Despite all the hold ups, cancellations and delays that have been the underlying theme of 2020, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune has been a beacon, something to… oh wait, that’s been delayed too. Well, that really is a mind-killer.
Do not despair, my Fremen warriors, because despite this delay, there is something to be excited about on the near horizon, and though it may not be the Kwizatz Haderach, it is something very good indeed: Dune Imperium from Direwolf Games.
Variety Is The Melange of Life
Now you don’t need to be a mentat to realise that there is already one Dune game available. Gale Force Nine re-released 1979s classic Dune, a game of strategy, intrigue and betrayal, at the tail end of 2019. This was very well received as many of the gaming community had heard of it but never actually seen it. It was also a game designed to be played best with the full complement of six players – which is why I haven’t been able to play my copy yet this year.
Enter Direwolf, best known for the games Clank! and Clank! In! Space! They wanted to capture a similar Dune feel to the GF9 game, but wanted to make it playable (and fun) for fewer players. To this end, rather than go for a strategy-heavy game, they have taken a similar approach as Clank! by combining deck-building and board-based play. To be more specific, deck-building and worker placement. All you fans of Temp Worker Assassins out there, calm yourselves!
Everybody in the House of Landsraad…
They have also made the Emperor, the Spacing Guild, the Fremen and the Bene Gesserit elements something that all players can have access to, rather than separate players. Player characters are based around four houses of the Landsraad – so far we know that House Atreides and House Harkonnen will be present, and a third ‘automated’ house, House Hagal, has been mentioned, but whether House Ix or House Tleilaxu appear remains to be seen.
Each house will have two characters that the player will use throughout the game, for instance, House Atreides will have Paul and Leto Atreides. Each of these characters will have special abilities, one ongoing and one ‘signet’, which will enhance the players ability to place ‘agents’ (workers), draw cards or get discounts on actions/resources. The ongoing ability is… as you’d expect, but the signet ability only activates when the signet card is played from your deck. This is, however, not the only use for the card, as the cards are how you do everything in this game, from sending out agents to battling for the supremacy of Dune!
Sardauker is The Only Game in Town…
As in any deck-builder, players draw a hand (of five cards) from their deck and play what they get. Unlike other deck builders, players have two options to choose from for what their cards do. The first option is to use the cards to send out agents. Each player starts with two agents – the card they play has to match the place on the board where they are sending the agent. Once all players have despatched their agents, they can use the remaining cards to purchase new cards for their deck (the blue diamonds, called ‘persuasion’) or battle (more on this later).
This mechanic of send or purchase means that players have to balance their agent placement against their purchasing power – your opponent may have agents all over the board, but if they’ve nothing left to buy or battle with... that could be fatal.
Going back to placing workers on the board, this is where players do their politicking and try to influence the non-player powers or carry out their resource gathering and trading. The Emperor, the Landsraad and CHOAM are at the top of the board, the Spacing Guild, the Bene Gesserit and the Fremen are down the side – the middle of the board is reserved for places on Dune itself.
Sending agents to the different powers will gain Influence or an Alliance, which can unlock abilities on cards later (similar to Shards of Infinity’s mastery mechanic) but also gain cards and immediate actions – for instance, the Bene Gesserit will give out ‘Intrigue’ cards that can be used in play, in combat or at the end of the game to gain victory points. If you have more than three, though, they can be stolen by other players. Sending agents will require resources, and this is where gathering and trading comes in. The three resources are water, spice and solari (cash) – having enough of each of these is essential for doing anything in the game.
The cards you buy can also bring you resources, but offer so much more. They can power up your drawing ability, increase your Influence when played with an agent, block the actions of other players or just make you a force to be reckoned with in battle. As mentioned earlier, there are certain cards that gain more power depending on your political influence – for instance, the Worm Rider card starts by giving you two spice, but with two influence with the Fremen you get four ‘daggers’ and with an Alliance you get six. Big fight time.
Let’s Get Ready To Thumper!
Each round will have a battle – whether you decide to join is up to you.
The battle is determined by the conflict card, drawn at the beginning of the round. These range from basic skirmishes and raids to full out battles for locations on Dune. The spoils can be very beneficial, giving a player control of locations on the map, but the consequences can be costly as all troops are lost in the battle.
To enter battle, players need troops and ways to deploy them – this can be by sending agents to particular locations including the overpowered Heighliner (Baron Harkonnen has a particular nasty ability that can be linked with this), which sends out six troops and gains you two water. It is a costly gambit and can be blocked by certain cards. Once the troops have been deployed, the ‘dagger’ cards are added to the troops and whoever has the highest total wins – there are prizes for first and second in a three-player stand-off and even a consolation prize for third in a four player game.
The battles get more intense and more important as the game proceeds, with the final battles reaping the most benefits and most victory points. It is the victory points that determine the winner of the game, so you’ll be needing plenty of them. The only question is: will you bide your time and play the political game or will you wade in and go full Sardauker? Decisions, decisions…
An Arrakis Made for Two (Or One)
As mentioned at the beginning, Direwolf wanted to make a game that was fun for all player counts, including solo, without taking away from the play experience. To achieve this, they have included an automated player, House Hagal, who acts as a foil when two players are playing (curses to you, House Hagal and your objective-blocking agents). In a solo game, House Hagal goes more on the offensive and will try and win the game instead. To do this, they have their own set of cards and characters that deploy agents and troops, gain Influence and Alliances and gather resources and victory points.
Direwolf have also promised an app-based AP to confound your plans – there aren’t any details of how this will work as yet, but they are wanting to make it as intelligent and involved as possible.
A Last View from the Shield Wall
Dune was probably my first introduction to serious science fiction, even though it took me an age to read, and has always been special for me. It is a rich story that has not quite been fully realised on the screen, but has always tempted the brave and foolhardy director to have a go. With GF9s game, you got the chance to play in the universe of Dune and make your own fate. Direwolf’s Dune Imperium seems to give you all that but also give you more of the narrative – the art, inspired by the new film, certainly helps, but also the actions and abilities on the board and the cards. It also helps that this is a deck-builder and I love a deck-builder. There’s still a lot to work out, so there isn’t a release date yet, but I am definitely there – Shai Hulud!