides, with the ďexperiencedĒ (only one game of experience) players each controlled a different faction. MaudíDib of the Atreides had changed his allegiance to Stilgar of the Fremen, the Spacing Guildís leader had switched to Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the Fremen now led Imperial House Corrino, and the Harkonnen Baron now led the Guild. This second game did not resemble to first game in the slightest, perhaps because two-thirds of the players had played before and that one game of experience was crucial. The game actually lasted the full complement of 10 rounds (because we had decided earlier to end after 10 turns rather than the 15 prescribed in the rules, if it came to that). No one was able to secure control of three strongholds on their own, four in a two-way alliance, or all five in a three-way alliance. As a result, the Spacing Guild won a solo victory after all 10 rounds because the Fremen had not satisfied their end-game winning conditions (having failed to control Habbanya Ridge Sietch). However, it was a tenuous win for the Guild because the Bene Gesserit witches were a mere one unit shy of gaining control of three strongholds on the final turn to secure a solo win for themselves.

The game was remarkably even, unlike the previous game, with all six players seemingly being on relatively equal footing throughout. After a few turns of small skirmishes, but no major losses in battle, the first Nexus occurred. The Emperor unleashed a Cone of Silence on the Fremen, Guild, and Harkonnen, giving himself the opportunity to ally with the Bene Gesserit and Atreides. The plan was to use the Bene Gesseritís voice power in battle with the Atreidesí prescience power in battle combined with the force of the Sardaukar troops in order to defeat the powerless opposition. Unfortunately, the Bene Gesserit was unwilling to commit sufficient troops as their plan was to continue slowly building up sending one witch down at a time to coexist with the others until the right time to seize control. The Atreides were too poor on spice to contribute to the Emperorís plans, and actually sapped the Emperor of so much of his own collection of spice that by the time the failed alliance dissolved two turns later, the Emperor had to go begging for mťlange. The Emperorís troops alone could do no more than dominate Tuekís Sietch and invade Carthag with overwhelming force, but a devastating loss in Carthag as a result of leader Bursegís treachery to the Harkonnens left Imperial House Corrino in shambles. In addition, after doubling the spice blow in South Mesa to an extraordinary 20 spice, and marching in enough troops to secure the entire thing in one turn, the Emperor suffered another devastating loss at the hands of Baron Vladimir who unleashed a Thumper Treachery card, calling Shai Hulud to devour the remainder of the Imperial forces, sending the last of the Sardaukar to the Bene Tleilaxu tanks. Having tired of the Bene Gesseritís unwillingness to speed up deployment of their witches onto Arrakis and the constant demands of the Atreides for more spice, the Emperor used the next Nexus as an opportunity to dissolve the three-way alliance. In its wake, three two-way alliances arose. The Atreides found their way to the other spice-rich faction and allied with the Guild. The Bene Gesserit sought the aid of the Stilgar of the Fremen. And the Emperor went begging to the most unlikely of prospects, the Harkonnen for mťlange and an ally.

Each pair strove to acquire the necessary four strongholds to secure control over the planet, with the Fremen and Bene Gesserit alliance coming closest, but none was able to secure the win. The Guild invaded Sietch Tabr to block Fremen control, the Emperor clung to Tuekís Sietch despite watching countless troops devoured right outside the gates in the South Mesa, and the Harkonnen held Carthag after earlier holding off the Emperor with devious treachery. The Fremen had gained Arrakeen though, and the Bene Gesserit were dominant in Habbanya Ridge Sietch, along with a large co-existing force in Tuekís Sietch, plus an imposing force in the Polar Sink. All the while, the Emperor had crept up from Tuekís Sietch, through the Pasty Mesa, to the Shield Wall, eyeing a single card in his hand throughout the journey. When the time came at the beginning of the next turn to reveal the stormís travel, the Emperor let loose with atomic force, blasting the Shield Wall to smithereens, but simultaneously disappointed to see that the Coriolis Storm would travel just shy of where the Emperor had hoped, and the suicide mission would have been in vain. But just then, the Harkonnen unveiled the second part of the plan, that being a Weather Control Treachery card, allowing the storm to pass not only through Arrakeen to destroy the Fremen forces, but also through the Imperial Basin, Carthag, and the Broken Land where the Atreides were hurriedly mining the spice. All was destroyed in the path of the storm, leaving a power vacuum in the North.

Turn ten saw the Bene Gesserit strive to fill that vacuum and fall just shy. The Bene Gesserit crept forth finally from the Polar Sink, riding ornithopters triumphantly into Arrakeen, and ending its peaceful coexistence in both Habbanya Ridge Sietch and Tuekís Sietch. The Bene Gesserit defeated the Emperor in both of its southern strongholds by using the power of the voice to prevent the Emperor from protecting his leaders from the witchesí deadly poison, but came up one witch shy of defeating the Harkonnen in Arrakeen, and the Spacing Guild walked away victorious, having prevented the other five factions from seizing control of Dune.

This game was a back-and-forth struggle between all six factions with a variety of alliances being formed and broken during the game, and a variety of powers controlling the different strongholds throughout the game. Each had an opportunity to win, but each let it slip through its fingers at the crucial moment. The battles were numerous and fierce, leaving the Bene Tleilaxu tanks overflowing with leaders and troops, and the planet Arrakis a ghost town, just as the Guild had hoped.

Game 3: Blink and You Missed It

Everyone took a wait and see approach in this game, hesitant to commit themselves too quickly, and it left the door open just enough for the Harkonnens and the Guild to slip through on the second turn. This third game involved three players who had been in the first two games mentioned above (controlling the Guild, Atreides, and Emperor, but different players than had controlled those factions before), and three players who had never played before (controlling the Harkonnens, Fremen, and Bene Gesserit).

On the first turn, the Atreides went first and declined to land any additional troops on the board or move any troops out of Arrakeen. The Fremen visited the Funeral Plain to collect the first spice blow in order to fill their coffers of mťlange. The Bene Gesserit declined to land troops, hoping instead to accompany others onto the planet for free. The Emperor followed the Atreides lead and declined to land any Sardaukar onto the planet (having recently witnessed the destruction of the Emperor in the previous game). The Harkonnen not only invaded Sietch Tabr, but also sent forth half of its Carthag contingent to weaken the Atreides forces in Arrakeen. If the Atreides had not barely won in Arrakeen, then the Harkonnen would have won a solo victory on the first turn of the game. Finally, the Guild remained in control of Tuekís Sietch and landed a sizeable contingent in Habbanya Ridge Sietch as well.

Shai Hulud didnít wait long to show his face in this game, rising from the sands on the second turn to initiate the first (and last) Nexus of the game. The Guild quickly surveyed the board, and approached the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen to propose a two-way alliance for a quick second turn win. They already held four of the five strongholds, and were in position to strike at the fifth sietch if necessary. Noticing the danger of such an alliance, the Atreides convinced the Emperor and Bene Gesserit to ally with MaudíDib to defend Arrakis from the Baronís clutches.

The Imperial Sardaukar invaded Sietch Tabr to drive off the Harkonnen forces, but failed. The valiant Atreides left some forces in Arrakeen but rode its ornithopters through the gates of Carthag to whittle the Harkonnen forces further. The Harkonnen responded by deploying troops into Arrakeen, content to give up Carthag in hopes of seizing Arrakeen instead. The Harkonnenís ploy was successful, and having completed his half of the bargain, the Baron watched expectantly as the Guild fended off his attackers. Fortunately, the three-way alliance, having left Stilgar out in the cold during their negotiations, was unable to persuade the Fremenís Fedaykin to invade Habbanya Ridge Sietch from their post on False Well West. The fate of a planet, and the universe that depended on that planetís irreplaceable resource, was left in the hands of the meager Bene Gesserit contingent of witches against the Guildís troops in Tuekís Sietch, but it was too early in the game for the Reverend Mothers to have built up a significant presence on the planet, and they fell victim to the Harkonnen-Guild might, just as the Emperor and Atreides had before them. The game was over; if you blinked, you missed it.

Conclusion

I had hoped that managing to arrange six people to play a four-hour game three times in less than a month would quench my thirst for playing Dune, but to my surprise, the experience only made me want to play the game more. After all, Iíve only played as the Fremen, Emperor, and Guild, so I have yet to experience the completely different games as viewed from the perspective of the Harkonnen, Atreides, and especially the Bene Gesserit. Moreover, Iíve seen a four-turn game, ten-turn game, and two-turn game, none remotely like the others, and Iím eager to see what else this game has in store. Itís not going to be easy to find six people with four hours to commit to this game at the same time, but after these three experiences, I wonít know what to expect, but I know itíll certainly be worth it.

(See this Session Report for this article plus additional comments on it)

(See Boardgame News for an edited version of this article plus additional comments on it)