The sleeper has re-awakened.
Folks, I want you to know that I love EON’s original Dune so much that I propositioned a stranger to play it once. I was loading some groceries into the car and I happened to notice that sitting on the seat in the car next to me was a copy of the French edition. Now, this was back when any copy of Dune was pretty rare. So I found a scrap of paper and wrote “Hey, I happened to notice you have a copy of Dune! Hit me up if you need a player!” May as well have wrote this is crazy, but here’s my number, call me maybe.
They never did of course because it’s weird that I did that and frankly I would have been creeped out myself had I found such a note on my car. But come on, cut me some slack. Everyone knows that Dune is a six player game – no compromise. Yeah, you can barely wing it with five and if you are just absolutely desperate four will do and god help you if you start dipping into the low player count variants that are out there. And this one of the many things that has made Dune somewhat inaccessible over the years. We all dream the dream of playing Dune with five others who all know the game really well and don’t have to be taught about spice blows and CHOAM charity, let alone the intricacies of how all of the factions interact.
Gale Force 9, bless ‘em, have heard both our cries as well as the cries of the market riding high on Dune awareness thanks to the upcoming Villenueve picture. So out pops a new edition of Dune, not too long after their excellent reprint of the original game. But this time it’s got Chalamet and the gang on the box and a revised design made for four or less players. And it flippin’ WORKS, ya’ll.
Yes, that’s right, with four, three or even two players – you can play Dune for real. It’s true that with fewer players seasoned Spice Barons will miss out on some of the interplay between player actions, faction abilities, and most of the compelling (and more formalized) diplomatic elements. But as a trade-off, this is a somewhat leaner, faster, and definitely more accessible version of a classic design that now doesn’t need a table of six Dune masters organizing a game that can have a wildly unpredictable play time to get the full effect. And before some of you inevitably start with the “dumbed down” comments or pondering if this is “Dune Lite”, neither is accurate although it is judiciously streamlined. This is by and large the real deal.
Dogmatic purists will insist that it’s somehow less of a game because there’s no longer an auction for Treachery cards but surprisingly, I don’t miss the time it takes to bid up a Jubba Cloak in hopes that you don’t get stuck with it. Doing away with the auctions actually shaves off quite a few minutes of play time. The surrogate mechanism is that there are now Battle cards, which everyone receives by default, along with Market cards that are blind-bought for 2 Spice each with the Harkonnen player getting paid for them. The Market cards have special actions, most of which tend to accelerate or enhance other gameplay functions. The Spice economy is revved up with essentially a double spice blow every round and that also speeds things up, as does a five turn cap on the whole affair – if nobody wins with strongholds, it comes down to an economic victory. He who controls the Spice wins the game.
Some of the more detailed elements like the Kwitzsach Haderach and Sardukar tokens have been simplified or abstracted and although I do miss the narrative specificity, I don’t find myself pining for them either because most of that stuff is smartly incorporated elsewhere among the cards and faction abilities. Hardcore Bene Gesserit players may lament that their faction and some of their functions (such as “The Voice”) have become part of the Imperium, but maybe now they’ll have an actual shot at winning. There are some map changes, which many may not even notice. My biggest complaint is that Trip to Gamont, one of the original worthless cards, is out. It’s always a good laugh when someone overspends on a sex planet vacation.
I’m finding that this edition of Dune is full surprises despite not really being a new game – it really shouldn’t work with the downscaling and edits, let alone in a playtime that can be as reduced as 1/3 that of the original game. But it does, and this is testament to some thoughtful renovation and re-prioritizing. I’ve found that the variant two player game offered in the rules, wherein one player essentially plays both House Atreides and the Fremen while the other commands House Harkonnen and the Imperium, is surprisingly fun and captures most of what I like about Dune- the surprise traitors, the battle wheels, the random spice blows, the huge fights over the strongholds, the sandworm popping up to eat your people, and of course all the cool powers. You can get all this in an hour or less with two and I think that for Dune, this is a revelation.
Sure, I get it, all that wonderfully squishy negotiation doesn’t happen in a two player game and it is obviously diminished in the 3-4 player game. It’s definitely a less volatile Arrakis without alliance-defining Nexus events and the formal rules for what an alliance means and how they can win together. But the core values of the original EON design nonetheless shine through here, and they do so better than I’ve seen in other fanmade variants and house rules to accommodate four or less. Gale Force 9 had the guts to get back into the design and retool it, and I think the risk has paid off handsomely.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the production is all that handsome. I like the film visuals and I’m happy that folks that see the Villinueve picture will have some up-front buy-in with it, but the overall quality of this edition is fairly spartan. The board is too dark, a lot of cards are walls of text, and some of the illustrations that aren’t directly from the film look cheap. And what a bummer that the Tleilaxu Tanks are just a big empty space on the board. Now, with that said, this is a modestly priced game and I absolutely appreciate that it is not a $300 crowdfunder with scads of plastic junk. I’m perfectly fine with the old school cardboard chits here, I just wish that it all looked a little more distinguished.
Regardless, Gale Force 9 has proven themselves to be worthy conservators of the Dune legacy on our tabletops. Their 2019 edition of the classic game was something of a miracle in itself as it was the first time the game had been in print for decades (excluding the execrable Rex). But this may turn out to be the version of Dune that keeps its legacy going – a slightly modernized, “pop” Dune that blows through barriers to entry like an atomic through a shield wall.